Philosophical Notes: Philosophy as a guide to political action

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SHOULD GENERAL Pinochet be extradited to stand trial for crimes against humanity? Should something be done to stop the massacres by Serbian forces? Clearly ethical issues. But what of the question of the legalisation of drugs, or of the treatment of juvenile offenders? Should . . . but hang on - this isn't philosophy!

A lot of political issues seem to have philosophical roots, ethical elements. We are interested to hear the views of politicians, of course. And, where appropriate, lawyers, policemen, even economists may be consulted - but philosophers?

It may seem rather odd now, but the Ancient Greeks saw one of the key purposes of philosophy as a guide to action, helping to answer the question "what should I do?" So often the political, legal and even economic arguments are actually old philosophical ones. The names are changed, but the issues are the same. Strip away the irrelevant, superficial characteristics, and start to analyse the structure. The answers then, surely, can be better seen.

Gottfried Leibniz thought he had developed a kind of early computer which would be capable of gobbling up difficult ethical issues, digesting them, and spitting back an answer that all would accept. "Come, let us calculate," would be the recourse of all civilised people, faced with such as Slobodan Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet.

In the 17th century, computers were rather rudimentary, consisting of bits but no bytes, and the dream remained a dream. But now, with machines capable of analysing a thousand times more information than is relevant, of processing a million more algorithms than there are people to think up algorithms, surely now can't we begin to use good philosophical principles to mechanically solve some of our pressing problems?

Well, let's try a few. Take General Pinochet. Let the computer adopt a utilitarian approach. We do not care what Pinochet has done (or not done). Will the happiness of the relatives of his victims outweigh the distress of his supporters? Will his trial increase or decrease the likelihood of other dictators committing atrocious crimes?

What are the principles involved? That no one should be allowed to be above the international principles respecting the sanctity of life, forbidding torture, and that political expedients are wholly amoral?

Or with Slobodan Milosevic, who has successfully used international law to allow himself the right to commit the most ghastly crimes for several years - what advantages are there to respecting the sovereignty of the nation state, even when it is a terminally sick government devouring its own citizens, if intervention could yet lead to chaotic spread of the contagious disease?

But already it seems that however useful and impartial the calculation, the argument over the rules programmed will be just as intense and insoluble as before. The issues remain stubbornly political and emotive, not to say irrational. The philosophers can come in and airily announce, like Rousseau, that they will begin by "setting aside the facts, as they will not affect the question", but they cannot set aside the starting assumptions (the axioms and the principles). And often that is where the disagreement lies.

At least with the problem of juvenile offenders, graduating on their tiresome diet of graffiti and vandalism to car crime, burglary and violence, we are on the safe ground of being able to test our hypotheses. Let the offenders be given money for clubbing, drugs for relief, and free access to the Internet! Then see how many give up offending. Later, let others be imprisoned in their own homes, or in special cells (still, of course, with Internet links, but now only to philosophical sites). Then watch their frustration fight with grudging acceptance of the might of the law.

But for that, we do not need the computer. Nor, come to think of it, the philosophers.

Martin Cohen is the editor of `The Philosopher'