Eagleton Weighs In

In today’s Guardian:

Matt Cavanagh, the Blunkett aide who was revealed at the weekend as having written a book suggesting that employers might acceptably discriminate against black job applicants, seems to be a man who once had a philosophy but has now unaccountably mislaid it. Cavanagh appears to be arguing that since he consigned this proposal to paper, it is academic – meaning, perhaps, that in the real world it is not a good thing at all. For one who was possibly trained in logic, this is a serious sort of defence. There are indeed books in which you are allowed to float bizarre and offensive proposals confident in the knowledge that nobody will think you mean them seriously. But these are known as novels, not works of political theory.The modern age began in earnest when ideas ceased to matter…

I haven’t seen Matt Cavanagh himself mount this defence; rather, it’s what the people at the Home Office have been saying about him.For an alternative, less temperate response, try here.

I’m going back and forth on what I think about this case. I still think the broadsheet news reporting has been pretty crappy. Journalists keep writing about Cavanagh’s suggestion that unfair discrimination might in certain circumstances be “rational”, without pointing out that the word “rational” as it is habitually used in economics and, often enough, in philosophy can just refer to whatever it is that appears to me the best thing to do in order to realise whatever goals I might happen to have.

But enough people have emailed me to point out that Cavanagh’s views — both philosophically and politically — really are pretty right-wing, which raises the question of why, given that Mr. Blunkett clearly likes to be surrounded by free-thinking young men, he chooses particularly right-wing free-thinking young men by whom to be surrounded… I mean, if you want political theorists, this is a pretty left-leaning crowd.

(It reminds me of the Labour Party’s Commission on Social Justice ten years ago, whose first pamphlet, The Justice Gap, reflected on recent academic work on the idea of social justice and offered criticism of John Rawls and praise for Robert Nozick…)

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