Magazine article The Spectator

Retrofitted Arguments

Magazine article The Spectator

Retrofitted Arguments

Article excerpt

'Some people are gay. Get over it' - this was the slogan for a campaign against homophobia. A series of YouTube videos follows the same approach: a cameraman asks people on the street, 'When did you choose to be straight?' The subtext - that sexual orientation is innate, not chosen - has undoubtedly succeeded in promoting tolerance.

The only strange thing here is that the argument leans heavily on genetic determinism which in almost any other field of debate is anathema to most liberal opinion. Imagine putting up a poster with the legend 'Some children are brighter than others. #Truth.' Or 'Women are crap at parallel parking. Just live with it.' A more principled argument for tolerance is that your sexual behaviour, when harmless to others, is your own affair. But in this one instance everyone seems happy to accept the idea of nature over nurture - even though in other domains it would be unsayable.

This inconsistency bears out findings from the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt that our political and moral views are formed unconsciously in the brain. We then cast about for any plausible argument to retrofit to our instinctive response. The rational brain, according to Haidt, 'thinks it's the Oval Office when it's really the press office'. It is a kind of neurological Alastair Campbell, cutting and pasting facts from any source to support decisions made for unrelated reasons.

With this in mind, I agree with Martha Gill, my opposite number at the New Statesman, when she remarks that it is a bit disingenuous for the left to support immigration by arguing that it contributes to economic growth.

There are ethical arguments to support immigration; why not use these, she asks? You might also wonder why the left is suddenly treating economic growth as the ultimate good - after all, you could make a similar case that you could boost GDP by means of a six-day working week, the abolition of paid holidays and bringing back child labour to the mines. …

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