Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

What politics can learn from the academic virtues

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One of the (many) things I and many others find off-putting about mainstream political discourse is the horrible polarising language that political activists use to dehumanise their opponents. In politics, one’s own team acts with good intentions and right reasons, and everyone else is wicked and irrational. Thus, we see Conservatives described as ‘wicked Tories’; they’re labelled ‘toffs’ who only act to benefit themselves and their friends whilst punishing the poor, whom they hate. Meanwhile, Labour are said to be engaged in a vicious class war grounded in the politics of envy. Now, every myth has an element of truth to it, and those caricatures no doubt resonate because there are genuinely awful people in politics (I’ve met plenty), but that doesn’t mean we should be content that this is how debate is carried out – we, the people, deserve better.

One place politicians might learn from is academia. As academics we are taught to argue in certain ways, and to exemplify certain virtues.

  • Academic practice is part of a pursuit of truth, whereas all too often political practice is in pursuit of victory. To pursue truth requires both wisdom and the courage to do what is right rather than what is popular or received.

  • Where political discourse often relies upon polemic and sophistry, the academic should exhibit both temperance and prudence in providing good reasons for belief. In politics, too often the aim is simply to win an argument by fair means or foul. The academic seeks to persuade by force of reason rather than rhetoric and must be prepared to abandon conclusions shown to be false.

  • The academic is taught to be charitable to opponents – to argue against the most charitable interpretation of an argument. In this way, our arguments are stronger, and avoid the fallacy of setting up a straw man to attack, something politicians do all too readily.

  • Academic practice; that of peer review, presentation, and challenge, requires academics to be willing to accept the possibility that their arguments may be flawed and to revise or abandon them accordingly. One might think of this as requiring the virtue of humility.

Were politicians prepared to adopt some of these academic virtues, I can’t help but feel that our politics would be a whole lot healthier. Mind you, it might also be nice if more academics adopted them too.

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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