No, wait, really?: The Confused Politics of Grayling’s Cohorts.

I was pretty horrified when A C Grayling announced that he was planning to open a private university in London that charged £18 000 per year in tuition fees. As others have argued here and here this will almost certainly contribute to the even greater polarization of our education system, add justification to government underfunding of higher education and, by providing such a high profile example, pave the way for similar ventures in the future. Certainly, hats off to the people who showed up to protest at the Foyles event last night.

What made this announcement all the more troubling, however, were some of the academics apparently taking part. While I sometimes wonder just how progressive Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins really are, despite their obvious humanism and heavy handed commitment to “rationalism”, Peter Singer and Ronald Dworkin have for a long time been staunch liberals and even occasionally egalitarians. For me, this makes their involvement all the more surprising and, just possibly, that little bit more amenable to public pressure.

I want to start with Dworkin. While less known perhaps to British audiences, Ronald Dworkin is a famous American legal scholar whose alleged beliefs make his involvement with this somewhat confusing. Among other things, Dworkin has written affirmative action policies in the United States. In one of his many books, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality, Dworkin comes out strongly for equal treatment, or what he calls ‘equal concern’. In his theory, this has two nodes. First there is the responsibility of each person for their own life -no surprises there – and then there is ‘equal importance’. For him, this second part means that: “…it is important, from an objective point of view, that human lives be successful rather than wasted, and this is equally important, from that objective point of view, for each human life.”[1] This notion of equal importance has important implications, as it requires

“…government to adopt laws and policies that insure that its citizens’ fates are, so far as government can achieve this, insensitive to who they otherwise are – their economic backgrounds, gender, race, or particular sets of skills and handicaps.”[2]

Ensuring that a citizen’s fate is insensitive to their economic background? This seems to be rather inconsistent with the above project which will be charging twice the already extortionate £9000 permitted for public institutions. Even if the ramifications of the New College weren’t going to be felt primarily in the wider world of education, there would still be a clear contradiction in principle here. If this inference seems a little bit of a stretch, however, Dworkin, rather helpfully directly discusses university admissions a little bit later..

This discussion is illuminating in the sense that Dworkin sees universities are moral institutions (though allowing for some scope in the institutions choice of goals). As he writes in a chapter on the fairness of affirmative action policies:

“…our schools have traditionally aimed to help improve the collective life of the community, not just by protecting and enhancing its culture and science of improving its medicine, commerce, and agriculture, but by helping make that collective life more just and harmonious – those are, after all, among the main ambitions of our law schools and schools of politics and public administration, and they should form part of the goals of the rest of the academy as well. Our universities are surely entitled to think that the continuing and debilitating segregation of the United State by race, class, occupation, and status is an enemy of both justice and harmony…We expect educational institutions to contribute to our physical and economic health, and we should expect them to do what they can for our social and moral health as well.”[3]

If I could fit it on a sign, I would. Sometimes the devil is in the detail; here it’s pretty much the sole function of the text. If critics are correct – and I believe they are – Grayling’s project will  undermine what Dworkin might call our “social and moral health” by contributing to the already depression-era levels of inequality in this country.  I don’t understand how these views are in any sense compatible with the body blow against publicly funded education and prohibitively high tuition fees discussed above.

If Dworkin’s position is somewhat contradictory, Singer’s is downright baffling. Of all the philosophers I have read, I have never found a more courageous commitment to the equality principle than in Singer’s work. Of course, this comes from his groundbreaking text Animal Liberation, originally published in 1975.

In this text, he comes out against the case for differentiating treatment on the basis of “intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact.[4]” Rather, the drive towards equality treatment should fall along the lines of suffering, or at least the capacity to suffer. As he writes:

“The application of the principle of equality to the infliction of suffering is, in theory at least, fairly straightforward. Pain and suffering are in themselves bad and should be prevented or minimized, irrespective of the race, sex, or species of the being that suffers.”[5]

It seems hard to extrapolate from this principled statement of equality how the author would justify his inclusion in a scheme which will undoubtedly increase suffering, as we know inequality does. It’s also unconvincing to make distinctions in status on the basis of family wealth when you’ve ruled out any other factual category to do so.

If it’s facetious to point out Singer’s inconsistency on the basis of his animal rights classic (and I’m currently divided on that question) this shouldn’t bother us, because the philosopher has written extensively on applied ethics. In Practical Ethics, first printed in 1993 and republished in 2006, he comes out strongly against preferences for those from better off backgrounds. Having supported the impetus towards equality on the basis that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of uncontrolled factors (thus coming out against equality of opportunity as insufficient) he writes:

“Short of bringing about general equality, we might at least attempt to ensure that where there are important differences in income, status, and power, women and racial minorities should not be on the worse end in numbers disproportionate to their numbers in the community as a whole.”[6]

On this logic, I find his inclusion in this parasitic venture not only inconsistent but also a little disheartening.

Of course, there is always the possibility that these authors simply don’t understand what their actions may cause, in which case it falls to us to inform them. Fee paying universities are of course common in the United States, where both academics have taught (Singer at Princeton and Dworkin at New York). To assume ignorance is, however, an extremely charitable view given the intelligence and resources that both men have at their command.

One last thing. While I fully understand why people are being encouraged to write to Richard Dawkins to encourage him to withdraw, I’m concerned that it might be a little bit doomed. I’ve never gotten the impression that the man has a particularly progressive social conscience, despite railing against religious segregation in the education system. In addition, he’s become immensely resistant to public pressure, having dogged controversy since The Selfish Gene, and particularly so since The God Delusion. I sense he has immensely thick skin, and a certain derision of people who disagree with him, particularly when they seem emotionally involved. For this reason, I think that public pressure on the two above figures, who get immense credibility from their avowed liberal and egalitarian positions (and also have committed to such principles in writing) might have more potential for success.


[1] Dworkin, Ronald Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (2000) Harvard University Press pp. 4

[2]  Ibid. pp. 6

[3] Ibid. pp. 403-4

[4] Singer, Peter Animal Liberation, 2nd ed (1990) Jonathan Cape pp. 4

[5] Ibid. pp. 7

[6] Singer, Peter Practical Ethics (2006) Cambridge University Press pp. 44

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  1. #1 by James on June 8, 2011 - 11:06 pm

    Do you know if people will be able to get student loans for the full 18000? If not it will just be a place for clever rich people (probably less clever in expectation than Oxbridge students).

    If people can get the full student loans then what is the problem?

    It costs the rich and poor the same. In fact it will cost the rich more because the rich forgo putting their 18k pa into equity and earning considerably more interest than the poorer borrowers will have to pay.

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