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
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?