breaking news from the world of ideas

by Giles Fraser
Monday, 11
May 2020

‘Stay alert’ is not precise — but it is meaningful

“Let me be perfectly clear”. Whenever a politician says that, I inwardly groan and tune out. Because I know what comes next — a word salad of precise sounding official-speak, usually intoned with mock seriousness and the sort of slow patronising lilt that you might use to address a recalcitrant five year old.

But what “being clear” is all about isn’t always a straightforward matter. For instance, a word can be both perfectly clear and yet also imprecise. If I describe someone as a “tall man” there is nothing unclear about what I am saying, despite the fact that I am unable to give you a precise definition of where short gives way to tall. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Friday, 8
May 2020

How much is a human life worth?

Reactions to Russell Lynch’s column in the Telegraph were as angry as they were predictable. “The cost of saving lives in this lockdown is too high” was the headline, under which the Telegraph’s economics editor proceeded to offer a cost-benefit analysis on the saving of human life.

Apparently, the Treasury works on the view that a human life is worth £2 million. This is the so-called VPF — the value of a prevented fatality. Mr Lynch argued that this was too high. And he brought in Mervyn King, former government of the Bank of England, to bolster his argument. King said:

The younger generations have suffered in the last 20 years. Why on earth is our future being put at stake in order to help prolong life expectancy of older people, whose life expectancy will not be very high in any event?
- Mervyn King

My own reaction to reading Lynch’s column was coloured by my just having finished watching the latest Fauda series on Netflix. This popular drama follows the work of Israeli special forces as they struggle to free a young girl kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists and taken to Gaza. And without giving too much away, suffice to say that the price of trying to get her back is particularly high, both in terms of human life and indeed, in terms of recourses. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Monday, 4
May 2020

Let priests pray in their churches

Tomorrow the bishops of the Church of England will meet to consider the growing opposition to their policy of banning clergy from saying prayers in their churches.

To recap: on 24 March the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to the clergy of the Church of England with the following instruction: “Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own.”

The guidance of the government makes it specifically clear that clergy are allowed into their churches on their own to pray and to broadcast prayer. And the Roman Catholics and other churches continue to do so. But the C of E has banned its clergy from doing this, in some Dioceses with the threat of disciplinary action hanging over those who do. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Friday, 1
May 2020

The C of E has retreated to the kitchen

When bishops retire they get braver. Freed from collective responsibility when they hang up their mitres, in retirement they find their prophetic voice. To be fair, Peter Selby, former Bishop of Worcester, is an exception that proves this rule. Never a member of the awkward squad, he has always been resolutely independently-minded. And long respected in many quarters of the church.

So when someone of Bishop Selby’s stature pens a stinging rebuke of the current lockdown policy of the House of Bishops — and in the Roman Catholic magazine The Tablet — one can be sure that many will sit up and take notice. Indeed, when he writes that “many in the C of E feel let down by the official response,” he is possibly even understating the matter. There is deep discontent with the church at the moment, and even with the House of Bishops itself. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Tuesday, 28
April 2020

The tragic hubris of modern city planning

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” So wrote the famed Chicago urban planner Daniel Burnham in 1910. These words can still be found on inspirational postcards and posters, urging their readers to aim high, to think great thoughts, to reach out for the American Dream.

For Charles “Chuck” Marohn Jr., these are the words that should be placed on the gravestone of American prosperity, words of warning for future generations. Like Burnham, Marohn is also an urban planner, but in an absolutely captivating book on urban development — no, seriously — Marohn accuses the “no little plans” philosophy of being responsible for the wasteland that is the contemporary American city. For what Burnham’s much copied approach to urban planning did was imagine that it could design the perfect city from scratch, all at once, everything rationally ordered, zoned, just right. “We are the first civilisation in all of human history to have the hubris to believe that what we build is the complete product.” ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Friday, 24
April 2020
Seen Elsewhere

Don’t let the bean-counters abolish our army regiments

I used to have the great privilege of teaching ethics to Army officers at the Military Academy in Shrivenham. Rows of straight-backed newly qualified Majors — about to take up their first command responsibility in Iraq or Afghanistan — were the most engaged audience I have ever lectured. The ethics of warfare mattered quite a lot to those who were about to go off and do it. And I have had a very soft spot for the British Army ever since.

One thing came through to me from the years of teaching on this course. Soldiers don’t fight for a cause, however noble — when it really comes down to it, they don’t fight for Queen and country either, they fight for their mates. That is why esprit de corps is so vital among fighting men and women. When you are exhausted and cold and confused and scared — when you have long forgotten why you were sent to this shit-hole to be shot at — there is still the person next to you. And you fight for them. Or to put this another way: you fight for the badge, you fight for the Regiment. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Monday, 20
April 2020

Do I have a moral duty to lose weight?

Prof Jean-François Delfraissy warned that obese people were at seriously risk from the coronavirus

When lockdown began, and the medical authorities started to list the so-called “underlying conditions” that multiply the dangers of Covid-19, there was a terrible moment of panic when I realised I had quite a few of them: asthma, diabetes, obesity — horrible word, but technically, I was — and having previously had a quadruple heart bypass after a heart attack. Come to think of it, it was probably something of a miracle that I was still alive. But with the emergence of this horrible virus, I was galvanised into action.

In the weeks since lockdown I have cut out most of the major carbohydrate groups (except alcohol, obviously) dropped two stone and am no longer technically obese — just merely overweight. And my blood sugars have come right down and stabilized such that I have written to my doctor requesting that I come off all diabetes medication. And I feel great. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Friday, 17
April 2020

What does it mean to be a liberal?

Tony Benn had five questions for a liberal democracy

Liberal. No word in political philosophy seems to be so capable of such a variety of meanings. For some, it is fundamentally a philosophy of the Right — a philosophy of free markets, small states and individual freedom. For others it seems to have a leftward focus — open borders, minority rights, civil liberties. Little wonder that disputes involving the word liberalism are often ways for people to talk at cross purposes.

The distinguished political theorist Michael Walzer has offered a fascinating clarification in a recent essay in Dissent magazine ‘What it means to be Liberal’. Liberalism began life as an “ism”, that is, a substantial theory of political philosophy. But from sometime around the mid twentieth century, he argues, liberalism turned into an adjective, not a noun. It is now a qualifier to other more substantive ideas such as democracy, nationalism, Judaism, communitarianism, even monarchy. ...  Continue reading