Media pressure forces politicians to make rapid decisions on complex questionsby AC Grayling / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
In this age of instant media, politicians are expected to do and be many intrinsically implausible things. One is that they have to appear, when questioned on an issue of the day, to be fully informed about the matter and already in possession of a policy to deal with it. They have to seem to believe that they are right about what needs to be done. But: can they always be? Or, indeed, ever be?
It is an illusion to think that there is, in any way beyond the immediate and trivial, such a thing as knowledge in the world of empirical affairs. Sceptical arguments in philosophy that illustrate the unreliability and finitude of our cognitive powers—perception, reasoning and memory—are enough to show that they are foolhardy who claim to know, actually to know, much beyond the present reach of their senses; and even then they could be wrong. If knowledge is such a tremendously scarce commodity, how can anyone claim to be right about anything other than what is directly under their noses?
We can of course have mathematical and logical knowledge, because here certainties are attainable: we can do the proof or derivation, and if the form of the argument is valid and the premises correct, the conclusion is thereby guaranteed—it is an entirely automatic matter. But extremely few such guarantees are available in the contingent world, still less when we are talking about the future—about what will happen next week, next year, or as a result of the next Budget.
Harold Macmillan, the publisher turned Prime Minister who is said to have kept a copy of the works of Aeschylus in his pocket in the First World War trenches, once remarked that the imponderable certainty of political life is “events.” Given that these always happen (one can be right about that, note) and that often they make a nonsense of the most careful plans, the whole question of whether one can be right about being right is thrown in the air. This is the primary reason why no politician with an intellectual conscience should claim that he or she can…