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An exercise in philosophical myth-busting


He begins with the various ways in which ‘‘government by the people’’ falls short of the claims made for it. A moment’s thought shows a democratic regime can’t really reflect the wishes of voters just because people drop a ballot paper in a box every few years. How could it, when even those opting for the same party desire such different outcomes?

Anyway, should what’s ‘‘popular’’ matter more than what’s right? A case might be made for a good society rejecting certain ideas or practices (such as racism or genocide), even – or perhaps especially – if a majority endorses them.

In a parliamentary system, we elect others to represent us. But what does ‘‘representation’’ actually mean? Do we believe that MPs should, in some way, mirror their voters, reflecting, for instance, the occupational diversity of the constituency? If so, Cave points out, we’d need a parliament that contained some serving prisoners – criminals constitute, after all, part of the community.

Perhaps, though, we don’t really believe our own rhetoric. We describe elections as free and fair, even though we all know that running for office usually requires considerable wealth, with rich candidates enjoying advantages in ways that are, quite obviously, unfair.

Yet even if liberal democracy rests on such ‘‘everyday lies’’, we might decide that the concept still matters because it encourages us to debate how it might be understood and deployed. That seems to be Cave’s position: ‘‘Democracy is valuable,’’ he says, ‘‘if valuable at all – I dare to suggest – only as a form of fictionalism.’’

In the most interesting chapters, he moves from the immediately political to the principles supposedly buttressing public life. Parliament should, we say, reflect what the people want. But what does it mean to ‘‘want’’? Do I want a cigarette if I’m trying to quit or do I really want not to smoke even as I light up?


Similarly, we might say we aim for a ‘‘fair society’’ but how do we define ‘‘fair’’?

In Britain, for instance, the Equality Act outlaws discrimination on the basis of age, disability, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Curiously, it makes no mention of poverty. Our financial status can be altered, of course, so perhaps that’s the difference. But we can also change our religion and marital status – and they’re both protected attributes.

A just government, we might think, assists those denied a fair go because of poor luck. We’d agree that your chances shouldn’t be determined by an accident of birth. But what about, Cave asks, other kinds of misfortune? A miner strikes oil as soon as she digs but her competitor hits hard rock and ruins her back. Should the course of a life be set by something so random?

What about the ‘‘sliding door’’ scenario where one candidate arrives late for a dream job interview allowing someone else to nail it? Can we actually separate equality of opportunity from opportunity of outcome?

Throughout the book, Cave gently introduces ideas from the history of philosophy.

Today’s fraught debates about freedom of speech replicate, he says, distinctions the ancient Greeks made. If, for instance, you support the right of anyone to say whatever they like whenever they please, you’re upholding what they called parrhesia. If, on the other hand, you’re worried about power discrepancies in the so-called ‘‘marketplace of ideas’’, you’re concerned about isegoria, a term referring to the equal right to participate in the democratic assembly.

Drop that into the conversation the next time someone denounces the modern fad for ‘‘political correctness’’.

Cave’s methodology concentrates on busting myths – and not so much on examining the social or political functions those myths might fulfil. He discusses, for instance, the liberal arguments made in France for and against banning the burqa but pays little attention to the context underpinning Francophone Islamophobia (such as the long tradition of anticlericalism and the colonial oppression of Algeria).

Likewise, his philosophical discussion of transgender issues might have benefited from a historical analysis of the anti-trans feminism that enjoys far more support in Britain than in, say, the United States.

At its best, The Myths We Live By resembles a lively tutorial, with the genial Professor Cave challenging readers’ prejudices with counterfactuals, queries and the occasional provocation, before steering them in the direction of further reading.

In an era in which few public figures say what they mean nor mean what they say, it’s a useful and educational experience to think more deeply about the key ideas slipping, sliding and perishing all around us.

Jeff Sparrow’s latest book, Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre, is published by Scribe.

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