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Philosophy is the transformation of sheep

By Charles Foster

Over the last week English hoodies took to the streets to burn, smash and pillage and, (an almost equally distressing sight), the pop-sociologists of England took to the op-ed columns to tell us why. We’ve had no end of explanations. I’m no more qualified to add to them than most of the original writers were to promulgate them. But whatever the explanation is, it has to account for the fact that this was by no means a primal scream from the nation’s disenfranchised: alongside the youths who may have been expressing their turbulent  pasts and hopeless presents, were estate agents, Olympic ambassadors and law students who were ruining their promising futures. The deep causes are beyond me, but the most proximate, obvious (and possibly the only) cause for the vast majority was simply that they were following others. Why did A get involved? Because B did. And why did B get involved? Because C did. At one (and perhaps all levels), this was no more a revolution than sheep baa-ing after each other through a gate.

If alienation was the cause, as many said, from what were the participants alienated? From their ability to make up their own minds, and hence from themselves. If disenfranchisement, from what decision-making process? Their own.

Ethicists have something to say about this. But only if they’re prepared, unfashionably but classically, to say that their business is that of describing the right ways to live as human beings. To the rioters they would have to say: what you did was wrong. There are two reasons why it was wrong. (a) Because, in the huge majority of cases, the decision to do act X was not the individual rioter’s own. And (b), even where X was decided upon by the rioter entirely independently of the sheep factor, act X was in itself wrong.

We spend most of our time as ethicists expounding reason (b): writing essays about whether, and if so why, X is wrong. That is important and intellectually challenging. Reason (a) gets less attention.

Autonomy is a crucial quality. But unless a person is a child or a medically incapacitate adult, it is often blithely assumed that she will make an autonomous decision, and that accordingly all concerns arising within the ambit of reason (a) have been answered, and that any challenge must come from within reason (b). This assumption is unfortunate.

Respect for autonomy has become a mantra. Mantras don’t tend to encourage critical thought. Beneath our respect for autonomy lie several deeper considerations on which that respect is dependent. Why do we respect autonomy? At least one reason is that autonomy is a marker for being ourselves. And part of being ourselves is not being other people. We object to paternalism in medicine because the patient for whom a decision is made by a Sir Lancelot Spratt is less herself: she surrenders to Sir Lancelot some of the territory that is herself. Being ourselves is a more fundamental value than autonomy. How to be ourselves well is the great concern of philosophy. I’ve contended here that it has two elements (the (a) and (b) elements), but I’d also suggest (and have done elsewhere, using the language of dignity), that someone who is properly herself necessarily makes right ethical decisions.

A kid who throws a paving stone through a shop window does so not because he is fundamentally bad, and is being the way he really is, but because he’s not being himself. There’s no rational room for the neo-Calvinist alternative which talks about his intrinsically evil nature, or his predestination to evil because of his social background.

What’s the philosopher’s job? In this and all other cases it is simple to describe, and desperately difficult to do: it is (by pointing out the importance of being oneself, and suggesting strategies that help us to be more ourselves) to encourage unhappy, unfulfilled sheep to be happy, fulfilled humans.

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21 Comment on this post

  1. I like this but I think I would want to emphasise mindfulness more and critical thought a bit less.

    We know from the Stanford Prison Experiment that personalities and behaviours change (temporarily) as a result of context. But what does it really mean to think for oneself? We only think because we were taught to do so, and the ideas that circulate in our minds are to a very large extent repetitions or syntheses of ideas to which we have been exposed.

    I seem to remember we had a recent thread on whether "being oneself" actually means anything. Copying others is as much part of human nature as wanting to be different. Is it really less dignified? Should we also disapprove of people in sports crowds, religious services, fiestas, discos, getting caught up in a collective where personal autonomy is temporarily suspended in favour of connectedness?

    If this means being too anxiously cerebral ever to enjoy such moments then I think my answer would have to be no. Ultimately, what was bad about the rioting was that people suffered and damage was done as a result, and the collective action showed a complete disregard for those consequences, without so much as a putative cause to justify them. It is type (b) reasoning that makes the action bad; type (a) was just the means that allowed it to happen on such a large scale. Certainly there are lessons to be learnt by those who just got caught up in it with their minds in neutral, but to disvalue ever being caught up in a crowd would, in my view, be an over-reaction. What we might hope is that people become sufficiently clear about their values, that their values are sufficiently benevolent, and that they become sufficiently well-trained in mindfulness and self-awareness that they automatically detach themselves from the herd when matters start to get out of hand. It's a kind of personal autonomy I guess, but in real time it takes place at a more instinctual and less cerebral level than you seem to be suggesting, and this allows us to enjoy those moments of connectedness while remaining ultimately dignified and true to our values.

    1. Peter,
      Many thanks for this.
      Whatever 'being ourselves' means, a big component of it will be relational. We are quintessentially relational creatures. It is impossible to speak meaningfully about a person without describing the social context in which that person exists, and of which, in least in part, he or she consists. So far we agree, I think. But it does not follow from that that every element of a person's social nexus is humanizing. There may well be elements which diminish that person's ability to be him/herself. This conclusion is entirely consistent with our insistence on the importance of relationality. One might say, for instance, that membership of congregation X might truncate someone's ability to form satisfactory relationships. Isn't that true of much religious affiliation? And, I suspect, of many other situations in which a person's personality becomes diluted by the personality of a crowd.

      1. Fully agreed. I will also add that I don't at all mean to imply that critical thought isn't important. I guess my main point (except to plug mindfulness and keep critical thought in its proper, limited place) is that type (b) reasons remain paramount as a determinant of whether an action is good or bad; the extent to which unquestioning compliance with the decisions of others (your type (a) objection) is even bad at all depends ultimately on whether the resulting action is good or bad with regard to type (b) reasoning. For example, in crisis situations where a competent and benevolent leader is in charge, suspending one's autonomy and simply following the leader is precisely what you want people to do. It is this conditionality that was missing here: the leaders they were following were certainly not benevolent, even if they were competent, and there would have been no crisis situation if everyone had just stayed home and watched TV (preferably not the news channels).

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    Hello Charles
    It's a pity that you let rhetoric take the driving seat : I don't recall seeing that there were many estate agents, Olympic ambassadors or law students amongst the accused – that one (or even two) of each group featured amongst the >1000 presented before the courts is surely an exception.
    Nonetheless, I agree with the thrust of what you say : reason (a) is indeed widely, and mistakenly, ignored.
    However, it could be useful to ask why such inauthenticity is prevalent : it isn't enough simply to state that respect for autonomy has become a mantra.

  3. Anthony,
    Many thanks.
    The question you pose is a very important one. But it wasn't the one I was purporting to address. The answer is presumably a psychological and/or sociological and/or theological one, not a philosophical one.

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      Hello Charles,
      You say yourself (and I agree with you) that the philosopher’s job in this …. is (by pointing out the importance of being oneself, and suggesting strategies that help us to be more ourselves) to encourage unhappy, unfulfilled sheep to be happy, fulfilled humans.
      Surely such strategies must take into account the reasons for the inauthenticity of those who aren't ?
      Otherwise how do you encourage even estate agents and olympic ambassadors to be happy and fulfilled ? Mere exhortation seems to me to be pretty ineffective at best, and a convenient excuse for inaction at worst.
      If you think that this has nothing to do with philosophy, it's your right, but why raise the topic in the first place ?

      1. Anthony,
        Many thanks.
        I entirely agree with you that 'such strategies must take into account the reasons for the inauthenticity of those who aren’t' [happy, fulfilled humans]'. And, yes, philsophers have an important part to play in devising those strategies. But in just about every question of 'practical ethics' will be embedded empirical questions which are not, in themselves, a philosopher's province. All the philosopher can do is to state: 'If the answer to empirical question X is such and such, then…..' One of the empirical questions inherent in the issue I was discussing is whether social/financial disenfranchisment was a factor. I was suggesting (rather tongue in cheek) that the answer to that question is no, on the basis of the backgrounds of some of the participants. Of course that's not an acceptably rigorous answer to a difficult and complex question. I may very well be wrong. But, that popular explanation having been cursorily dismissed, I was able to focus more narrowly on the real point of the post, which was, I think, a genuinely philosophical one.

  4. Peter,
    Many thanks.
    We broadly agree, but I'm not prepared to relegate type (a) to ethical irrelevance.
    Suppose that X and Y both commit act A. X has reasoned his way to the conclusion that he should do A. Y has been told by the religious leader in whose thrall he stands to do A. If A is good, then there is more virtue in the transaction involving X. If A is bad, then is there more culpability in the X transaction than in the Y transaction? That's distinctly arguable, I'd say. But in any event type (a) considerations are relevant to our ethical calculus.

    1. Yes, I'll buy that! To the extent that we have moral responsibility for our actions, we also have moral responsibility for whom we allow to influence us, and also the extent to which we do. In your example, Y has suspended his/her critical faculties to an unacceptable degree (at least that's how I interpret your phrase "in whose thrall he stands"). Definitely not something we want to encourage, irrespective of whether A turns out to be good or bad. The calculus might change, though, if instead of "in whose thrall he stands" we say something like "whom he respects and trusts because he has proven worthy of that trust in the past". Perhaps that's the important distinction to make? If A turns out to be bad, Y might do well to reconsider his allegiance, but in the mean time we might feel that there was indeed more culpability in the X transaction than in the Y.

    2. For example, 13-year-old Sam trusts his 15-year-old brother Fred to the hilt. Fred has always been there for him, taking care of him while their father abused their mother who drowned her sorrows in drink and drugs. OK I'm going a bit overboard here, but you get the picture! And you can guess the rest: Fred gets caught up in the rioting and looting, and Sam knows no better than to imitate and obey his trusted brother. What light does type (a) reasoning shed on Sam's culpability, or lack of it?

      1. Peter,
        Many thanks.
        In the example you give, surely type (a) reasoning doesn't stop being relevant: it is just a lot more difficult to see exactly what weight, if any, it should have in the overall ethical calculus. It's a problem sentencing judges face in almost every case. There's almost always some sort of personal mitigation. What weight?, you ask, in your hypothetical example. Really quite a lot. But not so much as to obliterate culpability completely.

  5. <blockquote>A kid who throws a paving stone through a shop window does so not because he is fundamentally bad, and is being the way he really is, but because he’s not being himself.</blockquote>

    Well, this assertion requires expanding on. On what basis do you conclude this hypothetical kid isn't being "fundamentally bad"?

    1. Furthermore, this is a question of practical importance. If the kid is doing this because he's "not being himself", then all we really need to do is to introduce people to their (presumably intrinsically good) real nature and encourage them to think for themselves. The reality is different. While personally I agree that such a person is not "intrinsically bad" (what does that even mean?), I don't regard people as intrinsically good either. We're all a mixture of conflicting motivations and tendencies, and unless our moral code is just tautologically to "be ourselves" we will always fall short of our and others' expectations. So if we want people to behave better, such as not throwing stones through windows, we need to instil in them a sense that such behaviour is wrong. Not just rely on their "intrinsically good nature" to shine through. Which is not to say that there aren't aspects of our nature (e.g. capacity for empathy) that can be harnessed, but there are also equally genuine aspects of our nature (the herd instinct being one of them, adrenalin and testosterone being others) that present more of a challenge to be overcome.

      1. Peter,
        Many thanks again. I think I've gone as far as I can go here in addressing your point in what I've just said in response to Gringoguide.

    2. Gringoguide,
      Many thanks. Yes, indeed it does need a LOT of expanding. I'm not sure that comments on a blog are the best place, but the answer will, as usual, be a cocktail of the empirical and the normative. I'm particularly prone to the criticism that I've fallen into the naturalistic fallacy, but in this case at least I don't think it's just.
      The obvious empirical point is simply that it's vanishingly unusual to find a lone criminal wolf heaving a paving stone through a shop window. A less obvious empirical point is that it's unusual to find a criminal who says: 'Criminality is what I want to do: what makes me me, and what makes me happy.' For what it's worth, it's always described by them as an aberration – which importantly the question: An aberration from what?

      1. "…it's unusual to find a criminal who says, "Criminality is what I want to do; what makes me, and what makes me happy." Are you sure about this assertion? Mafias have waiting lists of kids eager to be "made" and to share the prestige, prosperity and excitement that the criminal life offers as an escape from the humdrum.

        1. Dave: many thanks. Yes, I'm pretty sure. Surely even your suggested exception makes the point. Crime, for these highly unusual exceptions to the general rule of drugs, poverty, and unemployment, is desirable only because the humdrum is dull. My point is that neither the humdrum nor the temporarily exciting new life of crime expresses the person's real aspirations. That Option A is more 'me' than Option B doesn't make it what the person is really all about.

  6. Isn't it a bit of a philosophical cliche to label people as "sheep"? I mean, philosophers pride themselves on their autonomy, authenticity etc, but also seem to take a certain sort of snooty pride in writing off the acts of others as a function of herd mentality. But I think it would be hard to maintain a position that holds that rioting is *less* of an act of choice than other acts, just because it's so exceptional.

    Most of us try hard to be "authentic" in some sense about some bits of our lives, but are rather more blase about other bits. [Some people place considerable weight on being authentic about haircuts and clothes, while the rest of us think this is a waste of valuable processing cycles better spent on being authentic on various more important, non-hair-related aspects of life.] People are famously inauthentic regarding laundry, doing the dishes and buying groceries. This is at least partly because these activities are so everyday. But rioting isn't. Most of us, when put in a novel situation, do reflect on it, and do have our autonomy switch set to "on". I find it hard to believe that rioters acted the way they did because they sleepwalked into the role of rioter. [I was out for a beer just off Oxford St during the riots – if it had kicked off I would have opted for the role of "middle class guy on the tube". The fact that this would have been a role doesn't mean I didn't choose to perform it.]

    1. Dave,
      Many thanks.
      It may be a cliche to talk about sheep, but I don't think that it's particularly a philosophical cliche. As I mentioned in the original post, type (a) reasons are under-discussed in the philosophical literature (perhaps because, as this thread shows, it is hard to dissect out the empirical questions that permeate them).
      You comment: 'People are famously inauthentic regarding laundry, doing the dishes and buying groceries.' I don't understand this, and it makes me wonder if we're at cross purposes.

  7. I agree someone not being himself may well explain why he becomes a rioter. It also seems to me someone not being himself is a matter of degree. No one is completely not being himself. The strength of someone’s autonomy is modulated by the people around him and the circumstances he finds himself in. This can explain why the decision to do act X was not the individual rioter’s own. But I would suggest the strength of our autonomy is also modulated by how much we care about things. If we care about nothing and act as a wanton our decisions are not autonomous. It follows there is a further reason to explain why the decision to do act X was not the individual rioter’s own. Perhaps one of the reasons for the riots was the rioters cared very little about anything. Slightly altering a title from one of Milan Kundera books, some of the rioters suffered from an unbearable sense of simply being. It might be thought suffering such a sense is a passive state and unlikely to cause anyone to riot. However this sense is linked to boredom. Once again it might be thought boredom is a passive state and unlikely to lead to rioting. After all everyone has been bored and listless at sometime. Nonetheless boredom is not a pleasant state. Extreme boredom is important. Harry Frankfurt argues that our interest in avoiding boredom is not simply resistance to discomfort but a quite elemental urge for psychic survival (1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press, page 89). It therefore seems plausible that an extremely bored person may seek temporarily relief from his discomfort at his sense of simply being by rioting. A more detailed argument may be found at .

  8. John,
    Many thanks for this. I agree with everything you say, except for your contention that merely 'being' connotes boredom. I'd say that if one is 'being' properly, bored is one thing you'd never be. But it doesn't seem to me that your observations depend on a denigration of 'mere' being.

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