Expenses and rule fetishism
Several of you have expressed dissatisfaction with MPs’ argument that their expenses claims were “within the rules.” What’s not sufficiently appreciated is just how deeply inadequate this defence is.The problem is not just that it’s easy to obey rules if you make them yourself - - if indeed MPs have done this. It’s that the claim “I didn’t break any rules” is a category mistake. It confounds good, or merely acceptable, behaviour, with following rules. It’s a form of fetishism. Just as a foot fetishist mistakes a foot for a sexual object, or a primitive tribe mistakes a totem for supernatural properties, so MPs mistake adherence to rules for virtuous conduct. I say this is a category error because following rules under-determines good behaviour. One can follow rules and behave abominably - “I was only obeying orders” is no defence - and one can behave well by breaking even quite serious rules; some assisted suicides, I think, fall into this class. To merely follow rules is to suspend one’s own moral judgment, to behave not as a human being but as an automaton. The MP who checks every item on a till receipt against the expenses rulebook (pdf) is acting within the rules. But he is not behaving with dignity, nobility or virtue; as Libby Purves points out, thousands of people often under-claim expenses.The contrast here is between “rule fetishism” and what the ancient Greeks called phronesis - the wisdom, or prudence, that allows people to judge what is virtuous conduct without needing to read a rule book. The man with phronesis would not have even tried to claim for Remembrance Day wreaths on expenses as he would know that only someone "without personal integrity, sans honour, sans virtue" would do such a thing. This contrast, of course, extends way beyond the expenses row. The fact that New Labour has created 3000-plus new criminal offences since 1997 is testament to a belief that rules can determine conduct, and that people are incapable of exercising their own judgment as to what is right or virtuous. In this sense, MPs' grossly defective defence of their ignoble greed and their illiberalism have a common root. But why is it that MPs have supplanted phronesis with this rule fetishism? Is it because they are simply unaware of the possibility of virtue ethics as an alternative to priggish adherence to ever-accumulating rules? Or is it that they believe that they and we are incapable of exercising phronesis? Worse still, might they be actually right to believe so?