The Right Stuff

Alan Ryan

  • The Principle of Duty by David Selbourne
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 288 pp, £17.99, June 1994, ISBN 1 85619 474 4

David Selbourne’s The Principle of Duty is described on the dust-jacket as ‘the most comprehensive theory of civic society written in English since Locke’. ‘In English’ is wise: it excludes Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Hegel, Marx and Weber. The claim remains bizarre: Locke did not produce a theory of civil society, comprehensive or otherwise, but an account of our obligations to government or the state. The concept of civil society – the institutions and habits that sustain social, economic and family life – is an 18th-century discovery, articulated by the Scottish Enlightenment and naturalised in European liberal thought. If Selbourne’s publishers have anything definite in mind, it must be that The Principle of Duty puts the work of Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Hume and Edmund Burke in the shade.

The Principle of Duty not only fails to live up to its billing: it is quite dreadful. It is querulous and pompous, written in a sort of demented lawyer-speak, full of misreadings of the writers Selbourne criticises – and even of those he admires. It contains two thoughts: that any society will fall to pieces if people are unwilling to do what is needed to keep it in working order; and that ours is now doing so. The first claim is true but banal, the second false. If it were not common knowledge that Selbourne had taught the history of political ideas for twenty years, it would be easy to believe that The Principle of Duty was the work of some autodidact unkindly imagined by E.M. Forster. Its rebarbative quality is exacerbated by Selbourne’s ostentatious contempt for his intellectual betters and a degree of self-regard that the author of a much better book than this would have no title to.

‘Given the scale of the moral and social crises which beset us,’ says Selbourne,

can we turn (in a brute world) for guidance, ethical or practical, to an Isaiah Berlin, a Dworkin, a Nozick, or a Rawls? Of course not. Would you hear of civic obligation from a scholar who, with exquisite care and ethical unconcern, could declare that ‘questions about what it is that citizens may claim as of right in a democracy are also questions about what it is fair to expect of them’ [Selbourne’s emphasis]? For thus is civic duty kept at arm’s length by ‘questions’ without practical, or even comprehensible, answers: the questions not of a Plato but of a sophist, playing for ethical time.

Selbourne’s standards of practicality can be guessed from his thoughts about how to cure one current social ill: the unwillingness of many young men to provide for the babies they beget. He says (plausibly enough) that we should make parents meet their obligations by any means that don’t damage the children. ‘In case of wilful neglect or abandonment by a father of the duties, as of maintenance, which he owes to the mother of his child or children, and of neglect of his related duties to such child or children, as well as in cases of similar abandonment of duty to child or children, by a mother, loss by the individual for greater or lesser time, of civic benefits and privileges may follow, provided only that no harm is caused thereby to the child or children.’

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