30 September 2022

The basic moral principle — II

Part 1 of ‘The basic moral principle’ is here.

Having stated the basic moral principle, it can be seen that it is freely violated in modern society.

What destroyed my education, and has made it impossible for me to recover from the effects of that destruction ever since, was not au fond the hostility and oppressiveness of any particular individuals, but the intrinsic immorality of the modern ideology. My parents were operating in an environment in which there was no shortage of people to prescribe to them how they should regard me.

The legislation which prevented the taking of the School Certificate and other exams before a certain age was a clear violation of the basic moral principle. It was denying to the individual who might be taking exams, or to his parents who were supposed to be considering his interests, the right to evaluate for himself how serious were the advantages or disadvantages, in an existential perspective, and in view of his individual characteristics and outlook, of taking an exam of a certain kind at a particular age.

People’s lack of sensitivity to this basic principle of morality, even so soon after the Second World War when the Welfare State had been in force for only a few years, was shown by the fact that even supposedly conservative newspapers found no fault with the legislation. Protests were made on behalf of a few children who were clearly going to be prevented from taking exams that they were well able to take, but newspaper articles which discussed such individuals were only too willing to impose solutions of their own, on the lines of ‘If he/she is so clever, he/she can easily pass the time reading books/playing chess/doing good works.’

This shows that the willingness to impose solutions and interpretations on other people’s lives was already well developed. No doubt it always has been, and that is why there is little hope of the basic moral principle being upheld, except in a free-market society in which an individual can defend himself against other people’s ideas of what he ought to want by paying with money for what he does want.

Of course, the young person is necessarily at a disadvantage so long as he has to depend on decisions being made on his behalf by a parent, and even more so if he is dependent on decisions being made by someone who has not even some sense of genetic bonding with him. One of the things which would have saved my education from complete disaster, so that its inverse could be said to be the cause of its ruin, would have been an age of legal majority which was related to mental rather than chronological age. On the most conservative estimates of my IQ, I would certainly have been, on that basis, of age and free to make decisions for myself well before the School Certificate situation arose.

Clearly those most likely to be disadvantaged by the age-limit legislation were the most precocious (in those days it was not yet explicitly stated that there was no such thing as precocity). So this legislation conveyed to all and sundry that there was no need to take into account any special individual requirements that might arise from special ability. This was treated as implying also that the possibility of any special needs arising from unusually extreme individual characteristics should not on any account be entertained. The latter is pretty much the principle that has been applied to me throughout my life. Could it be that people realise that ignoring the particular requirements which arise from outstanding ability is a good way of providing it with the handicaps which are desirable to cancel the likelihood of its possessor being able to make use of it? Of course by now it has become acceptable to assert that there is no such thing as precocity or outstanding ability anyway. At that time people liked to refer gloatingly to cases of child prodigies who had ‘fizzled out’. The implication of this was not that they had not retained their ability, but that some strange innate deficiencies had rendered them unfunctional in later life. From time to time throughout my life, including quite recently, I have read newspaper articles quoting educational ‘experts’ as remarking on the number of early high achievers who finish up without an academic career. This is supposed to constitute a proof that this is a perfectly natural outcome, but it might just as well be taken as a demonstration of the hostility towards them, and their consequent inappropriate treatment by the educational system.

Some twenty years ago, in connection with the then fashionable proposals for the further deterioration of the university system, Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University was quoted* as saying, ‘Why exactly should Britain’s plumbers and secretaries and telephone operators have to pay for you to come to Warwick? You will earn far more than them. You will have much more interesting jobs.’ This shows how hopeless it is to expect the state to provide for the differing needs of individuals. In reality, there are many factors, of which measurable IQ is only one, which affect the circumstances and types of activity which an individual needs for his well-being. It is impossible to quantify the weighting of these factors in an individual case, and it is a violation of the basic moral principle to impose conditions on him which take into account only very few factors.

And, supposing (as I do) that IQ and other innate characteristics strongly influence the individual’s aptitudes and temperament, let us remember how heavily outnumbered by the majority of the population at large is the minority (about 3%) even with IQs above 130, at which level a child is (or used to be) referred to as ‘gifted’. Really outstanding IQs, at a level which used to be described as ‘near genius’ or ‘potential genius’, constitute a tiny minority of the ‘gifted’ population. So how can it possibly be expected that a democratic society will provide adequately for the needs of, say, the top 1% of the population, of whom the remaining 99% are jealous, and whose success and well-being they resent?

* The Times, 31 May 2000.