Friday, 22 December 2017

A Wassail Song

At a writers' club I frequent, a writer from the Stroud area in Gloucestershire published the words of a wassail song, recently written for the local "Five Valleys Wassail." Not having the tune to hand, and having a few hours spare, I decided to write my own tune to the words. Here it is (unfortunately, I couldn't post the MIDI file)...

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

On Political Societies and Political Governments

In a recent essay, I discussed how individuals and societies might fit together into a civilization based on a minimal set of rules of convivial conduct, such as peacefulness, honesty and respect for rights. Today, I’ll follow that up, and look in more detail at political societies and political governments.

Even working out what the phrase “political society” actually means isn’t easy. At one level, it’s a society that takes part in politics. That is, a society that seeks to gain political power, or to influence the policies of those in power. But the same phrase is more commonly used in a wider sense, to mean a group of people living within particular borders, and ruled over by a political government. This group of people goes by many names; the nation, the country, the people, to name but three. And it seems to me that often, neither the precise membership of this group nor its binding forces are very well defined.

The state

To begin, I’ll briefly review the essence of the political state. By this, I mean the so called “Westphalian” nation state. This system, introduced in the 17th century, is still the basis of political organization in most countries in the world today.

A state differs from all other organizations, in that it claims “sovereignty” over a geographical territory, and over the people in it. Per Webster’s, sovereignty is “supreme power, especially over a body politic.” In some countries, like the USA and Canada, sovereignty may be exercised at two, sometimes conflicting, levels; the federal or national, and the state or province.

This idea of sovereignty goes all the way back to a 16th century monarchist Frenchman named Jean Bodin. In Bodin’s scheme, the sovereign – the king or ruling élite – is fundamentally different from, and superior to, the rest of the population in its territory, the “subjects.” In particular, the sovereign has moral privileges; that is, rights to do certain things, which others don’t share. Bodin lists these privileges as: (1) To make laws to bind the subjects. (2) To make war and peace. (3) To appoint the top officials of the state. (4) To be the final court of appeal. (5) To pardon guilty individuals if it so wishes. (6) To issue a currency. (7) To levy taxes and impositions, and to exempt, if it wishes, certain individuals or groups from payment. Furthermore, the sovereign isn’t bound by the laws it makes. And it isn’t responsible for the consequences of what it does (also known as “the king can do no wrong.”)

And we’re still using Bodin’s system today. Isn’t that crazy? We don’t use 17th century medicine any more, or 17th century technology, or 17th century transport. And we’ve been through the Enlightenment since then, for goodness’ sake! So why are we still using a political system from the days of the “divine right of kings?” Why are we still suffering a system that lets an élite do to us exactly what it wants, with no accountability or come-back?

Surely, we’ve put bags on the side of this system over time. We’ve tried parliaments that are meant to “represent” us. We’ve tried constitutions meant to limit the sovereign’s power. We’ve tried to separate powers between legislative, executive and judiciary. We’ve tried charters and bills of rights. We’ve tried the sham called “democracy.” But none of them have worked.


In my earlier essay, I identified some important characteristics of societies in general. First, virtually all societies have some form of constitution, to say how the society is supposed to operate. This is usually, though not always, written down.

Most countries today do have written political constitutions. (The UK is an exception). How well those in power keep within the constitutional limits, though, is often a moot point.

Social contract

When an individual joins a society, there comes into being a contract between the individual and the society. This contract may be in writing, or by oral agreement.

Most people, though, never explicitly join a political society. Immigrants who apply for a new citizenship are the major exception to this. Others are simply deemed to be subjects of such a society, perhaps according to their place of birth or the nationalities of their parents.

The fiction that sustains the idea of political society, and so political government, is the so called “social contract.” Here’s the idea behind this fiction. We, the individuals who form the political society, consent to submit to the authority of a government. We give away some of our freedoms, and we take on obligations to other members of the society. In exchange, we – in theory – receive protection of our remaining rights.

In the days of city states, many people would have willingly entered into such a contract, if only for the benefit of being defended by the walls. Even in the 17th century, the idea still made some sense. But in today’s world of rapid travel, global economy, Internet and mass migration, selling our souls to the political government of some arbitrary territory makes no sense at all.

Furthermore, one would expect that a contract with such wide ranging effects on people’s lives would be a formal one. It would be written down, carefully considered, negotiated, agreed and signed by all parties. And if a government mistreats anyone, or fails to deliver on its side of the bargain, the victims would be able to recover damages from those responsible. No?

Yet what actually happens is quite the opposite. All political governments today behave as if those in their territory have tacitly consented to their rule. They claim that, while in the area controlled by a government, an individual consents to submit himself to all laws made by that government. And if those laws are unjust? Tough, if you are “caught” breaking them.


As I made clear in my earlier essay, a society is a unity. It makes decisions based on the interests of the society as a whole. If individuals within the society disagree with what the society decides to do, they either have to accept the decision, or leave the society.

With a political society, however, no-one can leave without physically uprooting themselves. And since there is no liveable place on the planet not claimed by some political state, they will have to find another political society to live in. So, political societies are fundamentally different from others, in that you cannot leave without suffering a significant, maybe a crippling, penalty.

Thus those in a political society, who are unable or unwilling to pay the price and leave, are forced to accept whatever decisions and policies are made by those in power. This would be bad, even if the members of the society were few and culturally homogeneous. But in a “society” of many millions of people, that includes diverse races, religions, cultures, ideologies and interest groups, it’s a disaster.

When you think hard about it, the idea that a population of tens or hundreds of millions of people – or even, as in China or India, more than a billion – all have enough in common to constitute a society, comes to seem ridiculous. Indeed, it raises a deeper question: can a political “society” be rightly said to be a society at all?

Moreover, today’s political societies are far too large for any kind of consensus to be practical. So, inevitably, they will end up as oligarchies (or even, as in North Korea, autocracies). Leading, as I said in my earlier essay, to a three class society: rulers, cronies and nobodies.


Ah, you may say, but in the West at least, we have democracy! Isn’t that the best political system possible? Doesn’t it enable us to elect representatives to defend our interests? Doesn’t it give each of us our fair say in every decision? Doesn’t it give us, in John Adams’ words, “government of laws, not of men?”

In one word, I answer: No.

At first sight, a democracy looks much like a normal society. The members elect a committee, and the committee rules until the next general meeting (election). What’s not to like?

But here’s the reality of “democracy” today. Each of us gets a chance to vote every so often. But the only alternatives offered to us are political parties; lying, thieving criminal gangs, none of which show even the slightest concern for us human beings. And whichever of these criminal gangs wins the election will be granted all but absolute power over us for the next few years.

Has democracy brought us the freedom, justice and peace we deserve? No. Arguably, it has made things worse. For it brings opportunities for power to those that want power; that is, to exactly those least suited to be allowed power. It pollutes the mental atmosphere with lies, spin and empty promises. And the voting ritual gives the whole charade a veneer of false legitimacy. It enables those in power to claim that they have a “mandate” to implement their agendas. Thus they can “lawfully” harass, or impoverish, or violate the rights of, innocent people. And they can rob Peter to buy Paul’s vote, and favour their supporters at the expense of everyone else.

Worse yet; democracy divides people from each other. The victims of unjust policies feel harshly treated, and become disaffected. They come to view politics and politicians with contempt and loathing. And gradually, they lose all sense of belonging, and of fellow feeling for those around them. Thus, democracy breaks apart the very sense of “we” that gave it legitimacy in the first place. It destroys the social cohesion, the glue which ought to keep the political society together.

In recent times, proposals have been made for tiered or multi-level voting systems. These aim to bring politics closer to home, and to make those who acquire power a bit more “representative” of the people. While these are certainly worth looking at as a means of running large societies, and might have some positive effects, I don’t think they address the real problem. That problem is a 17th century political system, that allows the worst, the most callous, dishonest, devious and psychopathic, to rule over everyone else with near impunity. Simply put: the state is out of date.

EU and UN

And then we have the superstates; the European Union (which some of my right wing friends call the EUSSR) and the United Nations. Both are remote, bureaucratic organizations, even less accountable than the local élites. Both seek to impose on all of us policies – drab, corrupt socialism in one case, deep green environmentalism in the other – that are anathema to honest, independent human beings. Both are bad news for us all.

My solution

But there’s some good news too. I think I have a potential solution to the political problems we face today. It’s radical; but extreme conditions call for extreme responses!

The first step, I think, must be to understand what the valid functions of government actually are. I see three, and only three, such functions. The first is to maintain peace. The second is to deliver justice. Justice, as I put forward in an earlier essay, is the condition in which each individual, over the long term and in the round, is treated as he or she treats others. This function includes the just resolution of disputes. The third valid function of government is defence of the rights of those who respect others’ rights. Those rights, as I discussed in another earlier essay, include fundamental rights like life, property and privacy; and rights of non-impedance, such as freedom of speech, religion and association.

The second step in my suggestion is to move these three valid functions of government up a level. That is, from political societies to a peaceful, honest, rights respecting framework like Frank van Dun’s convivial order; on which I have elaborated in previous essays.

In two words: de-politicize government. Said more fully: Get rid of the out of date Westphalian state. Get rid of politics. Replace them by a framework which is peaceful, honest and respects the rights of all human beings.

And in the process, we will recycle the former nation states into societies which promote national cultures, and do no more. Thus, those who abhor politics will no longer be forced to have anything to do with it, or with anyone that has ever taken part in it. This will also have the side benefit of getting rid of the arbitrary political borders that plague our world today.

Please note, I’m not suggesting a world government of any kind. That, like the EU and the UN, would be going in precisely the wrong direction. My ideal government will be de-centralized. It will take account of local cultures and local systems of law. It will defend the rights of everyone who respects others' rights. It will not harass or impoverish innocent people, or favour a ruling class and their cronies. While at the same time, it will hold everyone objectively responsible for the effects of their actions on others.

But most important of all, government in the convivial order won’t have any “will” to do anything beyond its remit. It will have no policy agendas. It will treat all individuals as morally equal; and it will not take sides between one group and another. It will not commit aggressions against innocents. It will consume no more resources than it needs to in order to fulfil its remit. It will charge individuals no more than is commensurate to the benefit it delivers to each of them. And it will be as objective in all its decisions as humanly possible.

To sum up

In this essay, I’ve discussed some of the problems we face with politics and political societies today. And I’ve made a radical suggestion. That is, that we human beings may be able to solve many of our problems by de-politicizing government. And moving its valid functions, of delivering peace and justice and defending rights, up to the level of the convivial order, in which everyone lives according to basic rules of civilized behaviour.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

On Societies

Recently, I identified and discussed six levels of community, of which human beings can be part. Today, I’ll look in more detail at the fifth of these levels, the society. And at its relationship to the level above it, Civilization or the convivial order.

To re-cap: A society is a group of people who choose to work together for a common aim. Each society has its own goals and purposes, and may in some sense be said to have a “will.” People can form societies, or join existing societies. The members of a society are held together by binding forces, such as shared aims and objectives and a shared sense of identity.

There are many kinds and purposes of societies. People may meet to share a common activity, such as making music, playing a sport, or performing rites of worship for some deity. Or they may wish to live among others who share a political ideology or a lifestyle choice. Or they may wish to enjoy or to promote a particular culture. Or they may form a business as directors or partners, or join a business as employees.

There are also societies that are explicitly political, such as political parties. And there are nations and political states. These are big subjects; so, I’ll leave them for another day. Today, I’ll content myself with considering human societies in general.


Almost every society has some form of constitution. Webster’s calls this “a written instrument embodying the rules of a political or social organization.” Though historically, not all constitutions have been written down.

The idea of a constitution is to set out the way in which the society is supposed to work. It usually includes things like: what the founding principles of the society are, what officers it should have, how they are to be selected, and the procedures for making decisions within the society. And importantly, how the constitution itself may be changed.


When individuals or societies make commitments to each other, their respective commitments are embodied in a contract. Depending on the level of formality, the contract may be oral or written. At the level of two individuals, marriage is a contract. And when an individual joins a society, a contract is made, in effect, between the individual and the society.

A contract may be as simple as an oral promise met by a nod. Or it may extend to dozens or even hundreds of pages of legalese. The latter is particularly common in business, where employment contracts, and contracts for the supply of goods or services, can become fiendishly complicated. (Not helped, I will say, by ever increasing government regulations.) Often, a key condition is to agree on what is to happen when one or both parties wish to terminate the contract.


Although societies are not people, it has become common practice to treat them as if they were, and so to give them “personality.”

This legal fiction probably arose because a society, like a person, is a unity. It makes decisions based on its principles and interests, and acts on them. Even though some of its members may disagree on an issue, the society as a whole takes only one view, decided according to the rules in its constitution.

Methods of organization

I’ll review some of the many methods used to organize societies, both in the past and today.

A very old way to organize a society is Autocracy. Heap Big Chief makes the decisions, everyone else kow-tows. I have long found it amusing that many libertarian organizations, which promote the ideas of individual freedom, are autocracies underneath! Now, autocracy is a fine way to run a society, if you happen to be the autocrat, or if you get on well with him. But unless he has an impartial sense of justice and a strong will to keep to it, it doesn’t do much for anyone else.

Oligarchy is an evolution of autocracy, in which Heap Big Chief is replaced or supplemented by a committee. It often leads towards a three class society: the powerful, their cronies and the urks. Oligarchy, like autocracy, doesn’t do much for the urks. Unless the oligarchs are enlightened; which is rare.

Further, many businesses are oligarchies. The board of directors sets the rules. Key employees usually do quite well; but the rest do less well. In well run companies, particularly small ones, this can be mitigated by personal contact between the leaders and the led. But the bigger the company, the more likely it is to reflect the three-class model of top dogs, pals and mozos.

Partnership (in both the marriage and business senses) is, or should be, an oligarchy in which everyone is equal. In a partnership, decisions are to be made, as far as possible, by consensus. Some partnerships, both married couples and businesses, manage to do this. Others don’t.

Majority voting is another way to make a group of people into a unity. In this system, the decision goes to a vote among the members of the society. The view of the majority wins out over the view of the rest, with some provision for a casting vote in the event of a tie. This was the idea behind ancient Athenian democracy; though in Athens, of course, only male citizens could vote, not non-citizens, women or slaves. It’s rarely used today, except in some town meetings in the USA, in a couple of Swiss cantons, and very occasionally in the form of a referendum.

Shareholding is a variation on majority voting. In this system, the votes are not equal, but have weights in proportion to the contribution (in some measure) of each individual entitled to vote. It is used mainly by companies whose shares are publicly traded.

For most non-business societies today, the means of organization is elected oligarchy. The members elect a committee, and the committee makes the decisions on behalf of the whole society. This system is supplemented by regular (for example, annual) general meetings, at which the members can hold the committee to account, and replace them if needed.

The very largest societies tend to be top down and hierarchical, with several levels. The Catholic church, for example, has a pope, cardinals, bishops and priests. Multi-national companies usually have a main board and a single head office, with subsidiaries in each region or country.

Societies in the convivial order

In earlier essays, I’ve described Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun’s idea of the convivial order. This is a framework, in which people live together, and in which all are free to form or to join societies as they choose. And in which the community is bound together by a shared core of standards of convivial conduct.

How could the many and various kinds of societies fit into such an order? Plainly, some societies will demand from their members more than just the basic minimum standards of convivial conduct. For example, a commitment not to eat pork, or not to drink alcohol, is built into the rules of some religious societies. And yet, it isn’t reasonable to expect people, who don’t subscribe to the religion, to obey these rules. So, they can’t be included in the convivial core.

The solution to this problem, as I see it, is to allow any society to make, and to enforce on its members, its own additional rules, over and above the convivial minimums. Any such rules and enforcements are to be agreed within the society, using its own decision procedures.

But obviously, no society should be allowed to impose its proprietary rules on non-members. And if members feel that the rules of a society are too great an imposition on them, they must be free to leave the society. Further, a member wishing to leave a society, for any reason, must not be subjected to any unreasonable penalty.

The case, where a society wishes to waive or modify one or more of the standards of convivial conduct, is a little harder. There are valid reasons to want to do this. For example, aggressively punching people is disconvivial conduct. But a boxing club will want to allow its members to punch each other, under certain rules, in training or in an actual fight. Indeed, it may want to contract with another boxing club to allow a specific member or members of one club to box against a specific member or members of the other.

Thus as a general rule, societies – and, indeed, individuals where necessary – must be able to make contracts, which allow them mutually to waive individual elements of the core standards under specified conditions. But when dealing with individuals outside these societies, or with those who aren't a party to any such waiver, both societies and individuals must always behave fully up to convivial standards.

To sum up

In this essay, I’ve given an outline of the characteristics of human societies in general. I’ve reviewed several different methods of social organization. And I’ve described how all these societies might be fitted into a framework such as Frank van Dun’s convivial order.

On Community

Today, I’m going to look at the idea of community. Like many words with political connotations, this is a slippery one.

My own definition is: “a group of people with something in common.” The dictionary, however, gives several different senses. These include a political state, a condition of owning goods jointly, and “society at large.” Even when the sense is similar to mine, it’s often qualified by extra conditions. Such as people living in a particular area, or a sub-group within a larger society.

For me, the word has two strands of etymology. First, from the same root as “common.” Thus, a community is a group of people bound together by common traits. And second, from the Latin com- (with) and munire, to fortify; so meaning sharing walls. Thus, I think of a community as defined by two aspects: binding forces, which hold the people of the community together, and walls, which separate them from those outside.

Levels of community

In a traditional view, community has three, or perhaps four, levels. First, marriage. Second, the family. Third – though not everyone counts this – the day-to-day world of work and friendships. And at the top, “society,” which many identify with the political nation or state. But I find this view over-simple. I see, not three or four levels, but six. From the bottom up:

  1. Individual.
  2. Partnership.
  3. Family.
  4. Marketplace.
  5. Societies.
  6. Civilization (convivial community).
Many people don’t think of the individual as a community. But it is; it’s an ensemble consisting of one person. And every human being has both walls and a binding force. Our walls are of two kinds. First, the physical body, and second, our human rights and personal life-space. And the binding force, which holds each of us together, is our individual personality.

The second level is partnership. The most obvious example is traditional marriage; but it’s not the only kind of partnership. And a partnership isn’t necessarily restricted to just two people. In a partnership, the primary binding force is usually love. But there are others; such as companionship, comfort when you’re down, and sexual pleasure. As to walls, a partnership is a contract between its members. So, the walls of partnership are walls of contract.

The third level of community is family or, much the same thing in the West today, household. The walls are the walls of a home, and the binding force is kinship.

The fourth level is the marketplace, the community of those with whom individuals interact in their daily lives. Your marketplace includes those with whom you deal regularly or occasionally. It contains your friends, workmates, business partners, clients and suppliers, those you serve and those who serve you. It often also includes extended family. Here, the binding force of your marketplace is you. And the marketplace as a whole is the aggregate of all individuals’ marketplaces.

The walls of your marketplace, however, are more subtle; they are walls of choice. Absent coercion, intimidation and fraud, you – like all others – have a free marketplace. You can choose whom you interact with. And where it’s practical, you can seek to avoid dealing with those you don’t like. However, a free marketplace needs at least a minimal framework of civilization – one that deters aggression, violence and fraud, at least – in order to keep it free.

The fifth level is societies (plural). A society is a group of people who choose to work together for a common aim; such as a musical ensemble, a football club, a business or a church. Each society has its own goals and purposes, and may in some sense be said to have a “will.” In almost every case, it will also have officers, some of whom are more powerful than others.

Here, the forces binding a society are shared desires, shared aims and objectives, and a shared sense of identity. In addition, the members of many societies are bound together by shared customs. The walls of a society, on the other hand, separate members from non-members.

One kind of society, which has physical walls as well as walls of membership, is the commune. The purpose of some communes is merely to make life easier for a group of people who live in close proximity to each other; for example, a gated community. Other communes allow people to live alongside others with similar attitudes. Thus those of a particular religious persuasion may choose to form a commune, such as a monastery. Socialists can live in socialist communes, if they wish. And libertarians can live in libertarian communes, and libertines in libertine ones.

In my earlier writings, I called the sixth and highest level Civilization. But I’m now coming to prefer convivial community or convivial order. The latter phrase was coined by Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun. He describes the convivial order as one in which “people live together regardless of their membership, status, position, role or function in any, let alone the same, society.” What binds convivial people together is a shared willingness to behave in a convivial manner. And our walls are the rules of convivial conduct. Which, as a friend opined in response to one of my earlier essays, can be summed up as “Don’t be an asshole.”

Thus, the convivial community is a framework for living together. And it supports a community of those who choose to behave up to the standards of convivial conduct. However, this community is not, and never can be, a society. It has no president or chairman. It has no officials, no goals as a group, and no politics. And it is (will be), by its very nature, world-wide.

Characteristics of each level of community

Each level has its own features. In some, individuals have to accept what is already there. In others, we have free choice. Broadly, at the odd numbered levels we have to play the hand we’re dealt, at least up to a point. Whereas at the even numbered levels, we have freedom to choose for ourselves.

As individuals, we have to accept what we’re born as. We have to make the best we can of our particular strengths and weaknesses. In contrast, we have (absent coercion) the right freely to choose a partner. Or partners, if that’s the way we’re inclined. Or to go through life as independent individuals, if that’s what suits us.

We have to accept the family we’re born into, at least for the first 20 or so years of our lives. And if we decide to have children of our own, we have to take the responsibility of supporting and educating them until they are independent. In the marketplace, on the other hand, we have (again, absent coercion) free choice of whom we will deal with.

As to societies, we have to accept the rules of any society we choose to join, provided they’re reasonable. And we should accept the people in power in a society we join, as long as they work honestly for the good of the society and of its members. But we always have the right to leave any society, and to join another, or many others. Or to form our own societies.

Finally, the convivial community is again a level of individual choice. It’s our own choice to decide to behave towards our fellows in a convivial manner. And we choose who we count as our fellows by judging how far their conduct is convivial. Thus, conviviality does not arise from any social group. Rather, community arises out of shared conviviality.

In the convivial community, the individual – and his or her conduct – is everything. Neither race, skin colour, gender, age, physical size or attractiveness, geographical location, cultural origin, sexual tastes, nor even disability, are bars to entry to that community. And as to religion, the only stipulation is that you don’t try to foist your religion others.

Political society and political community

Lastly for today, I’ll look at the ideas of political community and political society.

Many people, particularly those of a more conservative bent, seem to feel a strong attachment to something they call the community. When I probe as to what this may be, I find that what they have in mind is a political community. Further, it seems to be coterminous with, if not exactly the same as, a political state or nation. Others, when they talk about a political unit, prefer to call it society. The more collectivist among them go so far as to dignify it with a capital S, and to place it up on a pedestal, like some deity.

But both these groups share one view; their politics is top down. For them, the state, the nation, community or society is all important. It has the right to impose its agendas on people, and to tell them how to behave. And the individual human being, and his or her rights, are of little or no importance in comparison.

A political society, broadly defined, is a society that takes part in politics. And, per Webster’s, politics is “the art or science of government.” A political party, then, is an exemplar of a political society. Its purpose is to seek power, and when in power to impose its agendas. And it favours its own leaders and their cronies, and the party’s followers, at the expense of everyone else. Such parties lead towards political government, with its ruling class, taxes, moral privileges, bureaucracies, wars, bad laws and more or less corrupt “justice” system.

Myself, I want nothing to do with political parties, political governments or any other political society. I regard the parties, and those that take an active part in them, as disconvivial. That is, as far away from us convivials as criminals are from honest, peaceful people.

Moreover, I feel little if any sense of political community. Oh, the walls of a political “community” are clear enough; they’re its, more or less arbitrary, borders. But what binds such a community together? Who, precisely, belongs to it? Those who live in its territory? Those born inside its borders? Those of a particular nationality? Those who share particular customs, language or culture? Do they include, for example, short term visitors? Long term visitors? Resident aliens? Asylum seekers? Recent immigrants? “Illegal” immigrants?

Moreover, imposition of harmful policies at the behest of activist groups, which has become a major feature of politics in recent years, can only have the effect of dissolving what little fellow feeling is left between the victims and their supposed cohorts.

To sum up

I see six levels of community. In increasing size, these are: the individual, the partnership, the family, the marketplace, societies, and the convivial community.

At some of these levels – the individual, family, societies – we have to accept, to a greater or lesser extent, what is already there. In the others, we have free choice, within the limits of convivial conduct. And at the highest level, the convivial community forms a framework, in which people can live together peacefully and well. And in which there is no place for politics, or for arbitrary borders, ruling classes, bad laws, injustices, taxes, bureaucracies or wars.

Friday, 24 November 2017

On Convivial Conduct

This is the fourth in a series of essays, in which I aim to outline my ethical and political philosophy. And it’s the most radical yet!

Recently, I explored the idea of rights, and the prohibitions or negative obligations which individuals must obey in order to respect the rights of others. Today I’m going to take a wider view, and ask: What might be general rules of conduct, which can – or should – enable human beings to live together in a peaceful, civilized manner? And in trying to answer this, I’ll look for positive rules as well as negative ones.


The word “convivial,” which you see in my title, plays an important part in this essay. It’s a word I’ve taken on from the Belgian philosopher, Frank van Dun. It comes from Latin, and literally means “living together.” In English, however, the word has also a secondary meaning, of feasting in good company. Thus I use “convivial” to mean living together well. And, in contrast to Aristotle’s idea of Man as “the political animal,” I think of human beings as convivial animals.

It’s important to understand that conviviality isn’t about obeying rules or laws imposed by a particular culture or society. Indeed, conduct is convivial – or not – outside the context of any society. Moreover, convivial people form a community; that is, a group of people with something in common. They (we) are what I call “convivials.” But we don’t form a society. We have no president or chairman, no officials and no goals as a group.

Convivial conduct is the behaviour habitually indulged in by those who are, generally speaking, good people to have around you. Peacefulness and honesty are examples of convivial conduct. And aggressions, threats, theft, lies and deceptions are examples of conduct that is unconvivial.

A person, who always acts in a convivial manner, is a convivial person. (Or would be, if such a perfect individual existed). However, an unconvivial act doesn’t necessarily make the person unconvivial. For we often do things that, strictly speaking, are unconvivial. We may occasionally be unpleasant to others. And we may even cause actual harm in some small way. For example, heating our homes with wood or coal fires causes pollution; or riding a motor cycle causes noise.

But we do these things, not out of any desire to harm others, but because the costs to us of not doing them are far greater than the costs to those adversely affected by us doing them. If we are to do such things without becoming unconvivial, then we must be willing to allow others similar latitude in return. I call this convivial tolerance. Here, then, is the first positive rule in our convivial canon. Which can be put as: Live and let live.

However, harmful acts that are gross, persistently repeated, malicious, or irresponsible beyond the bounds of reason, are worse than merely unconvivial. The word I’ll use for these acts is disconvivial. And those that perform disconvivial acts I call disconvivials. In the realm of conviviality, “disconvivial” means much the same as does “criminal” within a particular society.

The Golden Rule

In my earlier essay, I derived rights from the negative form of Confucius’ Golden Rule. But the rule has a positive form, too. It has many different versions, but the one most commonly touted is attributed to Jesus: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

I find this formulation of the Golden Rule rather naïve. For it lays on us an obligation to treat others well, even when they treat us badly. This is impractical. If people always acted that way, criminals would always get away with their crimes! And yet, the rule does have substance. We should, for example, always try to be polite and friendly to those who are polite and friendly to us. We must treat peacefully those who treat us peacefully. As to those we haven’t dealt with before, we should treat them well as long as they treat us well in return.

To resolve this problem, I decided to make my own wording of this rule. The words I settled on were: Treat others at least as well as they treat you. This, I think, gives a similar effect to Jesus’ version of the Golden Rule, when we are dealing with convivial people. But it leaves us free to treat those, that behave towards us in an unconvivial manner, as the situation demands.

From all this, it follows that if we unjustly cause harm to others beyond what is acceptable within the limits of convivial tolerance, we are obliged to compensate the victim or victims. This ideal of restitution for wrongs is, indeed, an important element in most legal codes. Furthermore, if you want to indulge in an activity which brings a significant risk of damage to others, you must ensure that if things go wrong, you have sufficient resources to cover this responsibility. Having third party insurance if you drive a car is an example.

Now, this rule is closely related to my definition of common sense justice in my earlier essay on that subject. That is: the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others. There is, however, one big difference. The rule tells us to treat others, not as the ideal of justice would, but as well or better. Thus we always have the option, if we wish, of showing clemency towards those that have wronged us. That is, of choosing not to pursue some or all of what they owe us for the damage they caused to us.


Another element in the convivial canon is independence. That is, not putting too much reliance on someone or something else for what we think or how we act. For human beings are individuals, not herd animals.

But here, we run into a difficulty. Sometimes, circumstances outside an individual’s control – such as age, illness, injury or disability – may prevent him being as independent as he, or others, would wish. To address this, I prefer to couch my proposed rules in terms of striving for independence. We must make every effort within our capabilities, and taking account of the circumstances, to be as independent as we can.

There are two kinds of independence, for which we must strive. The negative: Don’t willingly let yourself become a drain on others. And the positive: Strive to create your own path in life, economically and in all other ways.

And it makes sense, where you can without harming your own interests, to do what you can to help your fellow convivial people, when they are in trouble through no fault of their own. After all, next time you might be the one in trouble: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” But this is not a hard rule or obligation; the decision must be yours. No-one has any right to force you to help anyone if the costs to you are or seem too great. Moreover, you have no obligation to do anything to help disconvivials. For disconvivials are enemies of convivials, not our friends.


Contract is the basis of trade between human beings. Two or more parties, who may be individuals or groups, make a mutual agreement. Each agrees voluntarily to carry out their side of the bargain. The agreement may be formal or not, depending on the circumstances. But a contract is only valid if it is made in good faith by all the parties. Therefore another convivial rule must be: Always deal in good faith.

If you agree to do something, voluntarily and in full knowledge of what you have taken on, then you must always try to fulfil your side of the agreement. Unless, of course, prevented from doing so by the default of another party. If the task becomes impossible, or not worth doing, for reasons outside your control, there may be scope for re-negotiation. But the basic rule is; always strive to keep your contracts.

As to difficulties which may arise during the performance of a contract, it is advisable to think through in advance what might go wrong, and agree what to do about it if it does. The best time to decide how to solve issues is before making a commitment, not when the issues happen.

There are many different types of contract. Business contracts are pre-eminent among them. You can contract to buy something, or to rent something, or to sell goods or services, and there are many permutations of these. One common type of contract today is a contract of employment, either for a fixed period or an open ended one.

There are also contracts of a more social nature. When you join a club and pay a subscription, you and the club enter into a contract. When you buy a flat or condominium, you sign a contract with the other owners. Some people may want to contract to live in a commune; for example, to join with others who share particular religious views, or preferred lifestyles, or political ideology. Examples of these have been monasteries, “free love” communes of the 1970s, and socialist experiments like the town of New Harmony, Indiana.

Then there is the so called “social contract.” In which a group of people, by agreeing to form a political society, consent to submit to the authority of a government. They give up some of their freedoms, and they take on obligations to other members of the society, like military service and paying taxes. In exchange, they – in theory – receive protection of their remaining rights.

Today, of course, there are many difficulties with this idea. Like: Who, exactly, are the parties to the social contract? What, precisely, have I promised, and what have I been promised? What if things go wrong? And: I never agreed to any such damn thing! It is, indeed, one of my aims in these essays to try to point towards some possible solutions to these problems.

Last, I’ll mention relationship contracts. They can include, for example, a sexual partnership of two or more people of any mix of genders, with or without co-habitation. They might be one-off. Or for a fixed term, either long or short. Or for an initial term, renewable by agreement. They might be rooted in mutual service, or pay-per-ride.

Further up the scale, there is what I call a family contract, which in almost all cases is between two individuals of opposite sexes, and whose purpose is the founding or maintenance of a family. Co-habitation is usually included, and property arrangements on termination are extremely important. Further up the scale again is the traditional marriage contract, with a strong religious flavour, and strict conditions including “till death us do part.”


This is the place, I think, to bring up the vexed subject of discrimination. People are individuals; each is different. And each has his or her own combination of characteristics like race, culture, religion, political ideology and sexual orientation. Historically, most people have preferred (and many still prefer) to deal with those, who are like them in some or all of these ways. Is it, then, unconvivial conduct to discriminate for or against those who have particular traits?

In my view, all individuals and societies have the right to discriminate as they see fit. For example, a club may admit only members of certain races or religions. A company may refuse to hire Irish people, or former communists. A Christian baker may refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding. A tall woman may refuse to offer her love to a shorter man. Convivial people, indeed, may prefer to associate with other convivial people rather than with disconvivials! These are not, in themselves, unconvivial conduct. However, it is unconvivial to discriminate in bad faith.

Thus if an individual, or a club or company, does not wish to deal with certain types of people, they must make that fact clear before any contract is negotiated. It is best, I think, if they make any such discriminatory policies public up front. Then, if they later try to withdraw from a contract into which other parties entered in good faith, they themselves are acting in bad faith.


Finally, there are convivial obligations which apply only to those who choose to have children.

First, parents are responsible, until the children are adult, for the consequences of their children’s actions towards third parties. So, they do have a right to control their children. But they should do this only in ways compatible with justice, and without using force except in extreme need. And second, parents have the responsibility to bring up and educate their children to become convivial human beings.

To sum up

Convivial conduct is the behaviour habitually indulged in by those who are, generally speaking, good people to have around you. Conviviality is unrelated to the rules or laws of any particular culture or society.

In addition to the negative obligation not to violate the rights of others, there exist positive obligations of convivial conduct. Among these are:

  1. Be tolerant towards other convivial people; live and let live.
  2. Treat others at least as well as they treat you.
  3. If you unjustly cause harm to others, compensate them if they require it.
  4. If you do things that cause risk to others, ensure you can compensate them if you have to.
  5. Don’t willingly let yourself become a drain on others.
  6. Be independent; strive to create your own path in life.
  7. Always deal in good faith.
  8. Always strive to keep to contracts you have voluntarily entered into.
  9. If you have any discriminatory policy, make it public before negotiating any contract.
  10. If you have children, bring them up and educate them to be convivial human beings.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

On Rights

A right, according to Webster’s, is “something to which one has a just claim.” The word is often uttered in sonorous phrases like “natural rights,” “human rights” and “equal and inalienable rights.” So today I’ll ask, and try to answer, a few questions about these rights. Where do rights come from? What are rights? What is the relationship between rights and justice? Are rights the same for everyone? What kinds of rights are there? And can these rights be given up, withdrawn, or transferred to others?

To put this essay in context. It’s the third in a planned series of short articles, in which I aim to set out the foundations of my political philosophy. I do this because, like many other people, I’m fed up with today’s world of states and superstates, arbitrary borders, institutional dishonesty, heavy and unjust taxes, bad political agendas and wars. So, I want to do what I can to elicit and to elucidate a better way. But I caution that this is a work in progress.

Where do rights come from?

Some believe that rights derive from a god. As Thomas Jefferson put it: “all men... are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But for those who, like me, don’t believe in a deity, this isn’t a useful answer.

A second view is that rights are granted by a government. Thus there are no natural rights, only legal rights. This idea seems to have originated at the time of the French Revolution with Jeremy Bentham, who called natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.” I find this view worse than useless. For it fails to provide any moral defence at all against a government that goes rogue, and oppresses the people it is supposed to serve – as in the French Revolution itself.

A third view is that rights arise from tradition. In this view, rights are granted through such documents as Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights and the first ten amendments to the US constitution. In other words, rights granted in the past by a government that was “up against the wall” and unable to proceed without making concessions to the people, become rights for all time. I find this a more agreeable view than the first two; but it still doesn’t cut any ice for me.

A fourth view, much favoured by authoritarians, is that there’s no such thing as a right. But this view invites the obvious rejoinder: If we don’t have any rights, then you don’t have any rights. So we can do to you whatever we want! And we know where you live...

Here’s my own view. For me, rights come from human nature. And in particular, from the nature of human beings to be convivial. This word, which literally means “living together,” I have borrowed from the Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun. I use it to mean treating others peacefully and civilly.

What are rights?

In my view, a right is a benefit, which an individual acquires when everyone with whom he deals keeps to a particular obligation or rule. For example, the right to life results when everyone keeps to the Judaeo-Christian rule “Thou shalt not kill.” Or, perhaps more accurately: “Thou shalt not kill human beings against their wills.”

The convivial rules which everyone should keep to, and the rights which accrue from them, are like two sides of the same coin. And for me, all rules which generate rights are negatives. Thus, they prohibit doing things that unjustly harm, or are likely to harm, others. This is not to say that individuals don’t have any positive obligations towards others; they do. But those obligations (which I’ll treat in a later essay) don’t generate what I mean here by the word “rights.”

I see these obligations as examples of the negative form of Confucius’ Golden Rule, normally quoted as: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want to have done to you.” Thus, for example, those who don’t want their property stolen or trespassed on shouldn’t steal or trespass on the property of others. And those, who don’t want their privacy invaded, must refrain from invading others’ privacy.

There is, however, a difficulty with Confucius’ rule. Different people have different tastes. A masochist, for example, might be happy if you whip him. But you would probably not be happy if he did the same to you in return! A better statement of the rule, then, might be: “Don’t do to others what they don’t want to have done to them.” But this gives us a problem. To clarify what rights are, we need to construct a core list of things no-one should do to others, and of the corresponding rights we enjoy when others don’t do them to us. This is a hard task. I’ll give a few pointers later in this essay, but I’ll have to leave the detail for another day.

Rights and Justice

In an earlier essay “On Justice,” I discussed the nature of justice. The ideal I came up with, I call common sense justice. In this view, individuals should be treated, over the long term and in the round, as they treat others. It follows that rights must be conditional on the individual himself respecting the rights of others. Thus, rights are earned, not granted.

And those that do violate others’ rights can’t complain if they, in their turn, suffer violations of their own rights in reasonable proportion. This is why it’s OK, for example, to deny freedom of movement to convicted criminals in prison.

Are rights the same for everyone?

In my first essay in this series, “On Equality,” I identified the senses in which human beings are (or should be) equal to each other. One of these is moral equality. I put it thus: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa.

Because of this, the list of things which people shouldn’t do to others must be the same for everyone. Not only does this mean that the core rights of each individual must be the same. But also that these rights must be independent of any particular culture.

Further, anyone who respects others’ rights thereby earns rights for themselves. And therefore, rights cannot depend on involuntary characteristics such as race, skin colour, birthplace or gender. As I like to put it: It doesn’t matter who you are, only what you do.

What kinds of rights are there?

Looking at lists of claimed rights, for example the United Nations’ 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” I find myself dividing them into four groups. I call these: fundamental rights, rights of non-impedance, procedural rights and aspirations.

Fundamental Rights

Fundamental rights result from moral prohibitions – that is, obligations to refrain from doing something, which apply to everyone – of the form “Thou shalt not...” followed by something bad. For example: The right to life (thou shalt not kill). Dignity (thou shalt not treat human beings as less than human). Property (thou shalt not steal). No slavery. No torture. No cruel or unusual punishment. No unjust arrest or detention. No unjust interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence. No untrue defamation. No coercion into marriage. And many others.

There are also some fundamental rights which should be in the Declaration, but aren’t. To find these, we need to look at other lists, for example the US Bill of Rights. I’d add at least the following examples. No unjust seizure of goods or other assets. No stalking or routine surveillance. No search without reasonable suspicion of real wrongdoing. And, in particular, no random searches, on any pretext.

Few people would deny that fundamental rights like these should be promoted and safeguarded. Moreover, fundamental rights are easy to measure respect for. With a fundamental right, such as the right to life, you always know where you are. Yes, you can say to yourself, I haven’t killed anyone. I’m OK on that one. And an hour later, you can check again. Yes, I still haven’t killed anyone. I’m still OK.

Rights of non-impedance

Rights of non-impedance, on the other hand, result from more nuanced moral prohibitions, of the form: “Thou shalt not put any obstacle in the way of...” followed by something good. And rights of non-impedance always carry an implied rider at the end. That is: “...provided it does not violate anyone else’s rights.”

In this category fall rights such as: Freedom of movement and residence. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Freedom of opinion and of speech. Freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Freedom to marry. Freedom to seek work. Free choice of employment.

And, as with fundamental rights, there are also some rights of non-impedance missing from the Declaration. The right to pursue happiness is one example.

Procedural rights

The third group I call procedural rights. These are rights which an individual has, not against other individuals, but against government as an institution. Examples include: equality before the law; public, impartial courts and trials; and innocence until proven guilty.

These rights only make sense in the context of a particular scheme of government. And they are often specific to a culture, or even to a jurisdiction. For example, trial by jury for criminal accusations is normal under English law, but not in many other systems of law. I’m planning several future essays on the subject of government. So, I won’t discuss these rights further today.


The fourth group of “rights,” which I call aspirations, aren’t really rights at all. Examples in the Declaration are the “right to work,” social security, a minimum standard of living, and “free” education. While many people would agree with the gist of these aspirations, there’s a problem with elevating them into rights. For, if such a “right” requires someone to pay so that others can have it, that is itself a violation of the rights of those who are forced to pay. In general, no claimed “right” can be valid if others’ rights must be violated in order to implement it.

There’s another problem too. If an aspiration like a minimum standard of living is elevated into a right, you never know where you are. You can’t be sure that you’re doing enough to respect the right. When you check an hour later, you still can’t be sure. Is there someone in Liberia, for example, you should have given a penny to in that last hour? You don’t know. You can never be sure you’re OK. And it’s almost impossible to defend yourself from an accusation that you aren’t respecting such a right.

But many of these aspirations can easily be re-cast as rights of non-impedance. For example, the “right to work” turns into the right not to be impeded from seeking work, or from doing work in whatever way is mutually most convenient to the parties involved. And the “right to a minimum standard of living” becomes a right not to be impeded from trading with others to get your needs satisfied. In other words, no-one should ever put any obstacle in the way of free access to the market.

Can rights be given up, withdrawn or transferred?

Lastly, the thorny questions of whether rights can be given up (alienated), withdrawn or transferred to someone else.

As to alienation, you may certainly choose to give up some of your rights in a particular situation, if you wish. If you have joined with other people in a defensive war or in a fight against oppression, for example, you may be willing to give up for the common cause some of your property, or some of your freedom of movement, or some of your opportunities for rest and leisure. You may even, if you so wish, give up your right to life by committing suicide or taking euthanasia. But you must make any such decisions rationally, and in full knowledge of the situation.

As to withdrawing rights, in my view a right may be withdrawn only temporarily, and only when required by objective, common sense justice, whether restorative or retributive. The way I put this is: Justice trumps rights. I gave earlier the example of a criminal, convicted of violating others’ rights, whose freedom of movement can be justly taken away for a period. And if actual harm has been caused, the individual can justly be made to compensate his victim.

Beyond justice, though, since rights are earned by respecting others’ rights, they are not granted by anyone or anything. And they therefore cannot be withdrawn.

As to transferring rights, you can of course choose to give some or all of your property to others if you so wish. But your fundamental rights and your rights of non-impedance remain always yours. You don’t give away any of your right to property, even if you give away all the property you currently hold! Any property you justly acquire afterwards is yours, not someone else’s.

So, while you can forego some of your rights for a time, or even permanently if you wish, you can’t assign or transfer any of them to anyone else.

To sum up

Rights – that is, fundamental rights and rights of non-impedance – come from human nature. Every valid right arises out of a moral prohibition. Rights are earned by respecting the rights of others. And they are the same for everyone.

The rights of those that have caused harm to others, or committed violations of others’ rights, may be violated in proportion, insofar as is necessary to implement common sense justice. But the rights of those who respect the rights of others, unless they voluntarily choose to forego them, must not be violated. Not for any reason. Not ever.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

On Justice

Like “equality,” which I discussed recently, the word “justice” is used with different meanings by those of differing political opinions. I thought it might be of interest to compare and contrast some of these meanings, and to offer my own ideas on the subject too.

The question “what is justice?” sounds simple. Yet an attempt to apply to it that bluntest of philosophical instruments, the dictionary, rapidly ends up going in circles. Justice, we find, is just conduct or fairness. Fairness is being fair, or otherwise said, just or equitable. Equitable means – yes, you’ve guessed it, fair or just.

Perhaps one useful thing we can learn from this exercise is the etymology of the word justice. It comes from the Latin ius, normally translated as “law” or “right.” But it’s important to note that ius is law in the sense of agreements and commitments between people; as opposed to lex, which is law in the sense of legislation imposed from above.

Looking at what pundits of the past have had to say on the subject seems more promising. I’ll start with Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who flourished in the early 3rd century BC. He said: “Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming another.” This is, to me, a very deep insight. For, first, it tells us that justice is something natural. Second, that it is a two way process. And third, that it is about not harming others.

But Epicurus aside, few thinkers seem to have dared to try to define what justice is. Ulpian, a Roman jurist of the 3rd century AD, opined: “Justice is the constant and perpetual will to allot to everyone his due.” The difficulty with this, of course, is in determining exactly what is due, and who has the right to allot it. And few, if any, other definitions of justice seem to have survived the test of time to take their places in the quotation book.

Kinds of justice

What kinds of justice are put forward as desirable? First, there is Epicurus’ justice; a two way pledge intended to prevent individuals harming each other. This is sometimes called commutative justice (the word “commutative” means “working either way round.”)

Second, there is the kind of justice delivered by honest, non-politicized courts of law. This divides, broadly, into two. One, restorative justice; that is, enforcing compensation by the perpetrator to the victim or victims of an actual harm. And two, if appropriate, retributive justice; that is, criminal punishment according to the perpetrator’s intent to cause harm to others. These kinds of justice, at least when dispensed honestly, are rooted in Epicurus’ ideal.

Third is distributive justice. This term is used to cover, for example, the promotion of a fair or just distribution of some good, such as income, wealth or political power. But there doesn’t seem to be any necessary relation between this kind of justice and the Epicurean kind. And its promoters fail to tell us exactly and without doubt what they mean by “just,” or where they get the right to decide what is fair for others.

Fourth is “social justice.” It’s hard to work out exactly what this means. Wikipedia calls it “a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society.” But here again, “fair” and “just” are not elucidated. And what or which, precisely, is “society?”

My own view of justice

I am strongly in favour of commutative justice. The way I see it, there should be a close relation between the way an individual treats others and the way the individual is treated by others. I call this idea “common sense justice.”

So, those who do not treat others badly deserve not to be treated badly. For example, those who do not violently attack others deserve not to be violently attacked. Those who do not rob others deserve not to be robbed. Those who do not defraud others deserve not to be defrauded. And those, who do not place obstacles in the way of others’ progress or the satisfaction of their desires, deserve not to have their own progress or desires obstructed.

On the other hand, those that behave badly towards others in any of these ways can have no cause for complaint if others, in their turn, do correspondingly nasty things to them. And those that maliciously or irresponsibly do wrongs to innocent people can expect not only to be made to compensate their victims in full, but to be punished in addition.

But common sense justice has a positive side, too. Each individual, who treats others well, deserves to be treated equally well in return. Those who honestly earn prosperity, pleasures, thanks or appreciation should receive all the prosperity, pleasures, thanks and appreciation they have earned. And so, putting the positive side together with the negative, we arrive at what seems to me a decent definition of justice. That is: Justice is the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others.

So my ideal of justice, like that of Epicurus, aims to minimize injustice. It strives to avoid gross or persistent treatment of individuals worse than they treat others.

I’ll add one supporting argument. If a society existed based on common sense justice, everyone in it would have a positive incentive to behave well towards others. For in such a society, the way to get more of what you want, the way to get treated better by others, is to treat others better! Imagine how peaceful, happy and prosperous such a society could be.

Lady Justice

As to the kind of justice which is (or should be) delivered by courts of law, there is a common personification of justice as “Lady Justice.” She carries three objects: a blindfold, a pair of scales and a sword. The blindfold represents impartiality and objectivity. The scales represent the weighing of the evidence in every case. And the sword is the instrument of punishment.

William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, had this to say about justice. “Justice is justly represented blind, because she sees no difference in the parties concerned. She has but one scale and weight, for rich and poor, great and small.” I would add that the scales of justice, beyond weighing the evidence, have another function too. That is, accurately to balance the rights and interests of each individual against the rights and interests of others.

As Penn suggests, in a proper system of justice, what matters in any case is not who an individual is, but only what they do. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter what colour someone’s skin is. It doesn’t matter where they were born. It doesn’t matter what religion they were brought up in. It doesn’t matter what their gender or their sexual preferences may be. All that matters is their actions and their intent towards others.

Once courts of law become politicized, though – as too many are today – then justice loses both its impartiality and its balance. Such courts cease to make decisions and to mete out punishments on the basis of natural justice or ius. Instead, they become merely a means of implementing lex; that is, of enforcing bad laws made by dishonest politicians.

Such a politicized system of “justice” inevitably leads to quite the opposite of natural justice. And Epicurus himself knew this. For he said: “If a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just.”

Distributive justice

When we look at distributive justice, it’s all but impossible to separate the concept of justice from the closely related idea of equality. John Stuart Mill had this to say on the subject: “Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice.”

What Mill is saying here is that it’s what an individual deserves which matters for the purpose of justice. And not – for example – what that individual needs. I agree heartily. Indeed, I like to go further, and make my own version of Karl Marx’s famous dictum: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his deserts.”

More recently, John Rawls in his “original position” argument has put forward an egalitarian flavour of distributive justice. In this thought experiment, a group of people aim to agree on a political and economic structure for themselves. Each is behind a veil of ignorance. Meaning, they don’t know what their own abilities or characteristics will be, or how well a particular social structure will favour them. Rawls argues that they will use a strategy called maximin, aiming to maximize the payoff in the event of the worst possible outcome. From this he deduces that (beyond a basic minimum set of rights and liberties) any inequalities that do exist must benefit the least advantaged. This is usually interpreted as supporting economic egalitarianism.

Even if I buy Rawls’ argument up to the maximin bit (and I’m not sure I do), I disagree fundamentally with the conclusion. Recall, if you will, that when I looked at equality, I came out strongly in favour of political equality and moral equality, but very much against the idea of equality of outcome. If I were in Rawls’ original position behind my veil of ignorance, I would choose a social structure based on political equality, not economic. That is, I would pick the kind of equality in which no individual is subject to another, and no-one has power over another.

Moreover, I expect that any society built on enforced economic equality would very soon cease to be egalitarian. For, if some are allowed to re-distribute others’ earnings or wealth as they see fit, who will stop them re-distributing those earnings or that wealth into their own pockets?

Social justice

Most promoters of “social justice” use it as an excuse for ever increasing government powers over everyone, particularly through taxation. For example, to quote a 2006 United Nations report: “Social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.” Such conceits are both unjust and hateful. And most of all, when they are uttered by highly paid bureaucrats, that have never contributed anything to the economy, to human knowledge or to technology.

Further, when implemented, this “social justice” leads inevitably to a three-class society, as we see today. On the one hand, there is the productive class of honest, economically active people, who are drained of our earnings and denied the wealth we deserve. On the other, there is a recipient class, spoon-fed drips of wealth that they do not earn. And between and above the two is a rich, politicized class of the powerful and their cronies. That class creams off for itself much of the wealth generated by the productive, and feeds the remainder to the recipient class in exchange for their votes and political support. Only one of these three classes gets a net benefit from such a system. Guess which?

An even more damning view of social justice comes from Polish politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke. “Either ‘social justice’ has the same meaning as ‘justice’ – or not. If so – why use the additional word ‘social?’ ... If ‘social justice’ means something different from ‘justice’ – then ‘something different from justice’ is by definition ‘injustice.’”

Bombastic though Korwin-Mikke’s statement may seem, I think it has a substantial kernel of truth. For me, “social justice” is a perversion of the idea of justice, in which something called “society” (with or without a capital S) takes pride of place over the individual, and over natural justice. This perversion, I think, would be better called social injustice.

Then there is the authoritarianism of so called “social justice warriors.” Such individuals identify themselves with groups who have, or have had in the past, some real or perceived grievance; women, gay people or black people, for example. And they seek to empower these groups at the expense of everyone else. At the same time, many of them want to enforce political correctness, and to stifle the freedom of speech of those who disagree with them. The result, again, is not social justice, but social injustice.

So for me, the phrase “social justice” is no more than a fig leaf, under which political activists seek to hide the fact that what they want is to do injustices to innocent people. For me, such individuals are worse than criminal. Far from being either social or just, they are not fit to be admitted into any society of just, honest people. Not even a tiddlywinks club.

To sum up

Justice, for me, is the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others. Or, otherwise put, in which people receive what they deserve. My sense of justice is consistent with Epicurus’ idea, of a pledge that seeks to stop individuals harming each other. It is also consistent with conventional forms of civil and criminal justice, provided that the justice they deliver is honest and non-politicized.

In contrast, distributive “justice” bears no relation to justice. And so called “social justice” is merely a euphemism, used as a decoy by those with an agenda to harm innocent people.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Blog Merge

Recently, I made the decision to take my first book, a science fiction novel called "Going Galactic" which I published in 2012, off the market.

I've now merged my blog "Going Galactic" for that book into this blog, "Honest Common Sense." If you're still interested in reading "Going Galactic," you can find the text (all 52 chapters of it) in the archives of this blog. The chapters start in September 2013 and go on until the end of 2014.

I'll continue to post both my "serious" and more frivolous works on this blog.

Neil Lock
November 1st, 2017

Sunday, 29 October 2017

An Announcement

I have decided to take “Going Galactic,” my science fiction novel published in 2012, off the market. “Honest Common Sense,” my book of philosophy published in 2014, will remain in print and e-book formats.

In the next few weeks, I shall be merging my two blogs and under the Honest Common Sense banner.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

On Equality

“Equality” is a word often heard in political discourse. But those of differing views tend to use it with incompatible and even opposing meanings. So today, I’m going to look at different ways in which the word “equality” is used in a political context. And I’ll try to elucidate my own view on the matter.

As a first cut at answering the question “What is equality?” I’ll simply give two quotes from the great 17th-century liberal thinker, John Locke:

  • [Equality is…] “...that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.”
  • “A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”
So, in a state of equality, no-one has a right to control others or to order them around. And any one-sided power, which one has over another, must be counterbalanced by equal and opposite power, which the other has over the one. For Locke, equality is political equality.

And here are views on equality from four more fine thinkers of the past:

  • “Equality consists in the same treatment of similar persons...” – Aristotle.
  • “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” – Milton Friedman.
  • “A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.” – Friedrich von Hayek.
  • “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell.
For a view from the political left, I’ll give you words of the American labour leader and pacifist, Eugene Victor Debs. “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” Such a criticism could just as well be levelled at today’s ruling classes; including politicians, those that set their agendas, and their corporate cronies.

Kinds of equality

So, what kinds of equality are commonly put forward as desirable for all?

First, political equality, as understood by Locke: no right to rule over others, and no subjection to others. Second, moral equality. Under this kind of equality, right and wrong are the same for everyone. This leads towards the concept of the rule of law.

Third, equality of opportunity. The idea here is that people should be allowed to advance themselves by using their own talents and abilities, and putting in their own efforts. And they should never be denied opportunities merely because they have, for example, the wrong skin colour, religion, gender or sexual tastes, or because they don’t belong to the right family.

Fourth, favoured by many on the political left, is equality of outcome. This is the idea that rewards should be similar for all, regardless of talents or of how well an individual applies them.

Areas of inequality

Those, that claim to favour equality, perceive problems of inequality in many areas. The most obvious is economic inequality. Some people are paid more than others. And there are those that think this is wrong in itself, even when an individual justly earns everything he receives. Some go even further, saying that it’s wrong for some people to possess more wealth than others.

Other areas in which they see inequality as an issue are: Gender inequality (which today is usually an accusation of mistreatment of women by men). Racial or religious inequality; for example, failure to allow civil liberties to those of particular races or religions. And social inequality, such as one class of people obstructing the prospects of other classes of people. Among such claimed divides we may include capitalists against workers, the “toffs” against the “plebs,” the public sector against the private, and the rich against the poor.

Then there is international inequality, which is said to favour unfairly those who live in relatively well run countries, against those who live in relatively badly run ones. And even within countries, there are claims of inequalities between groups in areas like education and health care.

Looking at these shades of inequality, I see that those that make inequality out to be a problem often want to go well beyond equality of opportunity, towards something much closer to equality of outcome. This, as Hayek pointed out, can only be accomplished by a tyranny. And moreover, a tyranny that has no compunction about taking resources from the talented, the hard-working, the honest and the deserving, and re-distributing them to the mediocre, the lazy, the dishonest and the undeserving.

My own view

I am a strong supporter of political equality. For me, no-one has an innate right to control other adult people. This is not to say that people may not, by mutual agreement, enter into a contract, in which one may tell the other what to do in a limited area of life. The relationship between an employer and an employee is a case in point.

I also do not mean to imply that I reject the idea of government. For when people form a government to defend themselves and their rights and freedoms against internal criminals or external attackers, they delegate to it sufficient powers to enable it to carry out these functions. But government should be like an umpire in a sporting contest. It must not try to become a player in the game. It must not take sides. It must not try to impose agendas. It must not let itself become a danger to, or a drain on, the people it is supposed to defend. And it must stay within the remit – for example, the maintenance of peace and the implementation of civil and criminal justice – for which the people gave it its powers in the first place.

On moral equality, my view is both strong and clear. Every individual, without exception, is morally equal. I like to put this as: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa. And to those that quibble, I say: If not, then exactly who is to be allowed moral privilege over others? How much? When? For what reasons? Who are you to decide? And why should you yourself not be thrown down to the very bottom of the heap?

Further, I contend that there exists a basic core of morality, which is, or should be, common to all human beings. Though I do, of course, recognize that groups of people may choose to get together, and to obey among themselves particular sets of laws and customs which differ from, or go beyond, this core. Such as, for example: Venerating a particular deity. Holding property in common, not privately. Not eating pork. Not drinking alcohol. Or not allowing abortions.

As to equality of opportunity, I think the idea is misconceived. What everyone should have is not equality of opportunity, but abundance of opportunity. No-one should ever put obstacles in the way of those who want to create and to take opportunities, both economic and personal, as long as their actions do not cause damage or unreasonable risk to others.

Lastly, I find that those, that promote equality of outcome, fail to acknowledge that the political action needed to bring about such equality requires huge inequality of political power. And they are, frequently, among the richest and the least productive in society – for example, politicians that are paid huge fees to give speeches.

Worse, the political actions they favour are often based on a zero-sum view of society. They seem to think that the only way to benefit the people they claim to want to help is to take resources away from other people and re-distribute them. They focus, not on helping the few who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, but on forcing one group of people to help another. Moreover, they like to demand sacrifices from other people, but they usually won’t make any such sacrifices themselves. And they often take away from people the opportunity to help themselves, and end up doing more harm than good; as with minimum wage laws.

To sum up. I favour political and moral equality for all. I want to see, not equality of opportunity, but abundance of opportunity. And I am entirely opposed to those that seek to bring about equality of outcome without regard to talents and application.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Bottom up versus top down

Today, I’m going to look at two diametrically opposed ways of thinking, and at the practitioners of those two ways. One way, I call bottom up; the other, top down.

Bottom up thinking is like the way we build a house. Starting from the ground, we work upwards, using what we’ve done already as support for what we’re working on at the moment. Top down thinking, on the other hand, starts out from an idea that is a given. It then works downwards, seeking evidence for the idea, or to add detail to it, or to put it into practice.

These two opposed methods bear on far more than just the way we think. The idea of bottom up versus top down can be applied to many dimensions of our lives. It can be applied to our overall world view, and to our views on religion. To how we seek knowledge. To our ethical and political views. To our conception of government and law. To our opinions on economics and environment. To how we communicate with others. To our views on education and media; and many more. Bottom up versus top down isn’t a single scale of (say) 0 to 100, but a multi-dimensional space, in which each individual’s position is represented on many different axes.

Some individuals, like me, seek to use the bottom up method in all or almost all of these dimensions. Others may take a predominantly top down view, or even an extreme top down one. Yet others may apply bottom up thinking in some dimensions, and top down in others.

For brevity, I’ll introduce the phrases “bottom upper” and “top downer” to mean individuals who practise these two methods. Mostly, I’ll be considering only one dimension at a time. In which case, the bottom upper is someone near one end of the scale in that dimension, and the top downer is someone near the other. But at the end of the essay, I’ll take a look at an overall measure of bottom up versus top down thinking.

I’ll give a couple of historical examples. John Locke, my 17th-century hero and almost namesake, and from whose writings I’ll use a few quotes in this essay, was a fine example of a bottom upper. His politics was forward looking and genuinely liberal. While he was a staunch Protestant, his religious views were tolerant for his time. And he had among his friends several of the finest scientists of the day. In contrast, Josef Stalin was an extreme top downer. He set out to impose his style of communism on the Soviet people, regardless of the consequences to those people. And he and his policies ended up causing as many as 20 million deaths of innocents.


The most fundamental level at which bottom up versus top down applies is the way in which the individual thinks.

The bottom up thinker seeks to build, using his senses and his mind, a picture of the reality of which he is a part. He examines, critically, the evidence of his senses. He assembles this evidence into percepts, things he perceives as true. Then he pulls them together and generalizes them into concepts. He uses logic and reason to seek understanding, and he often stops to check that he is still on the right lines. And if he finds he has made an error, he tries to correct it.

The top down thinker, on the other hand, has far less concern for logic or reason, or for correcting errors. He tends to accept new ideas only if they fit his pre-existing beliefs. And so, he finds it hard to go beyond the limitations of what he already knows or believes.

World view and religion

Bottom up versus top down orientation also contributes much to the individual’s world view, including his view on religion. When considering whether humans are naturally good or bad, for example, the bottom upper will look into himself, and judge what he finds. He is, therefore, likely to conclude that (occasional lapses notwithstanding) he himself is naturally good. Thus, other human beings must be naturally good, too. And he sees those that behave badly as aberrations; John Locke dubbed them “noxious creatures” and “degenerate men.” Further, the bottom upper probably thinks that he has free will, and others do too. And consequently, each of us has personal responsibility for the effects on others of our voluntary actions.

In religion, he may or may not believe in a god. While some bottom uppers follow one form or other of religion, many (including me) end up as agnostics. And some go further, towards atheism. But the bottom upper has little or no desire to impose his personal religious preferences on others. And so, he reaches a view similar to that I encapsulate in what I call Neil’s First Precept of Religion: “If you let me have my religion (or lack of it), I’ll let you have yours.”

The top downer, on the other hand, is often too lazy to work out his world view for himself, and prefers to take a ready-made world view from others. He is quite likely to think that humans are naturally bad, perhaps because he has been told so by parents or religious instructors. Top downers (particularly Marxists) also have a tendency to see the universe as deterministic, and therefore to deny the existence of free will and so personal responsibility. And in religion, top downers often have a desire to, and many will try to, impose on others their own orthodoxy.

Seeking truth

The bottom upper sees truth as objective, independently of what people happen to think about particular truths. As a result, he believes that we can discover truths. A particular truth or fact may of course be unknown, or poorly understood, or wrongly apprehended, at a particular time. But all truths can, in principle at least, be discovered.

The bottom upper seeks out, and evaluates, the evidence he can find on his subject. He tries to investigate the facts critically. He cultivates and improves his bullshit meter. He uses it to detect things that don’t look quite right, that don’t add up, that seem to contradict facts he knows or believes, or which may repay further investigation. And he values science, and the scientific method which lies at its heart.

In contrast, many top downers hold that facts can be different for different individuals, groups or cultures; and that feelings are often more important than facts. In this view, there is no such thing as objective truth. The top downer can thus ignore or deny evidence, when it fails to fit his pre-conceived notions. He is often unwilling to change his mind, even when presented with a strong case for doing so. He may find little value in science. Or he may even try to pass off as science ideas which are not, in reality, worthy of the name scientific.


The bottom up thinker can conceive that, among the moral rules in diverse cultures, there is a core that is (or should be) common to all. He is attracted to the idea of moral universalism. That is, that what is right for one to do, is right for another to do in similar circumstances, and vice versa. And it’s in this sense, he thinks, that all human beings are equal. He doesn’t know what, precisely, the ethical core should be; and he’s aware that it’s a hard problem. But if he has a particular interest in ethics, he will seek to understand and to elicit this core as best he can.

I myself have thought about this issue for many years. The ethical core, as I understand it, begins with three ideas: peacefulness, honesty and respect for others’ rights. I’ve made attempts to list the rights, and I know my list is nowhere near perfect as yet. But they include fundamental rights like life and property. They include what I call rights of non-impedance, like freedom of movement and of association. And they include the presumption of freedom – that, if there is no good reason to prohibit something, then it must be OK to do it – and a right to self-defence. The core must also include the notion of justice. I conceive it thus: “Everyone deserves to be treated, over the long term and in the round, at least as well as he or she treats others.”

Further, the core must include a clear idea of personal responsibility. For example: We should not intentionally do unjust harm to others. We should compensate those to whom we inadvertently or unavoidably do unjust harm. And we should strive to be independent, and not to let ourselves become a drain on others. Moreover, we must always act in good faith. When we have made promises to others, we must strive to keep our side of the bargain, as long as the other party keeps his. And if we choose to have children, we must take responsibility for bringing them up and educating them until they can function fully as human beings.

I recognize, however, that other bottom uppers are likely to have different conceptions of the ethical core. This isn’t “settled science” yet. We must, therefore, be tolerant of those with different ideas, as long as they are equally tolerant towards us. And our motto, in the final analysis, must be: “live and let live.”

In contrast, many top downers are moral relativists. They deny that there are any ethical rules which apply to everyone. Further, some maintain that right and wrong are merely cultural tastes. Some of them run aground on the libertine Scylla of “anything goes.” Others, perhaps most, let themselves be sucked into the authoritarian Charybdis of “might makes right.” They deny moral equality, holding that some (rulers) should have moral rights over and above others (subjects). In place of moral equality, many promote the conceit of equality of outcome for all. And they not only deny real rights, like property and freedom of movement and of association, but also wrongly promote aspirations like social security and “free” education to the status of rights.

Moreover, top downers are very often dishonest. They seem to have no shame about lying or misleading, or failing to deliver on their promises. And they often act in bad faith, too.

Top downers also like to deny the idea of objective or individual justice, substituting for it “social justice” or some other caricature of justice. They often duck personal, individual responsibility for what they do, and seek to evade accountability. Instead, they try to claim that some collective “we” bears responsibility for the ills of the world. This frequently leads them to behave as hypocrites. For example, promoting policies that aim to force others to make sacrifices, but failing to make any such sacrifices themselves.

Society, community and fellowship

For the bottom upper, the fundamental unit of society is the individual. The family is important, too. For the family is the smallest social unit which can survive indefinitely. Beyond the family, when individuals associate, the process must be voluntary and bottom up. As Herbert Spencer put it: “Society exists for the benefit of its members, not the members for the benefit of society.”

The bottom up thinker feels community with those, who behave civilly and cordially towards him. He prefers the company of those who, like him, seek truth and strive to obey basic moral rules such as peacefulness, honesty and respect for rights. So, he seeks to judge others not by who they are, but by what they do, how they behave and what they say. Thus, he cares about his fellow human beings; that is, those who behave both as convivial human beings and as his fellows. And he prefers to associate and to trade with these people, rather than with top downers. Further, he knows that everyone is different. So, he strives to be tolerant of differences in received characteristics such as race, religion or nationality, and in lifestyle preferences.

The top downer, on the other hand, tends towards collectivism. He thinks that individuals should be subordinated to society (with or without a capital S). He expects people to be altruistic, and to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. He is prone to judging people by characteristics such as their race, their received religion, their nationality or their political affiliations. He cares mainly or exclusively for those who share whichever of these characteristics are important to him. He is often intolerant of those who are different from others. And he has little time or respect for bottom up thinkers.


The bottom upper may be indifferent to politics. Or, perhaps, he may think of himself as a liberal, in the true sense of the word. That is, someone who desires the maximum freedom for everyone, consistent with being required to behave in a civil manner. Or he may think of himself as a conservative, one who is generally happy with tried and tested ways of doing things. But he doesn’t, as a rule, support the imposition of political agendas on people. And if he votes at all, he tends to do so for what he perceives as the lesser of two, or the least of several, evils. Further, the bottom upper usually has little desire for power over others. Thus he has no time for politics as it is practised today. And he may well hold politics, and those that take part in it, in contempt.

In contrast, the top downer tends to take a positive view of politics in general, and to support a political party or parties. His reasons may be ideological, selfish, or both. Many top downers are inclined to become active for their chosen Causes and agendas. They may favour ideas generally rated as on the left, for example: Socialism or communism. Egalitarianism and welfare-statism. Health fascism and social engineering. Social justice warfare. Suppression of capitalism, and perhaps rejection of property rights. Or ideas commonly seen as on the right, such as: Extreme nationalism. Racism. Religious or social conservatism. Fascism. Control of the economy by large, privileged corporations. Military interventionism. The top downer may combine such ideas with other, newer agendas like identity politics, political correctness and environmentalism.

Most top downers, even if they don’t much want personal power over others, still like to see their agendas imposed on people, particularly on those they don’t like. And those, that do have a desire to wield power, are naturally attracted to politics. As a result, the great majority of politicians today, even in democracies, are top downers. And thus, even in a democracy, we bottom uppers and our views are all but completely unrepresented.

Government, law and justice

The bottom upper generally recognizes that government can be valuable. But its remit must be strongly circumscribed. He may, for example, agree with my list of three, and only three, valid functions of government. These are: First, to maintain peace. Second, to defend the rights and freedoms of every individual among the governed. And third, to resolve disputes justly. Moreover, for the bottom upper, government must be no more than an unbiased umpire. And it must be as small as possible; no larger, or more obtrusive, than it needs to be to fulfil its remit.

The bottom upper knows also that the rule of law can be valuable, as long as the law is consistent with, and no broader than, the common ethical core of civilized behaviour. And he can agree with John Locke that: “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”

He wants justice to be objective, impartial and individual. Not only must Lady Justice’s scales weigh accurately the evidence and arguments on both sides of each case. But also, justice must fairly balance the interests and desires of each individual or group against the interests and desires of others. Thus everyone should be treated, in the round, as they treat others; and according to what they do, not who they are. And every individual should receive, as far as is feasible, what he deserves. Those that have done unjust wrongs should be made to compensate their victims. And they may also suffer criminal punishment if their acts were greedy, or malicious, or irresponsible beyond the bounds of reason.

The bottom upper also holds that government should never violate rights or freedoms unless strictly necessary in order to deliver its remit; for example, to arrest a criminal suspect to bring him to trial. And any such violations of rights must be kept to the minimum. Further, what a non-criminal individual pays for government should be in proportion to the benefit he receives from it, neither more nor less. Just as, for example, what an individual pays for home contents insurance is in proportion to the sum insured. As John Locke put it: “It is true governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit everyone who enjoys his share of the protection should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it.”

The top downer, on the other hand, likes big, active government. He wants government to take on functions like education, health care, transport and insurance, none of which have anything to do with its proper remit. He is also comfortable with the idea of a ruling class – maybe including him or his soulmates – having a right to rule over people in a particular geographical area.

In contrast to law, he favours legislation. He thinks that, just because some group of politicians agree on some putative law, that gives them a right to have their minions enforce it, irrespective of its rightness or wrongness. Moreover, he may well deny the validity of objective, individual justice. And he may promote instead fatuous ideas like social justice, environmental justice or some ill defined idea of fairness.

The top downer often sees government as a tool to achieve the ends of the particular ideology or agenda he favours. He condones arbitrary violations of rights and freedoms by governments, as long as they are done for a cause he believes in. And he not only condones, but applauds, taxation that re-distributes wealth from those who justly earn it to government itself, to its cronies, and to those it seeks to bribe in order to gain their support.


The bottom upper is not only a bottom up thinker, but a bottom up doer, too. He strives, to the best of his abilities, to be economically productive and independent. He favours the economic free market, which he sees as the best way to achieve the common good; that is, the good of every individual who is willing to put in the effort to be productive. He abhors any kind of restriction on the free market, because such restrictions stifle the abundance of opportunity which he desires for everyone. And he may well favour the culture of small companies over large ones.

In the economy, the people who actually get the jobs done, and so create wealth, are mostly bottom uppers. Some of them work with their hands or with machinery: for example, farmers, industrial workers or artisans. Others create in a more intellectual way: for example computer programmers, mathematicians and some writers. Yet others, such as doctors, do a bit of both. Even architects and accountants are often bottom uppers. Counter-intuitively, bottom uppers can also be good, if often reluctant, managers of people. This is partly because they are usually objective; and partly because they often have a natural empathy with people as individuals. They know that each individual is different, and seek to bring out the best from each of them.

In contrast, those top downers who work in the private sector tend to prefer the top down culture of large corporations. Not being natural doers, they can only succeed through other people. And so, they seek to rise in their organizations. Many of them like company politics and scheming, and aspire to be “snakes in suits” and reach the top corporate level. And some of them treat the people they manage with contempt.

Government jobs, too, attract top downers. They often like to exercise power, and to plan and regulate other people’s lives. And if their jobs are tax funded, they only have to account to higher-ups in the bureaucracy; they don’t have to account to the people who are actually paying for what they do. Another profession that attracts top downers is academe. There have long been many top downers in humanities departments at universities. And recently, they have been increasing even in the supposedly hard sciences. Such positions can bring top downers not only public respect, but also a bully pulpit from which they can peddle their agendas.


For the bottom upper, the Earth is a home and garden for the human race. The portions of the planet, which we own as individuals or groups, are ours, to be used as we see fit. And our job as a species is to make the best home and garden we can, for every human being worthy of the name. To that end, the planet’s resources, animal, vegetable, mineral and other, are there to be used wisely. They’re our bootstrap to a better world. And those that seek to prevent others making wise use of them are seeking to curtail, or even to extinguish, human civilization.

The bottom upper sees only one valid way to address environmental issues. And that is, to direct on to the matter the cold light of objective reason. To dig into the facts. To do precise, unbiased science, without any political agenda. To assess costs and benefits accurately and objectively, for everyone. And above all, to keep to the true and original precautionary principle: “First, do no harm.” Therefore it is always the responsibility of those, who want others to make changes, to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt. And those accused of causing environmental damage should never be put in the impossible position of having to prove a negative.

In total contrast, environmental top downers like to intone mantras such as “the earth is not ours” and “sustainable development.” They make scary but unfounded accusations about, for example, humans causing catastrophic climate change, seriously polluting the air, or extinguishing species. They misuse science, and try to cover up their misuses. They endlessly repeat pre-conceived talking points that are without substance. And they call those, who disagree with them, nasty names like “deniers.”

But perhaps the most obvious failing of environmental top downers is the arrant hypocrisy of the prominent among them. Take Al Gore, who tells us we should cut our energy use, yet whose own electricity consumption is 20 or more times the average. Or Prince Charles, who demonizes carbon dioxide emissions from cars and planes, yet himself is chauffeured around in limos and goes on holiday by private plane. As Oscar Wilde asked: “And what sort of lives do these people, who pose as being moral, lead themselves?”


The bottom upper knows that he’s not perfect. He can, at times, be unpleasant towards others; particularly when they oppose him on his hot button issues. But as a rule, he tries to behave in a cordial and reasonable manner.

In contrast, top downers – particularly those whose top down views span several dimensions – often show some, or even many, of the symptoms of sociopathy or psychopathy. They may be arrogant, and think they have a right to tell other people how to behave. Their lack of respect for truth may lead them to lie or mislead. Their lack of a strong moral sense may lead them to be insincere, selfish and manipulative, unscrupulous or dishonest. Their lack of concern for the individual can lead them to fail to show empathy or sensitivity towards other people, and even to treat people ruthlessly and without remorse. It can also lead them to behave recklessly; especially when other people, not them, will be expected to bear the consequences of their actions. They may be parasites, and live off others without delivering anything worthwhile in return; most of all, when their jobs are tax funded. And their lack of a sense of personal responsibility can lead them to try to deny wrongdoing, and to evade accountability for their actions.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that high ranking corporate officials include a greater proportion of sociopaths than the population as a whole. Nor that the meme “politicians are psychopaths” has acquired the traction it has. And here’s the reason: they’re both top downers.


The bottom upper strives to be honest in how he communicates with others. He tries to tell the truth, to the best of his knowledge and belief. He tries to be polite, even if he doesn’t always succeed. He generally respects others’ freedom of speech, and their right to differ from his ideas. When he disagrees, he does his best to respond with logic and reason. If he has to go on the attack, he attacks the message, not the messenger. And, once convinced that he has made an error, he is willing to accept the fact, and move on.

The top downer, on the other hand, likes to parrot the party line, without regard for its truth. This explains why, as Terry Pratchett pithily put it: “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” For it’s much easier and quicker to parrot a lie than to separate out truth from untruth. Moreover, the top downer often repeats the same dubious arguments again and again in slightly different guises. When he is wrong, he almost never accepts it. He projects his own failings on to others, for example by calling his opponents “deniers” when he is the one denying the truth. If he can’t shoot down the message, he will try to shoot the messenger instead. When he fails to get his message across, he will often shout louder. And if all else fails, he will try to shut down the freedom of speech of those who argue against him.

Education and media

Young children start their lives thinking bottom up. Until they have acquired language, they have no other way of making sense of the world. And they have a natural curiosity and a desire to learn. Some retain this curiosity throughout their lives; others, unfortunately, lose it.

The bottom upper sees education as a process of nurturing this natural curiosity. For him, education should do exactly what the word “educate” means; it should lead out the human being from the child. It should teach him to think for himself. It should teach him how to learn, and thus give him the tools to teach himself. And it should encourage him to seek information, in whatever media it is available. To evaluate it, and make judgements on it. And to reject, or at least to try to subtract out the biases from, “information” which is politically charged, or doesn’t measure up to his standards of accuracy and honesty.

In contrast, the top downer sees education as, at best, preparing an individual for life in a particular culture. But more often, in the hands of top downers education becomes a process of indoctrination, to turn the child away from his natural bottom up mode and make him into a top down thinker. And this may even turn him in later life into a peddler of top down thinking. Moreover, top downers tend to see the media, not as the source of reliable information it ought to be, but as a means of influencing and even controlling people’s thinking right through their lives. And some of them learn how to make use of the media to spread their own top down messages; including messages that are politically charged, lies, propaganda and so called fake news.

The great divide

It’s plain that, in every one of the dimensions I’ve looked at here, there’s a big divide between bottom uppers and top downers. But different people often think in different ways in different dimensions. Many academics, for example, can think bottom up within their specialities, but when it comes to politics and government, they think top down. I see a need, therefore, for an overall measure of bottom up versus top down. An approach such as rating each dimension separately, then adding up the ratings and dividing by the number of dimensions, is probably over-simple. But however the measuring is done, it’s plain that there’s still a big, big divide.

We are living in a time when virtually every powerful institution in the world is run by top downers. For example: big governments, big corporations, the EU and the UN, big media, and much of academe. They are run, not by the people for the people, but by top downers for top downers; or even by sociopaths for sociopaths.

In this system, we bottom uppers don’t get a look in. Even though we are the honest, productive people of the world; we are the people who build, and who sustain, our human civilization. And it’s worse. Our rights and freedoms, our livelihoods, our lifestyles and ultimately our lives, are under ever increasing pressure from the top downers and their political agendas. This situation is not, to use a top downer word, a sustainable one.

I wonder what will happen when the penny finally drops? When bottom uppers, en masse, come to understand what is being done to them? When the good people at last realize that the top downers are not only unworthy of all respect, but are the worst scum on the planet?

I can only speculate.