Statement from Jeremy Prynne on the disruption of Willetts’s talk

One aspect of this rather challenging business. the current occupation of Lady Mitchell Hall, which will involve sternest public disapproval of students for denying the right to speak to an invited visitor who happened also to be a Minister of State, will need to be addressed. When this series of lectures and discussions on the theme of ‘The Idea of a University’ was originally set up, various great & good names were included in the list of those invited to make a presentation, so as to open out a range of views about this topic at the present time and as it bears on the current situation at Cambridge. This list included *no* representation of the student voice, they were simply excluded, as if somehow they were merely customers for whatever their superiors debated so loftily. I took it upon myself to point out somewhat forcefully, early in the planning stage and in response to an issued notice of intention about this series, that the exclusion of any student voice was more than negligent, since of course the announced vast increase in fees would affect future students most of all, but this remonstrance was not acted on. It was to be a senior show, at the top end of the class divide, as if it scarcely involved students at all. And so now, confronted with the privileged invitation-to-speak issued to the principal architect of this massive threat to fundamental student access to *their* higher education, still leaving them without any voice in the matter, they stormed this citadel by taking the expression of their collective views into their own hands, drowning out the invited speaker with uninvited, prepared speech of their own. Their anger at being yet again ignored was very palpable. Much blame must be attached to the organisers of this series for effectively instigating this episode, and for leaving these vocal students to carry the public burden of blame largely by themselves.
Jeremy Prynne

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26 Responses to Statement from Jeremy Prynne on the disruption of Willetts’s talk

  1. FM says:

    You are wrong. I am a student, who came and spoke: I attended the whole series and asked questions, so as to make my views heard. None of my questions were pre-prepared; all of them were taken. Where were these students then? Where were they when previous lectures finished before the timetabled time, due to the lack of questions from the audience? There was plenty of time for them to speak, plenty of time for them to debate with the speakers and with the audience. The fact is that they were not there – because they did not care to be there.

    The simple fact is that our community’s space was invaded last night by a group of people who had no interest in communicating with us attendees who had gathered to share ideas. We were shouted down, forced out and silenced.

    Shame on you, CDE. Shame on you for taking our education away.

  2. Delyse Silverstone says:

    Well done to these students from preventing Willets from speaking – as if nothing was wrong with their education policy and fee rises of this level can be justified!

  3. Nick says:

    The students who interrupted the speech by David Willetts may have won in the sense that they prevented him from speaking and forced him to leave, but I believe that they and we have lost in more important ways.

    Instead of seeing Willetts’ appearance at Cambridge as an opportunity to publicly make a moral and intellectual case by asking him challenging questions with a view to exposing the flaws in his arguments, and by putting forward some of the strongest arguments for their own case, they instead chose to adopt a strategy that can be and is used just as easily by people with no justifiable case at all. By so doing, I believe that they weakened their own position by giving the impression to those present in the lecture theatre, and to those reading about what happened, that they don’t actually have any strong arguments, and must therefore resort to these sorts of tactics. Chanting and barracking is unlikely to convert anyone to the cause, but presenting strong arguments and asking tough questions might just have done so. Merely preventing Willetts from speaking achieves nothing, as he has plenty of other platforms from which to speak, but publicly challenging him just might. Moreover, adopting such tactics is likely to both alienate and antagonise natural allies, and to harden the resolve of opponents.

    However little effect challenging Willetts with strong arguments might have in the grand scheme of things, it is still more rational to persuade just one previously undecided audience member, and to give Willetts even a momentary pause for thought, than to persuade none and to alienate others instead. However unlikely, it is at least possible that creating sufficient cognitive dissonance could even lead to Willetts himself modifying his position if presented with strong enough arguments. Such things can and do happen. By contrast, human nature is such that merely shouting people down will only tend to lead to their current beliefs becoming more entrenched. Therefore, the actions of the students involved were probably counterproductive and therefore irrational.

    In general, in a civil democracy such as ours – however slow and flawed it might be – we all ought to encourage law and policy to be decided more by seeking democratic political agreement using such means as deliberation, rational argument, political lobbying, and public debate, rather than by the sort of direct action that merely seeks to silence public and political debate in favour of imposing the will of some group upon that of everyone else. And if some of our current processes for making and changing law and political policy are themselves imperfect, as they no doubt are, then we should seek to reform them by rational and democratic means too.This sort of method of course runs the risk that others will disagree with and outvote you, but that’s part of what it is to live in a democracy. In this case it is particularly important to effectively communicate one’s strongest arguments. Why should others be sympathetic to your case if they haven’t agreed with or even heard your best arguments? Maybe you’re not communicating them widely or effectively enough, or maybe they’re just weak arguments in the first place. In this latter case, how would you even know yourself that you are right? And, moreover, even if widespread direct action was effective in forcing changes in policy and law, do you really think that law and policy should be made and changed this way in a democracy such as ours? Do you think those who shout the loudest or who can muster the greatest force or numbers should determine policy and law by those means alone, or should they ideally be based upon deliberation using the best evidence and the strongest arguments? That we don’t have a perfect system now is not an argument for replacing it with a worse system.

    In fact, engaging in direct action – especially if violent or destructive – can be to irrationally promote anarchy as, if such means were seen to work, then other groups might decide to follow suit and attempt to shortcut the legal and democratic process in order to get what they want too, leading to escalating violence and lawlessness. And there is abundant evidence that anarchy is not in our best interests, despite what some might mistakenly believe. In the absence of a functioning state with a monopoly on legitimate violence to enforce laws and contracts, there is plenty of evidence that wide-scale cooperation and trust will break down and lead to people and groups competing violently for resources, launching pre-emptive attacks upon each other, and acting violently to maintain a reputation for strength. Certainly, if one lives in an autocratic or totalitarian regime, or is part of some permanently disenfranchised minority, and one can thus play no legitimate part in the political process in one’s country, then civil disobedience, direct action, and even violent revolt might be and has been historically justified – but this is far from the case here.

    Education is not and cannot be free – as somebody must pay for it. The question is who? In fact, there is a strong case for significant state funding for higher education. We all ought to encourage such education since it tends promote a happier, more prosperous, more stable, and flourishing society. A more educated and enlightened populace will on the whole be more economically productive, will be more critical, and will make better decisions based upon stronger evidence and arguments – and thus truth and wisdom will be more likely to prevail. And as this is in all of our interests, we all ought to be willing to help fund it. Whilst we should rightly seek to reduce any unnecessary waste and bureaucracy within higher education, ensure that our money is being well spent, and consider at least some student contributions from those who can or will be able to afford it – since they will benefit from their education more than will those not attending – we still ought to want higher education to be properly funded and be willing to contribute towards that goal by means of state funding. By contrast, if significantly reducing public funding was to discourage many from attending university and to reduce the quality of the education on offer to those who do (and this is an empirical question, not one that can be answered from the armchair), then this would be likely to promote a more ignorant, uncritical, and irrational populace. Truth and wisdom would therefore be less likely to prevail, and society would be more unstable, less productive, and less happy and flourishing – which is not in our best interests. One only has to look around at the world to see examples of this at work.

    However, instead of taking the opportunity to forcefully put these and other strong arguments to David Willetts in a public forum, the opportunity was squandered in favour of a misguided, self-indulgent, and probably counterproductive protest. However little the former would have achieved in practice, it is certainly better than the alternative that was actually chosen. Moreover, by doing this, those involved also prevented others who might have been willing and able to challenge Willetts on his policies. All in all, a sad day for rational debate in Cambridge.

  4. KM says:

    ‘A more educated and enlightened populace will on the whole be more economically productive’

    Think you’re getting the wrong idea, mate.

  5. Dr. N. says:

    Dear Nick,

    You are quite wrong on all counts. Your basic assumptions are inadequately worked-through; your understanding of this event is deficient; and you have reasoned the consequences of the situation badly.

    I am not a member of CDE. I am not sympathetic with the mainstream of the protest movement, and disagree with the official campaign stance, as I understand it, in relation to HE funding. But your argument here is absolute hogwash. It relies on an image of reasonable discourse which simply does not exist in the academic or political spheres. I’ve certainly very rarely heard free speech in such contexts, though I have heard it in others: between strangers in public houses, or between friends in private houses, for example. Institutions like universities do not accommodate free speech comfortably. I will return to this fundamental point later.

    But let me deal with some preparatory issues. You argue that it would have been possible for the guardians of CRASSH to have engaged Willetts in discourse with “a view to exposing the flaws in his arguments”. What utter nonsense that is. Do you suppose such flaws have not been previously presented to the minister? That he remains unaware that his policy is not highly regarded by HE workers and administrators? On the contrary, this exposure has already been effected, time and again, not least by supporters of CDE, not least by those students who opted to use another kind of argument at the meeting this week.

    Reasonable arguments cannot succeed here. Willetts is not interested in winning an argument of that kind; indeed he is not interested in *argument* in the way that you are interested in it at all: he simply does not esteem argument as you esteem it. He is interested in only one thing — in managing his policy through Whitehall. You can’t talk him out of it. Politicians are immune to having “flaws” in argument exposed: that just isn’t how argument appears to them to work, isn’t what they believe argument is for. They do not behave like academics in debate; they do not behave reasonably, and cannot be reasoned with. Willetts’ views, right down to his responses to sharp questions on policy, are well-known. The man hardly lacks a platform. Only the most cloth-eared participant in our higher-education culture could be unaware of Willetts’ arguments, and only the most staringly loyal tory squire would be unable to mount his own description of its egregious opportunism, myopia, and chauvinism. His policy will not change: it’s not like a research paper which we can subject to an especially swingeing peer-review. There is no super-sophisticated, high-level, “interdisciplinary” argument which we can deploy to change his heart. To entertain such fantasies is vain and self-deceiving.

    I can only suppose that such fantasies vibrated in the minds of those behind the invitation which CRASSH extended to this person. As Mr Prynne argues, having him here to speak was a disgusting manoeuver. Willetts, who is on something of a PR drive lately, was here to supply himself and the world with an affirmatory image of exactly that kind of engagement which you believe would have had some critical consequence for him, which you believe might have done him some damage. Such an outcome, you must understand, was inconceivable. Coming to the Big University to have a bracingly reasonable discussion, and to be seen to have done so, was the entire reason for his appearance. Without this interruption to his programme, awkward and politically wonky as the content of the interruption itself necessarily was, Willetts would straightfowardly have accomplished everything he came here to do, however tricksy and clever the posers mounted from the floor might have been. That is, he would have won the political argument, regardless of what was said.

    The CRASSH team dull-wittedly, preeningly, and naively, offered the minister nothing other than the chance to achieve this minor triumph — for Willetts at this moment a constitutive triumph in a triumphal procession — and offered themselves and their supporters absolutely nothing in recompense: nothing at all, save to give life to their self-flattering fantasies, and cuddle up against the kind of fictions you indulge in your post: dreaming that reasonable discourse can redeem the disaster the tories have wrought in higher education; that the university will remain nobly committed to reasonable discourse despite the ambitions of neoliberalism to demean it with filthy commerce; that reasonable discourse and free speech are the same, and so on. Absolute trash.

    You argue that “presenting strong arguments and asking tough questions” would have won supporters to the CDE cause. This is absurd. Not only because CDE members routinely mount such arguments in public and private spaces, and are ignored. Arguments and questions of that kind are not neglected. But we must not be squeamish about what political argument can sometimes entail. In political terms — and no other terms are meaningful when dealing with a government minister — the reality is that they *were* making a strong argument and *were* asking a tough question when they made their intervention. And neither the minister nor the university have given, or I daresay are able to give, any answer to it whatsoever. Willetts has basically behaved as though the incident never took place; the university is “monitoring the situation”. Their response has been utterly pathetic, and the moral victory for the students here is considerable.

    You are disturbed by the hooligan intensity with which the protestors set out their case. But in the broader political context you must remember, and you must try to understand, that the minister, and not the students, is the aggressor. The students are fighting a defensive action with dwindling resources as the political feast moves on elsewhere. Winning broad support among the drowsy lions of the English yeomanry is not an option for them, and it would be absurd for them to conduct themselves with that aim in view. Assess this coolly, from their point of view. They prevented their opponent from winning his little triumph. They demonstrated the strength and will of their commitment, concentrating their comrades in the struggle. These are important achievements. No matter what the flimsily committed might feel; no matter that the sensible and reasonable will not support them — one might as well say, no matter that their opponents will not support them — they will continue to mount their argumentative objection, strenously and passionately. Their argument takes considerable courage and skill to sustain, and I admire their way and kind of reasoning and arguing with all my academic heart. The consequences of their commitment should not be underestimated, nor too quickly adduced, and your dismissal of their efficacy is arrogant and shortsighted: radicalism does not lead straightforwardly or speedily to reform, and is never popular in its early stages of development. But it is surely now the only certain way forward.

    These activists ought to be admired and celebrated by our whole community. They are the ones whose freedom of speech is endangered; they are the ones who risk their own liberty in order to advance the liberty of others; they are the ones who dare to speak freely in an institutional culture which has committed its power to silence them. By contrast, from the point of view of the defense of free speech, Willetts behaved abominably. There are any number of recourses for a speaker when decried. Willetts chose the worst, the weakest, and most poisonous of them: retreat. He is a pitiful excuse for a democratic politician.

    He should be used to such treatment as he was offered at his lecture, after all, as a member of the free-speaking House of Commons. Indeed the battering Willetts received was not much more derailing than that usually meted out to visiting speakers at research seminars. Admittedly, those making it impossible for the speaker to conclude her presentation are more typically senior professors, huffing and snorting, bullying their guest, grandstanding in the Q&A. So perhaps it would please you to reimagine these students as upholders of a fine Cambridge tradition: that of the indignant hosts commandeering a debate with a visiting speaker in order to mount another more to their liking.

    But let me be serious, and return to my first point. What you and others like you really object to in such spectacle, whether you acknowledge it or not, is the disturbance of the order of authorised speech, not the arrest of free speech. Willetts’ “freedom of speech” was in no sense denied or even challenged by the protestors. What was denied him was the authority to speak to a silent audience. That freedom, the freedom of the speaker to speak without interruption, is not what free speech means: it doesn’t mean that literally, it doesn’t mean that historically or morally, and it doesn’t mean that in the jurisprudential discourse of civil rights. That is what authorised speech means: the power to command attention. In academic Q&A, questions are addressed to the speaker only under the provision that he can silence them by interruption, refuse them, or absent himself, at any point in the debate. There are no reasonable means of coercing an invited speaker into statement or response should he be disinclined to state, or to respond. Authorised speech founds its order on the submission of each participant to be commanded to silence by the presiding authority — the chair of discussion, or the speaker. And it was this authority to speak and to be heard, not freedom of speech, which was denied Willetts.

    Free speech is, in its internal structural disposition as well as in its commonplace practise, considerably more robust, shouty, and confrontational than authorised speech. The students gave you a spectacle of that nature. I’m not in the least surprised that you didn’t like it. It’s an acquired taste, its savour encountered too infrequently readily to be acquired. I will stop here, though there is much more to say. You do considerable harm to the notion of freedom of speech by abusing its meaning as you do here. Personally, I’m no great admirer of it, but I’ve enough respect for it at least to understand what it is: and to appreciate the fact that the student protestors you condescend to despise are a vital living embodiment of that principle you believe them to have violated.


  6. Hal Krishna says:

    I am a member of CDE, and we’d all like to say that this is a great response! Big love to you.

  7. l says:

    I believe in defening education, but would just like to know:
    a) how many professional academics were in the audience, who have made a career in education, and whose futures rest there?
    b) how many of the protesters intend to stay in education after their degrees?
    c) whether the protesters who do not intend to stay in education feel comfortable with preventing professional academics from asking questions?

    • w says:

      I can’t speak to c) but to the rest:

      a) the audience was about half protestors, half non-protesting students and academics. Those numbers suggest interest among ‘professional academics’ in debating with the architect of a White Paper that will enormously damage their own profession was pretty low.

      b) There were many young (and several older) academics at the protest outside, several of whom gave speeches. At least one of the protestors involved in the action inside was a fellow, many were grad students. They and many more are participating in the occupation, and many of them intend to continue in Higher Education.

      I would also add that our own very quiescent local UCU branch issued a statement (voted on almost unanimously in the annual general meeting on Friday) to support the occupation.

      • V says:

        Further to w’s point: had the audience not been made up of around about 50 or so protestors, the Lady Mitchell hall would have been sparsely populated indeed.

  8. Ben Etherington says:

    Make that man CEO of Cambridge University ltd.!

  9. Dr On! says:

    Stunning, N–thank you. The notion of ‘free speech’ is a wretched sustaining lie: discourse is always produced within a historically determined & socially-coded space. The students elected to intervene by exposing & dismantling the paralysing vertices of Willetts’ ‘performance'; they refused the condition of impotence; resisted the consumer-processing of a public relations act. The space they have created in its place forms the paradigm of a new model of critical engagement & creative praxis. Look for yourself, Nick. I’m humbled by their courage, their selflessness, their imagination, their refusal to capitulate to the ceremonies of the Great Market Lie. Something’s stirring, citizens . . .

  10. George says:

    This is great, N. Thanks.

  11. George says:

    Also, ‘Nick’ keeps splitting his infinitives. What’s that about?

  12. Pingback: Free speech and Cambridge Defend Education | Varsity Blogs

  13. Nick says:

    Dr N.,

    I’ve just checked back on the CDE site, and was rather amused to see that you’ve responded to my comment. And oh dear – what a misguided muddle your response is! You’ve attributed to me statements and arguments that I didn’t make, attempted to rebut the resulting straw men, failed to properly comprehend or appreciate arguments that I actually did make, and liberally peppered the whole thing with your own non sequiturs, rhetoric, and sophistry. Such is the stock-in-trade of the person who is not primarily interested in the truth, but rather in mere persuasion. Somewhat Ironic really, as this is rather typical of the behaviour of the very politicians that you criticise. Anyway, in the spirit of rational debate, I will lay out my arguments more explicitly, and respond to some of your more egregious statements. This should help us to get closer to the truth of the matter but, if nothing else, should at least make it easier for you to engage with my actual arguments, rather than with straw men.

    First of all, let me correct a fundamental mistake at the core of your reasoning. My argument does not rely ‘on an image of reasonable discourse which simply does not exist in the academic or political spheres’. All it relies upon is that, all things considered, engaging Willetts in rational debate would be more conducive to bringing about universal individual happiness than would shutting down the debate instead. And negotiating for universal individual happiness ought to be the ultimate goal of politics. My argument makes no assumption about how effective challenging Willetts with questions and arguments would actually have been in achieving this end, only that it would likely be better than the alternative that was actually chosen. In fact, I believe that challenging Willetts would probably have made negligible difference in the grand scheme of things, but even amongst two poor choices it is still rational to opt for the better of the two. I think that even you would have to agree with this idea.

    My actual argument starts from the premise that our core desire is for enduring and consistent happiness – which is an empirical psychological claim that I won’t attempt to justify any further here, but is at least plausible (and, incidentally, is assumed either explicitly or implicitly by almost all moral systems). Given this, it is then rational for us to act in ways that are more conducive to achieving that core desire, and not in other ways that are detrimental to achieving it (and, in principle, these ways are empirically discoverable). Since politics is merely a subset of morality (the subset that deals with the set of human actions related to the use and distribution of power), its goal ought to be to govern in such a way as to allow us all to achieve individual enduring and consistent happiness i.e. to negotiate for universal happiness.

    I would then claim that a liberal democratic state is more conducive to universal happiness than are any of the other large-scale alternatives that have been tried – specifically either anarchy or autocratic or totalitarian regimes – and there is much evidence to back up this claim. Whilst modern liberal democracies are all slow and flawed in various ways, and we ought rationally to seek to improve them by recourse to reason and evidence, they are still better than the other options. Liberal democratic states give us at least some say in what laws and policies should be enacted by, for example, giving us the right to vote and to stand for political office, allowing political lobbying, using public political debate and deliberation, and tolerating legal protest – and the benefit of these things shouldn’t be underestimated. They also give us extensive personal and political freedoms, including freedom of speech, thought, and assembly, access to impartial justice, and equality before the law. And when our freedoms come into conflict, they attempt to arbitrate in fair and just ways. Moreover, they attempt to protect us and our interests from those within and without our society who would cause us harm, by means of a monopoly of legitimate coercion and violence, with legal checks and balances in place to help to prevent the state from sliding into dictatorship. Whilst realised in practice only partially and imperfectly, all of these are conducive to universal happiness, and are missing to a greater extent in other forms of government.

    In autocratic and totalitarian regimes of all stripes (even ones with benign intentions) power is not ultimately vested in the hands of the people who are being governed, however indirectly, but rather than in the hands of a (possibly unelected) person or group always lacking the necessary omniscience and benevolence to govern in the best interests of the people (one of the reason that top-down planned economies have always failed), and often lacking the will to do so too. And when things go badly for the populace, as they almost always do in the end, the rulers cannot be easily removed, and revolution or overthrow is often required. The power to vote a government out of office in periodic elections is a vital benefit in liberal democracies.

    There is abundant historical, anthological, and sociological evidence that in the absence of a properly functioning state with a monopoly on legitimate violence to enforce laws and contracts (either in pre-state societies, or those where the state disappears), civil society either doesn’t exist at all or else society splinters and breaks down as large-scale cooperation and trust evaporate (and altruism beyond family and close friends is only possible when they exist), causing people and groups to compete violently for resources, to launch pre-emptive attacks upon each other, and to maintain a hair trigger for violent retaliation. That is, there is every reason to suppose that political anarchy almost inevitably slides into anarchy in the colloquial sense, and the evidence of levels of violent death within such societies corroborates that. In this sense, the facts show that Hobbes was right and Rousseau was wrong. Whilst we should all wish to have as extensive a set of basic liberties as rationally possible (limited only when they come into conflict with others), anarchy goes too far in this direction, as the evidence manifestly demonstrates that human nature is such that some degree of overall legal regulation and policing is required for large-scale society to avoid various greater forms of misery.

    Given the foregoing, which is all supported by actual facts (as opposed to being some mere armchair speculation, like anarchist or communist utopias), I would argue that we generally have a moral obligation to obey the law if we live in a liberal democratic state. Since living in such a society is in our own best interests, as it is more conducive to achieving our individual enduring and consistent happiness, then acting in ways that re corrosive to such a society is generally irrational. If such a society is corroded sufficiently, then we run a very real risk of sliding towards anarchy or some form of autocracy, and that is almost certainly detrimental to universal happiness, as numerous historical examples attest. So, within such a society, we ought rationally to act in those ways that are conducive to maintaining or improving that society, whilst not acting in those other ways that are detrimental. Specifically, if we disagree with some aspect of law or political policy, we generally still ought to agree to abide by the law, whilst agreeing to use legal procedures to attempt to change that law or policy.

    This doesn’t entail that breaking non-trivial laws is always morally wrong, only that we need sufficient warrant before doing so would be morally justified in light of the possible harm that such action might cause to ourselves and to others and the long-term. In the case of civil disobedience, we might well have that warrant if we are part of some permanently disenfranchised minority, and we can thus play no legitimate part in the political process in our country. However, this is far from the case here. If the action is in support of a change of law or political policy that the majority of the populace would also support (which would require empirical evidence), then civil disobedience might be deemed to be warranted as it is merely correcting the legitimate process of democracy by making the public more aware of the issues and by seeking to persuade elected officials who are out of step with public opinion.

    However, this particular protest did neither successfully, as it made no rational attempt to persuade David Willetts himself (however implausible it is that he would change his mind – believe me, I have no delusions here) and, whilst it did make the issue more public, it did so in a way that was more likely to antagonise and alienate members of the public and other elected political representatives. And merely denying Willetts a platform achieves nothing, as he has many others to choose from. Moreover, we have to factor in the possible detrimental effect in terms of encouraging law breaking and its corrosive effect upon civil society, and the fact that there was another option available that was more conducive (however marginally) to universal happiness i.e. reasoned debate (and it wasn’t only CRASSH members who were present that evening). Such means might be derided; and are often ineffective, due to human fallibility, ignorance, venal self-interested politicians, and so on, but our increased regard for and use of facts and reason, as opposed to superstition and force, is largely responsible for our moral and political progress (along with some protest that was actually morally justified). So, there is a gradual process of attrition whereby facts and reason do eventually lead to an accumulation of wisdom. And there is ample historical and anthological evidence to back this up. Therefore, even on these terms, the protest was largely self-defeating, and thus even if in accord with the majority public opinion was probably not morally justified. And, in such a case, protesting more vigorously or courageously merely compounds the moral wrong, as it just increases the possible detrimental effect upon universal happiness. I’m sure that many Nazis and Islamic suicide bombers could have been described as courageous, but their courage just increased the overall moral harm, as they were acting in ways that are not rationally and morally justified.

    If the majority of public opinion is already in favour of the law or policy that the protesters want changed, then there is an even higher level of moral justification required, as now the protesters are also attempting to frustrate democratic choice in order to impose their will upon the rest of the population. Majority opinion isn’t necessarily everything in a representative democracy such as ours of course, as we elect representatives to decide major political decisions on our behalf, and they might not agree with majority public opinion. The majority of the UK population has traditionally been in favour of capital punishment, for example, but that is not the law now and nor is it policy for any of the major political parties. Nevertheless, given the potentially significant moral harms involved, if the protesters consider the issue at hand to be such a grave moral wrong that civil disobedience is still morally justified, then they are morally and rationally required to use all reasonable means to justify their case to themselves (by, at minimum, being fully informed of the actual relevant facts and ensuring that their arguments are sound), and communicating widely and effectively to others why their actions are morally justified and why they are more conducive to universal happiness. To do otherwise is to run too greater risk of being wrong and to thus bring about a far greater harm. In this case and others, the CDE have conspicuously failed to do this, with any justifications being little more than mere self-indulgent rhetoric (e.g.

    I don’t defend Willetts right to speak on grounds of free speech alone, as others have done, since such an argument is either flawed or weak. That Willetts does have a right of free speech (as defined legally and on instrumental moral grounds) doesn’t entail that he has an automatic right to exercise it on any particular platform not already available to him as a citizen and a political representative. The university did accord him a right to speak from an additional platform on the evening of the protest, and he might therefore reasonably expect to be able to exercise that right, and there is thus some moral wrong in treating him in a way that we wouldn’t want to be treated in similar circumstances. Given that a right to free speech is only instrumental (as intrinsic rights are a misnomer), then such a right is only valuable to the extent that having and utilising it is more conducive to universal happiness than not. And merely shouting Willetts down in the way that happened is not more conducive to universal happiness, for reasons that I have already explained, and thus there is an element of illegitimacy (or, at minimum, futility and vanity) about the way that it was used by the protesters. There is nothing wrong with vigorous and loud use of free speech per se (and, please don’t be so arrogant and presumptuous as to think that you know what I really believe about something, in the absence of me telling you), but in this case it was more harmful than not.

    So, in summary, we have a general moral and rational obligation in a liberal democracy such as ours to obey the law, as this is more conducive to universal individual happiness – including our own. Civil disobedience can still be morally justified in some cases, but the protest against the Willetts speech doesn’t appear to even come close to meeting such a justification. However little actual benefit would have accrued from it, letting the speech go ahead and then challenging and debating Willetts was probably the more rational and moral choice, as it is probably more conducive to universal happiness than the alternative, however marginally. And this is so even in a flawed and slow democracy such as ours. A bad option is still better than a worse one, and we ought rationally to prefer it.

    In fact, I do think that there is a good case for more state funding for higher education, as I described in my last post. And I believe that this case certainly justifies vigorous attempts to communicate it as widely and effectively as possible within the bounds of the law, and to lobby for change. Legal protest, of the type that student unions have been involved in, is also probably justified. Even certain, very targeted uses of civil disobedience might possibly be justifiable (unlike the protest in question). Incidentally, more extreme radical protest that includes the use of destruction and violence (as with some elements of the otherwise legal student protests) is not justified in this case, as the possibility of being wrong and the likely harms are too great.

    • V says:


      Nick Clarke. That’s right Nick: we can see your email address.

      Nick Clarke just happens to have a name-sake here in Cambridge:

      Councillor Nick Clarke; party: Conservative; interests: utilitarianism, anthology.

      Perhaps this is a coincidence.

    • V says:

      Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either wrong.

      Do not then condemn as wrong those who have made a choice, for you know nothing about it. ‘No, but I will condemn them not for having made this particular choice, but any choice, for, although the one who calls heads and the other one are equally at fault, the fact is that they are both at fault: the right thing to do is not to wager at all.’

      Yes, but you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed.

  14. Nick says:

    KM said: Think you’re getting the wrong idea, mate.

    I rather think not. As you well know, being economically productive was only one of the societal benefits that I listed. However, it is an important pragmatic one. A more competent and reliable workforce boosts the economy, and everyone gains from this – the government earns more revenue, communities get richer and more livable, and more people succeed, strengthening the middle class. And, as any political scientist will tell you, a large middle class is the most important component of any democratic society, as they know what it means to work for what they have, but still have something to lose.

    • Hilarius Bookbinder says:

      A powerful point, Nick. We must strengthen the middle class, otherwise democracy is at risk. So at least say (middle class) political ‘scientists’. It’s brought me out in policy suggestions. Two votes each for the all-important middle-class voters! Then, a sliding scale of fractional votes for students (0.75%), ‘jobseekers’ (0.5%), the sick (0.25%), and ‘those with nothing to lose’ (flat zero : ‘nothing will come of nothing’, after all). In this way we can, together, ensure a strong democracy! Vorsprung Durch Kapitalismusglaeubigkeit! HB

  15. George says:

    Dear Nick,

    I was mocking your authoritarian pedantry with an ironic pedantry of my own. You must have missed that.

    I thought you’d like to know that I didn’t read more than a sentence of your second comment. I already knew that what you were about to say would be stupid and unreasonable, because I had read your first message. So I decided to make myself a cup of tea instead.

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