Two Principles

I think all belief systems that deal with human conduct are attempts to reconcile two principles. One: self-centredness, our tendency to prioritise our own experience, our own feelings, our own needs. Two: empathy, our ability to recognise that the feelings, needs and experience of others are equivalent to our own. I guess some other animals have no capacity for empathy at all. They experience themselves as being the entire universe. (I wrote a story called ‘Ooze’, in which I attempted to think myself into the mind of such a creature.) But very few humans are completely devoid of empathy.

Some people say that what we should strive for is to be completely un-self-centred, and completely empathetic, treating other people’s needs as equally important to our own (there are even those who would have us treat other people’s needs as more important). Such people might argue that self-centredness is not a principle at all. It is simply a falling short. This strikes me as a somewhat empty piety. I say that not just because most of us are incapable of being entirely selfless, but also because I don’t think that would even be desirable. Happiness is only possible because we are able, at least sometimes, to shut out the suffering of others. At any moment of time, someone is being tortured, someone is starving. How could we ever laugh, or fall in love, or savour life in any way, if we were never able to set that to one side, just as we set aside our own future and past suffering?

But even our limited capacity for empathy is, for most of us, enough to make it impossible to completely disregard the needs of other people. So our belief systems are all designed to allow us to think of ourselves as ‘good’ even though our behaviour suggests that we are quite largely motivated by self-interest. Christian theology for example includes the idea of original sin -we can’t help being bad- but also includes a way of nevertheless being redeemable by faith, even if not by deeds, a formulation that also rather neatly serves the self-interest of priests, who provide the formula we need to believe in in order to be saved. Under all the theological elaboration, though, this idea does contain a simple truth: we are bad (selfish), but we are not completely bad. It also has the effect of burying the unworkable morality of absolute empathy which some sayings of Christ rather inconveniently imply. (Easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven… etc)

Or, another example, Adam Smith argued that the mechanism of the market place meant that more good was done by people pursuing their own interests, than by people trying to be good. This idea is as comforting for rich people as the idea of salvation through faith alone is for Christians, (and of course it isn’t unusual to combine the two). How nice to think that buying nice things and having lovely holidays are actually morally good things to do! But then again, attempts to impose economic systems that are not driven by the pursuit of personal gain have tended to end in tyranny. And, since fear is no less selfish a driver of human activity than the pursuit of pleasure or status, but is a lot less efficient, maybe Adam Smith had a point.

Anyone who ever spends any money on nonessential things -and I don’t know anyone personally who doesn’t- is placing his or her own pleasure or comfort in that moment above the needs of people who are hungry, or homeless, or unable to afford treatment for illness. Our awareness of this stops most of us from being entirely selfish, but we remain selfish all the same. One way out is to blame the unhappy for their own misfortunes. Another is to look for others who are more selfish than we are, and build up a sense of moral superiority by condemning them. (It is a common activity to condemn the extravagance of folk who are richer than we are, even though we ourselves are many times richer than most people on the planet.) In this way, morality itself is turned upside down, becoming, not a system of guidance for ourselves, but a means of proving our superiority to others. This technique is as old as history and now forms a staple of arguments on social media.

Horror stories

Just over a week ago, in Bury, in Greater Manchester, a woman called Sarah Hussein was set alight in the street and subsequently died of her burns.

It’s surprising how little prominence this story has been given. I only happen to know about it because I saw it posted on social media by someone of fairly right wing political views, who for convenience I’ll call X. X’s angle on this was to compare the coverage given to this Sarah with that given to another Sarah, Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a police officer earlier this year, and whose case was very widely discussed, and made into something of a political cause. Since both cases involved murderous violence directed at a woman by a man or men (the details don’t yet seem to be clear in Hussein’s case but three men were arrested), why, X wonders, did one horrific crime become a feminist cause celebre and not the other?

Hussein had a Pakistani background, and X, apparently assuming that her assailants had the same background, seems to think that her case has not been taken up in the way that Everard’s was, because ugly behaviour in a Muslim community can’t be fitted neatly into a liberal narrative, and drawing attention to it risks accusations of racism. X’s belief that the media is controlled by liberals and leftists seems questionable (!) but the underlying point may have some validity: we are all prone to focus on stories that can be fitted into our preferred worldview (or at least into a worldview which we imagine other people expect of us), and steer away from those that don’t.

X is doing the very same thing of course. He is picking up on the lack of coverage of this story because he feels this supports a right wing narrative in which people on the left are hypocrites whose claims to be the caring ones are shallow and self-serving (a view of the left, incidentally, shared by my late, and rather right wing, father). It’s agreeable to X, no doubt, to feel himself to be the one saying that a Pakistani woman deserves the same attention as a white one, while those lefties who are always going on about racism remain (as he sees it) silent. It reassures him about the virtue of his own position, the dishonesty of theirs. (They, whoever they are, would of course have a different view.)

I’m not sneering at X here, though, because I’m no different. I too notice stories that fit into my own worldview. I’ve picked up on the lack of coverage of this story and X’s reaction to it because both connect with a topic that preoccupies me: the self-serving nature of the narratives that each human individual and each human tribe is constantly telling itself about the world.

Can we make anything of a news item like this, I wonder, other than by either ignoring it, or else connecting it up with things we feel we already know?

There are people to whom this event is not reducible to a story: first and foremost poor Sarah herself and those who love her. To them it wasn’t a story about horror, but horror itself, the thing we are all constantly seeking to avoid, to manage, to hold at a distance. The rest of us, though, carry on trying to avoid it, or manage it, or hold it at a distance.


Liberal friends claiming not to like this country and to much prefer other countries…

Hmmph. This has become more widespread after Brexit, but it’s been around for a long time. I don’t like it. A lot of funny stuff going on, it seems to me, in those kinds of claims. A lot of idealisation of the foreign other. A lot of taking your least favourite Brits (or more usually, your least favourite English people, since there’s been a certain amount of idealisation of Scotland too), and comparing them, not with their equivalents in other countries, but with the foreign equivalents of the English people you do like.

A fair amount of ‘classism’ in the mix too: Middle-class folk trying to distance themselves from their ‘own’ plebs in order to ingratiate themselves (if only in their imaginations) with middle class folk in other countries.

Jingoistic patriotism is unattractive, but equally so, I think, is the affectation of despising your own country.

Parents are not appealing when they’re always bragging about how much better their own kids are than anyone else’s or shoving other people’s kids aside to get the best for their own. But the opposite is, if anything, even worse: parents who put their own kids down and say other people’s kids are better.

My subjective feeling is that my children and grandchildren are the best in the world. I know this is subjective and that other parents and grandparents quite naturally feel the same about their own, but it still seems natural and appropriate to feel that way.

Not an exact parallel, obviously, but to have a special feeling for my own country seems natural and appropriate in the same kind of way, while similarly recognizing that it is subjective and personal. A special contempt for my own country would no less subjective, but also feels mean spirited and perverse.

What next?

Although the current Corvus version of The Holy Machine was published in 2010, I actually wrote it in the mid-nineties. The backdrop for the book is a global phenomenon called The Reaction, in which people all over the world, alienated by liberal, secular, scientific modernism, have reverted, violently, to older religious ways of seeing the world. (I had watched the Iranian revolution and I thought something similar might happen in the West.) In the world of the story, the old liberal order has been overthrown and replaced by theocracy in most countries, including Britain and America. Among others, scientists of any kind are actively persecuted.

(My second novel, Marcher, had a similar theme, though here I described a threat to modernity posed by pagan intruders from other dimensions, whose desire to take the world back to the age of the Vikings had a strong appeal among those on the margins of society. The short story, ‘To Become a Warrior‘ was a precursor of this novel).

In a way, I was proved right. The real Reaction is much more complex and varied than my fictional one -among other things, it was naive of me to think that fundamentalist theocratic regimes would not be perfectly happy to make use of science when it suited them- but it has happened (or would it be more accurate to say, ‘it has begun’?) We’ve seen a shift away from secularism in Palestine, Israel, India, Turkey, America, and the rise of Hindu nationalism, Islamism and Christian fundamentalism. We’ve experienced the phenomenon of Trump, and so-called populism in many countries (a rather vague word, but it seems to mean a kind of politics that privileges the values of the general public over those of the most educated section of the population). And, while scientists are not (yet) actively being persecuted in the way described in the book, there is a distinct anti-science strand in all this: anti-vaxxers, creationists, climate change denialists are all part of it.

Continue reading “What next?”

Dead Fly

R.I.P. dead fly in my window. It died trying to get through a pane of glass to the sunlit world outside.

I learned some time ago that when they want to collect semen from a prize stallion they put it with what is called a ‘breeding mount’ – an object that (see link) doesn’t resemble a real horse at all, but does look something like a gym horse with an artificial vagina at one end. My momentary initial thought was that this demonstrated how simple and easy to fool horses were compared to humans. But then I realised this wasn’t the case at all. How is the stallion climbing onto the breeding mount more stupid or easy to fool than, say, a human male jerking off over porn? At least the breeding mount is a three-dimensional object, and not just a pattern of pixels on a screen.

In one sense neither is fooled, since presumably the stallion doesn’t think the mount is really a mare, any more than the man hunched over his screen thinks he is really in the presence of another human being. But, since in both cases there is enough there, in certain circumstances, to activate and sustain sexual behaviour, their instincts, in a way, are being fooled: their bodies’ machinery responds as if this was a breeding opportunity, when in fact it isn’t.

It isn’t just sexual behaviour that can be so activated. People experience tension, fear, excitement, pity, when watching actors on a TV screen in the corner of their living rooms, or when scanning the black marks on a white page. They know the story isn’t real, but there’s enough there to activate real emotional responses. In fact you could make a case that pretty much the whole of human culture works like this: a vast system of things that remind us of things, that remind us of things, that ultimately remind us of something that’s able to set off some preprogrammed emotion or drive, and allow us in some way to act it out.

Flies see the sunlight and head towards it. Their vision isn’t good enough to detect the glass. When they hit it, they perhaps have no other response in their repertoire but to keep on trying to head towards the sunlight. There are two kinds of tragic scenario here. In one of them, an ironic one, the window is actually partly open, and all the fly would need to do would be to crawl over the lip of the upper window frame and it would be free. But that would mean not heading directly towards the light, and many flies die without ever learning that the way out was only ever a few inches away from them.

Flies are relatively simple creatures, but all the same there is nothing uniquely fly-like about this scenario, any more than there was anything uniquely horse-like about the breeding mount one, and it’s equally easy to think of human analogues. I would guess that psychotherapists might see their job as helping people to stop beating uselessly on the glass, and help them find a way to the part of the window that’s open.

In the second scenario, the window is closed. There is no way out. The fly can either beat on the window until its life is over, or simply give up, and live out its life inside the closed room. In some analogous human situations, it’s hard to know what the right choice would be. Is it better to accept that the outside world is lost forever, and settle for imprisonment in the dreary, empty room – or better to refuse to give up, to continue the struggle right through to the end, even when to an outside observer, it’s obvious it can never succeed?


Gnostics saw the material world as a cage in which the spirit was trapped. Christianity (like other religions) has been preoccupied with the idea of the soul needing to free itself from base, animal instincts.

But oddly at the same time as characterizing our animal nature as something to be struggled against, Christianity has insisted that ‘unnatural’ behaviour is wrong: homosexuality, contraception, feminism have all been portrayed as going against the natural order of things.

Progressive liberal morality, which sees itself as supplanting those old moral codes, is nevertheless their heir. It is no longer stern about sexual continence. It sees sexual diversity as something to be celebrated, and gender, or the roles to be played by people of each biological sex, as a choice, rather than something to be imposed or enforced. But there is still, in progressive liberal morality, that same sense that our animal nature is something to be fought against. It’s just that other aspects of our biological nature are now the focus: our tendency to form hierarchies, our tendency to favour our own family and our own tribe.

Progressive liberal morality still expects people to struggle against what comes naturally to them. Any morality must, I suppose.

And liberal moralists get confused, tied in knots, just like the old moralists. There are tribes of anti-tribalists, who look out in contempt at the tribalists beyond their circle. There are hierarchies of anti-hierarchalists, with powerful opinion-formers at the top who lay down the anti-hierarchical doctrine, and armies of followers below to hound those who do not conform.

(History shows how easily the religion of the God of Love turned its hand to torture and murder, and how quickly the political doctrine of equality created its own godlike despots.)

These days people fight human biology on its own ground, by modifying bodies and body chemistry with surgery and medicine, and even altering the genetic code. We now have alternative bodies too in the form of thinking machines which one day may have souls of their own. Some people, weary of the endless struggle between humanity and itself, speak of evolving a new a better kind of being: superhumans, robot saints.

But I don’t believe that a self-reflecting being could exist that didn’t experience the conditions of its own existence in the same ambivalent way that we do. Is a human being happier than a lark, or kinder than a lark is to its fellow creatures? If not why would we expect a superhuman to be happier or kinder than we are?


I went to the 70th birthday party of a friend recently. Since she has friends who are older than herself as well as friends who are younger, I was among the younger people there, but I’ll be 66 at Christmas, so I was very definitely part of the same generation as the people there in their seventies. I was in a group of old people with white hair, and brittle skin, and stiff limbs, and I was one of them.

It is a cliche, and only partly true, to say that I don’t feel old. In some respects I certainly do feel old. I have arthritis. I have health conditions which I’m now stuck with. I ache in the mornings. I have to pee at least three times every night. I have to make a effort to stand up from a sitting position. I am a granddad.

It’s not all bad, and that last is definitely one of the nice parts.

Another thing: my parents are dead, and have been for several years, which to be honest is also one of the nice parts. They were not bad people, and I felt affection for them, but all my life their neediness felt like a ball and chain which I had to drag around behind me . Latterly, neither of them wanted to carry on living and both of them deliberately hastened their own deaths. The fact that they no longer wanted to live was part of the burden, and now I’m free of it.

Another freedom I have now comes from having a pension. I don’t have to work unless I want to. This is obviously also a nice part (and perhaps especially so for a writer). I well remember, a few months after finally retiring from my last part-time day job as a university lecturer, suddenly realising how lucky I was to have an income until the day I die (not particularly high, but perfectly livable), and giving a little whoop of relief and delight at this new freedom which I have, whether or not I deserve it. The only downside is that it’s a reminder that I’m in the last part of my life, I am in the part of my life where society no longer demands anything of me.

The sense in which I don’t feel old – and I remember my mother saying the same thing- is that it feels like the same me looking out through my eyes as looked out through those eyes when I was 21, still grappling with essentially the same things.

Continue reading “Old”


My new book Tomorrow came out a month ago. Normally, I’d have another book well on the way by this stage, but I haven’t. Plenty of ideas, plenty of scenarios and first chapters, but nothing that seems to want to crystallize into a book.

This is more of less the situation of the narrator of Tomorrow, a would-be novelist who can’t seem to get started on a book. It worked well for me when I wrote that book, the story just flowed out of me, but it’s not something I can hope to pull off more than once.

I can’t find the exact quote but the poet Ted Hughes said something about having to find a way to evade his mental policeman in order to write. Sounds right to me. You can’t keep using the same trick because the policeman gets wise to it. You have to find another.