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Six degrees of caring: Can we have a caring capitalism?

September 14, 2012 Leave a comment
Can caring fix capitalism?

Maybe it’s far-fetched to believe we can be connected to everyone in the world by six people, but there may be method in the madness.

It could well have been the hand of destiny that had me sitting on a houseboat with a friend watching Law Abiding Citizen.

Without ruining the plot I will simply say they Gerard Butler decides to take the law into his own hands over the murder of his wife and daughter. This stems from the decision of the district attorney to give the killer a plea bargain, on the face of it to help with another case, but in actuality it is to keep his prosecution rate high.

The film highlights that the justice system in the US has little regard for the people involved. It is an assembly line, with judges sitting over hundreds of cases a week, lawyers representing multiple individuals as both defendants and plaintiffs, and barristers using their theatrical oration skills to help both help the innocent and guilty alike.

The reason the film struck a chord with is that the justice system is an arena where there is a growing disconnection with the people that they are meant to protect and serve.

On one level there has to be. In order that everyone should get a fair trial, lawyers and barristers have to put aside their own prejudices, and represent their client to the best of their abilities.

However, the initial disconnection that allows these individuals to do their jobs effectively can sometimes turn into a deeper a disconnection. This may not stop them performing the the service required of them, but it takes away the essence of the service. In this case, although the judge and DA convict the murderer, the plea bargain means that it is questionable whether justice has actually been satisfied.

This disconnection manifests itself in the shift from clients to statistics. The DA in LAC doesn’t see the people involved in the case as humans, but as statistics he can manipulate to make himself look better. But it is not just in the legal system that this disconnection is apparent.

Managers that fire hundreds of people in efficacy savings are trained to not see them as men and women, but faulty parts of a machine. The head of Ofqual, at the centre of the current GCSE debacle, must have tried very hard to believe that in moving the grade scale she was not ruining the futures of thousands of children, but simply balancing the books.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe many professionals are good people and don’t see their staff or clients as numbers on a spreadsheet. But, the system is geared so that the movers and the shakers above the glass ceiling can disconnect from the people they are meant to support and not treat them as people. Or at least when it suits them.

We are all guilty of it. That annoying customer who walks in and kicks up a fuss. That person on the phone trying to sell you insurance. That homeless person asking you for money. Our society has developed to the point where we can comfortably dehumanise the people who we don’t like or don’t want to interact with. It is only more apparent in the upper echelons of power because their actions effect more people.

But every time you send someone to Coventry, or whisper behind someone’s back, or tell a homeless beggar to “f*** off,” you are dealing with a person, who has people they care about and hopefully people who care about them.

The theory of sis degrees of separate implies that we are all connected to everyone on the planet through six people. Unlikely as it is, we should not dismiss the theory out of hand.

We all have our circle of friends and our circle of family. They all have their own circles and as you pan out from individual to individual is it so hard to recognise that we are all connected by interlocking circles? You may not like some of the people in your circle, but to not like someone implies that you care about them in some way – you care that their opinions differ from yours, or you care how their actions impinge on yours.

It would be a tall order to care about everyone in the world. But we can choose who to make statistics out of and who to respect. We have the choice, and the more people we turn into stats the further away from compassionate capitalism we get.

As Andreas Whittam Smith observes today, part of the problem with the banks at the moment is that they regard their customers as people to sell to, not people to serve. It is this attitude that has led to people becoming stats, and our capitalist model being on the verge of meltdown. It is an US and THEM attitude that favours the individual at the expense of others.

In order to do business with each other on a level playing field we first have to live on one. Not in terms of all having the same wealth or social status, but in terms of giving each other same respect. We have to stop hero worshipping celebrities with no talents, start respecting people with disabilities who go through more strife on a daily basis than some people live through in a lifetime.

Respect should not depend on your age, how intelligent you are, or how talented you are, or how much of something you have. It stems from what you do with those things, and as soon as we realise this we will be able to call ourselves a developed, nay, an enlightened society.

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Philosophy matters, that’s why it’s important

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My first moral philosophy tutorial was one of the most humbling experiences of my young life. I knew, or at least thought, that I had some well thought out liberal opinions and was ready to fight for moderation and understanding against bigotry and hatred. But it only took about ten minutes (if that) for my tutor to demonstrate that my views on everything from abortion to euthanasia were simply the echoes of my mother’s. As I said, humbling.

We all do it I imagine, echo the opinions of our elders and betters. Whether you’re a vociferous Guardian reader, or a Daily Mail sensationalist, whether it is mum or dad’s opinion or your older sibling’s. Philosophy taught me my first lesson: question the basis of your own opinions before you parade them out as doctrine.

That was why I was so pleased to see Russ Thorne’s piece defending philosophy degrees in the Independent. Finally some appreciation for the discipline that I love and respect so highly, after years of getting a hard time.

When admitting they study philosophy, the first question asked is usually: so what are you going to do with that then? An innocent enough question that hides undertones of condescension. It implies that studying philosophy can lead to nothing useful in or of itself.

I had idea what I wanted to do with philosophy, I just enjoyed it. The reading was (usually) very engaging, the debates in class went from heated to mind boggling, and the essays were a challenge. But the question continued bugged me.

Those lucky enough to study vocational disciplines, or with a career mind already, seem to think they have the right to give the humble philosophy student a hard time. They accuse you of just spending your time thinking, or of doing nothing useful. They are just as happy to parade their opinions out over a pint or a coffee.

However, the majority of opinions that are spouted about everything from the environment to politics haven’t been explored in any detail and are therefore mostly platitudes, rehashing what has been told to them by parents, lecturers or the newspapers.

This is why one of the most important lessons of philosophy is not to take those platitudes as fact. That is why philosophy is important.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes philosophising as walking in the hills. Anyone can leave the village in the valley and take a little sojourn through the hills of thought. There are a lot of well walked paths up there, that philosophers of bygone days have tread, and their students and acolytes have traversed after them, winding into the mountains of thought.

The valley is an analogy for our family, our culture and our society. It represents the preconceived opinions of the day, the platitudes. One who lives in the valley will take red as blue and blue as red if everyone tells them so. It is easy to live within the valley and not stray outside because everyone agrees with you.

Discussions over coffee or a glass of wine represent the walks in the foothills. You can follow Plato’s path, or Marx’s, arguing over the merits of their journeys and what the discovered. This is as far as many of us go.

But day-trippers should stop and look up. For above the well worn paths in the foothills, there are the mountains, which have only a few paths through them, for not many have ventured beyond the foothills.

This was why philosophy was so humbling as both a subject and a discipline. To further Pirsig’s analogy, the foothills that have been so well trampled can be understood as other subjects, chemistry, physics, psychology. Before these subjects existed there was only the questions: what is the world made of? How does the universe work? What makes human-beings tic? The ancient philosophers would have seen the foothills as mountains, there were no paths there, and it would have been both scary and novel to escape the valley of society and tread new paths. But after years of people following the routes, the questions have been replaced by answers, which are claimed by other disciplines. What matter is made of is answered by chemistry, what forces control the universe is the domain of physics, and explaining what makes humans do what they do is psychology.

It is testament to the wanderings of the greatest minds in history that we have these answers, but the cost has been the question. I think every question is philosophical, and from this it would imply that philosophy is the art of questioning. While the answers are now left to the various disciplines spawned from philosophical enquiry, the soul of the questioner is the soul of the philosopher, and this is why philosophy remains important.

To not ask questions because you assume you know the answer is at best ignorant and at worst arrogant. A lot of people in the valley take their opinions for granted, because they like them. If I had an unwanted pregnancy I’d want to abort it, so I am pro-abortion. But the philosopher explores their own opinions, and those of others, like Socrates, to find the justification that doesn’t rest on the comfort those opinions provide.

We are lucky to live in a culture where we have so many answers, but we should not let this make us complacent. If we do, like in the US, we get creationists, who take comfort in their opinions, yet make no effort to delve into the absurdity that the world was created only 9,000 years ago. We need questioners, to keep ideas fresh and stop them stagnating, and that means we continue to need philosophy.

And, as I learned long ago, philosophy teaches you to be humble before both your own and the opinions of others.