Professor Kenneth Minogue

The Engelsbergs Seminar 2011

Today we mark the death last weekend of a great Antipodean, Professor Kenneth Minogue – a provocative thinker whose critique of contemporary society should be better known.

Funny how it’s the old Tories who have provided the most persuasive and nuanced critique of our recent and ongoing economic disasters. It’s because, being essentially moralists, they were best able to spot and describe the moral failings that lay behind them.

Sadly, we lost one of the finest thinkers in this vein on the weekend: Kenneth Minogue. Tory might be one description but I think a more precise one is liberal conservative: he supported liberal values but suspected they are only really viable when rooted in specific traditions rather than on a set of universal abstractions.

The quotation below comes from a piece that seems to me one of the best critiques of contemporary society that I’ve come across. It explains how our misbehaving bankers or politicians or administrators aren’t simply bad people (though they may be this too): their misdemeanours were often responses to a prevailing system of incentives, whose assumptions remain largely unquestioned.

For some reason it hasn’t had a lot of air-time. I think this is probably because people are still too fixated on system-thinking and model building: castles in the air that float on a misplaced faith in the explanatory power of ideologies. Theories of moral sentiments are strangely unfashionable nowadays. Perhaps Professor Minogue’s passing will provide an opportunity for reappraisal? From Slaves of the Bonus Culture:

The decline of professionalism is…one way of tracking the change in our moral sentiments over the last two or three generations. What is today recognised as a “bonus culture” is part of the enfeebling of inherited integrities and their replacement by the external inducements that governments and other powers use in the project of improving society. The problem is that the moral life includes not only doing the right thing (whatever we may take that to be) but also our duties to the character we believe ourselves to have. This is an inner responsibility for avoiding whatever we would despise ourselves for doing. It is a test that many people have failed in remarkably public ways today and there is a lot to learn from it. As with all forms of moral change, there is no easy way back to the sensibilities so many people have lost. We have become so accustomed to being administered and managed by official power that many in our society have no other principle of motion than oscillation between impulse on the one hand and external control on the other, without much of an inner core of self-direction in between. The classical Greeks called this condition “servility.”

[Further reading.]

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Gaw

13 thoughts on “Professor Kenneth Minogue

    July 2, 2013 at 11:05

    There’s not a lot wrong with that quote, unfortunately. Equally unfortunately, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle – They live as slaves, but everywhere insist they are free.

    • Gaw
      July 2, 2013 at 22:12

      There’s some thought-provoking stuff on modern executive slavery in Theodore Zeldin’s Intimate History of Humanity. One can forget that there’s no necessary contradiction between being a slave and being powerful:

      The third kind of slave was the ancestor of today’s ambitious executive and bureaucrat…. Slaves had no family, no loyalty to anybody but their master. They made the most reliable officials, soldiers, private secretaries. The Ottoman and Chinese empires were often managed by slaves, who rose to the highest posts and indeed sometimes ended as grand viziers and emperors; castration made sure that they placed loyalty to the state before family. There are no statistics to say how many people are morally castrated by their employers today.

    • Gaw
      July 2, 2013 at 22:07

      Thanks z, I shall view.

    July 2, 2013 at 21:55

    To thine own self be true. Try running that bugger past the Harvard MBA. T

      July 2, 2013 at 22:00

      I have started so I will continue…….the old meaning of the word professional was someone who had to be deferred to, f..k them.

      • Gaw
        July 2, 2013 at 22:06

        Progress seems to involve swapping old problems (f..k them) for a whole set of new ones (f..k them).

    July 3, 2013 at 01:30

    “The decline of professionalism is…one way of tracking the change in our moral sentiments over the last two or three generations.”

    Three generations by common reckoning is about 100 years. The world is rotten enough now, but was it morally better in 1913 or 1909? Such writers as Mencken, Musil, Karl Kraus, and Heinrich Mann did not seem to think well of the morals of that day, its “inner responsibility for avoiding whatever we would despise ourselves for doing”.

      July 3, 2013 at 12:59

      These kinds of old Tory critiques of the modern can always be dismissed as selective nostalgias that don’t survive empirical comparative historical analysis. But they resonate nonetheless as things of great value that have been lost or sidelined. The man whose answer to cries over a modern injustice is to point out how the 16th century was worse is missing a larger point. Like “the traditonal liberties of the Englishman”, they are perhaps better viewed as metaphorical articulations of atatvistic rumblings from deep within that something is broken and needs fixing.

    • Gaw
      July 3, 2013 at 14:02

      I’m not sure Minogue is making a claim as large as that, George. His argument is a lot more nuanced than old = good, new = bad.

      Specifically, I think the decline of the professional ethic is a loss. I think his putting it down to the enlargement of the state is pretty persuasive in the instances he cites. It may be that the whole professional package also conflicts with our desire for transparency and suspicion of automatic deference.

      However, having thought about it a bit, I believe the bonus culture and its system of material incentives is fundamentally a product of the adoption of reductive views of human nature propagated by a variety of materialist philosophies (a conclusion I suspect Peter would appreciate!).

        July 4, 2013 at 14:50

        Peter, Gaw: I do not suggest that we justify the sins of the present by pointing to those of the past, for what couldn’t we justify that way?

        Still, I find Minogue’s argument weak in detail, if here and there suggestive. He writes

        ‘The three classic professions were divinity, medicine and law, with soldiering also accorded some ambiguous recognition. These professions combined two elements. The first was their recognised command of some branch of skill that could benefit others and the second was professing a moral commitment to abstain from exploiting this skill for the practitioners’ own benefit. In order to make this clear, the professional was rewarded with a “salary” so that he (and later she) could concentrate on the skill in hand rather than being concerned with inducements to work.’

        Well, the clergy had livings, but but didn’t they collect fees here and there for wedding and funerals? (Certainly they did in some Catholic countries.) The greatest number of doctors and lawyers collected fees for service, and the salaried must have been limited to those employed by governments. Then, too, the moral commitment of the members of the three professions has now and then been questioned by observers inside and out. As for MPs, it was fairly late in the history of Parliament before they received salaries, wasn’t it?

        “Professionals are particularly valuable in understanding the very strict limits to their professional knowledge. They used to be parsimonious with general opinions.”

        I don’t know about this. Harvard’s economists came out as firmly against FDR’s budgets as England’s did against Thatcher’s. The clergy have of course always been willing to voice opinions on anything and anyone from Parnell to JFK. Professors haven’t been particularly shy about offering their conclusions or services: the case of the Gottingen Seven happened about 175 years ago

        But perhaps we need to a new Sir Henry Maine to describe how the movement from status to contract has moved beyond contract to regulation.

    July 3, 2013 at 20:36

    Top commenting!

    July 14, 2013 at 01:29

    very interesting, although some of it way above my head, i’ll admit. without wishing to diminish the contribution the Prof made, I thought I’d just mention hearing him on the radio musing over the fact that he got quite a few erroneous calls from people who looked up K Minogue in the phone book, looking for Kylie, which he was amused by.

Comments are closed.