18 February 2010

On Holyrood's amoralist dialectic...

A free vote, a vote of the conscience, is a familiar if irregular feature of our political life. So familiar, in this sense, that its real significance may be lost to us. Certainly, in a brute factual sense, it is simply an unwhipped vote where in the final disposal, our deputies can lodge their votes where their spirits tend. Examples which will be familiar to you include laws regulating abortions, hunting with dogs, the death penalty – and now in Holyrood, on assisted dying. I want to suggest that we stand absolutely motionless for a moment, at slight angle to our commonplace universe, and think a little more generally about the ideas of morality and conscience implied. These concepts have enough meat on them to keep us well occupied without marching them into the public arena. But the parade has started, therefore it behoves us to follow on its heels and try to understand the dynamics involved.

First, the obvious explanation – party leaderships want to avoid collective responsibility being foisted on them for their conduct on “socially divisive issues”. This rabbit-tremor preserves the innocence and catholicity of the party structures, by very episodic disappearances of the party structure. If your particular representative votes in a way which deviates significantly from your own views – the accusation rests there. Hopefully, come election time, you won’t let the individual’s judgement get in the way of an overriding party preference. The party, after all, can’t be blamed for a dud choice. No point punishing them longitudinally, what’s done being done. We would be missing something important, however, if we exhausted our explanation at this consciously-manipulative, party-evasive level.

What strikes me as the interesting question about free votes is the principle of selection. How do issues become constructed in such a way that they are rendered exceptional, exceptional procedures to be followed in their analysis? The colonic Mike Rumbles offered one account when he justified the creation of the ad hoc ‘Health 2 Committee’ on the basis that assisted dying is a “moral” question, and thus must be handled with parliamentary kit gloves and quite separately from the ordinary, amoral order of work. Patrick Harvie rightly took him to task for the fatuousness of this distinction. Surely the whole work of politics, his argument, is dyed through with ethical implications. While I’d echo those arguments, there is another way we can approach the distinction Rumbles was relying on. It seems to me that it is not insignificant that the binary categorisation which Harvie made a brave attempt to obliterate seems to insulate the usual meat and potatoes of politics from ‘morality’. By reinforcing the exceptionalism of ethical issues in politics, justifications for the unexceptional, unethical and ordinary political choices is in turn reinforced. This theme also ravels, I’d suggest, along the familiar and problematic ‘private/public’ string. By isolating Margo’s bill and sanctioning, through special measures, the emergence of private morality into the public - powers normally exercised are rendered less problematic, less moral. They are public choices, rather than the private whim of individual members imposing their private preferences on a gormless public. It is complicated, but a dialectic of this general sort seems to me to be at work, in what might pass for simple stupidity, informing this talk of legislative ‘morality’.

The thing to bear in mind about all of this is the idea of morality or personal conscience which this discussion relies on. On some versions, this is the little firefly ensconced in head office, casting its arbitrary, subjective light. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who I’ve mentioned before in the context of this debate, styles this idea of ethics ‘emotivism’. One MSP has one preference, another uses a radically different conceptual schema and reaches the same conclusion as the first – while the third tribune rejects both theories and the conclusion reached, based on their own private fancy. This sort of groundless conscience is not, however, compatible with every version of morality. For example, if you are religious and found your views on “natural law” or some objective, cosmologically determined set of values, rooting the conscience in whimsical subjectivity is simply a misunderstanding of morality.

The primary point I wanted to distil from this is that the idea that MSPs are revealing their private conscience through voting is that the usual vocabulary of democratic influence sits less comfortably alongside. Lobbying, argumentation - constituents writing to their representatives anticipating that that representative function involves gauging, somehow, the mood of their district. There is something unnecessarily pompous about imagining Holyrood as a convocation of saints, come together to bring to light their existential musings on the quality of being in the world and handing them down to a breathless Scottish public. Don’t be dazzled by showy citations of conscience. Write to your representatives, e-mail them, telling them what you think. Be sure that you get around to it, and don’t just put it off. Be sure to pester all of the MSPs in your region. As I’ve argued before, you may benefit from a spectrum of opinion in the way a single constituency member wouldn’t permit. Finally, be sure that others will be doing so.

On Facebook, someone has got up a Support for the Scottish End of Life Assistance Bill page which at the time of publication has 623 ‘fans’ (admittedly, not the happiest description). I commend it to you.


  1. Perhaps we should have a referendum on the matter? That would absolve MSPs of misrepresenting constituency views on such a moral matter.

    Oh, but hang on, the economic situation determines that trivia such as referenda be put to one side until all is rosy again.

  2. If this round of parliamentary efforts fail, as Jammy Purvis MSP's earlier Bill failed, I imagine that eyes might turn outside of Holyrood for solutions. A referendum would also have the same party political benefits as a free vote - those who disagree can't consistently blame a particular party structure for the final decision.

    The problem, of course, is that the current discussion (which I earnestly hope succeeds) will soak up a significant quantity of parliamentary capital, whatever happens. Any new wheeze would undoubtedly have to wait a decent roll of years before being raised again.

  3. You mentioned MacIntyre a couple of times.

    The self-styled Revolutionary-Aristotelian Catholic philosopher A.C.MacIntyre attacked emotivism all his life (it was the subject of his postgrad degree). He's a 'revolutionary' who has adopted the most orthodox position in philosophy. By the time he got to writing 'After Virtue' his attacks had developed into a rather dodgy historical thesis (a before-and-after scenario that falls at the first hurdle) tacked onto a faintly paranoid notion of the deliberately-systematic irreconciliability of the two enlightenment discourses of rights and utility. Destructive as his views admittedly often are,there is a mad and wonderful irony in that his practical solution to it is very similar indeed to the St John's experiment carried out (and failed) in Glasgow by the evangelical presbyterian Thomas Chalmers in 1820, namely a managerialist anti-erasmianism, made infinitely priceless by the fact that MacIntyre had conferred upon him at birth the middle-name Chalmers by his earnest Scottish parents.

    OK that's got nothing to do with your actual post but I thought you might find it entertaining.

    Your "..justifications for the unexceptional, unethical and ordinary political choices is in turn reinforced" indicates the fatalistic sub-belief or even neurosis that politics is administration, the post-weberian managerialist abyss of instrumental reason so decried by all and sundry and that as you say the obverse is that we now wait for the immaculate conceptions of party thickos for the resolution of the issue (inevitably against Margo) and thus the entire process is a bewilderment, a miasma and a farrago, and a towering monument to our weakness, division, and our eternal saison en enfer.

    Yup, I'd have to agree with that.

  4. Thanks for your informative contribution, Ratzo. In particular, I appreciate the Thomas Chalmers references. I could pick out the statue of him in Edinburgh, but have no real developed appreciation of his history. I shall follow it up. Your references to Weberian managerialism and administrative politics is bang on. I particularly enjoyed the resounding saison de enfer conclusion - and I'd concur, these issues absolutely implicated in the analysis of the showy entrance of voting consciences at Holyrood (and their untroubled, unfree suppression in the instrumental reason of 'normal' decision-making).

  5. Having read through my argument again, I should stress, lest it prove misleading to anyone, that I'm using the term 'justification' in its sense as providing arguments, reasons or inchoate appeals for the acceptability of the decisions - as opposed to advancing a specific claim that according to some wider standard, I'd find those decisions justified or that I'd frame questions of legitimacy in the fashion indicated.