David Conway

David Conway is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Westminster-based social policy think-tank Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society which he joined in 2004 and where he worked full-time as a senior research fellow for five years, after leaving academia following a thirty year career teaching Philosophy at various British universities. Professor Conway's numerous publications include A Farewell to Marx; Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal; Free Market Feminism; The Rediscovery of Wisdom; In Defence of the Realm; A Nation of Immigrants? A Brief Demographic History of Britain; and Liberal Education and the National Curriculum.

The Flawed Foundation of the European Union

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Seeking to give the slip to her young charge, Cecily, in order to take a flirtatious spin around the garden with the elderly unmarried local vicar, Dr Chasuble, on whom the aging governess has set her sights, the redoubtable Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, instructs her that

‘you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational… Even these metallic problems have their melodramatic side.’

As some have observed, the joke here is ultimately on the playwright, since currency collapses are indeed sensational. One need only think of how traumatic was the collapse of Germany’s mark after World War I and of the ensuing tragic events to appreciate just how dramatic a currency collapse can be.

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The U.N. Human Rights Council at Work

At a recent emergency session to discuss Israel’s military operation against Hamas, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution—proposed by Palestine, which enjoys observer status there—to convene a special enquiry into whether Israel has been guilty of any war crimes in its current action in Gaza.

Speaking during the proceedings, at which, among the Council’s 47 members, only the United States voted against the resolution, Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, remarked of the Israeli Defense Forces operation in Gaza:

There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes.

Ms. Pillay, a former South African judge, has a remarkable record of scenting out when there have been human rights violations.

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Adam Smith, Rationalized

Smith

Recent years have seen a veritable renaissance in Adam Smith scholarship. Most is devoted to revising a previously widespread image of him, especially within libertarian circles, as an advocate of unbridled capitalism and of correspondingly minimal government. Instead, much recent Smith scholarship has sought to portray the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher as having been far more communitarian-minded and favourably disposed towards more than the minimum government provided by the legendary night-watchman state.

The latest Smith scholar to join in this revisionary project is Jack Russell Weinstein, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Dakota and director of its Institute for Philosophy in Public Life. What distinguishes Weinstein’s Smith from that of other recent expositors of his thought is how much of a precursor of latter-day pluralism he portrays Smith to have been. By ‘pluralism’ in this context is meant that concerted societal response to diversity that respects and values its presence without being prepared to sacrifice or compromise social or political unity for its sake, as multiculturalists are all too prone to do.

Weinstein presents the central thesis of his book at the start of it so:

Smith offers a theory of pluralism that prefigures twentieth- and twenty-first century theories of diversity… Smith’s theory can be used to cultivate social and political unity in the face of the cultural, religious, economic, ethnic, gender, and racial differences that have so preoccupied our most recent liberal debates… Smith develops a sophisticated account of otherness that is able to cultivate social unity despite the presence of significant differences.

Weinstein readily admits that Smith himself was neither overly nor even much concerned about the various issues pertaining to diversity that so preoccupy many of us today. He writes:

I am a twenty-first-century philosopher investigating texts written in the eighteenth century. What I find useful about these texts is influenced by my personal, political, and philosophical commitments. I therefore take certain things for granted that Smith might have not. For example . . . I emphasize issues related to gender, race, and class.

Later, he acknowledges:

It would be anachronistic to suggest that Adam Smith offers an explicit theory of pluralism in any contemporary sense. The first published reference to the term as a theory of diversity is found in 1924 in Horace M. Kallen and Stephen J. Whitfield’s Culture and Democracy in the United States, one and a half centuries after his death.

Despite Smith’s lack of concern with, or even awareness of, many issues surrounding diversity that so preoccupy present-day philosophers and political pundits, it is to Smith that Weinstein turns for insight about them because: ‘a particular account of human rationality underpins his moral psychology and political economy . . . complex and context-dependent, allowing for its usefulness not only in economic circumstances but in the full range of human experiences.’

On first acquaintance, Weinstein’s claim that Smith provides an account of rationality can seem paradoxical, given the primacy Smith attaches to sentiments as against reason, as also can Weinstein’s other claim that Smith’s rationality provides the key for thinking about and resolving issues associated with diversity. The technical problems surrounding both claims immediately dispels, however, once one appreciates the somewhat idiosyncratic manner in which, following Amartya Sen, Weinstein construes rationality: namely, as ‘the discipline of subjecting one’s choices – of actions as well as of objectives, values and priorities – to reasoned scrutiny’.

So argued, it immediately becomes clear how and why Smith can be conceived as having offered an account of rationality, as well as how this concept is relevant to issues connected with diversity. The connecting link between rationality and diversity that Weinstein posits is forged through the explanation Smith gives of sympathy and the role he assigns it in the formation of our moral sentiments as well as in our deliberations as moral agents. Weinstein explicates the linkage so:

[M]y argument is not that Smith offers a full-fledged pluralism, only that he anticipates this type of political system in many ways . . . Rationality is, for Smith, a response to . . . pluralism . . . Smith presumes not only that there is more than one mind, but that each has more than one motivation . . . [T]he rational capacity, for Smith, is that which allows an individual to act on multiple motivations at once . . . .

Smith identifies . . . compromise between an individual’s self-regarding tendencies and concern for others as a natural disposition . . . Sympathy is the capacity designed to negotiate these two [types of] desires, and . . . how well we reconcile them is based, in part, one our capacity to interpret . . . relevant information.

The natural human propensity to sympathise with the predicament and feelings of others, including with the imaginary spectator who inhabits the human breast, otherwise known as conscience, whom we imagine as scrutinising our own, leads us to survey and respond approvingly or disapprovingly to our own inclinations and feelings as well as conduct. When combined with appropriate information, sympathy, thus, enables us to integrate our various self-regarding and other-regarding desires into coherent wholes of which we can approve. It, thus, turns out that the propensity to engage in sympathy, as Smith conceives of it, forms a vital constituent of human rationality understood in the manner Weinstein does.

We can now see how and why Weinstein is able view Smith as a precursor of present-day pluralism, as we also can see how education fits into Smith’s schema for securing it. Weinstein writes:

[F]or Smith, while socialisation and education cultivate difference, they also help to bridge it because they enable spectators to enter into the experience of others. Imagination is the bridge between people that creates community… thinking for oneself . . . he argues . . . allows an individual to be constituted at least in part by others, even if persons, are at root, fundamentally separate.

The linkages between sympathy, rationality, and education that Weinstein posits and explores constitute ingenious and novel moves in Smithian exegesis. They deserve being taken very seriously by all Smith scholars, as they do by all who share in Smith’s appreciation of the benefits of free markets and all the other freedoms that classical liberals extol, as well as of the several moral hazards that accompany these freedoms, of which Weinstein and many others rightly claim Smith himself was all too acutely aware.

Most importantly, if it turns out that, as Weinstein rightly claims was Smith’s view, free societies depend for their viability on the rationality of their members, and their rationality depends on the preparedness of their societies to ensure that they become such through provision of suitable schooling for all, then those in favour of free societies must also be prepared to countenance, as indeed was Smith, the public provision of schooling to ensure all societal members can and do develop the requisite degree of rationality. As Weinstein carefully explains in what are, perhaps, the most original and valuable chapters of his book:

It is Smith’s argument that education . . . is the security that ensures that students remain virtuous: an inadequate education results in the deprivation of moral capabilities . . . Smith is making the point that a child’s education benefits everyone . . . that education is one of the preconditions for the successful functioning of the invisible hand . . . Thus, Smith argues, the sovereign must . . . subsidise public education to help those who . . . cannot help themselves . . . For him, education provides a benefit to the state for little cost and, therefore, funding of public educational institutions for the young is a well-regarded trade-off.

The sovereign must ensure that all people have access to at least a minimum schooling. Education, is, for Smith, a basic good – a necessity of human life . . . Differing classes are entitled to equal minimal education but not to identical experiences. In this respect Smith’s commitment . . . is like Rawls’ maximin principle: the goal is to raise the bottom rung, not to create an equality of result . . . . Smith’s philosophy of education is both a theory of pluralism and a means to cultivate rationality. It argues that the more one develops rational abilities, the more one can create unity in the face of difference.

To say that Smith favoured public provision of education is not to say that he would have condoned, let alone applauded, the present systems of public provision in western liberal democracies where whole populations are subject to effective monopoly supply without any choice or benefits of competition that only effective consumer sovereignty brings. No one was a fiercer critic of monopolistically supplied education in which providers were insulated from competition than was Smith, having had to endure such a system for many years as a student at Oxford. To safeguard against these dangers, Smith proposed an element of financial contribution by parents as well as of parental choice of school.

Weinstein is by no means the first recent expositor of Smith to have argued for Smith’s economic theorising in the Wealth of Nations to be read through the lens of Smith’s wider moral and social philosophy contained in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. However, few others have connected the dots as well as Weinstein between these two works, and in drawing out the full implications of these connections for liberty. His book is to be commended to all with a serious interest in liberty and in the social and political conditions needed for it to flourish.

The Egalitarian Fallout of Vergara v. California

Last week, in what promises to be the start of a protracted and important judicial battle, a judge in California struck down five statutes in the state’s Education Code on the grounds that they prevented children attending public schools from receiving an education that is commensurate with their state constitutional right to equal protection under the law. The statutes judged unlawful were those preventing Californian district school boards from withholding tenure from incompetent teachers or firing them once they had gained it, plus another obliging them to give priority to their more long-serving, but less effective, teaching staff over more recent, but more effective, teaching appointments when, for economic reasons, lay-offs had to be made.

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Talked to Death

Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the appeal of a man convicted and sentenced to a one-year prison term for having aided the suicides of two depressed people through advice and encouragement he had offered them over the Internet.

The grounds on which the appellant successfully challenged his conviction were that the statute under which he had been prosecuted and convicted — and which proscribed ‘encouraging, advising or assisting another in committing suicide’ — violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

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Star Wars Trumps Culture Wars in Britain

anglican_cathedral.During the run-up to Easter this year, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron had the temerity to assert publicly (and on more than one occasion) that Britain is a Christian country, suggesting also that it is no bad thing that it is. For having publicly espoused such politically incorrect sentiments, fifty-five prominent British humanists came down on him like a ton of bricks, excoriating him for false and divisive statements they claimed that he had made.

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Jewish Learning, Human Liberty

Maimonides

Mounted above the gallery doors of the House Chamber on Capitol Hill are 23 marble bas relief plaques of figures selected on account of their contributions towards establishing the principles underlying American law. Arranged in two groups of 11 on either side of chamber, these figures face a full-faced portrait of Moses situated in the center.

In several cases, such as the figures of Thomas Jefferson and William Blackstone, the connection with American legal principles is fairly obvious. The personages whose association is less obvious include the medieval Cordovan rabbi and philosopher, Moses Maimonides. His thought and writing are barely studied today outside of rabbinic seminaries. Hopefully, however, his intellectual stock is set to rise with the publication of this immensely accomplished and highly readable new book by Moshe Halbertal, Gruss Professor of Law at New York University and a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Maimonides’ seminal importance was amply recognized by the Liberty Fund’s founder, Pierre Goodrich, who included him among the 92 individuals named on the walls of the Goodrich Seminar Room at Wabash College, Indiana, for being the most important contributors to the understanding of liberty and responsibility.

Maimonides’ importance is further attested by the inclusion of his most philosophical work, Guide of the Perplexed, in the Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty.

If Moses Maimonides is underappreciated today as a source of American legal principles, the same, of course, is true of his much better-known Biblical namesake. There was a time in America when the pivotal, but indirect, role played by Mosaic law in the construction of its Constitution was far better appreciated. In 1853, for example, the Presbyterian minister and one-time president of the City University of St. Louis, E.C. Wines, could observe in his Commentaries on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews:

That government is instituted for . . . the happiness of the people and not the advantage of princes and nobles; that the people, either directly or by representatives, should have a voice in the enactment of the laws; that the powers of the several departments of government should be cautiously balanced; that the laws should be equal in their operation . . . that the life, liberty, and property of no citizen could be infringed, but by process of law . . . that judicial proceedings should be public, and conducted in accordance with established rules; that every man who obeys the laws, has a right to their protection; that education, embracing a knowledge of the laws, the obligations of citizenship, and the duties of morality, should be universal . . . –these great and vital principles of civil liberty were as fully embodied in the Hebrew constitution, as they are in the freest constitution now existing among men . . .

It is not in Greece that liberty was cradled . . . rather in that admirable frame of government given by the oracle of Jehovah . . . that we find the type and model of our own constitution. Even the Declaration of American Independence . . . was but an echo from the deep thunders of Mount Sinai.

Should the likes of E.C. Wines be correct about the ultimately Hebraic provenance of the ideals enshrined in the American Constitution, then a compelling case can be made for the centrality of Maimonides. No one ever better expounded Jewish law or argued for its eternal validity and universal relevance. Moreover, he did so without positing any supernatural acts of divine intervention in the course of nature to account for Jewish law’s supposed “revelation” to Moses, such breaks in the natural course of events having become, since the times of Spinoza and Hume, increasingly hard for moderns to swallow.

To show how and why Maimonides explained and defended Mosaic law without reference to supernatural acts of divine revelation is the central aim and accomplishment of Halbertal’s book. Since throughout his life Maimonides resided in societies in which any open disavowal of the miraculous would have been considered a heinous offence, by his coreligionists and by the presiding Muslim authorities alike, he was careful to conceal his project from all but those for whom it was undertaken. These were fellow well-educated Jews who, having been exposed to philosophy and science, found themselves unable to reconcile the conception of the world to which their secular studies had led them with the religion of their fathers and forefathers.

It was not only for their sakes that Maimonides sought reconciliation of their religion with the teachings of philosophy and science. Part of his motive was his wish to convey to as many coreligionists as possible the central teachings of philosophy and science as he understood them. This was so that they might acquire more elevated and spiritualized forms of their religion, which he considered better suited, not only to them personally, but to the facts. To accomplish this latter objective, Maimonides reorganized and restated Jewish law to show that, at its core, stood injunctions demanding the formation of the same beliefs about and attitudes towards God that he believed were the invariable products of exposure to philosophy and science, rightly approached and taught.

Maimonides undertook his first objective, for the most part, by showing how all the assertions in Hebrew Scripture seemingly at variance with philosophy and science—such as, for example, those ascribing corporeality to God—admitted of non-literal, figurative interpretations by which they became reconcilable with these disciplines. It was also accomplished, in part, by Maimonides cunningly, because allusively, demonstrating how such a wise and astute political leader as Moses would have been both willing and able to conceive of and promulgate the entire corpus of law, as a way to create, under the barbaric circumstances prevailing at the time, a well-ordered, humane, God-fearing polity.

Maimonides accomplished his second objective by producing a new, comprehensive codification of Jewish law that gave pride of place to several injunctions demanding correct beliefs about God and for which some philosophy and science was needed, supplied by Maimonides in codifying them.

In the opening paragraphs of his book, Halbertal summarizes these two principal objectives of Maimonides as follows:

Maimonides attempted to bring about two far-reaching and profound transformations in the Jewish world. The first pertained to the halakhah (Jewish law, broadly construed) which he sought to change . . . from a fragmented and complex system to one that was transparent and unambiguous . . . In his great code Mishneh Torah . . . Maimonides created an unambiguous, comprehensive, and exhaustive halakhic text . . . never . . . written before Maimonides’ time and [that] has not been written since.

The second transformation that Maimonides sought was a substantive shift in Jewish religious consciousness . . . First . . . [he] gave new meaning to the biblical struggle against idolatry . . . [which he] extends to a confrontation with the internalised image of God envisioned . . . as a merciful grandfather seated on a throne. [S]econd . . . was the placement of the natural causal order at the center of the divine revelation and presence . . . . . . [ a] fundamental change in religious sensibility away from miracle towards causality . . . . . . Third… [he] end[ed] the distinction between what was within the tradition and what was outside of it. In all his writings, halakhic as well as philosophical, Maimonides saw philosophy and science as the medium for attaining the heights of religious experience—love and awe of God . . . . . .Through philosophy and science a person can reach the pinnacle of religious life and realise his perfection as a human being.

What enabled Maimonides to effect the three transformations that he sought to effect in the religious sensibility of Jews was his maintaining—whether sincerely, or merely to accomplish them, remains unclear—that all the Biblical prophets, and above all Moses, possessed much the same philosophical and scientific wisdom as the Greeks acquired only centuries later. Thus, in the seventh of his so-called Eight Chapters in his comparatively early Commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides remarks:

Know that no prophet prophesies until after he acquires all the rational virtues and most of the moral virtues . . . Thus, whoever has two or three [less than virtuous] moral habits . . . is said to see God from behind two or three veils . . . [In the case of] our master Moses . . . no veils remained which he had not pierced and . . . all the rational virtues had become perfected in him.

Maimonides was by no means the first or the last to claim that Moses possessed the very same kind of philosophical wisdom as the Greeks later attained. A classic example of a writer before him who did was the 1st century Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, Philo. A writer later than Maimonides who did, and who indeed imputed to the wisdom of the Greeks a Mosaic provenance, was the 17th century English philologist, Theophilus Gale. In his book Court of the Gentiles, Gale observes of Moses that:

Amongst all the Divine Philosophers, there was none that opened a more effectual door, for the propagating of philosophic principles and light than Moses; who by his writings contained in his five Books laid down the main foundations of all that Philosophie which first the Phoenicians and Egyptians, and from them the Grecians, were the masters.

In terms of its contemporary cultural import, it is somewhat beside the point how much historical truth there is in the notion, shared by Maimonides and Gale, that Moses had anticipated the ancient Greeks in the attainment of philosophical wisdom. What matters, or at least should do, is how sublime and still serviceable is the version of religion that results from incorporating Greek philosophy into it as Maimonides succeeded in doing in the case of Judaism.

By meticulously reconstructing the precise manner in which Maimonides effected that incorporation, Moshe Halbertal has performed an invaluable service for all who value religion, as well as the not-unconnected principles underlying American law.

Plutocrat Protection Act

Hot on the heels of the latest annual Bilderberg get-together in Berkshire, England, political leaders at the just-concluded G8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, announced that the EU and US intend to broker a free-trade agreement between them by the end of next year, with talks towards one due to begin next month.

How should supporters of free-markets respond to the news of such an agreement – with jubilation, indifference, or dismay? Prima facie, such a deal can only be good news. The removal or lowering of tariffs fosters trade and thereby supposedly facilitates mutually beneficial international division of labour which in turn, by fostering a greater interdependency between nations, reduces the chances of war between them.

In reality, however, the prospect of such an agreement is anything but a cause for celebration for freedom lovers.

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