Skip to content

Corbyn’s Position on Northern Ireland

Here’s a question: is Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Northern Ireland the only one consistent with true faith in the peace process?


He has been hammered by the Conservative British press for responding to the question “Do you unequivocally condemn the IRA?” by saying that he condemns all violence against civilians, whether committed by Irish nationalists or British nationalists.

Why is this a problem? On my understanding, the whole motivation behind the peace process in Northern Ireland is to acknowledge that the violence committed by both sides was wrong, unjustifiable, and needed to stop. That means that, whether violence is carried out by one side or the other, it should be regarded as an equal affront to us all (irrespective of nationality) as a threat to the peace that we have worked so hard to maintain.

To focus, in one’s rhetoric, on condemning and blaming one particular “side” is to fall back into that old trap of vilifying the “other side” while refusing to be honest and open about the evils committed by “one’s own side”. As Orwell argues in “Notes on Nationalism”, this is the hallmark feature of nationalism: a complete refusal to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about your own group’s complicity in injustices. Condemning the violence of both sides in the same breath, as Corbyn insists on doing, is the only way I see to avoid this nationalist pitfall.

That pitfall is not just regrettable in its own right, it is what fuels nation-vs-nation conflict in the first place. To see one’s own nation as a lone crusader for goodness against the evils and barbarities of foreigners is usually what makes it possible to see war against those “evil-doers” as a viable and even attractive option. Make no mistake, it is that ideology which lies behind the British press’ condemnation of Corbyn’s comments. Why hammer somebody for saying both sides are unjust unless you refuse to accept that “one’s own” side shares some guilt?

When you pick on one side only, part of the problem is that it fuels a negative and reinforcing cycle. Since you pick on one side, the people (historically associated with) that side feel aggrieved, and start picking on you back, and hating you back. Just the kind of negative cycle that spirals out of control to the point of war.

You could also ask: Where are the British reporters demanding to know if party leaders unequivocally condemn the actions of British soldiers on Bloody Sunday?

It is true that some British voices have condemned the killing of civilians on Bloody Sunday. David Cameron’s apology was at least honest in condemning the British Army’s violence against civilians as unjustifiable. But what I am worried about now is whether those voices – the voices genuinely loyal to the peace process – are going to continue to speak up and not to fall on deaf ears.

You may think I asked that question about Bloody Sunday because I am, in truth, an Irish nationalist and an IRA apologist who wants to attack the British establishment. On the contrary, I am saying only that genuine commitment to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland requires that we abandon the kind of nationalistic jingoism which thinks it appropriate to publicly condemn only the “other side” and to brush “our own” side’s sins under the carpet. Corbyn appears to have done that. Have other party leaders?

Various commentators have drawn attention to the fact that, after Brexit, the Irish border is going to become problematic. All serious parties have paid lip-service to keeping the border safe and maintaining peace, but the truth is that if we are going to weather the oncoming storm, we need to transcend playing petty nationalistic blame-games. We need to stop naming and shaming historical opponents while deflecting the troubling past of our own nations. To do anything else should be considered an affront to the spirit and the security of the peace process.

That’s why the question should be, not “why did Jeremy Corbyn refuse to pick out the IRA?”, but rather, “aren’t the British press fools, for repeating the same mistakes that led us to war before and could lead us to war again?”



Some Arguments Against Tactical Voting

I have some concerns about the popular tendency to vote tactically. Let’s define a tactical vote as one which is cast, not for the party/candidate that the voter believes would be the best, but for another candidate, in the hope of influencing the outcome in a certain way (e.g. trying to prevent the candidate of a party you dislike from winning).


To clarify, I readily accept that there are certain situations in which one should vote tactically (e.g. Germany 1933). But I am not convinced that there are many situations where it is the best choice, nor am I convinced that it is appropriate to vote tactically in the upcoming election.

Here are my arguments. If you’re only going to read one, go for 1: it’s probably the most important and convincing.

1) It is a Mistake to Think That “Seats Won” is the only Factor Relevant to Party Influence

A popular defence of tactical voting is the idea that, although it might ideally be better to vote for the candidate you think would be best, we have to decide based on the practical consequences. The fact is, one might say, we need the influence of the Tories must be reduced, or we must at least attempt to reduce it, any way possible and as much as possible. This means that the majority of non-Tory voters,if not all, should vote tactically, to try to reduce the number of Tory MPs as much as possible.

I think the assumption being made here is clear enough: the primary question we must consider when deciding who to vote for is, e.g., “which choice is most likely to lead to the defeat of the Tories in this seat at this election?”.

Now of course, this is an important question to bear in mind, but it would be a grave mistake to think that seat-winning is the only factor affecting party influence. This is evident from the influence and success of UKIP in the last several years.

Why and how did UKIP wield so much influence, despite having just 1 MP!?

a) They won a lot of votes.

b) They attracted a significant number of votes in various regions, in pretty much all areas of England. (Unlike e.g. the Greens, whose support is mostly confined to certain very atypical areas like Brighton).

c) They attracted a significant number of votes not only in traditionally Conservative areas, but also in areas traditionally loyal to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. (Again, unlike e.g. the Greens).

The result of this has been that all the major parties started to worry about losing votes to UKIP. The fear was not necessarily just that UKIP would win those seats, but that traditionally loyal voters would defect to UKIP, increasing the incumbent party’s vulnerability to other rivals.

This fear from the major parties presumably at least partly explains some broad, but major strategic decisions made in the last several years by the leadership of the major parties:

i) The decision to hold the EU referendum.

ii) Ed Miliband’s suprisingly conservative stance on migration and various social issues. (viz. the influence of so-called “Blue Labour” figures such as Glasman during Miliband’s leadership).

iii) Corbyn avoiding taking a strong stance during the EU referendum campaign and Brexit.

iv) The Liberal Democrats, despite being ostensibly the most internationalist and Europhile party, still using patriotic/nationalist rhetoric and still conforming, to some degree, to nationalist policies such as denying immigrants from claiming benefits as soon as they move to the UK.

v) May’s tough stance on Brexit i.e. refusal to entertain “soft Brexit”, and her move to nationalist and right-wing policies in various other areas.

If you accept that fear of UKIP was the primary influence behind these major decisions, which I think is plausible, you have to accept that parties don’t need seats to wield great political power. As the chess grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch said, “the threat is stronger than the execution”.

What if all those millions of UKIP voters had reasoned that UKIP candidates stood little to no chance of winning the seats in which they stood, and hence voted for their second favourites instead? British political history would look very different. If you wanted Brexit to happen pre-2016, voting UKIP was the best way to make that happen even though most UKIP candidates had no chance of becoming MPs.

That being said, why not conclude that the best way to increase the chances of progressive policies being implemented in the near-to-medium-term future is to vote for whatever party is pressing for such policies most strongly, whichever party you believe that is?

Imagine the following scenario. The Liberal Democrats start to significantly increase their number of votes (unlikely, I know), not only in areas where they have traditionally done well, but also in areas traditionally loyal to Conservative and Labour. However, they don’t win any more seats than usual. Despite this, the latter two parties start worrying about haemorrhaging votes to the Lib Dems, and hence start to moderate their stance on immigration and Brexit.

(You need not agree that the Lib Dems have the best policies on those issues to see the point. I would also encourage Labour sympathisers in traditionally Conservative vs. Lib Dem seats to vote Labour for parallel reasons).

I conclude that tactical voting is not obviously the best way to use your vote in terms of the likely political influence of your vote. In fact, as the hypothetical scenario of UKIP sympathisers voting tactically shows, tactical voting may destroy the possibility of the ideals you believe in being put into practice.

2) Tactical Voting on a Mass Scale Obfuscates what the Electorate Actually Wants

If lots of people vote tactically, i.e. vote for parties that they do not really believe are the best, we end up with governments and oppositions that, to at least some extent, ipso facto do not genuinely reflect and campaign for the ideals that people want and believe in.

Parties use elections to gauge which policies and proposals are popular, which is an important part of how they decide to govern, if elected, or how they decide to campaign and hold the government to account, if they become the opposition. Since I do not believe in restrictions in immigration, I want to vote for a party that agrees. If I give my vote to a party that disagrees – which may nevertheless be a justified choice – I still cannot ignore my partial complicity in the immigration policies that I tacitly endorsed by giving that party my vote.

When tactical voting happens on a large scale (i.e. hundreds of thousands of voters), the gap between the outcome of what an election legitimizes, and what people actually want to legitimize, is magnified. If democracy is supposed to be about getting the government to rule in accordance with the wishes of “the people”, tactical voting hence causes a significant problem for democracy, by obstructing the links needed to make that happen.

3) Tactical Voting and Ideological Reflection

Part of the point of democracy, at least in the views of some of its scholars and defenders, is to encourage the populace to think about their political views and to learn more about political issues. Now, we are all busy and we have limited time to think about politics – that may be a shame, but it is just how it is. At election time, many of us are usually stimulated a bit more to spend time considering the facts, as well as our own views. This is a good thing.

I think there is a potential negative relationship between tactical voting and this process of political self-reflection. If I resolve to vote tactically, the choice is usually very simple: I want to keep the Tories out, this is a traditionally Tory vs. Labour seat, so I will vote Labour. This is so nice and easy that we might not make as much effort to research what other parties are saying, whether we really prefer Labour policies to e.g. Lib Dem or Green policies. If we resolved to vote only on the basis of ideological preference, we would by contrast have a great incentive to scrutinize our own beliefs, the facts, and the options in much more detail. Again, this seems like a good thing.

(Of course, many tactical voters are very self-reflective, knowledgeable, etc. But this doesn’t detract from the point that, generally speaking, we might be more reflective, questioning, investigative etc. if we didn’t vote tactically – or at least maybe some people would improve in this regard if they didn’t vote tactically).


4) Is the Point of Voting Influence?

This is my most tentative point, but I question whether the whole point of voting is to try to wield influence. Political scientists can prove to you that a single vote, or even a modest number of votes (hundreds), is statistically very, very unlikely to swing the outcome of the result of any particular constituency. (This is not to say that smaller numbers of votes don’t influence politics at all; see point 1). But it does raise the question whether there are reasons to vote other than influence. I think there are at least two:

i) Maintaining the institutions of democracy. Obviously, democracy can’t continue unless people vote, and low turnout levels threaten democracy for reasons relating to my point 2, above. So part of the reason to vote is that if you believe democracy ought to be sustained, by voting you are doing your bit to keep the house in order (or at least standing). So our reason to vote might not just be about influence, which would remove the motivation for voting tactically.

ii) Self-Expression. I think there might be some inherent worth in exercising the opportunity to go and express your political views to the world, no matter how crazy or unusual they are. If that seems silly, consider what it must be like to live in a society where there is neither democracy nor freedom of expression. That this is important to people would also account for the frustration often felt by those who feel they have views which are not represented by any of the parties – going back to my immigration example, I find it really annoying that I can’t support a party which is, to my mind, genuinely non-nationalist. I gather eurosceptics had a parallel frustration before the existence of UKIP. If you agree there might be something inherently therapeutic about expressing yourself in the political realm by voting, you should really consider voting for the party closest to your personal beliefs.


Although I have these arguments against tactical voting, I’m open-minded and am not 100% convinced I shouldn’t vote tactically at this election. Why? As I said above, tactical voting might be essential in certain cases. Maybe this election – the Brexit election – is one where some tactical voting needs to be done, at least in certain constituencies. What I hope to have shown is that tactical voting comes with a lot of serious problems, and the decision to vote tactically should not be made lightly. Anyway, thoughts on this or related issues very much welcome.

Why to Vote for Britain to Remain in the European Union: Maintaining World Peace and Stability

Consider the name of the prominent pro-EU campaign group “Britain Stronger in Europe”. This is a good example of making a tacit concession to nationalists. Of course what we want is whatever makes Britain stronger, the name suggests; it just so happens that what will make Britain stronger is remaining in the EU. The view that we shouldn’t cast our vote based wholly or mainly on which alternative makes Britain stronger gets brushed under the carpet, since even the pro-EU side doesn’t air it. The language of the debate is subtly, part-unconsciously skewed to the nationalist side. It becomes more and more difficult to make a convincing pro-EU argument, since pro-EU individuals have to fight in territory which we fail to realize we have already conceded to the nationalists. Nationalists gain confidence. Since their own principles are going unchallenged, their views seem all the more immune from rational criticism.

Here is a dissenting voice. It is vital that Britain remains in the EU. This is not primarily because remaining in the EU would benefit Britain, though it would do that. The primary reason, in my view, is because Britain remaining in the EU makes the outbreak of an inter-state war in Europe considerably less likely in the long-term. (Since an inter-state war in Europe would, like the World Wars, greatly damage Britain, I argue even those who care primarily about British interests should hence vote for Britain to remain in the EU).

This is a big claim. What do I have to back it up? My view has two sources: a consideration the history of Europe in the 20th century, and contemporary International Relations (IR) theory.


Part One: Neo-Realist Theory and the Causes of War

First, a crash course in IR theory. My claim is that Britain exiting the EU will make peace more difficult to maintain in Europe. To see whether this is true, we need an analytical tool which helps us understand the causes of war.

The dominant theoretical school in IR, neo-realism, offers a simple and convincing explanation of the persistent outbreak of inter-state war throughout history. Waltz (1) considers three kinds of explanation of inter-state war: Man (is human nature to blame?), the State (the policies of individual states?), and the Structure of the international system. Waltz does not entirely discount Man and the State as contributory factors, but argues that Structural explanations have not received nearly enough attention.

The aspect of the structure of the international system to blame for war, according to Waltz, is anarchy. Within the domestic sphere, the state almost always enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In the international sphere, no state enjoys such a position: there is no super-state policing nation-states, hence why the international realm is “anarchical”. Domestically, individuals’ demand for security is outsourced to the state, which provides security for all citizens. Since states cannot outsource their security needs to another, over-arching institution, they need to provide for their own security, which involves paying for and maintaining an army.

Tragically, this causes grave problems at a systemic level. Even if a state builds up military force for purely defensive reasons, neighbouring states have little way of knowing whether the militarily expanding state is gathering forces for defensive or offensive purposes. This uncertainty means that the growth of power in a neighbouring state presents a security threat. In response, neighbouring states have little choice but to build up their own military, or risk invasion and destruction, thereby aggravating the problem in a vicious circle. Since another state’s gain in power seems to represent another state’s loss, international politics becomes a zero-sum game where competition is rife and cooperation is difficult. If a new state’s power is gradually expanding, the status-quo powerful state’s leaders may decide that it is better to fight today, on more advantageous terms, than to lose horribly in 20 years time.

Neo-realists can explain why even states with peace-seeking leaders end up pursuing militaristic and aggressive foreign policies. Properly understood, neo-realism does not say that war is inevitable in an anarchical system, but rather that the anarchical system imposes extremely strong incentives on political leaders to pursue militaristic policies. In a dog-eat-dog international system, it is hard to survive if you do not pursue militaristic policies: since fellow states will be worried about their security and power, neighbours will surely aggressively take advantage if one state leaves itself in a vulnerable position. As Waltz points out, non-militaristic states are more likely to be wiped from the system by rivals, so they are not as numerous or long-lived as their militaristic rivals. Moreover, the citizens of states are likely to promote their own security, and remove from office governments who fail to defend their security against rival states, which are seen as threats. The result is that political leaders are not left with much choice: militaristic and power-seeking policies are usually the only option.

This is why the Structural explanation of war is so much more convincing than the human-nature and individual-state policy explanations. Even if political leaders seek peace and have smart policies, the nature of the system pushes towards war anyway. This explains why inter-state war has recurred throughout history, despite its gigantic costs: the international system has always been anarchical, so leaders are stuck in a system which repeatedly leads to undesirable outcomes.

It is clear that, as Waltz claims, “a structural defect requires a structural remedy.” The massive incentives which push political leaders towards war will not be removed until international anarchy ends. Perhaps long-term peace is faintly possible in an anarchical system, but it would be exceptionally hard to achieve in a system which is essentially zero-sum, or close to it. The EU is itself a “structural remedy” to the problem of anarchy: by pooling the sovereignty and economies of European states to a significant degree, it has mitigated the destructive effects of anarchy in Europe and hence preserved peace.
In this brief explanation, I have not been able to do justice to the nuances of neo-realist IR theory. For those of you who remain unconvinced, I recommend reading Waltz’s works. At the very least Waltz’s theory is a useful tool with which to analyze European international relations. The neo-realist perspective, I shall be arguing, supports the view that the EU, and Britain’s continued membership of it, are vital for the preservation of peace in Europe in this century.

Part 2: 20th-Century International Relations Through a Neo-Realist Lens

Let us reconsider some of the events of 20th-century international relations through a neo-realist lens. It is important to bear in mind what a neo-realist lens does not give us. Neo-realists do not pay much attention to, for example, cultural factors relevant to the outbreak of war, such as nationalism. The neo-realist theory is hence incomplete. But that does not mean it has no explanatory value. We can agree that international anarchy and the resulting security dilemmas are a major contribution to the outbreak of inter-state war while insisting that cultural factors play a role too. But recall that the neo-realist theory suggests that, under anarchy, even states which have a culture which favours peace find it hard to avoid militaristic policies.

The historical analysis which I am about to provide, therefore, is in some important ways simplistic. It is not intended to be in any way comprehensive. My aim is instead to use the neo-realist theory to pick up on some of the major contributing factors to the outbreak of the two World Wars. Later, I will argue that the EU is making sure that the same tragic patterns do not recur in this century.

The maintenance of peace in the first half of the last century was made difficult by the growing power of Germany, which had been developing significantly since its unification in 1871. Germany’s power came to utterly overshadow that of any of its near rivals, taken individually: consider that during WW1 not even France, Russia and Britain together could defeat Germany without the intervention of the US, while Germany lacked a single major-power ally. The pre-eminence of German economic might and its potential for military strength remain highly important factors in today’s geopolitical and diplomatic landscape, as I will argue below.

As Paul W. Schroeder points out (2), both the First and Second World Wars were “about a two-sided German problem”. In both cases, Germany’s rise caused security problems both to the East and West of Germany.

First, in the East, Russia, conscious of its comparative industrial backwardness and its diplomatic isolation, grew scared by Germany, particularly after German leaders changed course from neutrality in diplomatic disputes over the Balkans to backing Austo-Hungary against the Russians. As a result, Russian leaders became increasingly assertive and unwilling to make any strategic concessions to Germany and Austro-Hungary. After several close shaves during diplomatic crises over Balkan affairs, Russian intransigence eventually contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914, when Russian leaders refused to make any concessions to Austro-Hungary and intervened with force to preserve their ally Serbia’s sovereignty.

In the West, Germany’s rise caused similar fear in France. France’s vulnerability to Germany was made painfully clear in 1871, when Bismarck won a rapid victory in the Franco-Prussian war. The French political elite aligned with, and heavily invested in, Russia from 1891, in an effort to reduce their vulnerability to Germany. However, the result was that German leaders felt they were surrounded, especially after their failure to secure British alliance or neutrality later in the 1890s. (Britain too was worried by Germany’s rise, particularly in the naval arena). In this situation, German leaders like von Schlieffen reasoned that it would be preferable to pursue an aggressive strategy in a crisis situation: if France could quickly be eliminated, Germany would avoid fighting a difficult war on two fronts. This was close to the strategy eventually pursued in 1914.

Next, consider the prelude to the Second World War. As Germany re-armed, France was once again left highly vulnerable. Although on the winning side in WW1, France was left economically prostrate and politically divided after 1918. To make matters worse, the great strife in Russia during and after the Communist revolution, and the poor relations between the USSR and the West, left France minus one major ally they had in 1914. Meanwhile, the US had returned to isolationism. The problem of Franco-German cooperation had not been satisfactorily addressed by post-WW1 diplomatic and political changes.

To Germany’s East, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires after WW1 made way for the formation of a panoply of smaller national states such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. These, however, were economically weak and divided among themselves. Support from Britain, France and the US was minimal. On the one hand, the new Eastern European states feared risking German anger by aligning closely with France and Britain. On the other hand, France and Britain were reluctant to take on the burden of protecting the borders of small and isolated Eastern European states, which in any case would, in their view, be hard to defend from German or Soviet attack. In the end, the isolated Eastern European states made for easy targets for resurgent German aggression, and the Soviets and Germans divided Eastern Europe up between them, putting Germany in a dominant position in Europe and leading to global war.
The point of considering the “two sided” problem caused by Germany’s rise, and the ensuing developments, is to establish that the pursuit of peace in Europe in the first half of the 20th century was made exceptionally difficult by the following three factors:

1) The anarchical nature of the international system, which meant that Germany’s rise caused strategic dilemmas for both Germany itself and neighbouring states, leading to a vicious cycle of aggression and conflict.

2) In particular, France’s vulnerability to Germany made it highly difficult for those two states to cooperate economically or politically, since French gain seemed to amount to a German loss, and vice versa. This was a significant contributing factor in leading to the outbreak of the Two World Wars, both fought between pro-German and pro-French coalitions.

3) Furthermore, the vulnerability of states to the east of Germany (including, at times, Russia and the Soviet Union) led to diplomatic problems, like the Balkan crisis of July 1914 and the Sudetenland crisis of 1938, and a lack of cooperation. German leaders were hence able to dominate Eastern Europe, making Germany all the more threatening to France, Russia/USSR and even the US. German dominance in Eastern Europe, while especially marked during the early years of WW2, was also eminent during WW1 (consider the dominant German position in the East at the time of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, prior to US intervention). In Schroeder’s view, instability in Eastern Europe was the primary trigger of both World Wars.

Part 3: The European Union and International Relations Today

In light of Waltz’s argument that anarchy in the international sphere imposes strong incentives on state leaders to pursue aggressive, militaristic policies, it is natural to think that, for the cause of world peace, some form of sovereign international governance must be introduced. Recall Waltz’s claim that “a structural defect requires a structural remedy”. The formation of a global state would end international anarchy, affording the potential to create an international system based on mutual advantage and universal security. Waltz himself believes that a global state would prove impossible to establish. Even if he is right, though, that does not mean that the project of sovereign international governance is dead in the water. Sovereign international governance could be set up at a regional level, as a second-best alternative. This would end the anarchical state of affairs within certain regions, making peace within the region significantly easier to maintain.

This is the most important raison d’etre of the European Union. After two incredibly tragic and bloody inter-state World wars kicked off by fault-lines in Europe’s diplomatic sphere, some leading Europeans realized that the zero-sum nation-state political system was, in significant part, to blame for the chaos of the past half-century. It had to be changed. The European Union project today marks a brave attempt to remove anarchy within one of the world’s historically most volatile, war-prone regions, thus promoting peace.

To understand how the European Union’s existence is currently so crucial to the maintenance of peace in the long-term, consider how the EU neatly resolves the “two-sided” German problem which so tragically contributed to the grief of the 20th century.
First, there is the issue of Franco-German cooperation. The initial point of the European Economic Community was to pave the way for Franco-German cooperation by tying the fortunes of the French economy to the German economy and vice versa. By placing France and West Germany in one economic unit, leaders of both countries have much more of an incentive to promote the interests of the other nation. In such a context, aggression by one state against the other would be obviously self-defeating. As George C. Marshall put it, “the remedy lies in breaking the vicious cycle and restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole” (my emphasis). Marshall’s strategy of prioritizing the economic future of Europe as a whole differed markedly from that of the Allied leaders in the post-WW1 settlements, which involved a deliberate attempt to weaken the economies not just of Germany but all states on the losing side of the conflict (see Steiner 2005). Marshall’s strategy has proved far more successful. Economically, the EU and its predeccesor organizations have removed the zero-sum competition which existed between France and Germany before 1945. So the European Union, from its earliest days, healed one of the fault lines originally thrown open by the unification and rise of Germany, namely tension and conflict between France and Germany.

Since 1990, the inclusion of Eastern European states in the EU has helped address the second “side” of the problem. Recall that the major problems for Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century were A) The division and weakness of states to the East of Germany, and B) the lack of support Eastern European states had from Western states. These twin problems made the region highly volatile: from the perspective of a great power seeking to advance its own power and security at the expense of its major rivals, Eastern Europe made for rich pickings. Moreover, the two problems, A and B, were mutually reinforcing. The weaker and more divided Eastern Europe became, the more strategically onerous it was for France and Britain to take on responsibility for protecting East European states. The more France and Britain distanced themselves from Eastern Europe diplomatically, the more vulnerable Eastern European states became. The situation was a vicious cycle.

The EU has addressed both these problems: by bringing Eastern European states into a wider political and economic bloc, they become more unified among themselves (problem A) and also more closely linked economically to Western European states, giving the latter more incentive to maintain the security of their Eastern European allies (problem B). If the EU collapses or is significantly weakened, I fear there would be little reason preventing the two-sided problem, which made peace so hard to preserve in Europe in the last century, emerging once more.

It is unfortunate that Russia could not be integrated into the wider Western/European bloc after the collapse of the Soviet Union (though perhaps this was never practically feasible). The “New Cold War” situation of poor relations between Russia and the West, which has gradually snowballed over the last decade, entails a particular danger to European security.
Russia itself presents a formidable enough security threat to Europe on its own, according to estimates conducted by the Pentagon in 2014. (3) Presently, however, it seems unlikely that Russia would seriously consider a unilateral large-scale attack on a NATO member-state, since its economic and military forces are already being stretched far enough by the war in Ukraine, its intervention in the Middle East, and sanctions imposed by Western states.

The more troubling concern is that Russia’s assertiveness could win it more allies in Europe. The vast majority of far-right nationalist parties (e.g. the Front National, UKIP, PVV, etc.) in Europe admire Putin, and seek closer relations with Russia. At the same time, those parties express deep misgivings about the EU, and US-led international organizations such as NATO. The vote share of those far-right parties has been steadily increasing, and now averages around 15% in many Western European states. Also, as Cas Mudde demonstrates in an important paper (4), the ideological sympathies of a much wider section of European society than that lie with the far right, even if that sympathy does not always translate to support in the ballot box. Perhaps most strikingly, 57% of German citizens recently polled said they would not want German soldiers to stand in defence of Poland and the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion of those nations, according to a survey conducted by Bertelsmann Stiftlung and the Institute of Foreign Affairs conducted in March 2016.



Furthermore, in 2014, the former leader of the German Social Democratic Party, Matthias Platzcek, advised that “the annexation of Crimea [by Russia in 2014] be retroactively recognised by international law, so that it be acceptable for all”. (“All” seems to exclude Ukranians, on Platzcek’s view). This is a clear indication that some centrist European politicians, as well as the far-right ones, seek to re-direct their nation’s foreign policies to the tune of appeasement of Putin.

What is the danger here? One problem with Platzcek’s statement, and the view that Germany ought not to defend Poland and the Baltic states, is that it shows disregard for the rights of Eastern European states. If German leaders opted for greater reconciliation with Putin and stepped away from cooperation with the EU, NATO and the USA, the security situation of Eastern European states would look even more precarious than it does currently. A German-Russian accord could spell utter disaster for Eastern Europe, as it did in 1939. Recall my conclusion in Part 2, that the weakness of states to the east of Germany was one of the major contributing factors to the outbreak of world war in the 20th century. It is imperative to guard against this rift being re-opened.

What has this has to do with the United Kingdom? Firstly, while it remains in the EU, the United Kingdom has a clear economic interest in preserving the security of Eastern European states. The more Britain is bound to Europe economically and politically, the less likely British governments will be to return to the isolationist approach to Europe which Britain often adopted in the 20th century. British isolationism would drastically reduce the stability of Eastern Europe, leaving East European states more isolated and vulnerable.
Secondly, whether Britain remains in the EU is bound to have a serious impact on Berlin’s strategic direction. Germany is faced with a choice: it can continue strongly siding with the EU and US against Russia, as Merkel has done, or it could opt for an appeasement-style approach as indicated by Platzcek and those Germans who would not want to stand in the way of further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. If Britain leaves the EU, the cost of continuing Merkel’s strategy goes up significantly. Regarding Eastern Europe, German leaders will be even more reluctant to take the already-unpopular and formidable task of defending Poland and/or the Baltic States if they are less confident they can count on British support. Moreover, with Britain less attached to the continent, Russia may come to be seen as a threat to Germany itself, particularly given that Germany lacks a sizeable military. In such a situation, the pressure on Berlin to manage the Russian threat through a policy of appeasement will only increase. United, Europe presents a formidable barrier to Russian expansionism; divided, it could quite easily succumb to it.

The principal objection to my case will perhaps be the idea that, even without the EU, or a strong EU, NATO should be sufficient to keep peace in Europe. But just because you inherited two bodyguards does not necessarily give you reason to sack one; one must consider the gravity of the threat one faces. More importantly, the existence, and membership of, NATO in themselves give little reason for member-states to maintain a policy of alliance with fellow NATO members. Contrast it with the EU which, as mentioned above, gives state leaders to support other members, due to the economic and political integration which it fosters. NATO is simply a formal institution of alliance, like the League of Nations was. But if a nation no longer sees an interest in maintaining alliance with other member states, there is nothing to stop it leaving, or simply ignoring fellow member-states’ calls for help. Consider Germany leaving the League of Nations in 1933, and other League members failing to come to China’s aid following the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Clearly, then, the mere existence of a multilateral defence-based alliance is insufficient to keep peace if the underlying mechanics of the international system are zero-sum. NATO has its uses, but to keep NATO strong, the underlying economic and political links which bind its members together must be held fast. None of these is more important than the EU.

Additionally, note that the principal weight behind NATO is the United States. It may be thought that the US will maintain European security and contain the threat of Russia regardless of whether Britain leaves the EU. But the rise of isolationist politicians such as Trump makes clear that continued US commitment to protecting the security of its allies, particularly distant ones such as the Baltic States, cannot be assumed to extend indefinitely into the future. While Obama has strongly committed to protecting the security of Eastern European states, even he has tried to lower the extent to which Europe is dependent on the US for resolving its security issues. (5) There is a growing sense in the US that it is unfair for Americans to foot the bill for European security, which could be seen as a European responsibility: very few European states currently meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, while the US far exceeds that amount. Also, a declining US commitment to Eastern European security partly reflects the geopolitical reality that the US is now stretched uncomfortably on several fronts, perhaps most importantly in East Asia. The most prudent course is to mitigate the extent that Europe is dependent on the American crutch, given that said crutch cannot be counted on to remain strong and present in the near future. This means avoiding complete dependence on NATO, and, by implication, keeping the EU as strong and unified as possible.

For these reasons, the EU is absolutely vital for keeping Europe united and for continuing to dampen the fault lines which caused chaos in the 20th century, namely the competition and conflict between France and Germany, and the weakness and vulnerability of Eastern Europe. The EU would be substantially weakened by a British exit, giving German leaders less incentives to continue a pro-EU, anti-Putin policy. Britain leaving the EU would hence be a major step on the road to further disunity and, eventually, violent conflict. This is the most important reason to vote for Britain to remain in the EU on the 23rd of June.



(1) Waltz’s seminal works are Man, the State, and War (1959) and Theory of International Politics (1979), see especially the latter, Ch. 6, for neo-realist explanation of inter-state war.
(2) Paul W. Schroeder, “The Lights that Failed, and Those that Never Lit”, The International History Review, Vol. 28 (1), 2006, p. 122
(3) See
(4) Cas Mudde, “The Populist Radical Right: A Pathological Normalcy”, West European Politics Vol. 33 (6), 2010.
(5) See

The European Union, Peace, and Brexit

A Shift to Isolationism in Britain and Germany Would Spell Danger for Eastern Europe

The World Wars, historian Paul W. Schroeder argues, were both “about a similar two-sided German problem”. In the West, Germany’s rise threatened “the Atlantic world”. It was, however, to the East of Germany, Schroeder claims, where the major fault lines lied: conflict “grew essentially out of a fundamental breakdown of relationships in central and Eastern Europe”.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union (EU) has been instrumental in keeping diplomatic relationships in central and Eastern Europe in relatively good shape. By gradually integrating more former Soviet satellites into the wider European economic and political bloc, EU leaders have ensured that individual member-states have more reason to support each other. This is especially important for newly independent Eastern European states. In the inter-war period, many of these states were left isolated by the rest of Europe. They hence became easy prey for Germany and the Soviet Union. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the security of other Eastern European states has started to appear fragile again. Now is the time for the EU to really prove its worth. Its leaders must ensure that the mistake of abandoning Eastern Europe, which led to catastrophe in the 1930s, is not repeated.

With this in mind, it is highly troubling to learn that approximately 57% of Germans do not think German soldiers should stand in defence of Poland or the Baltic states in the event of a Russian attack, according to a survey conducted by the German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftlung in March. As The Economist reported in 2014 (“A New Ostpolitik”, 29th November 2014), many prominent German Social Democrat (SPD) politicians favour a foreign-policy realignment, to the tune of appeasement of Putin. In calling for retroactive recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea by international law, to make it “acceptable for all”, former SPD leader Matthias Platzcek betrayed a disregard for the rights of Eastern European states that harks back to the isolationism of the inter-war years.

Germany, then, lies at a strategic fork in the road. One path is to continue the anti-Putin line currently pursued by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The alternative is to appease Putin; relaxing German commitments to support the territorial integrity of the states between Germany and Russia (notwithstanding Germany’s obligations as an EU and NATO member). The latter would mark a radical change of course, but would apparently enjoy considerable public support. The danger is that it would be a significant step back towards volatility in Eastern Europe, disturbing old fault lines that are better left to heal.

British voters considering their decision for the imminent EU referendum should pay close attention to these developments. Whether the United Kingdom remains in the EU is bound to significantly affect Berlin’s deliberations about Russia and Eastern Europe. As an EU member, tied to Eastern member-states economically, and open to European migrants, Britain has an abundantly clear interest in preserving the security of Eastern European states. Out of the EU, this is not so transparent. British leaders may be tempted to revert to the traditional policy of isolationism. In consequence, the cost for Germany of maintaining Merkel’s policy will increase. If Berlin is less able to count on British support in standing against Putin, it will be all the more tempting to appease him instead. United, the EU presents a formidable barrier against Russian expansionism. Divided, it might just succumb to it. This amounts to one of the strongest reasons for Britons to vote “Remain” on 23rd June.

Paul W. Schroeder, “The Lights That Failed, and Those Never Lit”, International History Review Vol. 28, No. 1, March 2006, pp. 119-126.

A Philosophical Explanation of my Conversion to Catholicism, Part 1

Philosophy has been important to my personal life, since it was in large part for philosophical reasons that I turned away from atheism and converted to Catholicism. Insofar as people who know me are unaware of the nature of the philosophical issues and thoughts that have interested me, there is an important part of my recent history and my current identity which must be at least somewhat mysterious to them. This is unfortunate, and it would be nice to remedy the situation.

Another problem is that many people consider religious belief and conversion to involve some kind of subjective, irrational leap of faith. In my case, though, I tried as much as I could to avoid any such thing. I also want to explain that I did not convert because of a sudden change in my attitude or personality, but instead that I came to believe that theism, and Catholicism in particular, provided a more coherent framework in which to accommodate many of the views that I already had as an atheist (especially moral views).

So, I have resolved to write a number of posts which I call a philosophical explanation of my conversion to Catholicism.

I mentioned above that I attempted to avoid making my decision on the basis of subjective or irrational considerations. Indeed throughout the entire process, from the beginning of my questioning my atheism to my confirmation, I tried to base my decisions on rational grounds. But since this was the basis of my approach, it itself stands in need of scrutiny. Thus two questions are raised: A) is it right to follow rational grounds when it comes to questions about religious belief, and B) how do we tell what “rational grounds” are?

In the remainder of this post I will try to answer question A, arguing that one should always attempt to base one’s beliefs on rational grounds.

Various philosophers, such as Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and, more recently, Alvin Plantinga, have disagreed with me on this point. But I believe that to some extent all these philosophers have put question A in the wrong category. The question is essentially a moral one. The question is whether it is morally problematic to believe without rational grounds. If it is not morally problematic, then why should we care about whether people have rational grounds or not? But the above-mentioned philosophers do not, to my knowledge predominantly address the moral aspects of this question.

Modern philosophers are sometimes (justly) critical of appeals to “moral reasons”. This is largely because in some modern ethical traditions, such as Kantianism, morality is presented in such a way that it becomes a kind of “optional extra” which is often irrelevant to practical interests and concerns. Thus Kant infamously rules out acting in certain ways in any circumstances on moral grounds, even in situations where acting in the purportedly morally prohibited way would appear to have much better consequences. As well as this, modern moral philosophy is dominated by consideration of cases of emergencies, e.g. where we can divert a train carriage so that it kills 1 person instead of 5.[1] (My objection to this approach is that philosophers start with the hard cases before working out what they ought to do in easy cases). All this gives the impression that morality is something which applies only in special cases, rather than in everyday life.

I believe that this conception of the ethical is fundamentally damaging and wrong, and this is not the sense in which I shall be using the words “moral” and “ethical”.  I have found Aquinas’ approach to ethical matters to be much more useful and realistic.

Aquinas begins his account of ethics (the Prima Secundae of his Summa Theologica) by noting that every human being has certain goals. To some of these goals we may attach mere instrumental value – they are valuable only because they help attain something else – but some of them we must attach genuine value to. The reason for this is that otherwise we would be unable to answer the question: “why are you doing something, rather than nothing?” As Aquinas says, we act because we intend to achieve something, and we choose to strive towards this because we think that achieving whatever that is will be better than not achieving it.

It has been suggested to me that Aquinas’ argument is mistaken, because there could be a person who is indifferent about everything, but decides to act (to do something rather than nothing) on a completely arbitrary basis. But arbitrary can mean either “based on the will or inclination of the person involved” or “random”. If we take it to mean the former, then the person acts because they want to, and hence we can say that they attach a certain value to doing what they want over doing what they do not want. If we take it to mean the latter, then I would call into question whether it is humanly possible to make every single decision on a completely random basis. Secondly, if somebody did manage to do this, then they would attach a certain value to acting randomly over not acting randomly. Hence, you cannot escape attaching value to something or other.

What this means is that we all have our goals, and when we have our goals, we are also in need of strategies to achieve them. For Aquinas, ethics has two tasks: to tell us which goals we should have, and to give us the best strategy for achieving them. On this way of looking at things, ethics cannot be sidelined or irrelevant; it is, rather, heavily related to our everyday practices and to our goals and our (prospects of) happiness.

From this we can see why question A is a moral one. The strategy of attempting to justify one’s beliefs as best as one can differs from the strategy which says that we can neglect that attempt, at least in some areas. Which strategy is better?

Here is the problem for the second strategy. Beliefs which are not supported by reason or evidence are more likely to fail to accord with how the world is. For example, if somebody asks me to count the number of chairs in a room, and I guess a number without having looked in the room recently, then in all likelihood the response I will give to the enquirer will be false. If they trust me, then they will form the belief that x chairs are in the room, when in fact (say) there are not x chairs in the room. This is an example of a belief that fails to accord with how the world is. We categorize beliefs which do not accord with how the world is in this direct way (i.e. the belief says something which just isn’t the case) as false.[2]

Recall that we all have our goals to pursue; goals which we think there is some intrinsic value in achieving, and that we need strategies to reach these goals. It is not easy to reach our goals and be happy, so we need a plan. This is where beliefs come in. We do not just have one strategy, but many strategies, most of which relate to shorter-term goals, but which are designed with our ideal goals in mind. When constructing these strategies, our beliefs are the raw material. Going back to the chair example: on the basis of coming to believe there are x chairs in the room, we will then continue to act and plan on the basis of our belief (e.g. by deciding whether to fetch more chairs or not). If our belief is false, this is likely to have the result that we will not take the appropriate action; either we won’t have enough chairs for everybody or we will waste time fetching more chairs.

False beliefs hence need to be guarded against. If we scale up from trivial examples, we can see that the more false beliefs one has, the more likely it is for one’s strategies to fail. A good strategy takes us from being in a starting state S to an end state E. If we know the nature of S, then sound knowledge of which actions are likely to cause certain outcomes can give us what we need to take us from S to E. But if we have false beliefs, then we may lack not only in this vital causal knowledge, but in knowledge of the state we are currently in. If we misperceive S, then we may end up constructing a strategy which would be effective in taking us from S to E, but since we are not in S, it will be useless to us. Unless we are very lucky, or our estimate of our own situation was not very far off, we will not end up at E. As E is our ethical goal, guarding against false beliefs is ethically imperative.

Beliefs can be bad in ways other than being false, as in the number of chairs example. For example, a bad idea can also be misconceived (based on a misunderstanding of one of the concepts which constitutes the belief). Misconceptions are especially pernicious because they can lead us to either i) nonsensical beliefs or ii) interpret a piece of evidence is an unhelpful, wrong by applying a bad concept to it. For instance, if I wrongly thought tables to be types of chairs, the answer I would give in the above case would more likely be wrong. We can see that misconceptions, too, could give us a bad understanding of S, E, or of how to get from S to E. Hence, we have a very strong moral reason to avoid them.

It is obvious enough to anybody that having mistaken beliefs about matters of commonplace empirical fact needs to be avoided. But I used the number of chairs example simply for ease of exposition. The more important question for my purposes here is whether there is good reason for thinking that religious beliefs are also of the kind which we must take measures to ensure are not false. I have been informed that some religious people claim that even if their religious beliefs turned out to be false (e.g. God did not exist), they would still continue adhering to their religious way of life, since it simply happens to be, in their view, the best way of living, regardless.

I am happy to accommodate the view that many religious practices, such as taking time for reflection and personal thought in prayer and charity, are ethically good, useful and constructive. There is hence a grain of truth in the objection. Nevertheless, I do not think that religious beliefs escape the moral argument for trying to make sure that one’s beliefs are justified, for the following reasons.

An initial point is that religious beliefs are always connected with one’s moral beliefs, and in particular for our purposes we can see here that a religious believer will have a somewhat different conception of E to an atheist or agnostic. This is because the ultimate end that religious people believers pursue will surely have something to do with standing in a certain relationship with God. But if God does not exist, then their goal, E, will be impossible to achieve. It just seems intrinsically bad to live with one’s primary goal being something which is in fact impossible, because it will lead to inevitable frustration. This, however, is a minor point, and I want my argument here to be accessible to persons who have very different conceptions of E.

The more serious point is that religious belief must have a significant effect on our assessment of S, the state we (collectively) are in. For example, if I believe God exists and is benevolent, there is good reason to expect that God will, in the long term at least, do what is best for us. Then suppose we reason to the belief that what is best for us is to have an eternal life. Then we conclude on this basis that we will have an eternal life. Our perception of the state we are in would thus be radically changed, since Earthly death is no longer the end, in this view. I believe that this is bound to have some effect on our moral reasoning, particularly concerning questions of life and death. My detailed reasons for believing this will be explained in a later section of this project. But it should be clear enough that our view on whether there is an afterlife affects our view of the state we are in and hence affects our planning. For example, a Christian friend of mine is of the belief that if he was in an emergency situation where he could save the life either of an atheist friend or a pious Christian friend but not both, he should save the atheist because if the atheist died, they would not go to heaven, but the Christian would.

Another example of how religious beliefs affect our perception of S is that the religious person holds that one important feature of S is that we bear some relationship to God. If we bear a relationship with God, then, one might say, we need to sustain and nourish that relationship through an active prayer life focusing on communicating with God. But if God does not exist, then while it may be useful to reflect in quiet, the time of the prayer that focuses on God would have been better spent focused on some worldly matter more relevant to genuine ethical concerns.

A final point is that most religious believers think that certain persons and texts should be treated as having special authority (though not necessarily complete authority) due to divine significance. If, however, God does not exist, then there is absolutely no reason to grant such authority. If we give views of certain persons or texts a special authority, this will affect our other beliefs about S, E, and how to get from S to E, even if for no other reason than that it leads us to spend less time investigating alternative belief systems.

The examples I have given of how religious beliefs could affect our views of S will not apply to every religion, or every possible kind of religious belief. They are instead being used as illustrations of how religious beliefs will affect S. If anybody has some counterexamples of religious belief systems which do not affect S in a similar way, I would be interested to hear of them, but I must say I find it difficult to conceive of such possibilities.

Before concluding, I need to consider a final and important objection to my response to question A. It might be thought that by insisting on taking a rational approach to religious belief and its justification, I am thereby beginning my project with a methodology that is bound to distort the proper nature of religious belief and experience, and therefore lead me either to scepticism or to a narrow, impoverished vision of theism. This line of objection is motivated by the thought that an emotional response to experience of life is an important aspect of what it is to have faith. This part I agree with. What I disagree with is the next premise that this objector would need to make that claim incompatible with my argument, namely that my approach lacks the tools to take emotional experience into account. It is easy for me to maintain that while defence of religious doctrines must in part based on rational argument, for the reasons discussed above, rational argument is not the only tool that I will need for my explanation of my decision to convert to Catholicism. Moreover, I reject the idea that rationality and emotionality are separate spheres, which have nothing to say to each other. On my view it is rational to love, and it would be a mistake to think that either love or rationality is somehow more fundamental than the other. My reasons for thinking this will be made clear in the next section, in which I treat of the nature of rationality (answering question B).

I take it I have established that the strategy of attempting to ensure that one’s beliefs are justified is considerably more ethically satisfactory than the alternative. False or misconceived beliefs interfere with one’s strategies for attaining goodness and happiness, and so they must be guarded against. For this reason I disagree with Plantinga’s view that the religious believer does not need to produce evidence which favours her beliefs in order for them to be justified.[3] The rightness of my decision to convert hence lives or dies with the success or failure of the arguments I will put forth in the following sections. Before presenting those arguments, however, I need to further elucidate and justify my method by considering the nature of rationality itself.

[1] Cf. David Wiggins, “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life”, 1988.

[2] I am not hereby subscribing to what is called the “correspondence theory of truth”. I concur with Wittgenstein that the meaning of a word is not equivalent to some object which the word stands for. My conception of accordance here does not mean correspondence in any direct sense. But there is an important sense in which the belief “2+2=5” does not accord with reality, simply because if we go about things with the view that if we add 2 objects to a group of 2 thinking that there will be 5, our ideas about what to expect will consistently be frustrated by how things turn out. I am not thereby committed to the view that mathematics (or any other branch of knowledge) is “mind-independent”, or that true mathematical statements represent states of affairs, only that how the world is has some bearing on the justification of such beliefs. For more explanation of my position here, see my essay “Objectivity and Subjectivity” recently published on my blog.

[3] Alvin Plantinga, “Warranted Christian Belief”, 2000.

Supplementary Post on Nationalism

Recently I posted the following article on The Human Writes blog:

The purpose of this post is to address some questions which people have asked me about what I said in that article.

Although I continue to maintain that the argument in the Human Writes post is sound and the conclusion (that we should reject nationalism) is correct, its subject matter is very tricky. For the sake of brevity, I had to bypass some difficult debates in that post. But I am keen to explore the issues further, and if any reader has other questions or criticisms on this subject, I will be happy to address them at length.

The question which I have been asked is: what about cases where nationalism functions or could function as a means of liberating oppressed people, e.g. victims of colonization, the Palestinians, etc. ?

This amounts to an objection to the argument I made in my original post, I think, for the following reasons. Although my argument against nationalism is philosophical, and hence theoretical in character, it is intended to have practical applications and political significance. If anti-nationalist principles have repugnant consequences, such as denying subjugated groups the means to fight, then they are morally faulty. This is not to assume consequentialism. I merely assume that consequences are important when it comes to evaluating moral principles and arguments.

Michael Walzer has made a similar argument against my position. Anti-nationalism is all well and good for those lucky few who live in peaceful regions with mature nation-states, such as Europe, but what about those such as the Kurds, self-conceived “national” groups who face persecution from many sides and whose security could be drastically enhanced by the creation of a national state?

Here is my response to the objection. An anti-nationalist necessarily advocates the end of the nation-state system at some stage, but not necessarily immediately. Just as a Marxist can consistently accept that for pragmatic reasons, capitalist policies are necessary for a temporary period before the revolution, likewise the anti-nationalist can accept that, occasionally, decisions that look very much like outright (principled) nationalist ones can be best in certain situations.

We live in a nationalist world and so on occasion there will not be much choice but to fight fire with fire, and answer nationalist aggression with moves such as creating new nation-states for oppressed nations and asserting the importance of respecting a nation-state’s sovereignty (e.g. during the diplomatic response to Nazism). In some situations doing this will actually be good for the welfare of humanity generally (which is the priority for the anti-nationalist). But anti-nationalism remains distinct from nationalism when it comes to the foreign policy advice it counsels, because for the anti-nationalist such measures are mere means, and temporary ones at that, rather than ends in themselves.

The difference between nationalists and anti-nationalists becomes clear in cases where foreign policy makers have room for manoevre. In times of war, aggression or oppression the range of strategies which have acceptable consequences is likely to be small, and it will be hard to deviate much from the status quo. But in times of peace and prosperity, there is much more freedom to move away from nation-state institutions (e.g. Europe post-1945).

On top of that, if as anti-nationalists we agree that the moral priority is the welfare of all and that certain groups are not more valuable than others, then there may be cases where certain practical solutions in extreme cases which will look palatable to us which do not look palatable to the nationalist. There are cases where one group is so oppressed that it needs priority from others so that it will be safe, but this will partly be because if that group’s suffering is left unaddressed then that will constitute serious harm not just to that group but to the rest of humanity too – from the anti-nationalist perspective, everybody’s interests are strongly connected.

Objectivity and Subjectivity

Few terms carry as much authority in debate as “objective” and “subjective”.

The latter is often used (consciously or otherwise) to shut down debate by giving the impression that there are no impartial standards for the rightness or wrongness of a principle. For example, aesthetic and ethical matters are frequently said to be “subjective”. Often, an assertion that a certain matter is subjective ends an argument. For example, I recently had a debate about how we might distinguish between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. I suggested that appropriation is where an outsider makes use of a feature of a culture for their own purposes, whereas exchange involves some aspect of learning about, respecting and adopting the purposes of the feature in the relevant culture. In retort, I was told that the entire matter was “subjective and therefore fraught with difficulty”. My interlocutor did not explain the source of the difficulty. He seemed to think that merely labelling the issue as subjective was sufficient to undermine my claim.

Conversely, the label “objective” is often used in an attempt to make something immune from criticism. The most common usages of this term are attempts to defend science, some particular piece of scientific evidence or practice, certain moral principles or rules, and mathematics.

I suggest that the authority generally invested in these terms is false, and that their popularity is due to a misleading philosophical idea, which is a serious obstacle to intellectual progress.

What exactly does it mean to say that a matter is subjective or objective?

That is a difficult question to answer and it is not, to my knowledge, one which has been given a great deal of attention. That itself is some evidence to believe that when we use these terms we are in thrall to certain assumptions, which have enjoyed great influence over our way of thinking and arguing without our noticing them. If that thought is correct, then by attacking the authority of the terms “objective” and “subjective” we are also challenging these assumptions.

The best explanation I have been able to come up with of the meaning of objectivity and subjectivity, as those words are generally used, is the following: something is objective if it is true or false mind-independently. Something is subjective if it is true or false mind-dependently.

A mind-independent truth remains true regardless of what anybody thinks or feels about it. It is therefore, presumably, made true by how the world is – that is, how the world is outside of the “mental sphere”. Thus we say that a scientific truth is objective because we believe it is a truth about the world external to us. “The laws of gravity will continue to operate even if nobody believes that they will, or if no person even existed.”

By contrast, the truth or falsity of aesthetic propositions is usually considered to be mind-dependent. Consider the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. This phrase is usually used to give the impression that whether something really is beautiful depends on people’s opinions about whether that thing is beautiful.

It is essential to notice that this division of truths into the categories mind-dependent and mind-independent makes sense only if a certain view of the relation between mind and world is already assumed. Namely, it assumes that the mental sphere and the “external” world are clearly separable and distinct. Moreover, on this view, changes in one sphere need not affect the other. If, on the contrary, mind and world are closely connected and mutually affecting, then an explanation that purports to mark some proposition as purely mind-dependently or mind-independently true will be incomplete, since both mind-local and world-local factors will feature in a satisfactory explanation of the truth or falsity of a proposition. On this view things are not divided into minds and world, but rather there is a world which contains minds. Minds are just units within the world and there is no reason to think they are distinct from the world (although they may have distinctive properties).

The view that mind and world are clearly separable, distinct, and that changes in one need not cause changes in the other comes from Descartes, and it is enormously influential. It has, however, been attacked by Wittgenstein, who proposed something like the alternative view mentioned in the above paragraph.

Here I will not seek to show that Wittgenstein’s view of the relation between mind and world is correct. What I do hope to have shown is that Descartes’ view cannot be assumed without further argument, since an alternative and apparently equally plausible view is available which is not compatible with it. Hence, unless you have an argument in favour of Descartes’ view, you cannot invest any authority in the terms “objective” and “subjective”.

On the alternative (Wittgensteinian) understanding of the relation of mind and world, it is not ruled out that some truths might be entirely mind-dependent or mind-independent. However, if mind and world are closely connected and mutually affecting, the existence of such truths seems unlikely. I want to give some samples of explanations of moral and scientific propositions which can plausibly be classified as being partly mind-dependent and partly mind-independent.

Science is generally considered to be “objective”, and it does appear that scientific experiments give us direct information about how the world is independently of what anybody thinks about it. Scientific propositions are hence amongst the strongest candidates for mind-independent truths.

However, there is a strong case to say that scientific propositions are still partly mind-dependent. Any scientific hypothesis has to be formulated by using certain concepts. What the scientist looks for as evidence when it comes to empirically confirming or disconfirming the hypothesis will differ depending on her understanding of the concepts in the hypothesis. For example, Wittgenstein suggests, there could be an alien civilization which plays chess, only the moves are communicated by dance rather than on a board. If a human scientist went to study the aliens, they would likely conclude that the aliens do not play chess, since for us the meaning of “chess” is connected with certain customs, such as playing on a board, moving pieces, etc. Since this conceptual element comes into play in science, the results science gives us are partly dependent on mental decisions, such as how to define concepts.

Likewise, there is good reason to believe that the truth of moral propositions is partly mind-dependent and partly mind-independent. Hume influentially argued that sentiment alone lies at the root of morality, and this seems to me to be partly right. Who would deny that emotions and sentiments are relevant to morality? They are a central part of the human experience and a code of ethics which did not take that into account would be woefully unrealistic. But why think that Hume is right to say that there is nothing more to morality than sentiment? Why can’t natural facts about the world “outside” of the mind be relevant? For example, as a matter of contingent fact, human beings live in a state of dependency. We are dependent on others for food, water, love, and other precious resources. This may be so partly due to how our minds are, but not entirely, since it is partly due to our bodily, physical states, and is thus not entirely mind-dependent. Again, a code of ethics which failed to take our basic needs into account would be unrealistic and unhelpful.

I have just given two examples of explanations in which what is being explained is conceived as being partly mind-dependent and partly mind-independent, one regarding science and one regarding morality. When we assume that the categories objective and subjective are straightforward, neat, and useful, and think that the mere labelling of a matter as one or the other is sufficient to win or end an argument, we also fail to give explanations such as the ones just given enough respect, thought and, accordingly, criticism. I am not arguing here that those explanations are correct, although I believe that they are along the right lines. But we can scarcely even have a proper debate about whether they are right until we rid ourselves of the damaging dichotomy of objective and subjective that permeates so much philosophical debate. Let us rid ourselves of it: then things will start getting interesting.