Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Respecting the Office: A Philosophical Comment

Stephen Regal was on the BBC Radio Jersey this morning in the "Thought for Today", and there was a good deal about honour and respect for authorities, and how we must have an orderly society.

He also stated that while one may disagree with the holder of a high office, one must "respect the office". The notion that a particular kind of office may itself be corrupted in some form seems to be overlooked. If we have any kind of progress towards a more democratic society, it is because "offices" themselves have been subject to criticism and change.

A good example in Jersey was the abolition of the automatic right of Jurats and rectors to form part of the States of Jersey. The powers of their office were diminished, and in the case of the rectors, apart from minor parish matters like the roads' committee, they were relegated to the position of private citizens. It could be argued that their office was still respected but what is this "office" which remains Platonic and immutable whereas the visible signs apart from mere nomenclature have changed significantly.

One book on the subject of political institutions (1) says that the British respected "the office of king without unduly exalting the incumbent, provided he kept within the limits of his office", yet we are also told that the position of the monarchy was weakened "through the emergence of cabinet government ". But if that is the case, then we are holding onto an abstraction, an ideal, which is being torn apart from the actuality.

If we consider the case of the "rector" where part of the office of rector was being an ex officio member of the States, we can see that the "office of rector" which is disconnected from the actuality of what the office entails, because that office after reforms no longer entailed membership of the States. And if the office can be whittled away like this, what precisely is left? It is a kind of Aristotelian thought, like transubstantiation, in which the "substance" of the office is disconnected with the perceived outward appearance or "accidents". It comes close to what I think Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" where one makes the "accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete".

Another contradiction comes when the holder of one office shows no respect to another office. For this example, I give Ian Le Marquand, when magistrate, criticising the office of the jury:

"Oh, gosh, you are going to get me into hot water now if I give an honest answer....The Jurats are an excellent institution and long may they remain. The sensible, wise people of experience who make decisions of fact are working alongside a professional judge...In fact, if I had my own way I would have all trials dealt with by Jurats and would abolish the jury trials."(2)

If we can criticise Magistrate Mr Le Marquand (as he was then), and extend this to criticise everything that a holder of an office does, then what is beyond criticism? Where does the "office" exist that we are supposed to honour and respect? Where do we locate the "office" apart from the incumbent? Is it the robes, the fact that he sits in a particular place, and is empowered to deliver judgments (which may not be beyond criticism, because they pertain to the person?). I am reminded of the Platonists who defined man as "a featherless biped", whereupon Diogenes the Cynic promptly plucked a chicken.

Are we to take a legal definition of office as applying, but the legal definition, as with the rector, changes over time, and must therefore be subject to criticism. In the case of the rectors, the ex officio membership of the office was seen as undemocratic, and in this regard, it was the office rather than notable benevolent rectors that did not deserve respect but abolition.

Perhaps honour and respect should be accorded the office by formal observances - for instance, in a court, being smartly dressed, and standing for the prayers. Yet these trappings are in fact both culturally and historically conditioned. If I am a Muslim woman, perhaps I would want to wear a Burka in Court as my mark of respect. And if one admits that what constitutes "smartly dressed" varies from one society to another, should this be imposed by a "When in Rome" kind of authoritarianism? But where is the justification for such a maxim? I am not saying that people should not be "smartly dressed" (whatever that means in a particular society), but I am saying that how we define smartly dressed needs a good deal more justification than some vague appeal to "respect the office". If I turned up in a Victorian frockcoat, which was presentable attire for by ancestors, would that count as respect or disrespect?

It seems to me, therefore, that "respecting the office" is a rather vague term, which is largely used to impose the authority of one person upon another; it is rule by cliché. With regard to respect for an authority, I am inclined to show general politeness for the most part, but not because of the office, but simply because I adhere to the position and caveat so perfectly expressed by Mikhail Bakunin:

In the matter of boots I refer to the authority of the bootmakers; concerning houses, canals, or railroads I consult that of the architect or engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I accept them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure.

(1) "Political Reconstruction" by Karl Loewenstein (1946), p166
(2) http://www.scrutiny.je/documents/pubhearings/38187-9351-30102006.htm
(3) Mikhail Bakunin, What is Authority, 1871

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