If you’re a fan of Tough Decisions, then current British politics is an absolute bonanza for you. On the one hand, we have to make Tough Decisions about what to do in Syria, and on the other we have to make Tough Decisions about Trident and the nation’s capability to kill millions of people. You can tell that these are Tough Decisions because the punditocracy keep telling us just how tough they are and how important it is that the right decision is made before they all come down on the same side of the issue. None of the pontificators will have to actually go ahead and implement any of the things they advocate, but they’d all like you to know that it’s tough being an important columnist because you have to weigh up all the options at times like these and using your trademarked moral clarity is a wearying process.
In the end, though, all the Very Serious People will nod in unison and tell us that the single characteristic needed to be Prime Minister is the willingness to kill millions of people with the push of a button, and that said Prime Minister must be willing to authorise the dropping of bombs on people far away safe in the knowledge that when our bombs explode, they’re much safer than when their bombs explode. The punditocracy in full Very Serious mode is a sight to behold, now echoed by the Very Serious choir of supporters who’ll cheerlead the Tough Decisions on social media, while also ither vigorously denouncing or sadly shaking their heads at those who don’t want to accept the inherent logic of tough moral choices the Very Serious People have made.
The problem with this, as James Graham points out in a good post today, is that while the Serious People are denouncing those of us who won’t go along with them as suffering from a nirvana fallacy, they’re stuck in a fallacy of their own. James calls it the ‘hell fallacy’, and it drives the belief that everything is bad and corrupt and so the only way we can prevent things getting worse is by taking the official tough decision. Sure, some people who aren’t us may die – and the punditocracy will give a paragraph or two of consideration to them in their next column – but the argument will be that we need to make things worse for someone else now to prevent things being even worse for us and them in the future.
You might be thinking of suggesting that maybe there ought to be other ways to do this that perhaps aim for a better end than ‘maybe everything won’t fall apart until after I’m dead’, but unfortunately putting a huge amount of effort and time into making the world a better place through positive actions isn’t the sort of Tough Decision the Very Serious People approve of. That that course of action would give them an opportunity to do something other than tell everyone just how bad things are is not entirely unrelated to their unpopularity amongst them as a solution. Why go out and make a better world when telling people how bad the current one is pays a whole lot more?
The problem is that far too many of the basic assumptions that the Very Serious People base their assumptions on are granted without challenge, not least that they’re Very Serious and anyone coming from a different perspective is thus Silly (or sometimes just naive, if they want to be patronising). By presenting themselves as somehow being brave in their defence of power, rather than just taking the path of least resistance in supporting the establishment’s goals, they take a moral high ground that they haven’t earned. Once they’re up there, sneering at anyone who dares to suggest that maybe there might be another way, a good chunk of the argument has already been lost. We need to challenge the basis of their arguments, not just try and finesse the detail of them.