Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes
By James Mumford Bloomsbury Continuum, 224pp, £16.99
Beware of “package deal ethics”. They are ruining our capacity to think and converse about the world we live in and the world we are heading towards. This is the message at the heart of James Mumford’s Vexed. The packaging up of ideas into Left and Right has hardened to the point where free thought, or even wandering just a few yards outside your ideological camp, are becoming impossible – if, that is, you wish to maintain friendships and avoid your own “cancellation”.
Mumford is admirably candid on his personal weakness in the face of these forces. When he is with his friends on the left, he poses as “a Remainer appalled by the xenophobes who won the referendum”. With conservative friends, he bemoans “the cosmopolitan disdain for faith, flag and family which in the end satisfies our need for roots”. He admits to expending a lot of energy in trying to hide his hypocrisy:
“I want to become a public intellectual lauded for his acute insights, but I don’t want to be no-platformed” (which suggests that it is the left, where no-platforming has become de rigueur, that he is really afraid of).
Having set the scene so arrestingly, Mumford goes on to take a closer look at six issues – three from the Left, three from the Right – where the compulsory package deal of approved opinions could do with being broken open. Moreover, these package deals often involve the inconsistent application of estimable principles on either side of the political divide.
First up is assisted suicide. Given the Left’s noble history of prizing inclusivity, Mumford argues that it ought to think again about the exclusionary forces that are driving the elderly and infirm into the arms of doctors bearing lethal injections. He plaintively evokes Maori attitudes to old folk. They talk of keeping their communities warm with the presence of the elderly, while we in the modern West prefer the language of “demographic time bomb”.
Mumford reveals himself to be a slippery slope-ist and argues his case doggedly and cogently, but with feeling. One person’s safeguards, he points out, become another person’s barrier to entry, and thus the slide begins. Moreover, for people to be controlled, he observes, you don’t need secret police on the prowl. Instead (and more efficiently) “if certain norms can become internalised, people will act within those norms.”
The next chapter tackles what Mumford presents as a cherished conviction of many on the Right: namely that widespread family breakdown is the product of the unleashing of the permissive society lower down the social scale, making liberal attitudes to marriage and sex the root cause of poverty. Mumford, on the other hand, argues that poverty is as much the cause of family breakdown as the other way around: “Living on the edge of destitution is no formula for a flourishing marriage.” The Right betrays its attachment to family values by engaging in this convenient denial of reality, screening itself off from the reasons why the economy is failing the poorest. Beginning with monopsony, “the labour market equivalent of monopoly”, Mumford goes on to critique these reasons stirringly and convincingly.
Next he doubles back to the question of sexual liberation, “often held up as one of the signal achievements of the countercultural Left”. Mumford questions how those on the Left who vehemently reject consumerism in the market cannot muster any resistance to consumerism’s takeover of sex. He then mounts a striking argument in favour of monogamy using Søren Kierkegaard’s fictional correspondence on “The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage” as his starting point.
Vexed goes on to explore the anti-abortion-but-pro-guns ethical package deal of the American Right; the inadequate challenge from the Left – where reverence for the natural world is so important – to the march of transhumanism; and the Right insisting on personal responsibility in such a way as to crush the chances of ex-offenders exercising it. He concludes with a chapter advocating the awakening of the moral imagination as the means of freeing ourselves of ethical package deals Mumford is a subtle, supple and frequently ingenious thinker. His style is abrasive enough to make readers sit up when needed, but never enough to make us feel as if we are being hectored or bullied.
Like anyone in pursuit of a big point over the course of a short book, not every argument works and there are times when Mumford’s capacity for nuance suffers. In the chapter on assisted suicide, for example, he builds a case against the Western elevation of the nuclear family over the extended one as something that has damaged the elderly, but without any acknowledgement of the great benefits that the old, the young and everyone else have reaped from the retreat from clannishness and tribalism. Equally, his attack on Adam Smith in the family values chapter feels hasty and clumsy. The book straddles the Atlantic rather awkwardly at times.
But these quibbles shouldn’t detract from the overall achievement. Vexed is a memorable and illuminating assault on what happens when ideology shuts down thought.