BOOK REVIEW / Scepticism in a cardboard box: 'Values: Collapse and Cure' - Lord Hailsham: HarperCollins, 12.99

HOW MANY British Lord Chancellors have made original contributions to philosophy? According to Lord Hailsham, just two: Francis Bacon, who wrote his great works, The Advancement of Learning and Novum Organum, either side of a two-year period as James I's Lord Chancellor; and Viscount Haldane, a much lesser figure, who was Lord Chancellor early this century and the author of a series of now largely forgotten works of neo-Hegelianism. Since Lord Hailsham has himself served as Lord Chancellor, his answer to this question implies a rather harsh assessment of the value of his own excursions into philosophical writing. The present book has, in his own apparent view, no claim to be regarded as an original contribution to the subject. I am not sure whether or not he intended this implied self-assessment, but it is in any case a perfectly fair one. As a contribution to philosophical thought, Values: Collapse and Cure is quite negligible.

At its core is a well-worn objection to a philosophical theory to which nobody has subscribed for at least 50 years. That theory is logical positivism, a stridently anti-metaphysical philosophy that, originating in Vienna in the Thirties, was popularised in this country by A J Ayer in his first book, Language, Truth and Logic (1936). In its crudest form (the only form in which Hailsham discusses it), this theory holds that all talk of ethics, aesthetics, religion and the meaning of life is meaningless because it fails to pass the criterion of meaning provided by the so-called 'verification principle'. This says that a sentence is meaningless unless some method exists of 'verifying' it, that is, of determining by empirical evidence whether it is true or false. The well-worn objection to this theory is that the verification principle itself is not verifiable and therefore that logical positivism undermines itself. The force of this objection was eventually acknowledged by the original proponents of logical positivism, which is why nobody has subscribed to the crude form of the theory for a generation or more.

Lord Hailsham rehearses this stale argument without seeming to realise that he is pushing at a door that has been open for a very long time. To him, logical positivism represents the rarefied intellectual version of a widespread and corrosively sceptical belief whose adherents also include 'the criminally minded, the feckless, the dwellers in cardboard boxes, the drug dependent, the violent, and a host of others'. The scepticism ascribed to this ragbag collection of undesirables takes the form of denying the objectivity of moral and aesthetic judgements and insisting that they are but expressions of personal feeling. Lord Hailsham believes he has undermined the intellectual foundations of this pernicious doctrine, and thereby paved the way for a correct view of 'natural morality', and gone some way towards providing a 'cure' for the disastrous collapse of values.

In all sorts of ways - psychologically, sociologically and philosophically - this analysis of the current situation is alarmingly simple- minded. People do not become criminals and drug-takers because they are convinced of the subjectivity of moral judgements, and all those now homeless would remain homeless even if they suddenly became convinced of the objectivist position favoured by Lord Hailsham.

The argument advanced by Lord Hailsham against the subjectivist view is glaringly inadequate. To establish the objectivity of moral judgements, it is not enough to show what everyone admits anyway, that the verification principle is untenable. One must also show that just as there are physical and psychological facts, so there are moral facts.

On this point Lord Hailsham depends not on argument but on assertion, and occasionally on straightforward abuse. 'I would say,' he declaims in typically bulldog fashion, 'that anyone who has lived through the age of Hitler or Stalin, the Holocaust of the Jews, or the Katyn massacres, if he tries to say seriously that there is no difference in value or meaning between kindness and brutality, or truth and falsehood, or virtue and vice, I will tell him to his face that it is he who is talking nonsense and that he will find no reputable or intelligent human being to join him'. This piece of shameless rhetoric misses the point: no one would deny that there is a 'difference in value and meaning' between these things; the debate is rather over how such a difference is to be analysed.

Curiously, although the central message of the book is to affirm the objectivity of moral judgements, it is presented in a way that serves only to emphasise that it is the expression of a personal point of view. It is printed not in type, but in a facsimile of Lord Hailsham's handwriting, producing an effect on the reader akin to that of reading someone else's diary, which is compounded by the autobiographical way in which Lord Hailsham begins his argument. 'The origin of this book,' he writes, 'lay in a mood of deep depression into which I fell towards the end of 1992.' He then goes on to claim that this depression was not, as he had first thought, brought upon by the dire political and economic situation at home and abroad, it had 'a deeper underlying cause' which, it turned out was the evidence around him of the collapse of all values. Finally, upon further reflection, he realised: 'the question at issue is: what is the status, what is the objective validity and what are the practical implications of the value judgements which we constantly make every time we speak of the true, the beautiful, the good, the right, the just?'

Thus was one man's depression transformed into a fundamental philosophical question. And his book invites us to turn this transformation back upon itself, and to insist that what we have here, in the guise of an 'objective' philosophical treatise, is a very personal expression of one man's outlook.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London