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In conversation with philosopher and author A.C. Grayling

Posted on 15 December 2021

In our latest Academy session, A. C. Grayling CBE, the Founder and Principal of New College of the Humanities at Northeastern University and its Professor of Philosophy, spoke with Associate, Shulamit Aberbach about his latest book The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy.

In the book, Professor Grayling makes the case for a clear, consistent, principled and written constitution, and sets out the reforms necessary – among them addressing the imbalance of power between government and Parliament, imposing fixed terms for MPs, introducing proportional representation and lowering the voting age to 16 (the age at which you can marry, gamble, join the army and must pay taxes if you work) – to ensure the intentions of such a constitution could not be subverted or ignored. As democracies around the world show signs of decay, the issue of what makes a good state, and one that is democratic in the fullest sense of the word, could not be more important.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions. 
Shulamit Aberbach

Welcome everyone to this Mishcon Academy Digital Session.  My name is Shulamit Aberbach and I am hosting this virtual session today.  It’s my great pleasure to introduce author and philosopher, Professor A C Grayling.  Professor Grayling as Master of New College of the Humanities, an independent college he founded in 2011.  He has written and edited I think it is now closer to forty books; always making a case for the role philosophy can play in our lives.  He is a frequent contributor to the major broadsheets and sits on editorial boards of several academic journals.  He has also judged a number of top literary awards including the Man Booker twice.  Today we will be discussing his book, The Good State, on the principles of democracy in which Professor Grayling argues that many democracies from around the globe from the United Kingdom to the USA to Australia are at risk of the absence or decay of the fundamental principles of democracy.  Professor Grayling, welcome to the Mishcon Academy.

Professor A C Grayling

Thank you very much for having me.

Shulamit Aberbach

You’ve devoted much of your life’s work to making the case that philosophy’s real world application.  With that in mind, democracy and philosophy have a long and very complex relationship so as a brief introduction, would you tell us what some of the great philosophers have had to say about democracy and what do you think we can learn from them when it comes to democracy nowadays?

Professor A C Grayling

Well the answer is not a lot actually because of course democracy as we like to understand it now, that’s to say the enfranchise being as much of the adult population as possible, having a voice and making a choice about how they are to be governed and the laws under which they will live, that kind of idea is in fact extremely recent, just in the last couple of centuries and it has only been eked out by those who have their hands on the levers of power rather grudgingly and stony.  I mean after all it is less than a 100 years since the suffrage in the United Kingdom has been equal for men and women at the same age and indeed only since 1968 or so that the age of both for voting was reduced to 18.  So when we think of the great philosophers, when we think for example of classic and antiquity, 5th Century Athens and the Periclean democracy there, that was only a democracy of Athenian male citizens who were a pretty small minority of the people living in Athens at the time because it excluded all zeno, all foreigners living there, slaves certainly women and children so you had to be a fully-fledged male adult Athenian citizen to have a say.  But if you were such a thing then you had the franchise and that meant that your voice was equal to the voice of anybody else in that society and indeed you had a responsibility to step up and speak up and to take your part in the democracy.  So the germ of the idea of the demos, the people, the people who had that capacity given to them by the social agreement to participate is the germ of the idea of democracy which we have yet to see fully expressed in pretty well any society in the contemporary world.

Shulamit Aberbach

Well The Good State is your second book on democracy published in the space of just 3 years and I am sure everyone listening today has some idea of what a democracy is and you state in the book that lots of these common ideas like majority rules for example, aren’t necessarily right.  So by your definition do we actually live in a democracy here in the UK?

Professor A C Grayling

We live in a partial democracy.  We have some of the trappings and forms of democracy but it’s an incomplete democracy particularly because in the UK for the House of Commons and only for the House of Commons because all other elective bodies in the UK are elected on some form of proportional basis even though what passes for our Government at the moment is set up on trying to reduce that and take back some of those elective bodies to a plurality poaching system; that’s the first past the post system.  So for the House of Commons you have a first past the post voting system.  This is the case also for elections to the House of Representatives in the US, to the Canadian House of Commons, in India also and unfortunately in Australia although they did try to revise their system a little bit, it has the effect of being first past the post and this is a very, very undemocratic system and indeed is the source of considerable problems.  If I may explain why, I mean it is very simple to give an illustration of how plurality voting militates against genuine democracy.  Supposing you have a constituency with 100 voters in it and 10 people present themselves for election and suppose 8 of them get 10 votes each, 1 gets 9 votes so the last of them gets 11 votes.  Well on the first past the post system the person with 11 votes goes to Parliament and the other 89 electors are completely unrepresented and as a matter of you know, the realities of our electoral system the majority of people who vote in a general election cast absolutely umpteen votes.  This is very, very distorting, it’s a very distorting system and it, it wastes votes in very large numbers and usually as I say in the majority of cases this is why this is not a true democracy because it doesn’t represent and reflect a great diversity of opinions and preferences, desires, interests that there are in society and a properly proportional system of representation would do that much better.  Nothing will ever be perfect, one can’t expect in this world of ours outside the prior use of Mishcon de Reya anything to be perfect but it is very, very much better than plurality voting.

Shulamit Aberbach

I have a quote here from the book, you quote ‘Clement Atlee from his time serving as war time coalition deputy prime minister and he said that referendums were the instruments of Nazism and Fascism’ so Professor Grayling do you think there is any place for referendums in a democracy?

Professor A C Grayling

Only a very, very, very small place and this is because it is not just the question of the fact that your referendum asks for a yes / no, you know, left / right, black / white, right / wrong answer and therefore it has to be rather simply proposed the question to a constituency of people who would have very various opinions and may, some of them may not be as well informed as they should be about the issues and so, so it’s an extremely crude instrument and only suitable for you know, answering of a question which can be posed such that yes and no deals with it properly.  The point is this, if you go back as I am sure everybody on this call did to read Book 8 of Plato’s Republic okay, where he talks about his reason for being against democracy he was very, very hostile to democracy because he, in fact he probably was the second worst kind of Government that there could be, the absolute worst kind of Government is tyranny but democracy he thought was just the vestibule of tyranny for the following reason; that if you put hands in the… power in the hands of the people, the people are very self-interested, they are very ill-informed, they are very short-termist, they are very prone to you know, disagreements with one another and so on and as a result a democracy in Plato would very, very soon turn into an ochlocracy, lovely word, ochlocracy; means mob rule, ruled by the mod and that will be chaotic anarchic eventually and then everybody will welcome the strong man, the strong ruler who steps in or restores order but that would be tyranny.  So he was very hostile to the idea of democracy for that reason.  So that is a problem which you know just to be extremely frank persists because a lot of people who have the vote may not pay very much attention to how best to use it and you know, what is really at issue and so on so how is one to honour the right of people to a voice and yet to get another thing that people have a right to which is good governance.  So they’ve got a right to a voice but then there’s Plato’s point about ochlocracy so how can we get to good governance which they also deserve and the answer is representative democracy.  Let the people chose representatives who are sent to the Parliament to get the facts, to listen to one another, to discuss, to hear arguments, to come to a decision and to act in the best interests of their constituents and the country as a whole.  This is the idea.  This is what should be happening and that is the fundamental idea of representative democracy and if the representatives do a poor job of working on behalf of those who send them to Parliament then they can be recalled.  Unfortunately of course with first past the post producing two party systems and therefore the increasing need for that middle of the 19th Century for greater and greater party organisation, the whips you know, what the situation we have at the moment is that MPs instead of representing the interests of their constituents and the country always and invariably, spend much more time representing the interests of the party line.  Whatever their own personal individual conscience might be telling them, they will obey the whips and as a result we just get partisan politics and not Government.  That, that is the outcome of having a very poor dysfunctional electoral system but the idea of representative democracy is a solution to the problem that you are faced with if you’ve got these two rights, the right to a voice and the right to good Government which as Plato long ago pointed out, could be at odds with one another.

Shulamit Aberbach
 
You talk about social media as the market place of destructive mob rule and you discuss how social media essentially weaponises the propaganda that has always been present in politics.  Just how big a risk do you think social media is to democracy?

Professor A C Grayling

As it stands at the moment it is a serious risk to democracy for a variety of reasons.  One is of course it provides a platform for and not just a platform but a multiplier, amplifier for loss of misinformation, false facts, allegations, any propaganda machine knows that you can tell an outright lie and retract it two hours later but the lie will run much, much, much faster than the retraction and be heard and seen and believed by many more people than the retraction and social media, a wonderful amplifier for that kind of thing.  Also and this is a very serious problem, the way things are orchestrated on social media now, there can be micro targeting.  So on the basis of profiling done of users on things like WhatsApp and Instagram and Facebook and so on, you can, you can profile people and then you can micro target messaging that other people can’t see so you can tell them lies or make them promises that other people can’t call you out on because they don’t know that you are doing it.  This happened in the Trump Election, it happened in the Brexit Referendum.  That is a very, very serious form of cheating the process because democracy absolutely requires transparency.  We all need to know who is claiming what, saying what, promising what.  We all need to hear the messages and we all need to be able to respond to them but I do worry tremendously about anonymity because anonymity is the cloak behind which all of the worst things about the internet in general hide.  You know back in the 90s when the internet really started to become a thing we all thought, oh brilliant this is going to be the great worldwide agora and then it turns out just to be a huge lavatory wall on which everybody is scribbling their rubbish and their lies and their conspiracy theories and their pornography and so on so from that point of view it has been a kind of disaster but I would rather have the potential for the good that manages to squeeze through all the rubbish than to close it down or sensor it but it is possible to clean things up a bit and police it a bit by for example, refusing to allow political messaging to be anonymous or micro targeted.  That could be one really important step.  You have to learn that a really key thing for the educational process is to equip people to be very good evaluators of what they meet with on social media and on the internet in general.  They have to be you know, critical thinking, such a cliché but it is vital that people are really sharp at saying, really is that right?  How do I check this up, follow up on that, dig into it a little bit and not just do what Daniel Kahneman would call fast thinking you know, which is just to accept that it at the first blush.

Shulamit Aberbach

You, I think, published a book in 2011 called The Good Book.  We’ve been discussing a book today called The Good State and you’ve said now that your next book is going to be called The Good of the World, did you say?

Professor A C Grayling

Yes I did.

Shulamit Aberbach

What do you see as the good or the hope in democracy or for democracy?

Professor A C Grayling

Well I mean you know, but perceptive that I like the word ‘good’ and you know the great philosophical quest is to understand the nature of the good and to promote it and of course on a personal note I would love to be good if I could and so, you know, we’ve all got to make the effort as well even if we fail.  The Ancient Greeks had this wonderful idea of what they called a machia which means a bad shot, you know you aim your arrow at the target and you miss, well what do you do, you just try better next time.  That’s the way to try and be good if you can.  It’s very different from those kinds of theistic conceptions where if you commit a sin it’s a stain on your soul and takes a lot of scrubbing to get rid of it.  Anyway, the good society, the possibility of good lives for individuals in the good society, trying to think of ways in which we can relate to one another, the negotiation, the conversation that we have with one another within society, always to look to improve, to make things better, to be considerate you know, for a society to be kind to itself and its members is sort of you know, the moral key in a way to this but it feeds into really practical questions about constitutionality, about the political hoarder and about things you know, as practical as voting.

Shulamit Aberbach

Professor Grayling this has been such an interesting discussion, you have covered such ground in your answers, it’s been fascinating to listen to, thank you so much.  We will have to have you back for another session to be discussing The Good of the World next time.

Professor A C Grayling

I look forward to it.  Thank you.

Shulamit Aberbach

Thank you so much. 

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.


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