RADIO: Reasonable enough mistakes

Analysis / R4 The Lying Game / R4
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The Independent Culture
You would expect a programme with a name like Analysis (R4, Thursday) to be a measured, judicious affair, weighing up its facts, rehearsing its ideas, avoiding jumping to conclusions. At its best, that's exactly what it is. But when it gets going, Analysis is about as thoughtful and unhurried as a rabbit caught in the headlights. It's forever prophesying the demise of something desperately important - British industry, the family, the world - and while the tone is soothingly academic, the message usually comes down to one pithy injunction: "Prepare to meet thy doom". Take the first edition of the new series. Peter Kellner was wailing and gnashing his teeth over "The End of Enlightenment", an event which will, he suggested, leave western civilisation facing a huge problem: "In place of the ideas of reason and progress. . . we're left staring into a vast moral and intellectual chasm." A posse of sociologists, historians and philosophers lined up to support the thesis that rationality has failed us; that a belief in the supremacy of reason which has buoyed us up sincethe 18th century has vanished, and we don't know where to put ourselves.

You can see where Kellner got the idea - socialism didn't work, nobody's found a cure for cancer, and ooh, you see some terrible things on the news - but this theorising surely had more to do with pre-millennial tension than with the failure of the Philosophes. For one thing, rationalism has never had quite the thorough-going social impact that Kellner claimed. And in any case, the version of the Enlightenment which he was poking holes in, one that offered scientific certainty but denied fundamental moral truths, isn't one you meet very often. Most Enlightenment thinkers would hold at least some truths to be self-evident; most scientists would say that they offer plausible hypotheses rather than certainty.

Where Kellner was on the right lines was in suggesting that we could turn to a modified rationality, one that takes uncertainty into account. In fact, this is the rationality that most of us already cling to: we call it "common sense".

Common sense was also enthroned by Irma Kurtz in The Lying Game (R4, Wednesday), a two-part exploration of untruth. It's common sense, according to Kurtz, which tells us that lying is wrong. Sadly, common sense is apparently at odds with 16-million-year-old instinct here. The ability to deceive is something that all primates have inherited from a common ancestor - chimps oftenclaim to have stayed late at the office, while gibbons developed their enormously long arms just to tell fishing stories.

The programme took a mostly sensible approach to lying, with different angles from psychologists, priests, philosophers and fibbers. But even here, there was a touch of Kellner's PMT, with Sissela Bok, a moral philosopher, suggesting that we've always lied, but that in the last 20 years it's got far worse. Did she really think we'd fall for that one?

Hanks

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