Friday, 20 July 2012

Values for money: the municipal philosopher

I was very taken with the news this week that a tiny town council in Italy has appointed a municipal philosopher to help individual citizens to think clearly, listen to each other and question themselves and others. So, big kudos to Corigliano d'Otranto. 

One can well imagine the fulminations of the Taxpayers Alliance were such a position to be advertised by an English local authority. Indeed a state of zen would probably be required to deal with the outrage, scorn and ridicule that would pour down on anyone with the temerity to suggest such an appointment.

In fact, the need for municipal philosophers is perhaps about as great at the moment as it has ever been. Michael Sandel's wonderfully lucid book 'Justice' contains any number of observations which would be relevant but here's just one:

'A just society can't be achieved simply by maximising utility or be securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise'.

In the debased political culture that we often see around us there is little encouragement to engage in reasoned argument. Many of our politicians seem happy to pass over responsibility to individuals or to communities as if somehow all preferences can be accommodated. They can't.  

We may be approaching the point at which the idea that freedom of choice expressed predominantly through market mechanisms has gone beyond all acceptable limits. But what will be put in its place?

At root this concerns values. Lack of money means that choices have serious distributional consequences. Some councils have taken a values based approach whether fairness or equality as a means of informing the choices that are being made. 

A municipal philosopher would be well placed to aid that process; asking politicians hard questions about their roles and the basis for their decisions; helping citizens to take on more of the attributes of being good citizens and being challenged about their assumptions and preferences; asking some tough questions of both businesses and third sector organisations about their motivations and contributions.

Commercial firms have on occasion hired corporate 'jesters' giving them some of the freedom that went with the role played by the equivalents in a medieval court to challenge assumptions and put noses out of joint without being subject to the usual penalties. Someone in fact to point out that the emperor might really have no clothes. G4S might have well have benefited from one.

Hospitals have employed ethicists to help doctors to make appallingly difficulty judgements about whether or not to treat patients and the best course of action when all choices seem unpalatable.

So whilst I don't for a moment expect anyone to follow the exact example of Corigliano, it would be heartening to think that the underpinning reason for the appointment - to help people to be better citizens - might have some traction. The thought processes associated with being a citizen are very different to those of being a consumer; paying taxes is about more than shopping; and participating in decision making is different to being a supporter at a football match (whatever one might think from PMQs).

However, in the current economic climate, I suspect that any hard pressed English council would be most likely to welcome applications from that largely forgotten philosophical discipline of alchemy. Preferably from someone with a proven track record.


  1. Kevin,
    I quite agree. I too was taken with the municipal philosopher and even though I think the person wasn't being paid by the council, it's still bound to generate headlines. I heard an example a couple of years ago where a similar result (as the 'court jester') was obtained by a council inviting an academic to roam around, talk to people and give her impressions to the chief executive. I don't think she was paid, but it was useful to her and to the council.

    On increasing marketisation, another example was the change to the Health and Social Care Act that made Healthwatch organisations 'bodies created by statute' rather than 'statutory bodies'. I gather that this arcane difference means that councils can now commission the 'service'. But should being the champion of patients, carers and the public be a service that can be put out to tender, or rather, should it be seen as part of the democratic process?
    Adrian Barker

    1. Adrian, thank you. The Corigliano example is I think focused on the philosopher being available to citizens but I certainly see the approach being relevant much more widely including in the 'jester' sense.

      I'm very taken with your Healthwatch example. Indeed, I had already been musing about whether to do a little set of posts on what a municipal philosopher might make of the approach to a number of current public policy issues and I might well take that one up.

      Thanks again for commenting.