The leading political blogger Graemer Archer once said of coherence in politics:
Coherence, you see, is the natural consequence of an ideology, and in politics it is rarely A Good Thing. Since an ideologue has a rule book, a device which he or she believes is a perfect description of the rules which govern man's interactions with man, he or she need almost never make any contradictory statements. This follows with probability nearly one, because all political thought will flow from the axioms of the ideology machine.
That's enough. Leave theology to the religious, and ideology to the left. And leave coherence to mathematics. Politics is for humans.
Graeme happens to be a Tory, but dissing what he says just for that attribute is not good enough. He is a fluent and articulate blogger of subtlety and great power; and (as most readers will know) I was a judge of the George Orwell Blogging Prize which made him this year's winner.
So is he right?
For me, coherence is a virtue when thinking about political, media, and legal issues.
When Johann Hari first faced criticism for his journalism, I set out why it was important to hold him to the same standards which would be applied to conservative and reactionary writers.
Similarly, I have also critcised supposed champions of rationalityRichard Dawkins and A C Grayling. On the other hand, I have defended Cherie Booth from unfair criticism in respect of the religious language in her sentencing remarks.
But that sort of stuff is easy; such consistency is the simple avoidance of partisanship (which is a bane of British intellectual and political life).
More difficult is conceptual coherence: do one's arguments in context [A] lose any force because they do not work in context [B]?
Over the last year I have written on a variety of topics, and I do wonder if my position is coherent overall. In each case my argument is made sincerely (I am not a contrarian, though I often get called that); but do all the arguments cohere with each other?
Earlier this week I set out some thoughts on abortion. Here I prioritised the privacy of the woman and said that an abortion is a surgical procedure which is the business only of her and her doctor.
In this, I was being consistent with my views on transgender issues and sex work: a transgendered person's surgery is a private medical matter, and a sex worker has complete autonomy over what he or she can do with their own body.
So far, so coherent; and because the principle of privacy being employed is consistent, I think my overall position is stronger for it.
However, I have also written recently about capital punishment.
There I denied the autonomy of those involved:
But capital punishment demands more than a willing executioner and cheering spectators; it needs for the whole of the State apparatus to be augmented so that the end of a given formal process is the deliberate killing of a human being. The absolute wrongness of the original act is then repeated by the State on our behalf.
This is why capital punishment can be fairly said to be barbaric. It takes something which is wrong, and then projects it on the political and legal institutions of the State: it makes repeating that wrong a purpose of public policy.
Is this coherent with my view of abortion as an essentially private matter?
Is not an abortion also a requirement that "the State apparatus to be augmented so that the end of a given formal process is the deliberate killing of a human being"?
For me, the answers to these questions are informed by my (implicit) denial that the aborted foetus is a human being.
But what of my general support for "liberal intervention" in foreign policy, where people are killed as a consequence of the military actions of the UK State?
Can one oppose the death penalty as a matter of first principle and not also be a pacifist (or at least an isolationist where the military is used only for self-defence)?
At this point, one can imagine Graeme nodding and saying this was his very point. Coherence, by itself, is not a political virtue.
He is certainly right to the extent that something illiberal or misconceived should not be done just because of a general ideological stance.
But when it comes to taking lives (or the taking of potential life), it appears to me that the principled arguments to be deployed should cohere.
If one life (or potential life) is to be taken by the State in one situation, but not in another, it seems to me imperative that the State - and the supporters of the State's policy - should be clear as to what the basis of that lethal or non-lethal action is.
Lives may be at stake from weak or muddled thinking.
Either the State can take lives (or potential lives), or it cannot.
And if so, we need to know why one life is taken but not another when similar arguments could apply.
Graeme is right to emphasise that purported coherence by itself is not a virtue; but in matters of life and death, it seems to me that there should be coherence.
If capital punishment - or torture - is wrong in all circumstances, why is the killing - or maiming - of people by our armed services not also wrong?
Can I really be against capital punishment as a matter of basic principle, but in favour of liberal interventionism abroad?
How come the latter gets the benefit of the "greater good" and not the former?
No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.