Friday, 31 December 2010


The notion of "normativity" refers us to the nature of norms in reasoning. Norms are standards that are aimed at in an activity. For instance, in the general theory of rationality, we describe the standards of consistency and non-contradiction as essential prerequisites in how we think and thinking that does not obey such standards is, by virtue of this, taken to be irrational.

Similarly, in prudential judgement there is a basic norm that refers to one's interests and which further highlights which interests are to be taken as paramount. This reference, again, makes apparent the basic line that cannot be crossed if one's actions are to meet the criteria of prudence and if it is crossed then one faces the judgment of being imprudent.

From the recent postings one thing that becomes apparent is that there are normative considerations at work in any type of hypothetical imperative. Following the discussion of Korsgaard, however, it also appears reasonable to state that there is something normative at work in instinctive action where that action is action that is guided by a norm of appropriateness.

The key area of normativity is in the region of morals and part of the basic dispute when it comes to the region of practical reason concerns the reason for taking some norm as basic to morals. The attempt to defuse the appeal to contrary "values" is at is issue in the Kantian formalist approach to ethics as this approach moves away from the contested areas towards a "procedure" or "method" that is meant rather to test for what can be taken to be valuable (notably, in relation to questions of consistency as we indicated above occurs in the general theory of rationality).

Instrumental and rational requirements have to be related if there is to something like a general theory of practical reason, a theory that can determine the specific province of morality in relation to other normative requirements. The nature and scope of disputes in the area of practical reason turns precisely on how the relationship between instrumental and rational requirements should be understood, something that thus requires a general theory of normative justification. The provision of the preconditions of such a theory  can thus be broadly seen but how to fill out the detail is the basis of the discussion that is currently central to the disputes between Kantians and others.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Teleology and Practical Reason

The recent postings I have done have been focused on bringing into view a sense of practical reason. One of the consequences of the relatively basic conception advanced to date is that the notion of practical reason, if viewed in terms of the general structure of hypothetical imperatives, is one in which the notion of "ends" plays the key guiding role.

I want to first indicate some provisional points about the structure of the connection between hypothetical imperatives and teleology prior to raising a larger framework for further investigation of the reasons for thinking about practical reason in a teleological way. 

Hypothetical imperatives generally fit an instrumental model of rationality in which means and ends are adjusted to each other in order to attain a desired objective. Kant describes hypothetical imperatives in two ways though the nature of them is worthy of much more extended consideration on a future occasion. The two general ways are in terms of "skill" and "prudence".

The conception of hypothetical imperatives in terms of "skill" connects them to the provision of more or less sophisticated technical ways of achieving an end. Any kind of action or activity that requires the varied use of materials in order to produce a result will involve degrees of skill in both the relationship between the materials and the judgments concerning the ways of achieving the outcomes. This broad conception of "skill" indicates that everything here that requires instrumental relations tends to incorporate a form of "skill". This will apply to everything from development of trades or talents to the running of governments or the waging of wars. Hence it takes up a large portion of activity.

Contrast this now with "prudence". In developing talents we need to have an eye for what will be in demand so that we don't waste our time. This is prudential as also is avoiding certain kinds of people or activities, either of which might impair our chances of carrying out other activities already decided upon. So prudential reasoning is the province of a kind of judgment, one that tends to get sharpened by experience. Like the reasoning at work in "skill" it is a form of instrumental relation. I'll return generally on another occasion to questions about these relations but for now it will suffice to indicate an at least provisional relationship between hypothetical imperatives and instrumental relations.

It is clear in addition that the development of activities in accordance with hypothetical imperatives requires a sense of purposiveness. Hence hypothetical imperatives are generically capable of being seen as part of a teleological pattern of life.

Having made this relation between hypothetical imperatives and teleology relatively perspicuous the next step is to relate teleology in a more general sense to practical reason whilst bracketing for now further consideration of hypothetical imperatives. There are two kinds of way in which a general relationship between teleology and practical reason tends to get understood, ways which are on distinct levels from each other. One is through a theory of moral psychology that views practical reasoning as primarily teleological. The other is a meta-ethical stance concerning the types of considerations that are relevant to assessing right acts. The first is what is generically termed the "Humean" notion of moral motivation, the second is the consequentialist view of moral appraisal.

Taking these in turn, the Humean notion of moral motivation is an analysis of the psychological preconditions of being moved to act in certain ways. The basic claim of the Humean theory is generally understood to consist in a non-cognitivist view that an ethical belief is in itself insufficient to motivate action and that an affective state has to also be activated for someone to act in accord with a belief. Due to this general claim the teleological notion at work in motivation for the Humean is one that is taken to cut against a pure notion of practical reason.

By contrast to the Humean picture that thinks of teleological connections as the means of explanation of how we are motivated to act, the consequentialist view concerns the means by which action is justified (not necessarily how it is motivated though it may also claim this). Consequences are the means of assessment of actions and the conception of teleology is thus an instrumental one of how ends are best reached and how the "right" ends can be maximised.

The connection between means and ends in both of these pictures seems to have the pattern of an instrumental relation and in this respect to be of a piece with what we have uncovered concerning hypothetical imperatives. Due to this there is a general view that both the Humean conception of motivation and the consequential notion of ethical justification are inherently non or even anti-Kantian views. Certainly the consequence of the Humean view of motivation is that there can be no pure practical reason and in this important respect it is at variance with the Kantian view. It remains true, however, that there does need to be a Kantian picture of how we can be led to act in accordance with the moral law. Such a picture thus has to provide some kind of response to the Humean notion of motivation.

The consequentialist picture of justification, by contrast, whilst widely taken to be at variance with the Kantian picture of justification, is not universally so regarded. Rawls and his followers take it to be paradigmatically the view of morality that Kantians must reject and to which Kantian theory is a response. However, there has been developed a notion of "Kantian consequentialism" that aims to show there is not only no necessary conflict between Kant's moral theory and consequentialism but that they can even be combined.

The setting out of responses to both the Humean and the consequentialist views is essential to clarifying what the Kantian argument concerning the relationship between teleology and practical reason should be and will be part of what is at issue in many future postings.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Intelligence and Hypothetical Imperatives

Following on from the last posting I was wondering next how to relate Korsgaard's view of intelligence to the conception of hypothetical imperatives as a step to answering the question I raised in conclusion concerning maxims. Recall, on Korsgaard's conception, that a "maxim" (or maxim-like structure) can apply in cases of intelligent but non-rational behaviour in response to the environment.

This case happens when there is learning concerning action that requires normative appraisal of the right thing to do. So, in the case Korsgaard gives, the act of moving in the direction of food (as opposed to the automatic responses of the body such as salivation) constitutes an acceptance by the organism in question of a principled response to the stimuli in question. One of the reasons for taking this to be the case is that the smell of food can, given the right pattern of stimulus and response, be one of avoidance. So, if the smell of honey is followed by the stinging of bees, the organism could well learn the inappropriateness of attempting to consume the honey. These cases of intelligent behaviour don't require self-conscious reflection on the principles as principles but they do require acceptance of the appropriateness of the action (which is taken as a principle by Korsgaard).

The point I concluded with in the last posting was that if this is type of action is effectively of a maxim-like structure and if such behaviour can also characterise beings who do possess reason then what is the means by which rational beings can be moved from acting in accordance with intelligent "maxims" to rational ones?

The rational action requires not merely acceptance of the appropriateness of the action but self-conscious affirmation of the principle that underlies it which is now explicitly related to as a principle. A key consequence of the shift is that we move from "instincts" to "reasons" where the latter are here taken to constitute grounds for action in the sense of providing action with an end. There are, as will be discussed on future occasions, numerous questions that can be raised about end-oriented behaviour. 

For now, I'll simply adopt Korsgaard's very compressed conception of ends in which we do act-A for the sake of end-E. The most basic conception of this is that the notion of the end is something that we desire to attain and we adopt means that will enable this to be the case. Adopting such a view will be sufficient to give us the notion of hypothetical imperatives.

A hypothetical imperative is described in the second part of Kant's Groundwork as the capacity to act in accordance with the representation of a law or, in other words, acting on the basis of willing. Hypothetical imperatives are so called because in such a case we act on the view that a certain means will be the basis for attaining a certain end and this connection requires viewing something in a hypothetical connection.

Now the difference between what is at issue in a hypothetical imperative and what is occurring when we observe merely intelligent behaviour is that the relationship between means and ends in the former case is one we have explicitly postulated and taken as desirable. The "incorporation" of which Allison speaks and on which Korsgaard's model trades has been understood here to be one we are open and articulate about.

If this relationship between intelligence and hypothetical imperatives is correct then it follows that there is a continuity between them. Hypothetical imperatives are something like the rational expression of basic intelligent behaviour. Whilst this means there is a difference in kind between hypothetical imperatives and intelligent behaviour in the sense that in the former cases there is self-conscious affirmation of principles as principles, the types of principle involved in hypothetical imperatives are still of a piece with the types of principles given to intelligent beings.

So to view intelligent behaviour as having a maxim-like structure is to see it as having a form of much the same kind as that of hypothetical imperatives. In a sense, then, the question I raised at the end of the last posting can now be re-phrased. The move from intelligent maxim-like structures to explicit maxims is one in which the nature of what is affirmed in the maxim does not have to be explicitly changed, only the relation to the principle (in terms of articulacy) does. Hence if there is here a continuity between intelligent and rational behaviour inasmuch as they are seen as goal-driven then the real question rather concerns the basis for the view that there is such a thing as pure practical reason. Only on the conception that there is a pure practical reason does it emerge that there is something about rational beings that is intrinsically and deeply specific that sharply distinguishes them from intelligent beings. This helps to explain the Humean view of "human nature".

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Incentives, Intelligence and Reason

Christine Korsgaard, in her paper on Kantian ethics and duties to animals (freely available on her web-site) makes the case for complicating a picture first suggested by Henry Allison of the Kantian view of action. Oddly, however, she does not refer to Allison in the process. Allison, in his book Kant's Theory of Freedom argues for an interpretation of the account Kant gives of maxims in terms of what Allison calls the "incorporation thesis". Essentially what this boils down to is that we don't simply react to what Kant refers to as "incentives", by which Kant means the input of the senses including appetites. Rather, we have to decide to adopt a principle of incorporating the incentives into our maxims. This principle is explicated by Korsgaard as indicating the appropriateness of certain kinds of responses to these incentives so that we normatively view the incentives as worthy of being acted on.

However, Korsgaard's real innovation is to suggest that incentives are incorporated into principles not merely by humans (and other similarly rational beings) but also by non-human animals. Korsgaard's rationale for this view is that we need to distinguish between two different kinds of behaviour. One would be were the presence of food caused us to salivate, the other would be were the smell of it led us to move in its direction. In the second case it is not merely that the action in question is an appropriate response, it is also grasped as being appropriate. So whilst the first response of salivation might simply be taken to be automatic, the second cannot be treated in this way but is instead a result of the incorporation of the incentive to act in a relevant way into a maxim (or something akin to one).

Following this line of reasoning we view the second type of action, whoever it is performed by, as a normative response. Additionally Korsgaard regards this second kind of action in two distinct ways which she takes to be compatible with each other. The first way is to term this action as "instinctive" whilst the second is to describe it as "intelligent". The connection between the two is made by defusing a certain kind of view of "instinct". The general view that Korsgaard means to dislodge is that instinct is merely a kind of behaviour that is innate and does not require learning. The response she is viewing as "instinctive" is one that is clearly learned and so to argue that these responses are instinctive is to challenge the conception of "instinct" that confines instinctive behaviour to innate responses.

Once this expanded conception of instinct is accepted it becomes easier to see instinctive behaviour as intelligent since what is involved in so viewing it is seeing it as the ability to respond creatively to evolving situations. On these grounds there is little problem with viewing much non-human animal behaviour as intelligent.

The final element of Korsgaard's account is distinguishing intelligence in this sense from  "reason". I would interpret "intelligence", in Korsgaard's sense, as involving a kind of "self-consciousness" since its operation is a form of learned response to the environment. However, Korsgaard wishes to distinguish this form of "self-consciousness" (as I view it) from the kind involved in the exercise of reason. In the latter case, on her view, we are not only "conscious" of objects of attraction and aversion and of principles of behaviour in relation to them but also conscious of the ground of our responses as being grounds or principles

The self-conscious grasp not merely of a relation to an environment in terms of appropriateness but also of the active sense of this relation through the self-conscious articulation of principles as principles leads to the question of whether an action is the right one to perform. So rational action is not merely normative but self-conscious of its normativity.

I'll look in future postings at some of the results of Korsgaard's view of reasoning and what it implies for the conception of practical reasoning. But in this posting the key point I want to make is that the undeniably useful element of her analysis is that it makes perspicuous that in indicating that there are beings that are intelligent without being rational it serves to analytically separate the two notions from each other and this is important since the denial of the power of reasoning to non-human animals is often taken to be equivalent to a denial of their intelligence. If the denial of reasoning power really was equivalent to the denial of intelligence this would be a reductio of the notion of reason itself. 

A final point worth making which Korsgaard does not draw out, however, is that it appears from her analysis that there are two kinds of view of "maxims" since the intelligent but non-rational being has the capacity to arrive at maxims and these maxims are distinct from those of the rational being. Is it the case however that rational beings often act on maxims of a intelligent but non-rational type and, if so, what are the means by which incentives can be incorporated into the more elevated rational form of maxim?

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Moral Disagreement

I've been having a conversation on Twitter over the last couple of days with some other philosophers about the topic of vegetarianism which emerged partly as a problem concerning whether moral disagreements are susceptible of rational resolution. I generally am of the view that they are so susceptible and couldn't subscribe to a Kantian model of practical reason unless I was. However, I am aware of certain disputes, including the one concerning vegetarianism, that are particularly intractable. Roughly, the intractable disputes seem to me to involve a problem concerning what or who should be included as a full participant in the moral realm. We can see this from the work of Peter Singer, for example. Singer's arguments in favour of vegetarianism, whilst broadly utilitarian in character, are also based largely on a claim that non-human animals are correctly understood, in terms of moral concern, as equivalent to human beings and therefore should be regarded as "persons". Not to so regard them is to be guilty of "speciesism" which treats being a member of a particular species as what is most morally significant, something as arbitrary on this view as "sexism" or "racism" (or, indeed, though this is more rarely mentioned in this context, heterosexism).

I'm not here going to examine either the arguments Singer gives for his view or look in more detail right now at the dispute concerning vegetarianism. What I would suggest, though, is that the dispute concerning it is akin to that which exists with regard to abortion. Those who proclaim the moral impermissibility of abortion allege that the foetus should be treated as a "person" in the sense that termination of its existence is equivalent to murder. This argument turns on the claim that the foetus is sufficiently akin to persons of other sorts as to merit treatment that would be correct for the latter.

In both the cases of vegetarianism and abortion there are central disagreements concerning where the area of moral concern correctly gets drawn and what is at stake in addressing something as equivalent to a "person". In a basic sense the disputants are divided over this question and thus draw the boundaries of the moral terrain differently. Because this is so there is something intractable about the debate. This doesn't entail that people are incapable of changing their view in either case. In both examples I have given we do find changes of view take place though it is also true, in both cases, that this is often due to emotive appeals having an effect rather than because practical reason has come to have a newly described and more apt shape.

The point of elaborating that this is the type of disagreement in these cases is to try to defuse the sense of scepticism about morality that often arises from consideration of such hard cases. It is because dispute in these hard cases is difficult and often unproductive that many come to the view that morality is not susceptible of rational argument at all and that such disputes are either matters of opinion (in much the way as is thought to be true of matters of taste) or that it is only by reference to emotional appeal that anything can be altered in a dispute.

To adopt the view that morality is, as taste is said to be, something particular and subjective, is to give up on practical reason just as surely as adoption of an emotivist view entails doing. But both ignore the wide range of moral agreement that exists. There is little dispute concerning the wrongness of murder even if there are border-line arguments concerning the applicability of the category (as we saw with the case of abortion). This indicates that, when it comes to the central issues of ethics, there is a general agreement, which we could follow theorists of the 19th and 20th century and refer to as "common sense morality". This "common sense morality" is something that requires to be related to grounds of justification precisely because of the temptations of moral scepticism and it is these grounds of justification, grounds that we can term "meta-ethical" that form the subject matter of much ethics. Whilst those engaged in "applied" or "practical" ethics look at the areas of actual wide disagreement and try to work through its basis the "meta-ethical" focus on the justification of the generally agreed core of morality is just as significant and is the true ground of resistance to moral scepticism.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Wikileaks, Publicity and International Relations

A posting I have been reading at New APPS has prompted me to address some of the implications for the understanding of the Wikileaks controversy for Kantian theory of international relations. The author of this posting has, unfortunately, engaged in a conflation though one for which he is not signally responsible since it is widely found.

The theory of republican peace that is found within the pages of Perpetual Peace is here conflated with the adaptation of it presented by Michael Doyle who coined the term "democratic peace" and based his view on an empirical study of relations between democracies, a theory that depends in part on certain contested views of what constitutes a "democracy". This conflation of Kant's theory with Doyle's leads the author to suggest that whilst the account of international relations presented by the latter is broadly accurate that the publication of the Wikileaks material presents a number of problems with the view that the conduct of foreign policy by democracies is fundamentally different to that of dictatorships.

So, putting the record straight, I'd like to present the following points:

1. The countries that we think of broadly as "democratic" are like Kantian republics in the sense that they allow for a separation of powers and have a general commitment to the rule of law. However, whilst this similarity is the basis of Doyle's theory there remain significant problems with the conduct of the "democracies" from a Kantian point of view and these are not newly revealed by the Wikileaks material.

2. The general conduct of "democracies" in Doyle's sense includes colonial empires (since he includes Britain and France from an early period in his criteria), the pursuit of mass aerial bombardment of civilian areas, the development and use of chemical warfare (e.g. in Vietnam) and decided use of concealment in violation of Kantian principles of publicity.

3. The lack of fit between the Kantian republic and the contemporary "democracy" is most graphically illustrated in the failure of the latter to commit to affirmative principles of publicity in their conduct towards each other, let alone towards non-democracies. Wikileaks material does illustrate this but doing so undermines Doyle, not Kant.

All the above suggest problems with viewing Doyle as having correctly distilled the Kantian view and also show that whilst there are indeed a number of interesting elements to the Wikileaks material one that should not be being pursued is the idea that they require amending the Kantian analysis of international relations. The author of the piece is, however, right that the criterion of publicity that Kant does up-hold is reinforced by this material as operating in ways that are at variance with it is sure to produce continuing problems. It would, though, be useful to add that we should distinguish as well between the two criteria of publicity used in Perpetual Peace and, whilst advocating the negative criteria as a minimum, should seek to advance the positive criteria as what is truly the desirable way to regulate international relations.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Publicity and Protest

I've been thinking again about the campaigns concerning tax justice that have been proliferating of late. One of the commonly heard arguments against them has been that the targets of these campaigns, companies such as Vodafone and individuals such as Sir Philipp Green, have done "nothing wrong" since their tax arrangements are entirely within the rules. In response to this suggestion there are two points worth making in reply:

Firstly, to suggest that simply acting within the law is sufficient to be exculpated from wrong-doing is an extreme form of legal positivism. To adopt this conclusion would lead to the view that there was nothing specifically wrong with the behaviour of MPs in terms of expenses claims since, as they repeatedly claimed, these claims were "within the rules". Few accepted this argument from MPs and there is no more reason to adopt it with regard to those targeted by tax justice campaigns. There is not a simple alignment between acting legally and acting in a way that is not wrong and no one should really need this explaining to them.

The second point is that to make public arrangements that, whilst perfectly lawful, are not either (a) public-spirited or (b) just is the point of the campaigns in question. Reform of law is achieved by making public the nature of its operation and what it permits. Half of the battle concerning laws precisely consists in the question of whether the behaviour rendered permissible or prohibited by it should be viewed in the way the law suggests. Frequently the nature of what is permitted or prohibited is not clear to the public generally which is why the focus on campaigns is on making this public knowledge.

What the second point demonstrates is the further need for attention to the nature of publicity in relation to law. As mentioned in postings sometime ago the distinction Kant makes between negative and affirmative principles of publicity in Perpetual Peace is to the effect that under the latter notion only that which is not only compatible with publicity but also mandated by it should be understood as right. Under this criterion there can be little doubt that tax justice campaigners have succeeded in exposing to view some very unpleasant aspects of current law.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Alfie Meadows and Police Violence

Following yesterday's posting I can further report that there is now a specific blog that has been set up to report on incidents at the demonstration in London on Thursday documenting actions taken by the police. It can be found here. Further there is also a demonstration in London to protest specifically the violence that was inflicted on Alfie Meadows and is it is publicised over at infinite thought. The British media has, somewhat predictably, come to its own verdict concerning the violence on Thursday and, following the statement of the Prime Minister, decided all the blame lies with the demonstrators. Anyone who has been following the stories of wanton police detention, so-called "kettling", of people for hours at a time without access to food, drink or toilets, will not believe this official narrative but will credit instead the words of those who were there and the witness of Alfie Meadows and his friends.

Finally, for a detailed account of the demonstration that undercuts the police narrative see this article by Laurie Penny.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Blow to Alfie Meadows

News has come through of one casualty of the demonstrations against the government's education cuts in London on Thursday: Alfie Meadows, a philosophy student at Middlesex University, struck so hard on the head by a police baton that he has needed serious surgery. For more details on the story see the account in the Independent and the video from ITN News. This seems to have received significantly less attention in the mainstream media than have other stories from the demonstration. It is unlikely that such stories will lead to a serious review of confrontational police tactics on these occasions but it is worth pointing out that such injuries are the consequences of them.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The Shredding of the Liberal Democrats

So the deed has been done. Yesterday the British Parliament passed, by a narrow majority of 21, the decision to increase tuition fees up to a proposed current maximum of £9000, a tripling of the present rate. This action was taken in defiance of a widespread movement of protests, occupations, demonstrations, petitions, letter writing and against the express stance of one of the coalition partners. The Liberal Democrats stood at the general election earlier this year on a policy of abolition of tuition fees, something that was included in their party manifesto and backed up by personal signed pledges issued by each candidate to the electorate in their constituencies. Not only is this the case but it is also true that all those Liberal Democrat MPs who voted for the raise in tuition fees did so in open and direct defiance of their own party policy as expressed as recently as 2009 at the party conference. 

There can be no question that there is nothing democratic about yesterday's parliamentary vote. None of the Liberal Democrat MPs had any mandate to vote in favour of this policy either from the electorate as a whole or from their own party members. In voting in favour of it nonetheless they have broken trust and set themselves at variance with the majority of staff and students who have expressed opposition to this policy. To add to their shame, only Vince Cable, the cabinet minister with responsibility for universities, was capable of speaking in favour of the policy. A further 27 Liberal Democrat MPs voted in favour of it as well. A majority of these are on the so-called "payroll" vote, being direct members of the government. A full list of all the guilty men and women follows with the ministers distinguished (*):

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) * (Chief Secretary to the Treasury)
Norman Baker (Lewes)*
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-Upon-Tweed)
Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley)
Tom Brake (Carshalton & Wallington)
Jeremy Browne (Taunton Deane)*
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
Paul Burstow (Sutton & Cheam)*
Vince Cable (Twickenham)* (Secretary of State for Business)
Alistair Carmichael (Orkney & Shetland)*
Nick Clegg (Sheffield Hallam)* (Deputy Prime Minister)
Edward Davey (Kingston & Surbiton)*
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green)* (Equalities Minister and her maiden speech was in opposition to tuition fees, a particularly bad case)
Don Foster (Bath)
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell & Newquay)
Duncan Hames (Chippenham)
Nick Harvey (North Devon)*
David Heath (Somerton & Frome)*
John Hemming (Birmingham Yardley)
Norman Lamb (Norfolk North)*
David Laws (Yeovil)
Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk)* (Secretary of State for Scotland)
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)*
Jo Swinson (Dunbartonshire East)
Sarah Teather (Brent Central)*
David Ward (Bradford East)
Steve Webb (Thornbury & Yate)*

Additionally the following abstained which is equivalent to a vote in favour since it makes it easier for the vote to pass and is in no way a serious signal of dissent:

Lorely Burt (Solihull)
Martin Hurwood (Cheltenham)
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey & Old Southwark)
Tessa Munt (Wells)
Sir Robert Smith (Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine)
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross)
Stephen Williams (Bristol West)

All those who voted directly in favour have directly contravened pledges to constituents, broken party policy and violated the terms of the manifesto on which they were elected. Those who abstained helped those who voted against and are simply collaborators with them. Those who had the courage to stand by their party policy and endorse the pledges made to their constituents have no business remaining in the same party as the traitors prepared to vote for this measure. There should now be a serious and open breach with the clique of Clegg and Cable. 

Since it is unlikely that this will happen the only resource for democrats in this situation is civil disobedience. None of the MPs listed above has any right to respect and should be met with contempt. The Liberal Democrats have violated any right to trust and made clear they have no right to either the name "liberal" or "democrat". No progressive person can support a party that has behaved in this manner: it is a party that deserves to be destroyed.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Higher Education and National Politics

It is, to say the least, very unusual for higher education to feature highly in political discussions in the UK. The general election was fought recently here with two of the main political parties refusing to say anything much of consequence about it, referring only to the forthcoming Browne review as something whose conclusions they would consider. Partly as a consequence the Liberal Democrats succeeded in garnering some support and popularity across the sector simply by virtue of having a policy. This was helped by the fact that one of the aspects of this policy involved resistance to any increases in the cost of higher education and a history of having resisted efforts to impose fees on students in Scotland. 

All has changed here now. Firstly, on entering the coalition government, the Liberals allowed it to be the case that the pledge not to increase tuition fees was laid to rest in the agreement forming the coalition. Secondly, after the Browne report was published, they were the party that allowed it to be the case that fees would, after all, not only be raised but tripled despite having pledged to abolish them. All of this has now come home to roost as the party suffers more opprobrium over this issue from the campaigns that have been formed in defence of education than their coalition partners.

Secondly, there is now a proliferation of groups that are campaigning in support of public education. One of the latest, the Campaign for the Public University, has the signal merit of being formed in explicit opposition to the marketisation of education that was the key principle of the Browne report. This ensures that its' campaigns are particularly worth attention and support.

Meanwhile, as the Liberal Democrats fray at the edges and appear ready to go into meltdown, it is perhaps finally time that higher education has reached the point of being a political issue that cannot be ignored or side-lined in future general elections.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Third Day of Action Against Education Cuts

Yesterday marked the third day of action against the education cuts and the second occasion that this led to demonstrations and actions in a number of distinct places. Demonstrations were held in London, Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool and Brighton and occupations of university buildings have gathered apace. The occupations have even managed to secure some national news coverage. There has though been some concern about police tactics at some demonstrations, particularly in London.

The suggestion that the proposed changes to university finance are dictated by the pressures of dealing with the UK national deficit is quite untrue as that case has been comprehensively exploded. Another interesting development in recent protests has been the tendency to link the argument against the government's proposals with a campaign against corporate tax-dodging, a campaign began by UK Uncut. Students have been leaving occupations and organising flash mob sit-ins at shops and corporations on whom there is evidence of tax avoidance.

Since it is expected there will be a vote on the government's proposals for student finance prior to Christmas it is important that occupations stay solid and that the pressure is kept up. The government is far from solid on this issue, consistent pressure could yet work!