Good philosophy: Anthony Grayling on Cherie Blair

February 11, 2010 • 8:25 am

You may have read that Cherie Blair, a British judge and the wife of ex-prime minister Tony Blair, suspended the jail sentence of a Muslim man expressly because he was religious.  The man, Shamso Miah, struck another man, breaking his jaw, while both were standing in line at a bank.  Miah was tracked down and arrested. Judge Blair (who, along with husband Tony, is showing serious signs of weakness toward faith) was lenient. According to The Daily Mail:

Yet despite saying violence on our streets ‘has to be taken seriously’ Mrs Blair, a QC who professionally uses her maiden name Cherie Booth, let him walk free from court.

She told him: ‘I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before.

‘You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank.

‘You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.’

Miah was sentenced to six months in jail, suspended for two years, and was ordered to carry out 200 hours of community service.

Now this is an insult to everyone who is not religious: do only the faithful know that bashing someone in the face is unacceptable?  I suppose a philosopher like Charles Taylor or Mary Midgley could find philosophical reasons to support Blair’s decision, but enter the philosopher (and atheist) Anthony Grayling, who takes apart Blair’s decision in a special piece written for

. . . As a barrister Mrs. Blair should be able to see the inadmissible corollary of passing lenient sentences on believers because they are believers; namely, that non-believers should receive less lenient sentences. If she had said – and said twice – in passing judgment on a person she knew to be non-religions, ‘I am going to apply the full penalty of the law based on the fact that you are not a religious person,’ she would not have merited any less of an outcry than she has caused, for the very good reason that this is the logical obverse of what she in fact said, and would be as unacceptable. .

Let me pick through the logic of Mrs. Blair’s view carefully here. She cannot consistently think that non-religious people have a tendency to be of good character because they are non-religious. If she did, she would think all people, whatever their beliefs or non-belief, have a tendency to be of good character. But this generous thought is precisely not what her statement says. On the contrary, her remarks to the jaw-breaking ‘devout Muslim’ (so the newspapers described him) Shamso Miah imply that she thinks that religious people have a greater tendency to be good than non-religious people. What justifies this assumption? Is it the fact that self-avowed non-religious people commit atrocities against other all other people, religious and non-religious alike, explicitly in the name of their non-religion, indeed driven to such actions in service of their non-religion? Of course not. So on what basis other than prejudice and religious sentiment can Mrs. Blair claim, in a judgment made in a British courtroom, that someone ought to be more leniently treated because he is religious?. . .

In the Times a young philosophy graduate turned journalist, Mr Hugo Rifkind, although claiming to sympathise with the National Secular Society’s complaint against Mrs. Blair, further claims that his ‘philosophy degree’ tells him that Mrs. Blair and her Roman Catholic church are the ones who are right in claiming that religious belief ‘gives you a sort of super, better morality, which outweighs everything else’. His reason for saying this is, as he puts it, that ‘There’s no such thing as abstract morality. It doesn’t even make any sense. If God isn’t the ultimate answer, what is?”

This is an awful advertisement for wherever Mr Rifkind studied philosophy. Either that or he was not paying attention in ‘week one’ when it appears (from what he says) his ethics course took place. And he certainly seems to have stopped thinking since then. Let me direct his attention to Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Hume, Kant, and a few dozen others among the thinkers he ought to have come across in his studies, whose ethics are not premised on divine command or the existence of supernatural agencies, but proceed from consideration of what human beings, in this life in this world, owe each other in the way of respect, concern, trust, fairness and honesty.

Indeed.  Let’s have more of the dissection of tortuous logic, and exposing of hidden and invidious assumptions, that is the real good that philosophy can do. Grayling’s astute analysis is in strong contrast to that of Andrew Brown at The Guardian (I swear, the “Comment is free” section is fast becoming a archive of pusillanimous accommodationism), who waffles and waffles about Blair’s sentence and can’t come to a conclusion.

Anthony Grayling is a national treasure. Sadly, he’s Britain’s treasure, not America’s.

47 thoughts on “Good philosophy: Anthony Grayling on Cherie Blair

  1. It was a good piece, but sadly, we can hardly get to the end before we find out that Grayling’s views are balanced by at least one philosopher who thinks his subject supports religion rather than undermines it. I get the feeling that a degree in philosophy is basically a license to hold forth on whatever you like. Whether the pluses of academic philosophy outweigh the minuses is, I think, an unsettled question. (Even if they do, we still have to ask whether “professional philosophers” are worth taxpayer coin.)

    1. Clearly an atheist would have snapped the mandible outright. Only the infinite compassion of Allah could have reduced this injury to a mere “mild fracture”.

  2. Yeah, it just blows my mind that a philosophy major would be making the lame argument that morality can only come from a divine source.

    I can understand how people wanting to make an argument for God who did not have a philosophical background might take that stance. And I can understand how a philosopher who wanted to make an argument for God might use a different fallacious assertion (usually a deepity, it seems). But the combination… it boggles the mind. It’s like an evolutionary biologist employing the argument from design.

    1. There’s a saying that right wing people aren’t stupid and nasty, but stupid and nasty people are usually right wing. I think that a very similar thing can be said about philosophy:

      Philosophers and philosophy students aren’t delusional ignorant incompetent crackpots with academic pretensions, but delusional ignorant incompetent crackpots with academic pretensions will usually aim towards philosophy.

      (People like Mary Midgley and Alvin Plantinga illustrate this point perfectly.)

      1. “delusional ignorant incompetent crackpots with academic pretensions will usually aim towards philosophy.”

        No they won’t! They usually aim towards “Theory” – not philosophy at all.

  3. 1) This article confuses being religious with belief. Not the same thing at all.
    2) He was a first time offender who pled guilty, and like it or not that’s the standard sentence in such circumstances that she handed down since he showed remorse. Ask any barrister, which neither Dawkins, Grayling or Coyne bothered to do . Remorse in these cases gets shown through a variety of ways, some of which may involve religious belief and many of which may not. To the extent religious belief can show atonement, etc, it is considered acceptable in mitigation.
    3) Mentioning that he’s religious is not the same thing as excusing him beause he’s religious, but that would require critical reading, critical thinking and citing something other than a headline from the Daily Mail (who don’t care he’s religious, but care desperately that he’s Muslim and foreign)
    4) There is no evidence anywhere that non-religious people are getting lesser sentences, apart from where Dawkins opts to make it up. Which isn’t evidence.

    1. Mentioning that he’s religious is not the same thing as excusing him beause he’s religious

      “I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person

      That seems pretty clear to me.

      1. Anne nevertheless has a good point, it seems to me. Absent from the commentary so far is an objective demonstration that the sentence handed down by Blair was in fact lenient.

        From traffic court to a murder trial, part of a judge’s duties is to instruct the convicted of the nature of his crime and his path to rehabilitation. It is possible that Blair was simply clumsy with her words and was invoking the man’s piety not as an excuse for a more lenient outcome, but rather as an instruction for more rigid application of his religious precepts in future.

        In other words, beating him about head and shoulders with some religious guilt for receiving mercy while giving him the same sentence she would have given anyone else. Whether the man actually received a lenient sentence seems to me to be an important question.

      2. Gingerbaker:

        Absent from the commentary so far is an objective demonstration that the sentence handed down by Blair was in fact lenient.

        But that’s not really relevant to the objection, which is that she said that’s what she was doing. Likewise, a judge saying “I’m giving you a lenient sentence on the basis that you’re a communist” would be unacceptable regardless of whether the sentence was, in fact, lenient.

    2. So tell us, why did Blair feel the need to mention religion at all ? It is irrelevant to the issue of sentencing, so just why did she bring it up ?

      It seems you can only excuse her on the grounds she is not that competent.

    3. 1) And these differences are?

      2) Wow, really? Sentencing takes remorse into account? Who would have thought it? I commend you for your comprehensive and insightful grasp of the completely-fucking-obvious.

      3) And how exactly does the statement “I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person” fit into this conclusion? Maybe you should try this “critical thinking” trick yourself?

      4) And where, exactly, has Dawkins made up cases? I don’t think anyone (except in Anne-World) is suggesting that this represents a universal bias. If you’re going to lie, at least have the decency to do it convincingly.

    4. What a piece of trash you wrote, Anne.
      Are you suggesting a good word from the chaplain never influences such decisions?
      If that is religious discrimination what is it? Is it not giving prisoners a motive to lie about what their beliefs?

    5. He was a first time offender who pled guilty…

      That would be “pleaded” guilty.

      (Just because a verb rhymes with “lead” doesn’t mean it’s conjugated like it.)

      Has I got mad grammar nazi skillz or what?

    6. Hey, Anne. Are you a plant to get more discussion going?

      To the extent religious belief can show atonement, etc, it is considered acceptable in mitigation.

      Somehow you didn’t happen to notice that that is actually the point at issue here.

      I gotta go with BaldApe. Sure heard my parents say “you should know better” plenty when I was a kid. Otherwise, they patiently explained when my behavior was not acceptable.

  4. I’m puzzled about something.

    Aren’t people who should have known better usually punished more severely? Don’t judges go to some length, for instance, to determine if a minor is “old enough to know right from wrong?”

    I’m just trying to understand, because of all the claims that I am an atheist so that I can have sex with hamsters and eat livers of newborn babies without penalty.

    1. …so that I can have sex with hamsters and eat livers of newborn babies…

      No, that’s disgusting. Its “have sex with newborn babies and eat livers of hamsters”.

  5. Not that it will do any good at all, but I wrote to the Guardian Readers’ Editor about the Brown piece, to complain about the gross misrepresentation of terry Sanderson and the national Secular Society, about whom Brown made a completely unfounded claim that they were in favor of increased sentences for offenders who were religious.

    Text of the complaint is here.

  6. Yes BaldApe, I was thinking the same thing.

    We really need to think this thing through though — why did that man do or say to provoke Miah? I mean, hell we might need to take the guy who was HIT to court, he could have said some remarks about earning interest that offended Miah’s religious beliefs! How intolerant of us to impose western “no-assaults-in-the-queue” values on this man, just because he’s living in a western society.

    Really, in the name of community-cohesion and multiculturalism we need to make double sure not to say anything that might provoke a muslim to crack our jaw. Naturally, to do otherwise would be (labeled) Islamophobic and racist! (dun dun dunnnnnn)

  7. Ever notice that those in prison looking for parole often find Jesus? My bet is the parole board uses that to further justify releasing criminals back into society. A athiest would have to serve the full sentence or lie to get early parole.

  8. So, I posted this on FB. A “friend” – whom I have known for years and until her conversion to the RCC I actually thought of as a true friend – decides I have personally attacked her by saying the logic is faulty and that if this is how the Blair’s reason that could explain Tony’s tenure as PM. She attacks and it culminates thusly.
    I wrote:
    I know that there is rabid anti-Catholicism in England. Let’s be frank, the Church hasn’t been doing itself many favors, either, lately. But this is not the basis of the sentiment and no matter what the Church does that bias will be there unless the English tackle it head first. I don’t think Ms. Blair’s comments stem from her being a Catholic so much as from her being religious. And there is no excuse for her comments from the bench. The obverse is plain and she needs to apologize for that.

    The Response:
    “You want the downsides of faith fine, then start expecting the downside of science. You’re right, that may be the best way to start fighting against this hatred. I note, for example, that science didn’t save your brother in law. My faith says he’ll go to heaven. Your atheism says you’ll never see him again. i hope that makes you happy. I guess it does as otherwise you wouldn’t be so happy to abuse the rest of us about any faith we have.”

    My brother-in-law, whom I have known and loved since I was a teenager, died of a sudden massive stroke three weeks ago.

    This is why religion is not just wrong, but dangerous. What cannot be won with logic becomes the basis of emotional, personal attack. On an international level this is one basis of war.

    1. Wow, that’s cold (not to mention a non-sequitor).

      My condolences on your loss, litchik. I’m glad you and your borther-in-law were able to enjoy each other’s company during the period you both existed.

      1. Ain’t as much of a non-sequitor as the comment that Cherie Blair’s bias towards religion shows a lack of critical thinking which shows why her husband was such a bad PM, which is what started the whole debate between her and him.

        And it may be cold, but it does cut to the heart of the whole thing between “belief is bad, science is good.” They’re not incompatible, and if you want to sit around and insult people’s beliefs expect to be met with the same.

      2. Well, if litchik has made the ridiculous claim that “belief is bad” then that’s one thing, though I don’t see them making that claim here. I’m not sure I’ve seen any people make that claim, in fact. Particular beliefs, of course, can be harmful, but that’s a very different claim – and I don’t really no anyone who doesn’t agree to that.

        I don’t really see that “i hope that makes you happy. I guess it does as otherwise you wouldn’t be so happy to abuse the rest of us about any faith we have” cuts to the heart of anything – I hold plenty of beliefs which don’t make me particularly happy (grass is green, my phone number ends with a 7, pi is irrational) but which I readily attempt to persuade others of if I find they disagree with me.

      3. I agree, Olaf, that was a weak link, but Tony Blair had just been testifying and I saw this and I did wonder about the conversations that go on in the House. Mind you, I never made that admittedly flip remark part of my argument against Ms. Booth. It was that throw away headlline to the FB posting with the link to the story.

      1. Thanks guys. I have to say it was nice to read the responses to her post here. I thought the reference to “Anne World” was particularly apt; almost as if you know her.

        It’s always hard to lose a friend, but this one is very lost.

        As for Cherie Booth/Blair, has she made a statement since the whole thing blew up? I can’t find one. Is it not allowed?

    1. Said the girl married in a church, attended Roman Catholic universities, had her kids baptised, has their baptismal certificates hanging on the wall and celebrates Christmas with a big old tree and presents.

      And way to take comments out of context. First you attack me in private e-mails and in public, and for once when someone fights back you not only are a bitch to me, but to my husband and my friends. Either take down my copyrighted e-mail off of public domain and out of context or expect the lawyers at your door.

  9. Um – the guy was a *Muslim*, a member of a religion some of whose members were responsible for the worst terrorist attack in US history, while others have launched similar attacks in the UK and France, have assassinated a Dutch film maker, and have threatened the lives of writers and cartoonists. I don’t need A C Grayling to tell me there’s something specious about Judge Blair’s logic.

    1. And if he was Christian, like the dudes who blew up the Murrow Building – you know the federal building with the ground floor day care center – then would you need help? Of course religious folks can be immoral, but the real threat here is the perpetuation of he idea that the non-religious are hindered in our pursuit of goodness.

      1. 1) Anyone can have belief. Or non-belief, if you want to call atheism that. Being religious implies being part of a community, reinforcing certain rights and wrongs, etc. Practice, communal morals and a community to reinforce what he did is wrong.

        2) Then why don’t you consider the fucking obvious that it was taken into account in this place?

        3) Becuase you conveniently omit the fact that it isn’t just because he’s a religious person, but also that he’s not been in trouble before. Which is well within all possible guidelines, which of course were not only met but it turns out that he actually got a slightly HARSHER sentence than your averge person in his stance. Your critical reading skills went blind.

        4) Here, for a start. If Dawkins claims that he’s getting off because he’s religious, he’s making it up. Because it isn’t true. Ditto Grayling et al. Read the analysis and the facts. He didn’t get a harder sentence than anyone, religious or not, in the same circumstances. So if you’re claiming discrimination or bias in his favour, you’re ignoring actual facts.

      2. Where is this idea perpetuated? Simply put, it isn’t. Except in your mind. He wasn’t excused, he wasn’t given a lesser sentence. So get all excised if you want, but the facts which you demanded show that you are wrong.

  10. Should I divest myself briefly of my proverbial modesty and pull a ‘John Collins’ by claiming that most commentators are missing the true historic import of the judicial decision taken by Cherie Booth QC?
    Just kidding.

    But since we are (cheaply) venting our collective indignation, let’s have some real fun:
    The most momentous outrage has not yet been mentioned, especially in comments at #5 (Anne and others):

    Judge Booth re-established benefit of clergy in all but name.

    This sentence points towards a full-fledged return of personal laws, pre-Agobard of Lyons (d. 840). Brush up your Lex Langobarda.

    Looking forward to trial by ordeal ?

  11. I must agree with some of the commenters, this only shows that philosophy is good at equivocation, useless for knowledge.

    Meanwhile, empiricism has found out that moral judgment is independent of religious commitment:

    Citing recent empirical work in moral psychology, the authors argue that despite differences in, or even an absence of, religious backgrounds, individuals show no difference in moral judgments for unfamiliar moral dilemmas.

    “This supports the theory that religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation for cooperation, but evolved as a separate by-product of pre-existing cognitive functions that evolved from non-religious functions,” says Dr. Pyysiainen. “However, although it appears as if cooperation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing cooperation between groups.”

    “It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence,” concludes co-author Dr. Marc Hauser.

    I.e. accomodationism is a socialization effect of being subjected to (too much) religion.

  12. Philosophy is better at exposing equivocation than it is at committing it.

    You guys should read Philosophers Without Gods or something. You have a wack idea of what philosophy is.

    1. But the complaint is not about what sentence she gave, it’s about what she said.

      Whatever sentence he got, she said she was giving him a lenient one (at least partly) because of his religion. If a judge said “I’m going to be lenient based on the fact that you’re a member of the Labour Party and have not been in trouble before” then it’d be a blatant abuse even if they didn’t give a lenient sentence.

      1. The claim keeps being he got a more lenient sentence because he was religious (often ignoring the rest of it, such as that he’d never been in trouble before, which in almost any sentencing will carry more weight) – that somehow there was bias in his favour. Turns out, there wasn’t. At which point, whether he was religious, atheist, Labour, Tory, Communist or whatever rather takes the sting out of whatever he was said and frankly wouldn’t have been reported otherwise.

        But the difference is (because I think you do have a point which needs discussing in the more hypothetical) that the Labour Party (or any other political party) isn’t demanding or claiming the support of certain moral ideals from its members, which religious communities are (and the same could be said of philosophical communities). That’s where the difference between belief and being religious becomes important. If, as an atheist, you can demonstrate that you’re part of a community, and a practicising member of that community, which condemns what you did and reinforces that ideal (say, your heavy involvement in the Red Cross or Boy Scouts or something less religious than those) where you’re turning up regularly and focusing on these ideals being reinforced then that’s relevant to your sentencing that you’re going to spend hours a week with these people. In this instance, he’s a practicing Muslim who’s turning up to Mosque on a regular basis. Mentioning it from the pre-sentence reports (where things like family history, circumstances, and so on are detailed to give a fuller picture of options open and appropriate sentences) isn’t that unusual.

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