‘We need a rational left’

Bret Weinstein joins Brendan O’Neill to discuss the crisis of free thought in the 21st century.

‘Professor in exile’ Bret Weinstein joins spiked’s editor for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. They discuss Bret’s hounding from campus, the woke rejection of reason, the Intellectual Dark Web, and why the left still matters.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Rob Martin

27th June 2019 at 1:30 pm

It’s all very well to say that it is obnoxious to believe that the failure of certain racial groups in America, Britain and everywhere else they happen to be has something to do innate limitations but what if it is true, as a lot of evidence seems to suggest? Bret suggested that we still haven’t worked out exactly what it is that is holding back blacks and Native Americans in America, but I suspect we have.

I have always thought, and still do, that both men are clever and insightful and thus worth listening to. However, I’m starting to wonder what good intelligence and insight do if you can’t bring yourself to look honestly at a problem.

Potomacker Potomacker

27th June 2019 at 12:48 pm

Feminism, the problem is feminism. The first place I saw a realignment of the Left/Right paradigm was the willingness of so many feminists to align with religious conservatives against pornography. Today the free speech feminists are considered bad feminists and the academy is swamped by feminists who extol the supremacy of the lived experience over empirical data and feelings over facts.

Jerry Owen

27th June 2019 at 11:42 am

I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, however the left have been found out in our particular era / country for who they really are , we’ve had socialist leaders throughout history around the planet from Mao to Hitler to Stalin, the end result of socialism always ends in death camps. We always think ‘never here now’ but it is here now in the making. The creeping tide is leading inexorably to some horrendous times ahead, one way trafic for the left, no defeats no turn back no regrets for them as they march on.
We see in the here and now the ever increasing totalitarianism of socialism from silencing people upon pain of losing their jobs / or vilification to imprisonment. We have the left advocating .. through the MSM it has to be remembered horrific violence such as acid attacks ( dressed up as jokes ) on their opponents. Lammy is the latest advocate of attacking people .. an elected politician.
Do you really think this will end at just throwing stuff .. c’mon for God’s sakes !
Regrettably BON supports this advancement of totalitarian violence ( defending Brand )which doesn’t bode for the kind of leftism he wants .. he is a Marxist still albeit a fudgy one. BON supported the violence of Bernadette Devlin punching another MP.
Ideology itself is dangerous when you have groups trying to impose it on others. I left the ‘left’ when it dawned on me that I was in fact a bully trying to impose my beliefs on others.
The problem is that it isn’t a case of people not understanding that leftism / socialism is good, it is a problem that leftists cannot ever understand that people do not actually want socialism, and not that they are misguided or do not properly understand socialism ( look at the ‘remainiacs’ for a good equivalent ).
I have moved from the SWP to the right and now swung back to a position I believe is a kind of libertarianism.
Small government , small state sector , allow people to go about their lives unhindered unless it impinges on others freedom. A society run as close to the rights of the individual / nuclear family as possible.
I am amazed at the amount of people that still labour under the illusion that we just haven’t had ‘the right kind of ‘socialism’ yet, yeah millions and millions of corpses probably would have appreciated the ‘right kind’ . Funny how it just seems to end up going wrong.. perhaps a few more laws a few more death camps is the answer.
I look forward to the day that socialism like Nazism and Communism is relegated to the dustbin of history.
The left have never stayed rational.

Amelia Cantor

25th June 2019 at 10:46 am

If we need a rational left, I suggest we ask O’Neill to draw up a manifesto for us. Then we do the opposite of whatever he suggests. Support Brexit, O’Neill will say. So do the opposite. Give free speech for fascists. Do the opposite. Spew hate against the trans community. Do the opposite. And so on.

Jerry Owen

27th June 2019 at 11:07 am

I wish I understood the rationale of your post.

Winston Stanley

23rd June 2019 at 10:54 pm

Bret is a moralist, he acknowledges a material, biological, evolutionary basis for forms of behaviour that he dislikes, and he wants to find some way to structure society to better realise his moral vision.

Brendan makes an interesting point that Greens try to put science in the old place of God as the legislator of our place in the world and how we should interact with it. The question is whether all moralism is an attempt to revive the old God, to make out that humans should in some sense be constrained by some sort of objective “moral truth”. B seems to have an aversion to relativism but perhaps relativism reflects or names an existential situation that we find ourselves in as free human beings who are not hardwired by nature to act in certain ways, like ants or flies. Yes we have instincts but the social realities that we are able to create are too complex to exclude a radical freedom of interpretation.

Brendan’s concern for “moral reason” seems to indicate a certain uneasiness with the idea that there simply there is no “moral truth”, that morality is a human construct that varies with time, place, group and person. But reason does not provide 10 commandments written in stone, it is a tool that we use, in the service of the will, to achieve objectives, needs and desires. The intellect has evolved to help us to navigate, to interact with, and to manipulate the environment to our needs, firstly survival and reproduction. In that sense, reason, like morality, aesthetic experience and all else, is ultimately an evolved expression of the will to power, to life, to a sustained and successful existence. In that basic sense, as a tool in the service of the will, morality may have a “rational” aspect, in so far as the intellect plots a beneficial course forward, but it cannot “tell us” what we want in the first place or why we “should” want anything bar when it facilitates as a means toward something that we already want.

Societies have a material basis, they have historically developed, and “morality” with them to reflect material circumstances. Bret is aware that the situation of Africans in USA today is informed by the economic experience of slavery and colonialism. Surely he is also aware that the sort of social vision that he wants to enact in USA is also a product of that material development, that capitalism has largely moved on from colonialism to the expansion of the domestic population to enlarge the workforce and domestic market. He is trying to make capitalism in this particular stage of its development work and he is calling that “morality”. It is apt that he terms himself “a reluctant radical”, he is essentially a conservative who simply wants to make this present system of things work better according to how it is supposed to work anyway. That is very relativistic in its own way, and I am not sure whether or why he would have any problem with admitting that.

If “God is dead” then why not drop any pretence of “moral reason or truth” and accept relativism as a more honest and potentially progressive way forward? Admit that we are simply animals with needs and desires and that we are making things up as we go along to satisfy those needs? We are lumps of meat on legs and with eyes and big brains to process the environment, struggling for our survival according to our primary life instinct, the will to life? That then leaves us with the same question of how best to order society in the present situation, and with the present level of material development, to allow us to satisfy our needs and desires, and that is where reason comes in. It adds nothing to pretend that “morality” is objective, absolute or constant, and why would it?

Rather the fear of relativism would seem to again reflect the will to power, in so far as, if we admit that there is no “moral truth”, and that we are just animals in a stage of evolutionary development, and in historically formed material circumstances, arguing about what it all means, if anything, and about what we might do, then there is the danger that people may not agree with us, and we might not get our way, and it could even work out pretty badly for us. Arguably the fear of relativism has its basis in a strategy of the life instinct, to control the environment, and other people, so as to secure our needs and desires. If all morality is will to power then it comes as no surprise that the fear and aversion of relativism is also will to power. The fear of relativism is a fear of the free human situation, of other people, and an attempt to reframe human society with constructed illusions of “truth” and “reason” that suit us.

But is a sort of existential fear, “morality” the best, most progressive basis on which to organise society? Only if it genuinely does facilitate progress better than existential honesty. Only reason could answer that, through enquiry, debate, and ultimately experimentation. Which brings us back to the scientific method, and to the need for an evidenced based approach to the question. Are we better off with illusions, “moral” lies, that we think serve our needs, or would we be better off with honesty and an open freedom? A radically free democracy, and free speech, would then be the basis for social decision making. There would be no moral constraints on what people could say and advocate.

Again that would be a potentially dangerous situation, and the fear of democracy would seem to be related to the fear of other people that is the basis of “moral truth”. Radically free democracy would unleash the free unconstrained, “relative” human situation and we simply may not have the fibre for that. We prefer to be safe and secure in the illusion of “truth” that we think protects us from each other. We rely on “morality”, lies and social pressure to control one another, as all societies hitherto. Maybe we are simply frightened, sheltering in lies and superstitions, and no different in that regard from primitive men with their totems and trinkets, or even cavemen hiding in a cave with a fire at the entrance? Maybe we have evolved with lies that we remain unable to transcend, and we possibly still have some evolution to do before the seed of human potential can be fully realised.

Michael Holmes

24th June 2019 at 2:20 am

I think this is an excellent and logical defence of moral relativism and I’m sure my philosophy boils down to the same fundamentals. As a spiritual (kabbalist / semi-buddhist) explorer with a scientific, mathematical, and legal background (for what it’s worth I grabbed a top first in chemistry at Oxford back in the day) I’m inspired to consider how one might deploy the will-power you spake of in a “least-selfish” context. I guess in that sense “selfishness” shouldn’t only be confined to my human race but some concept of consciousness and life beyond that limitation. As such, I’m left with a sense of striving for wisdom (to clearly perceive cause and effect arising from my own actions) and truly understand the longer term consequences of this (perhaps in a fractal geometric sense rather than simple geometry – I.e. as above so below kind of thing). There are those in this world who create massive effects (some without realising), and many who merely serve to perpetuate such effects with limited control or congnition. If there is to be any moral absolutism it is for those who can create massive effects – they must wake up, realise their power, and use it in a constructive manner as measured by a mind who understands constructiveness from a long term perspective. Any judge of constructiveness would need to be “relatively” enlightened, so in this sense it comes back to your relativist viewpoint albeit perhaps with some hope and a degree of striving.

Winston Stanley

24th June 2019 at 11:12 pm

I agree, we are free to act selfishly or considerately, as the situation allows. The absence of any “moral truth” does not imply that we always act selfishly. We can act according to our social instincts, our character, our dispositions, our upbringing or whatever.

Generally, but not always, it is in our interests to act altruistically or considerately. It is mutually beneficial if others do the same, so selfishness and altruism are not entirely distinct.

It is like a social contract. The classical English liberal philosophers proposed as much after the Civil War as a justification for, or at least an invitation to, social order in the absence of any divine right of rulers or any supernaturally endorsed social order. A basic respect for law, and for each other, allows us all to pursue our own benefit.

We can do all of that as a free act without any claim to “absolute and eternal moral truth”, and as you say we can act in a considered and prudent social manner with a long term view. We do not “have” to but we are free to do so and it is generally mutually beneficial.

Hana Jinks

24th June 2019 at 10:26 am

God told Adam and Eve not ot eat of The Tree of Life, nor of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve eating of the latter has meant that mankind has been able to decide for ourselves what constitutes good or evil, as opposed to seeking God for our guidance on such things.

Winston Stanley

24th June 2019 at 2:15 pm

Yep, and as the Pratchett joke goes, I cannot see what is wrong with knowing the difference between good and evil anyway.

Winston Stanley

24th June 2019 at 2:30 pm

And why we should be punished for disobedience, with hard labour and a death sentence, when we did not know the difference between good and evil is anyone’s guess. God got angry with his pets? And only God knows why we should all be punished for something that Adam did. Maybe God needs to eat some of those apples.

Steve Roberts

24th June 2019 at 6:27 pm

Have you ever tried judgementalism ? No not the judgementalism that concludes we ought not to have any, all is relative,do not fear moral relativism type, but the more humanist one making judgements, taking decisions, been responsible,using ones will and that we may regard it as the moral truth, our agency, taking responsibility and that terrible thing called making a moral stance , deciding what you have concluded is right as opposed to someone else’s position that one considers wrong, yes a belief in ones position been the moral truth, if you like, on a particular issue.
Or one could retreat into to an intellectualising claim of moral relativism which frankly contains a huge dose of moral cowardice .

Thomas Smith

24th June 2019 at 10:32 pm

I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. All Brendan is saying is that scientific issues must be evaluated democratically, rather than technocratically. Your talk about him supporting the 10 commandments is just a lot of bunk. it’s a canard you are creating.

Jody Taylor

23rd June 2019 at 10:29 pm

I disagree that “the Left still matters”.

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