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Time for Reflection

Excerpt from Official Report of the Scottish Parliament 4 February 2009

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): Good afternoon. The first item of business is time for reflection. Our time for reflection leader is Professor John Haldane, director of the centre for ethics, philosophy and public affairs from the University of St Andrews.

Professor John Haldane (Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, University of St Andrews): Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am conscious of the great honour you do me, and am grateful for the privilege of being able to speak to you today.

Debate is the business of this chamber, and whether it is engaged in for personal display or party advantage, its first and final function is that of promoting action by the Parliament, on behalf of the nation. In sharing that common purpose, you are all to some degree philosophers, or should aim to be such, for all thought begins and ends in action; and resulting actions and policies are only as coherent, effective and worth while as the thought that conceives them.

The writer G K Chesterton remarked that we have no alternative except being influenced by thought that has been thought out or by thought that has not been thought out, and he observed that the second is what is called philosophy. Some degree of serious reflection is necessary for responsible politics, but like any other skill, thinking needs to be directed to good ends.

How, then, are those ends to be identified? Again Chesterton has wisdom to offer when he writes regarding human wellbeing that we must first find the cure before we can identify the disease. Any appearance of paradox there quickly disappears when we recognise that the example of a secure and loving family illuminates the problems of failed ones; and the sight of a well-functioning community reveals where communal life has dissolved into mere co-existence, or declined into suspicion and mistrust.

It is not the business of politics to save souls, but equally politics cannot achieve and maintain decency, let alone rise to greatness, unless it recognises that human beings are soulful creatures before and after they are economic or pleasure-seeking agents. That soulfulness shows itself in three ways: first, in a sense of contingency and vulnerability, as we find ourselves in a world we did not make, and in conditions we did not choose; secondly, in a recognition of our conflictedness, and how we are drawn to good and bad alike; and thirdly, in a yearning for completion in secure and enduring personal relationships. Out of those intimations of our spiritual nature are born three great virtues: solidarity with the suffering; repentance for wrongs inflicted; and creativity in the hope of making and sharing things of enduring worth.

Such virtues might not resolve debates about budget allocations, but without them Parliament has little to offer—at best it is an irrelevance; at worst a burden. So again, you have reason to be philosophical, reflecting on our shared vulnerability, conflictedness and yearning, and working out how those constants of the human condition might be relevant to today’s policy making.

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