the challenges of logic and emotion

How difficult it is to defend the things which we value and take for granted in Britain and the constitution. When I stop colleagues in the long carpeted corridors that seem to define the House of Commons and ask for their support – for the Union with Scotland, or the House of Lords, or upland farming, or small local charities – I often find myself dragged into an argument. Many find British practices illogical. I try to answer that these things work: that the House of Lords, for example, may be eccentrically selected but that it has good people and does a good job; that Union with Scotland may be frustrating – particularly when Salmond is using English money to provide freebies – but we would all miss the Union, desperately, if it disappeared. But these are arguments based on practice, not theory, on prudence, on tradition and identity. And many modern political arguments rely instead on clear waves of emotion and logic, which are hard to overcome.

I feel, for example, that we should not change our position on euthanasia, but it is a difficult point to argue. We all feel strongly for terminal patients, who are struggling to secure a humane and dignified end. Compassion for those who make the long journeys to clinics in Switzerland, and the risk their families face of prosecution, makes us want to act. And there is a philosophical problem with our current system. At the moment doctors can, if a suffering patient requests it, stop their treatment or turn off a life-support machine. This is legal because the doctor is not ‘directly causing death’ and because death is not the ‘intended effect’.  Doctors are not allowed to kill through lethal injection. Yet my colleagues point out that there is a logical problem here. If a patient is in such permanent pain that they no longer experience the gifts of life, and if they are requesting help with death, then killing them seems just as merciful and moral, perhaps even more so, than the current system of allowing patients to die. Thus both emotions and logic make them feel euthanasia should be legal in Britain (just as it is in Belgium, the Netherlands or Luxembourg).

The best counter-argument is based on the way humans behave and respond to each other.  You need to show how in practice a terminally-ill patient is often seen as a burden – a cost to the state, a financial and an emotional weight on their family – and is often aware of being so; how doctors, relatives, or patients can be easily influenced by this, even sub-consciously, so that the elderly or disabled patient feels pressured to ‘move on’. (This is why even today, in Holland, about two-thirds of requests for euthanasia are refused by doctors). Making euthanasia any easier will put those people at risk. But it is very difficult to counter the emotional claim that ‘something must be done’, and that the current system is illogical.

The same problem applies in intervention. Both emotions and rational logic convince many of my colleagues that we should be doing more. They feel very strongly for the Syrians who have lost their lives in peaceful protest. They criticise the logic of the current system, which allows intervention in Libya but not in Syria, when there is no moral difference between the regimes. They feel that citizens are the victims of mass atrocities, and if they are requesting help, then intervening should be justified – even without a UN resolution – as it was in Kosovo. I instead feel that we should not intervene unless there is a UN resolution and strong regional support; that we should very rarely put ‘boots on the ground;’ and that we should be very cautious about being dragged into Syria. This is not based on abstract moral principles, but on of the risks of invasion. From Vietnam to Iraq we have seen the temptations of power, of ambition, of pride, of fear, of humiliation. These factors entrap us. We should limit our risk. But such arguments for caution and humility seem cold-hearted and pessimistic beside the idealistic demands for more action.

Similar problems occur not only when you try to argue against the abolition of the House of Lords or the Union with Scotland, but in support for small hill-farmers or small charities. In every case, some abstract philosophical principle is quoted: ‘democracy’, ‘self-determination’, ‘efficiency and environmental protection’, ‘best value’. In every case, emotion and logic seem to demand a more radical, disruptive approach. In every case it is difficult to convince politicians of the dangers of change, because it is difficult to convince them of how much value there is in what currently exists, and how much will be lost when it is gone. It is difficult to explain that whatever the financial challenges, upland farms remain a central part of our communities, our services, and what we love about our country. It is difficult to explain that although a local charity may not appear as good on paper as a big national, it has the knowledge, experience and relationships to do a much better job.

Modern governments often praise tolerance, cultural understanding and consultation. They emphasise the fragility of complex systems in nature and the dangers of reckless progress. But their actions too often have a brutal simplicity. The clear, loud arguments of emotion and logic seem to be crushing so much that is sensible and valuable. It seems more and more difficult to remember the value of what we have done, what we already possess, instead of what – in the abstract – we would like to be.


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