Balancing virtues

Michael Paton, University of Sydney

John Ralston Saul On Equlibrium, Penguin Books Australia, 2002 (370 pp). ISBN 0-4 029-314-0 (paperback) RRP $24.95.

In The Unconscious Civilisation (1997), John Ralston Saul attacked economic rationalism and the unchecked power of multi-national corporations to negate individual rights within a democracy. A contemporary advocate of the humanist democratic tradition, Saul bases much of his work on the idea that people rather than institutions should run society, and that the rise of corporatism is eroding the very idea of participatory democracy.

In On Equilibrium, Saul continues this thread. He argues that the human qualities of common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory, and reason ‘are most effective in a society when they are recognised as of equal, universal value’, such that no one quality holds sway over the others. Saul argues that all need more consideration in societies in which decisions seem increasingly to be made for the sake of the management structure rather than the people involved. He devotes a chapter to each quality in the book; I consider his treatment of three here.

Commonsense, Saul argues, is equivalent to the ‘sensibility’ or shared knowledge that links the individual to the other (his italics). With commonsense, we understand how humanity is necessarily social. For Saul ‘Society does not exist as an abstract. Our shared knowledge exists as a continuation of citizens of this recognition of the other’. Thus, Saul distinguishes commonsense from the superstitions said to be visibly evident and inevitable by false populists such as Berkeley in the early nineteenth century. Saul uses a vast sweep of ideas, philosophies, and historical figures as examples to reinforce his argument. His sources include the ideas of well-known luminaries as Solon, Socrates, and Hegel. But Saul also draws on less well known yet just as poignant writings like those of Watkin Tench about the beginnings of the convict settlement in Australia. Tench looked beyond the hungry, uncomfortable lot of a group of prisoners and soldiers to what standards would be necessary to create a commonwealth, a society better than that they had left behind in Europe. With examples ranging from the validity of the reaction of the Luddites to Third World debt, Saul uses his concept of commonsense to argue for the precedence of citizens’ rights over rights pertaining to structure such as contractual rights. Saul argues, for example, that the Luddites did not set out to destroy machines. Rather, they sought a more socially conscious, inclusive, profit-sharing form of progress rather than the narrow, singularly profit-based progress generally proposed by the owners of the machines. In other words, the Luddites wanted a more commonsense approach to production.

Saul equates ethics with responsible individualism. He argues for the practice of ethics to hold sway over any theoretical considerations, such that self-interest and utilitarianism are demoted both in social structures and in the imagination. The consequence he predicts will be promotion of social responsibility through individual courage and non-conformity. He contemptuously dismisses the assumption that there is no utility in ethics, that ethics does not ‘pay’.

Saul distinguishes between ethics and moralism. He argues that moralism is akin to managerialism: both are top-down, judgemental, and exclusive. He shows that the neo-conservative push to privatise public services to create more efficient, narrowly focussed, non-universal systems while leaving the gaps to charity, is not only out-dated nineteenth century moralism, but is also actually less efficient because of the extra amount of administration and monitoring necessary. Health care systems receive special attention. Saul points out that countries such as Iceland with universal single tiered health and education systems tend to have higher literacy levels, high life expectancy, and lower taxation levels than those with two tiered systems. In countries with two tiered systems such as the United States, Britain, and Australia, identifying and maintaining the tiers involve extra costs. Saul points out, however, it is not the cost saving efficiencies of single tier systems that make them more desirable, but rather their universality that renders them ethical, because the state is obliged to serve all its citizens.

For Saul, imagination is an essential quality because it negates the temptation of certainty.

Saul also argues that an over-reliance on legal systems tends to replace ethics, such that the social contract becomes the commercial contract. He admits that the legal fiction of a company being a person had its rightful place in the development of capitalist systems. However, he scathingly attacks the continued use of such a concept by powerful multi-national corporations to avoid competition and take over their smaller competitors for no sound economic reason. He also attacks the technocrats in both the public and private sectors who use such legal fictions to escape tax and personal responsibility for their official actions in general.

By way of contrast, Saul points to the heroics of individuals such as Socrates, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, and Moulin, a member of the French Resistance captured by the Germans during World War II, when faced with life threatening ethical dilemmas. He urges us to understand the ethical actions of such people and to consider how we might apply their ethical stands in our (much more mundane) daily lives. However, Saul recognises that understanding does not naturally lead to ethical action. He points out that precise statistical understanding, such as knowing that one child in five lives in poverty in America, can have an immobilising and possibly destructive effect if it is not considered in the context of the related ethical problems.

For Saul, imagination is an essential quality because it negates the temptation of certainty. Imagination enables us to perceive possibilities beyond the certainties of our daily lives, and so is the main initiating force of progress. Saul’s main example here is the response to the initial rumours of ‘mad cow’ disease in Europe. He shows that the scientists involved imagined the possibilities and urged caution, whereas the more blinkered linear mindset of civil servants and managers led them to deny the possibilities without scientific proof. Therefore, Saul argues, those with imagination should have been heeded. Accordingly, he advocates for the creation of social conditions that enable imagination to flourish, albeit without any concrete proposals as to how this might be achieved. Saul criticises passive conceptions of ‘heroic’ figures such as Napoleon as the only real source of imagination. This approach, he argues, is the antithesis of the general imagining he believes healthy democracy needs.

Saul also argues that imagination enables disinterest because it helps us conceive of the other. The Aboriginal people of Australia, Canada, and America, as well as slum dwellers in the developing world, are marginalised because the roles and models given to them by the utilitarian civil servants in charge of their well-being do not fit how these marginalised people imagine themselves. In contrast, the utilitarians say that they just ‘need a job’ because the utilitarians do not see the use in trying to imagine the other.

I hope I have given some idea as to the type and direction of argument Saul makes for each of his six necessary human qualities. An idea of how these should work in equilibrium by society is perhaps best gained from the quote below:

It is imagination which allows us to drag our intellect out of its self-referential tendencies, just as ethics which helps us stay away from logical truths which are profoundly destructive. And it is the shared knowledge of commonsense which protects us against intellectual nonsense. And the context and shape of memory which can help to steer us away from that ideological certainty which convinces us we can cut free from all that exists and so something else. These qualities drag our reason into fertile ground and keep it away from the isolating delusions of purity and instrumentalism (p. 284).

Saul's emotive rhetorical style will be unlikely to sway those who don't agree with him.

The power of Saul’s argument notwithstanding, it is somewhat dulled by his rhetorical style. He writes at times like an intelligent first year undergraduate student, with paragraphs full of rhetorical questions and verb-less sentences. This style is apparently designed to have maximum emotional rather than intellectual impact. For those who agree with his ideas, this is particularly annoying. Only when he discards such cheap literary tricks does Saul achieve clarity of thought.

Saul’s continuous use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ also has a negative impact on his argument. With the fineness of meaning necessary to all academic discourse, undefined this means all of humanity, and this seems to be precisely who he is talking about. However, his argument really only considers the Western historical and philosophical tradition. He mentions China, Confucius, and Sun Tzu once or perhaps twice in the book. This lack of consideration of what he calls the ‘other’ almost amounts to a fallacy of composition. It borders on the cultural chauvinism of the nineteenth century, against which Saul argues so vehemently. Obviously this not Saul’s intention, but unconsciously his rhetorical style has this effect.

Some consideration of the history and philosophy of political science in China would do much to complement Saul’s arguments. After all, Confucius was as much a pragmatic political theorist as he was a philosopher. Discussion of the concept of ren (humanity or benevolence) would particularly be salient to Saul’s ideas. Confucius thought of humanity as basically good, and argued that education to enhance such goodness was the basis of good government. Conversely Saul would also need to counter the opposing argument of Han Fei of the Legalist school of philosophy, who considered the human species to be inherently bad. For Han Fei, good governance necessitated as much negative reinforcement of aberrant behaviour as possible. He proposed that strapping each leg of some minor felon to two chariots and driving them apart in front of the whole population would ensure a stable society—and certainly fewer minor felonies. The sending of tanks into Tiananmen Square in 1989 against student demonstrators with democratic ambitions much alike those espoused by Saul, for example, seems as much a traditional ‘legalist’ reaction to disorder as one based on any authoritarian Western political theory.

On Equilibrium is an attractive essay for those yearning for a more holistic understanding of society, away from the linearity of economic rationalism and managerialism. However, Saul’s emotive rhetorical style will be less likely to sway those who are unconvinced that greater empowerment of the individual would result in a better society or that such qualities as imagination and intuition should be as equally recognised as reason.


Saul, J. R. 1997, The Unconscious Civilisation, Penguin, Ringwood.

Michael Paton’s major research area is the history and philosophy of science in China. However, his interest in political and economic thought has been honed through his position as the Teaching Quality Fellow in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Sydney over the past seven years.