BUREAUCRATIC EMOTIVISM

BUREAUCRATIC EMOTIVISM

As you may know, last week in Essex County, England, Sir David Amess, a Conservative Member of Parliament for nearly 40 years, was brutally murdered by a homegrown radical Islamist.  The BBC has the details:

The MP for Southend West was stabbed at Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, in Essex. He was there for one of his regular Friday meetings with his constituents.

Just 15 minutes before the attack, the 69-year-old was standing on the church steps, chatting and laughing with locals.

At about 12:05 BST on Friday, Sir David walked into the church alongside two female members of his staff to meet more constituents.

Local councillor John Lamb said that it was then a man emerged from a small group of waiting constituents and attacked Sir David, stabbing him several times….

He described how one was in the room with Sir David taking notes. "All of a sudden there was a scream from her, because the person deliberately whipped out a knife and started stabbing David.

"The other lady, who was getting names from people outside, she came running in and saw poor David had been stabbed."

Police arrived at the scene in Eastwood Road North within minutes where they found the MP with multiple injuries and arrested a man….

At 13:50 on Friday, Essex Police confirmed a 25-year-old man had been arrested immediately at the scene on suspicion of murder, and that a knife had been recovered.

Whitehall officials have confirmed to the BBC that the suspect - who is being held at a London police station under the Terrorism Act 2000 - is Ali Harbi Ali, a British national of Somali heritage.

He was born in Southwark in south London and grew up in Croydon, and is the son of a former adviser to a previous Somali prime minister and the nephew of the Somali ambassador to China.

In his teenage years he was referred to the government's extremism programme Prevent but was never a formal "subject of interest" for MI5.


Clearly, this horrible, ugly act of terrorism lends itself to discussion on any number of fronts: the ongoing radicalization of Western-born Muslims, the related and also ongoing deterioration of British national identity, incidents of “known-wolf” terrorism, etc.  For our purposes today, however, we want to focus on something else, on some of the actions taken by the police who were on the scene after the attack:

As word spread, a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jeffrey Woolnough, arrived at the police cordon stretching across tree-lined Eastwood Road North, offering to administer the last rites to the devoutly Catholic MP.

He said: 'The officers said that because it was a crime scene, and also the nature of the scene, it just wasn't possible.'


Now, on the one hand, this is perfectly understandable.  The police have rules about this type of thing, about unauthorized people getting into and potentially contaminating crime scenes.  And it is hardly surprising that those rules would ensure that “it just wasn't possible” for Father Woolnough to administer last rights and possibly the Apostolic Blessing/Pardon as well.

On the other hand, it’s the rules that are the problem.

Among the most biting critiques of bureaucracy/management is that offered by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, mostly in his 1984 magnum opus After Virtue.  Broadly, MacIntyre’s critique is that bureaucracy/management is emotive in practice.  Because management is concerned EXCLUSIVELY with process, with means and NOT with ends, it is, almost by definition, an amoral scheme.  Management is purportedly rational, but rationality can only apply to means, and therefore the ends become the purview of the manager/administrator who substitutes his own personal preferences for genuine moral positions:

[I]t at once becomes relevant that Weber’s thought embodies just those dichotomies which emotivism embodies, and obliterates just those distinctions to which emotivism has to be blind.

Questions of ends are questions of values, and on values reason is silent, conflict between rival values cannot be rationally settled.  Instead one must simply choose - between parties, classes, nations, causes, ideals … Weber is then, in the broader sense in which I have understood the term, an emotivist and his portrait of bureaucratic rationality is an emotivist portrait …

In Weber’s view no type of authority can appeal to rational criteria to vindicate itself except that type of bureaucratic authority which appeals precisely to its own effectiveness.  And what this appeal reveals is that bureaucratic authority is nothing other than successful power.


MacIntyre further argues that this bureaucratic effectiveness – or managerial competence, if you prefer – is itself a myth, which is to say that this successful application of power is just one more example of society’s attempts to manipulate and dominate people, not to deliver goods or services more effectively.

In the aftermath of Amess’s death and the report of his attempt to anoint him, Fr. Woolnough released a video statement in which he insisted that the incident had been misconstrued:

A priest who was "refused entry" to see Sir David Amess after he was stabbed multiple times has spoken out about "what actually happened" at the crime scene….

A report by MailOnline suggested Father Jeff Woolnough had claimed police prevented him from giving Sir David his last rites as he lay dying.

But in a video posted on Twitter, he clarified the matter saying: "Yes I was refused entry but I respected that decision by the police."…

He added this should be the "end of the matter" and said he did not go to the media to criticise police,

He said: "Yes I was refused entry but I respected that decision by the police, I had to, and the fact that I was praying the rosary - end of the matter….

Essex Police said in a statement that is of the "utmost importance" that officers preserve the integrity of a crime scene and allow emergency services to tend to people in need.

The force explained that a "cordon is put in place to secure and prevent contamination of the area" and "access into a scene is at the discretion of the investigating officers".

"This is a fundamental part of any investigation to ensure the best possible chance of securing justice for any victim and their family," the force said.


There are several things to note here.  First, the police explanation here is nonsense.  No one was in need except Amess, who was denied one thing that he almost certainly would have wanted.  Second, there is no scene to contaminate, as the assailant was known and the crime was clear cut.  Third, the declaration that “justice” for the victim is of primary importance is, indeed, an expression of values, an expression which, in this case, clearly does not reflect the victim’s values.  And lo, the decision was not based on a universal rule but on the “discretion of the investigating officers” who exercised their power strictly for the sake of exercising their power.

As for Father Woolnough, it’s all well and good that he “respected” the decision by the police to deny his friend last rights, but it is not at all clear that he should have.  It is easy to second-guess someone in such a situation and easy to pretend that we might have acted otherwise, but then that’s not really the point.  It is, in fact, likely that any of us would have responded precisely as the good Father did.  But that doesn’t mean that said response is proper.  There is a great deal of conditioning – which is, in essence, slow-motion manipulation – in that response.   The automatic assumption that the rule-bound bureaucratic actor is right is, as MacIntyre would suggest, one of the failures of contemporary society.

In the end, this incident is trivial – to all except those involved – and so it will be forgotten immediately.  But it shouldn’t be.  It is demonstrative of a problem in contemporary Western societies in which those who claim managerial competence are automatically given deference to exercise power to promote their own personal preferences as moral dogma.  As we are seeing throughout the West on any number of matters – from the economy to COVID to “gender” issues in education and ESG in investing – this involves both the application of often peculiar moral imperatives as well as the failure of those imperatives to deliver the moral stability they promise.

Over the long-run, this will produce both moral and practical disaster.

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