The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was condemned and put to death for “corrupting the youth” of Athens. The same fate is unlikely to meet contemporary philosophers.
Indeed, it is much more likely for them be written off as socially irrelevant. For that reason, it might well be thought, it is a waste of public money to support philosophers and philosophical projects: the national interest would be better served by funding research that helps “drive growth and productivity,” as Andrew Robb, the current Australian Minister for Trade and Investment, recently put it.
Socrates, no doubt, would not have been impressed.
The Prime Minister
The characters in the following work are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to actual people – living or dead – is completely coincidental.
It is a beautiful early morning in the park. Socrates (S) is out for a stroll. Tony Abbott (A) is having a bike ride before work. Socrates decides to sit on a park bench for a while. He is sitting rapt in thought, his legs stretched out. Abbott cycles past, and rides over his foot.
A: (Stopping). Sorry.
S: Are you?
A: Am I what?
A: Well, not exactly. You were in the way. It’s just a form of words.
S: Like “Ouch”?
A: Well, yes … er, no … not exactly.
S: It means something.
A: Of course.
S: That you are sorry.
S: And you’re not.
A: Look I’ve said I’m sorry. Get out of my way; I’m a busy man. I have to get to Parliament.
S: Yes, I know who you are. You’re the prime minister – but perhaps a rather insincere one, it would seem.
A: (Bristling.) And who the hell are you?
A: Socrates? That’s Greek, isn’t it?
A: So are you an immigrant?
S: Sort of.
A: (Suspiciously.) Well, Mr Socrates. What do you do?
S: I’m a philosopher.
A: Philosopher? What sort of job is that?
S: It isn’t a job. It’s a kind of person.
A: A kind of person? And what does a philosopher-person do?
S: They think, ask questions, discuss ideas.
A: Think!? Can’t you find something more useful to do than that?
S: Useful to whom?
A: Well, all sorts of people. Maybe you could be a lawyer. We need lots of lawyers. Or an accountant. They’re always useful. Or take me, for example. I’m a politician, and politicians help everyone.
S: Really? It seems to me they spend most of the time trying to get into power or keep themselves there.
A: Of course you want to get into power. But you do that because if you are in power you can do things in the public interest. You can’t do that if you are not in power.
S: So, now you’re in power, you’re acting in the public interest?
A: Yes, of course. Haven’t you been reading the papers?
S: Yes, I read them. I’m not exactly sure what the public interest is, though.
A: Then you should think a bit harder, Mr Socrates.
S: Yes, perhaps I should; but I take it, then, that you do know what the public interest is, Mr Abbott.
A: Of course I do. If someone doesn’t know what the public interest is, they shouldn’t be prime minister. Like Kevin Rudd.
S: The last prime minister?
A: After he lost the job, he was so fixated on getting it back, he didn’t care about what he did, who he damaged, so long as it helped to make him prime minister again. He was concerned only with self interest. He didn’t deserve the second chance.
S: I see. Well, in that case perhaps you could help me, and explain what the public interest is?
A: (Glaring at Socrates.) It’s doing things like keeping illegal immigrants out of Australia.
S: That’s not very helpful, I’m afraid.
A: It’s helping the people who are here legally.
S: You miss my point.
S: Well, suppose you say to me “what is an immigrant”? And I say “people like me”. That wouldn’t help much would it?
A: No, not really.
S: Because men are like me, philosophers are like me, people with a bruised foot are like me. But that doesn’t make them immigrants.
S: So you can’t answer my question by giving me an example. To understand what the public interest is, we need a definition.
A: Well, if that’s what you want, it’s easy enough.
A: Something is in the public interest if it benefits everybody.
S: But these illegal immigrants you were speaking of …
A: What of them?
S: You said that it was in the public interest to keep them out. But it’s not in their interest.
A: Well, obviously I didn’t mean everybody. I meant Australians.
S: So it’s in the public interest if it benefits all Australians.
S: Well, I’m an Australian. So if it’s in the public interest, it benefits me.
A: Yes, even you.
S: But suppose that one of the illegal immigrants is my wife. It doesn’t benefit me if you keep her out.
A: Okay. It doesn’t have to benefit all Australians – just most of them. And it doesn’t help most Australians if we let your wife in.
S: So it’s in the public interest if it benefits most Australians?
S: I see. If you make education better, or give people parental leave, that’s in the public interest.
A: Of course.
S: And what if you pass a law requiring wheelchair access to public buildings. Is that in the public interest?
A: Yes, of course. People in wheelchairs have as much right to get into these buildings as anyone else.
S: What percentage of the Australia population are in wheelchairs?
A: How should I know? Maybe one in 10,000?
S: And a law requiring access to public buildings for them is in the public interest?
S: Then, Mr Abbott, things in the public interest cannot be things that help most Australians. It doesn’t help the other 9,999 in 10,000.
A: Look, Mr Clever-Arse Socrates. You know perfectly well what I mean. It doesn’t have to be most: just a significant group of Australians.
S: I see. (Pauses.) They tell me that you are against gay marriage.
A: Yes, a marriage is between a man an a woman. That’s the way it always has been, and that’s the way it should be.
S: What percentage of people are gay?
A: How the hell should I know?
S: Well, do you think it is more than one in 10,000?
A: Yes, I would think it’s quite a lot more than that, given all the political noise they make.
S: So they are at least as significant a group of Australians as those who use wheelchairs.
A: Yes, I suppose.
S: And it would certainly be in their interests if they were allowed to declare their partnership publicly in the way that other people are?
S: So it seems that it would be in the public interest to permit gay marriage.
A: Er … No. That case is quite different. If you asked Australians whether they approved of a law requiring wheelchair access to public places, they would say they did. Australians are reasonable people. But if you asked Australians whether they agreed with gay marriage, a large part of the population would be against this.
S: So something has to have to approval of most Australians to be in the public interest.
A: Yes, of course. How can something be in people’s interests if they don’t want it to happen?
S: I see. (Pauses.) Now, I seem to remember a few years ago you were part of a government that sent troops to invade Iraq.
A: Indeed I was.
S: And you supported this?
A: Yes, it was clearly in Australia’s interest.
S: But I also seem to remember that a majority of Australians opposed this. It was no interest of theirs to send troops to fight and get killed in a war over whether some country had weapons which were in no way a threat to people living in Australia.
A: Ah, but you see, that was only part of the reason. The rest of it was to get rid of a brutal dictator, and bring democracy to the country.
S: And who benefitted from that?
A: Obviously the people of Iraq.
S: But, Mr Abbott, you said, did you not, that the public interest was what benefitted Australians? And the people of Iraq are no more Australians than illegal immigrants.
A: You are being simplistic, Mr Socrates. Governments can’t close themselves off from the rest of the world. They have to have a big-picture of the role of Australia in the world. They have to act in the national interest.
S: And invading Iraq was in the national interest?
S: And this “national interest” you speak of: is that the same as public interest or is it different from it?
A: I don’t follow you, Mr Socrates. What on earth are you talking about?
S: Well, could something be in the national interest but not in the public interest? Could something be in the interest of the nation, but not its people?
A: No, that’s silly. The nation is not something over and above its people. It’s just the people acting collectively.
S: And could something be in the public interest but not the national interest? Could something make the people better off, and the nation worse off?
A: No, that’s equally silly. I just told you: the nation just is the people acting collectively.
S: So the national interest and public interest are the same thing.
S: My dear Mr Abbott, I’m not a clever politician like you. I’m just a simple fellow. You’ll have to help me here. Invading Iraq was in the national interest.
S: And the people who benefitted were the Iraqis.
S: Not the Australian public.
S: So it was not in the public interest.
A: No, not exactly.
S: But the public interest is the national interest?
S: By Jove, this is subtle reasoning. The public interest is indeed a strange thing.
A: Look, Mr Socrates, since you are obviously not the fastest car on the block, let me explain to you one more time.
S: I’m all ears.
A: The public interest is whatever it is that is for the well-being of the people as a whole, rather than just a person or small special-interest group.
S: Ah, I see, so if a doctor practises medicine, that is for the general good, even though only a few Australians are the doctor’s patients?
A: Yes, because there are lots of doctors, and collectively they act in the interests of the general public.
S: But if I enjoy, say, cycling. Then going for rides is simply something that I enjoy, so that is in my private interest.
A: Yes, that’s a purely personal matter.
S: I see. And if I go around doing philosophy, that’s something that I enjoy, so it’s simply in my private interest.
A: Quite so.
S: Whereas what you do is pass laws that benefit the population collectively. So that’s in the public interest.
S: And the public interest and a private interest are quite distinct. To act for a private interest is quite different from acting for the public interest.
S: In one case, I’m concerned with only my own interests; in the other, I’m concerned with the good of everyone collectively.
A: Well, I see that you have got it at last, Mr Socrates. I’m glad I’ve been able to help you. And now I really must go and do more important things.
S: Thank you very much.
(Abbott makes to leave.)
S: I’m sorry. Can I ask you just one more question? I think I have it now, but there’s still one small thing that troubles me.
A: (Irritably.) Well?
S: Doing philosophy is a private interest, you say?
A: Yes, just like my riding a bike.
S: When you ride a bike, nobody else benefits, right?
A: Well, there’s the person who sold me the bike, I suppose.
S: Yes, but wouldn’t you say that that’s a private interest too.
S: But when I do philosophy, it’s not just I who benefit. Others do.
A: (Sceptically.) Oh? And how can that be?
S: Well, I would say that people are often pretty confused about many things, especially complicated things like religion, ethical issues, and so on.
A: Really? These matters seem pretty straightforward to me.
S: No doubt. But you are an exceptionally clever person. After all, you have already cleared up the complex issue of the public interest for me.
A: Yes, indeed so.
S: But most people are not as smart as you. Take a political issue, for example. Say, the carbon tax. That’s a pretty complex matter.
A: I don’t think so. It just increases the cost of living.
S: Perhaps so. But so does health insurance.
A: Yes, but health insurance is important, since it affects unfortunate things that are liable to happen in the future.
S: And this carbon tax, it is also meant to affect unfortunate things that are liable to happen in the future?
A: Well, some people say that.
S: Yes, and most people find it hard to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the tax, I would say. They are rather confused about matters.
A: Yes, I guess that’s true. That’s why they need clear leadership.
A: And now that you mention it, people are rather confused about many things concerning the matter. They think that just because the majority of scientists tell us carbon emissions are causing global warming, they must be right. That’s another confusion. Scientists can be wrong.
S: And this should be explained to people.
A: Yes, that’s what I’ve been doing.
S: So it is important to help people to get unconfused on important matters.
S: Well, when I try to clarify my own thoughts about things, I talk to other people – and it helps them to get clearer too. Talking is a wonderful way of finding confusions and helping to see one’s way through them.
A: I see.
S: So philosophers are doing something in the public interest.
A: Well, not really, not as much as really useful and important people like lawyers, priests, newspaper editors.
S: How so, Mr Abbott? If you want to talk to someone on an issue, is it best to talk to someone with a vested interest in the outcome – or is it better to talk to someone who is disinterested?
A: Clearly, someone who has no vested interests. Otherwise what the say is likely to be biased.
S: Indeed so. But newspaper editors want to sell newspapers; priests want you to be a Christian; lawyers want you to pay them. So they are not disinterested parties.
A: I suppose not.
S: And philosophers, do they have vested interests in the same way? Do they want to sell you things, convert you to some religion or other, make money out of you?
A: No, they are pretty useless socially.
S: Well, Mr Abbott, you do seem to be confused about some things.
A: How so?
S: We agreed, did we not, that talking with philosophers is good because it can help to clarify complex issues, so that what to do becomes clearer?
S: And we agreed that in talking with people about such issues, it’s better to talk to people without vested interests?
A: (Nods again.)
S: And that philosophers have no such vested interests.
A: (Nods hesitantly.)
S: Then, Mr Abbott, it would seem philosophers are just the people you should be talking to about these things. They are much more important than lawyers or priests.
A: Well, yes, perhaps. But what they do is nothing compared with politicians, who spend their whole time working for the public good, though.
S: Politicians like Mr Rudd, for example.
A: Yes … No … not exactly. He had lost the plot entirely. He was clearly working for his private interest, not the public interest.
S: And working for a private interest and working for the public interest are quite different things, we said?
A: Yes. And Rudd was a clear exception. Most politicians spend their time working for the public interest – at least on my side of politics. Most work damn hard at it, too.
S: No doubt. But they get very well compensated.
A: Well, they get less than many CEOs.
S: Perhaps. But they have a salary much greater than most Australians. They get perks – such as travel and fine dining. They have a very generous pension scheme. They are in positions of power and recognition, so they have prestige. And when they cease to be politicians they can often use this to become consultants, company directors, ambassadors, and so on.
A: Yes, and they deserve it for what they do.
S: No doubt, no doubt. But obviously these things are private benefits, aren’t they? Paying money into a politician’s bank account is hardly the same as paying money to improve the education system in schools in the Western suburbs of Sydney, or to improve the life expectancy of Aboriginal Australians.
S: So their work as a politician is for private benefits.
A: And so it should be. But their work is for the public benefit as well. I’ve told you that.
S: But you also told me that to work for the public benefit is one thing, and to work for a private benefit is something else. These are quite different things. If you are doing one, you are not doing the other.
A: (Pauses.) Yes, er, well … there is something wrong here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
S: Perhaps it is this?
S: Although they get paid well for what they do, they are not working to get paid. That just happens as a result of what they do.
A: What on earth are you talking about? I don’t follow you.
S: Well, suppose that you want to get rid of a dictator, and you send troops to invade the country. Some troops will die in the process. But you don’t send the troops there in order that they get killed. You send them there in order to get rid of the dictator. The death of the troops is, so to say, an unintended consequence.
A: Well, Mr Socrates, you surprise me. I think that this philosophy – or whatever it is you do – is quite useful after all. That’s exactly right. I hadn’t understood this till now. The politician works in order to serve the public; they just happen to get paid for it.
S: So the payment is a sort of by-product. A sort of unintended consequence.
S: It would seem, my dear Mr Abbott, that whatever else you understand, you don’t understand your own colleagues.
A: What on earth do you mean?
S: Well, do you really think that your colleagues do not intend that they should get paid?
A: Of course not. That’s silly.
S: The silly idea you just told me was right?
A: (Is silent.)
S: Well, it would seem that you understand you colleagues well enough. It is just the notion of public interest that you don’t understand.
A: And what of it, Mr Socrates? I’m a busy man. I don’t have time to worry about these niceties.
S: But didn’t you tell me that if someone does not understand the notion of public interest, they shouldn’t be prime minister?
A: Look, I’ve got better things to do than argue with you. Get out of my way.
(Pushes Socrates aside, and cycles off, in the process riding over his foot.)