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A Note on R. S. Peters

A note on R. S. Peters
Bob Borsley

The ideological character of academic philosophy
is much clearer in the work of some philosophers than
others. One philosopher in whose writing it is
particularly clear is R S Peters. In his ‘Social
Principles and the Democratic State’ (written with
S I Benn) , and ‘Ethics and Education’, the ideological
function of some of the major characteristics of
academic philosophy can be clearly seen.

responsibility to the government, parliament and
the public left limited and ambiguous.

Peters and Benn also make no attempt to show
that the Labour government’s reforms were a result
of the natural workings of parliamentary democracy.

Again, of course, there were arguments that they were
not. They were made possible rather by the fact that
British capitalism had an overriding need for social
stability to recover from the war. As Quintin Hogg
put it in a wartime speech, ‘if you do not give the
people reform, they are going to give you social
revolution. Let anyone consider the possibility of a
series of dangerous industrial strikes, following the
present hostilities, and the effect it would have on
our industrial recovery … ‘ (cited in M. Kidron,
Western Capitalism Since The War, 1969).

A common conception of philosophy, to which R S
Peters subscribes, holds that it is a second order
study concerned with conceptual questions, and that
first order questions about empirical matters are to
be left to the various sciences. In social and
political philosophy, as Peters’ work illustrates,
this distinction enables one to build up an aura of
sanctity around established institutions while
ignoring evidence of their defects.

One finds the same attitude to inconvenient
evidence in ‘Ethics and Education’, where Peters
develops a defence of the educational status quo.

A major theme is criticism of progressive education
and its emphasis on the child’s freedom. We are told
that ‘Progressive schools in which the staff, as a
matter of policy, withdraw from their proper function
of exercising a just and levelling form of social
control, are notorious for peer group pressure and
the proliferation of rules administered with severity
by the children themselves.’ (p.194). An educationalist or sociologist would feel obliged to back up such
a statement with a solid body of evidence. As a
philosopher, Peters feels under no such obligation.

His evidence is as follows: ‘I once asked a colleague
why his parents took him away from one of these
schools. He replied that it was such hell when the
headmaster was not around because of the bullying that
went on.’ This is fairly typical. Throughout Peters’

discussion of progressive education one finds no
mention of a single progressive educator, no A S
Neill, no Homer Lane, no David Wills, no Kees Boeke,

‘Social Principles and the Democratic State’

presents liberal democracy as a ‘safeguard against
the abuse of power’ and asserts that ‘democratic
techniques like elections prevent the adoption of
policies that are morally indefensible.’ (p.3Sl).

As an empirical statement this is just not true. To
take a notable example, the American election of
1964 did not prevent the ‘abuse of power’ and the
adoption of ‘morally indefensible-‘ -policies in Vietnam
simply because President Johnson was able to lie about
his policies – as the ‘Pentagon Papers’ make clear.

One could point also to last year’s American election
and the subsequent bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong.

Since, however, their concern is ‘the concept of
democracy’ rather than real life liberal democracies,
Peters and Benn feel justified in ignoring this kind
of evidence.

Peters and Benn show the same lack of concern
for inconvenient evidence in many places. One can
note~ for example, their critique of the marxist view
that the uneven distribution of wealth in liberal
democracies makes their democratic institutions a
mere facade. They reply that ‘The labour revolution
in Britain was made possible just because political
rights were not regularly thwarted by economic power.

By the ‘labour revolution’, Peters and Benn
presumably mean the, reforms of the 1945-51 Labour
government. They make no attempt to show that these
reforms were in any sense a revolution. There are,
of course, strong arguments that they were not. To
quote J H Westergaard’ s paper, ‘The Myth of Class1essness’ in R Blackburn, ed., Ideology in Social Science,

During the six years of its post-war parliamentary
majority to 1951, (the Labour Party) continued to
operate the machinery of government with few, if
any, of such changes as radical policies would
have required. Economic controls were exercised
– as during the war – to a large extent through
the agency of private business. Nationalisation
was confined to a limited, specialist, and in part
unprofitable field; it was implemented with little
coherent conception of the use of nationalised
enterprize as an instrument of public policy; the
membership of the boards was drawn in large
measure from private business; and their

Finally from ‘Ethics and Education’ an example
that illustrates the essential conservatism of the
appeal to ordinary language . . This is Peter’s consideration of the marxist view that inequalities of
wealth restrict individuals’ freedom. His reply is
that ‘Without such a special theory the straigntforward thing to say would be that such people are
unfortunately unable to do what they are free to do. ‘

(p.189). Peters gives no reason for preferring the
ordinary language formulation to the formulation based
on theoretical understanding. It is simply axiomatic
for his kind of philosophy that it must be preferable.


“If there were a people who did not recoil from
killing and … who seemed to attach no exceptional
value to human life, they would be accounted a
community of the sub-human, or, more probably, we
would doubt whether their way of life had been
misunderstood.” (Stuart Hampshire)


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