Realpolitik, the Humpty way

March 30, 2007

Jargon is infiltrating all aspects of universities, making a mockery of higher education's aims, argues Bob Brecher.

Skimming through a committee agenda the other day - as you do - I was startled and discomfited to see that I was going to "deliver ethics training" to colleagues. No one, it seems, had thought the phrase strange.

On one level, of course, it isn't. It's ubiquitous. It was not that my colleagues' use of language was unusual or idiosyncratic: just the opposite. The agenda said nothing different from anything you would see in similar papers, whether elsewhere in the university sector, the National Health Service or any other public or private institution. It was just that I happened to notice.

How can nonsense such as this have become commonplace in universities of all places, institutions whose central function, to steal a slogan from Raymond Tallis, is to be "tough on unreason, tough on the causes of unreason"?

"Ethics training": what a bizarre oxymoron, as if ordinarily responsible and rational adults could be "trained" to act ethically. Perhaps young children, safely past potty training, can, and should, be trained to behave in ways they will later recognise as paradigmatic of moral action. But acting rightly or well is a matter of, among other things, acting for the right reasons. Learning to do that, to think and to act rather than merely to behave, needs discussion, careful consideration of people's different views and critical judgment. Training, however, is inimical precisely to the development and exercise of such rational capacities to think and to act. It may serve as a pedagogical start, as in the idea of training, for example, lawyers, philosophers or teachers. But unless such training is superseded by active reflection - by education - people "trained" in this way will end up mere parrots, rather than critical professionals. Doubtless some so-called researchers are trained by their less than scrupulous employers to tick the right boxes and use the right jargon to fill in the requisite forms for research ethics approval. But that's the problem, not the solution.

Perhaps you can "deliver" "training" - though, if that's how even the crudest training is conceived, it's unlikely to add up to much. Education can never be delivered; nor can critical judgment. You can be the more or less passive recipient of a takeaway meal, an electricity bill or a bag of manure. But the development and exercise of critical judgment is active, something you have to do . It can be offered and developed; it can be taken up and engaged in. But it can be neither delivered nor consumed. And so the very idea of someone's delivering ethics training is doubly ridiculous. But it is not just ridiculous. It is deeply insidious, subverting the very activity of moral appraisal and eroding our critical faculties just where they are most needed: in trying to decide what is morally right and wrong through rigorous argument, and acting accordingly.

These days we need more than ever to remember Humpty Dumpty's inimitable lesson on the realpolitik of language: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all." If we do not take his lesson to heart, then, before we know it, we'll have lost command of the meaning of our words and, with that, our one legitimate weapon in the never-ending struggle against idiocy.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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