More on Matt Cavanagh

by Chris Bertram on March 22, 2004

I have “a letter in todays’s Guardian”:,3604,1174928,00.html on l’affaire Cavanagh (on which see “JQ’s earlier post”: and, especially, comments there by Harry). There are also supportive letters from Edward Lucas of the Economist and Bernard Crick (who is, perhaps, somewhat compromised by his previous association with Cavanagh’s employer, on which, “see Chris Brooke”: ). One benefit of having a blog is that, when the Guardian edit your letter you can publish the unexpurgated version yourself. They’ve not done a bad job, but here’s the original with the bits the Guardian cut out in italics:

bq. Political philosophers often entertain hypotheses which ordinary people find outlandish _or even outrageous_ . They do this in order to clarify our our fundamental commitments about justice, fairness, liberty, and so on. Even when they have come to a considered view _about those commitments_ , the question of how principles translate into policy is a difficult one. I take it that _a liberal newspaper like_ the Guardian believes that such fundamental inquiry by academics has a place, indeed and essential place, in the political ecology of a free society. _How deplorable it is then, when one of your correspondents, in search of material to discredit David Blunkett, should dig out theoretical reflections made in a wholly different context by Matt Cavanagh, a former philosopher now employed as a policy advisor._ Kudos is due to Blunkett for being willing to seek the advice of someone who has been so sharply critical of him in the past. Taking Cavanagh’s quotes from their context, then crying “race” _and seeking soundbites from backbenchers to embarrass a minister_ is _behaviour_ worthy of muckraking tabloids, not of the Guardian.



Dave F 03.22.04 at 10:33 am

Thanks. That’s a despicable edit – the one deploring the distortion in particular – that it would be hard to argue was based on space considerations.

This is indeed the value of the blog writ large.


John Quiggin 03.22.04 at 10:34 am

I agree with you in deploring the Guardian’s behavior and with Cavanagh in thinking that the concept of equality of opportunity is problematic (though probably not for the same reasons). And of course you’re right to say that political philosophers need to entertain hypothesis that ordinary people find outlandish, rather than rejecting them because they are inconsistent with common sense or seem to yield unpalatable conclusions.

But I think academics, notably including philosophers and economists, too often err in the direction of being deliberately shocking, either to epater le bourgeois or to demonstrate toughmindedness. As a minor example, I’ve noted here and here that philosophical examples seem to display gratuitous violence.

I haven’t read Cavanagh’s book yet, but even the favorable reviews, and Crick’s supportive letter, suggest that a more accurate title would be Against Some Bad Arguments for Equality of Opportunity. That wouldn’t have made such a splash at the time it came out, but it would have been clearer today that the Guardian was quoting him out of context.


push 03.22.04 at 10:49 am

I quite agree with Chris’ deploring of sensationalism seeking. However I find myself sympathetic to Sophie Allen’s views as well. The lack of practical fit between much academic political philosophy and real issues of moral and social significance has troubled me for some time since I made a similar move away from academic political philosophy into more real world settings.


Ian 03.22.04 at 2:41 pm

I thought letters were edited for reasons of space – this goes way beyond that.


Stentor 03.22.04 at 3:09 pm

A bit OT, but I’m wondering what “political ecology” means to political philosophers. From the context it doesn’t look like you’re talking about “the political economy of human-environment relations,” which is how we geographers and anthropologists use the term.


Chris Bertram 03.22.04 at 3:17 pm

I don’t think it means anything special to political philosophers. What I meant to convey is that among the many diffent activities that ought to go on in a healthy political system is fundamental inquiry into principles of justice. Other activities being investigative journalism, advocacy, and son on….


Scott Burgess 03.22.04 at 5:45 pm

“How deplorable it is then, when one of your correspondents …”

Well, it’s your letter, and if you think that “they’ve not done a bad job,” that obviously carries a lot of weight.

But my personal opinion is that the sentence deleted by the Grauniad is really the crux of your letter, and for them to remove it is … well … deplorable.

I’m glad that you have this means of clarifying your point.

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