BOOK REVIEW / Scepticism in a cardboard box: 'Values: Collapse and Cure' - Lord Hailsham: HarperCollins, 12.99
Saturday 10 September 1994
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.
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