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Would you vote for a philosopher to become taoiseach?

Unthinkable: Covid-19 has exposed societal injustices. Persuading people to address them remains a challenge

Could a philosopher ever be elected to lead a government? Emmanuel Macron studied under the French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur and Barack Obama had a grá for political theory, but a pure intellectual would surely find the murky business of political compromise too much to bear.

Perhaps Socrates was right in portraying philosophy as incompatible with democracy. After all, philosophers don’t try to appeal to the listener’s desires. Rather they question those desires and try to undermine fixed opinions or prejudices. Risky stuff for someone seeking a vote.

Imagine the sort of slogans the great schools of philosophy would produce:

“Suck it up” – the Stoics.


“Follow the data” – the Utilitarians.

“We’re all going to die” – the Existentialists.

Not the sort of thing to win elections.

For Dr Vittorio Bufacchi, this a very real concern. A senior lecturer in philosophy at University College Cork, he is also chairman of the Labour Party in the Cork North Central constituency. His new book, Everything Must Change: Philosophical Lessons from Lockdown, is published this month by Manchester University Press.

Covid-19 has "fully exposed the true character of our society: its remorseless injustice", Bufacchi writes. Rejecting the idea that the pandemic was just a "misfortune", he analyses how vulnerable groups suffered disproportionately and charts a way to a fairer society. Kantian philosophers such as John Rawls and Onora O'Neill feature strongly, with their heavy emphasis on egalitarianism. But the book draws from all the main schools of philosophy.

Just how to create a fairer society in the face of vested interests is another question. “To a certain extent, philosophy is much easier than politics,” Bufacchi says. “Philosophy is a very intimate quest, almost solipsistic. In their abstract form ideas – and ideals – are pure, uncontaminated by the logic of expediency. On the other hand politics is essentially a social endeavour, it is the art of compromise.

“But philosophy and politics have much more in common than one may think,” he adds. “Methodologically, from Socrates onwards good philosophy always developed through dialogue.”

Bufacchi discusses the matter further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

How does one build philosophical ideas into political decision-making? More specifically, can one sell Kant to the electorate?

Vittorio Bufacchi: “To me, philosophy without politics feels like a missed opportunity. It is like buying an Ikea flatpack piece of furniture just for the sake of reading the assembly instructions, without putting the damn thing together. What’s the point?

“Of course, bridging the gap between abstract theory and political practice has its challenges. Can one sell Kant or Rousseau to the electorate? Absolutely, but the golden rule is not to mention Kant or Rousseau. It’s not necessary.

“The trick is to get across fundamental visions of the just society that are attractive, and that can be justified on moral grounds: we cannot have freedom without equality; excessive inequality is dangerous to democracy; there is no room for privilege, entitlement and nepotism in a just society; etc.

“Philosophy does the heavy lifting in politics, but it’s often invisible. My politics is informed by many philosophers, from Cicero to Hobbes, Kant to Marx, but I never feel the urge to start naming philosophers in a political forum. That would be awfully arrogant, or even worse a mere appeal to authority, which is a logical fallacy: it’s bad philosophy and bad politics.”

An interesting and challenging section of the book explores our fixation with autonomy, and you promote the idea of interdependency above individualism. Do we need to rethink the primacy of individual human rights, and think more in terms of rights belonging to humans as a collective?

“I don’t think we need to rethink the primacy of individual human rights, but we ought to revise the way we think about human rights. First, contrary to what is generally assumed, human rights are not absolute, they are high priority norms. What that means is that most of the time human rights come out on top when in conflict with other considerations.

"Secondly, human rights have become a licence for selfishness. A few years ago one of your guests in the Unthinkable column, Alexa Zellentin, made the point that human rights created an 'entitlement' culture. I think she is right, and that is in part because of our fixation with autonomy. I believe in human rights, but I fear that the culture of human rights has undermined the value of our moral duties. Everyone talks about their right, no one talks about their duties: this is a problem."

You seem a bit ambivalent about Stoicism, at one point saying, “This is not the time to dabble with Stoicism, but to embrace Critical Theory”, but elsewhere suggesting that Stoic thinking is a good coping mechanism, while also putting emphasis on personal responsibility in public debate. There is a sense you’re recommending: be a Kantian in political affairs and a virtue theorist in personal relationships. Is that a fair summary, and if so is it a consistent and coherent philosophy?

“I have a lot of time for the philosophy of Stoicism, especially for its emphasis on reason. I consider Stoicism to be the intellectual ancestor of the Enlightenment. But Stoicism is a complex philosophy, and I despair at the way it has been misinterpreted in popular culture. Basically, many people think that Stoicism is summed up by the slogan: ‘Keep calm and carry on’. To me that’s not Stoicism. Meekness and resignation are not what I associate with Stoicism.

“Consistency and monism are not the same thing... I don’t see why I cannot mix-and-match between different philosophies, while still being consistent. So there is room for Stoicism, and Kant, and many other philosophers in my own philosophical views. If we are not prepared to learn from all philosophical traditions, we run the risk of being dogmatic. It’s easy to be consistent when one is dogmatic, but it’s not what I would encourage.”

You make a persuasive case that we need to grasp the nature of social injustice before trying to comprehend justice itself – a reverse of Plato’s tactic of prioritising abstract principles. But is there a downside to your approach? Examples of injustice are endless, and relentless negativity and focusing on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right, can lead us to believe that society and the state – which we are being asked to support to further progressive causes – are inherently unjust.

“Philosophy is in the business of puzzle-solving. These puzzles can be abstract in nature, and so for example metaphysics tries to makes sense of consciousness and identity, epistemology about the nature of knowledge, etc. Political philosophy faces less abstract puzzles. There are problems of a political nature which often take the form of unequal and unjustified power relations.

“I think it is the job of political philosophers to highlight these problems, which we fail to see in part because they are so ingrained in our existence. If you don’t remind people about the elephant in the room, after a while they fail to see the elephant.

“So I focus on the wrong in order to make it right. I don’t consider this ‘relentless negativity’. On the contrary, I’m very positive, even an optimist: I truly believe that things can change for the better, and that things can improve for everyone. But things will not change spontaneously; one must fight for change.

“I refuse to believe that society and the state are ‘inherently unjust’. If they are unjust, that’s only because of a particular way in which society is organised, or because of a particular government or state. I believe these things can change, for the better. But change requires that we know what the problem is before we try to fix it, hence the need to grasp the nature of social injustice.”

Fianna Fáil competed in last year’s general election under the banner “An Ireland for all”, Fine Gael “A future to look forward to”, and Sinn Féin “Time for change”. What would you recommend as a slogan to capture the sort of policies you’d like to see?

“My idea of a political slogan would be: ‘Make equality lasting again’, or ‘Take down the Wall (Street)’ but also, why not, ‘Everything Must Change’.”

Everything Must Change: Philosophical Lessons from Lockdown by Vittorio Bufacchi is published by Manchester University Press