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Understanding Lucy Letby

Over the past few days, I have met and heard about numerous people who are deeply distressed by the recent news concerning Lucy Letby, the nurse who has been convicted of killing seven babies.  As they describe it, they are partly distressed because of the dreadful nature of the events, and partly because they cannot understand why a nurse would kill babies.

My standard response is that it is right and healthy to be distressed when we hear about such things, but please do not attempt to understand why she did this - and do not be distressed by your failure to understand.  There is no reason for such activity which would make sense to a normal person.

And asking why a nurse would do such things is the wrong question.  A nurse is a person who devotes their lives to caring for the sick; there is no reason why a nurse would kill babies.

A better question is: why would someone who wants to kill babies choose to work in a neonatal ward, where they would have unsupervised access to sick babies who may die anyway?  I suspect the answer to that question is far easier.

We live in a sick world, where the innocent frequently suffer.  It seems to me we should be saddened when this happens, but not surprised: we know such things happen.  We should also be grateful that they do not happen very often around us, in Western democracies - because in other parts of the world innocent people are killed and maimed far more often.  And we should ask what we can do to promote justice and health everywhere in the world.  What else could 'love your neighbour' mean?


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Developing a Persuasive Vision

In keeping with the general ethos of this site, the document here is offered as a helpful framework - not to tell anyone what to do, or how to decide what you should be doing, but just a description of the things any group need to talk about, and perhaps a way to avoid endless arguments about defining terms.
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Atheist Anabaptist - a journey to humanism

In response to the request of a good friend, I have recently written a short essay about my journey from evangelical Christianity into humanism. It deliberately attempts to draw the common ideas from the seemingly counterposing ideas of anabaptism (which are summarised in the article) and humanism. It is a personal account, and one which is developing over time as memories come back and new ideas come forward, and the comments of friends are heard, digested and reflected on.

The essay, which has copious footnotes, which are technically difficult within a blog post, can be read here:

I do hope you find it interesting, and I'd be grateful for your thoughts/responses/challenges/questions in the comments on this blog post.

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Starting to Unpack the Plan

This is a set of thoughts which arose from a few conversations around exploring what we might do, in the context of thinking about setting up a new political party. Every political party is a coalition, but there needs to be some central core; the core of the party being described here is that it is built around the vision, values and practices of this web site and community.
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Ayn Rand and Objectivism.

I’m going to throw a curve-ball into this forum which has so far been impeccably liberal and politically correct. My fascination with Ayn Rand’s ideas and ideals is the nearest I will get to a sado-masochistic relationship with someone devastatingly attractive but utterly unsuitable.


Ayn Rand and her philosophy that she called Objectivism were progenitors of the neo-conservative "small government, Free Market" philosophy in the USA. She is far more of a household name in the USA than the UK, though I suspect her followers exaggerate her influence compared with better-known Right-Wing Libertarian Free Marketeers such as Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, She cited both as influences but later fell out with them over minor nuances of doctrine.


Briefly, some background: She was born Alyssa Rosenbaum to a well-to-do family in St .Petersburg, Russia in 1905. The family had all their wealth confiscated after the Revolution which left her with an abiding hatred of Communism, which she widened to incorporate any kind of collectivism. She managed to get permission to visit the United States in 1924, and was instantly dazzled by the wealth, freedom and dynamism that she found there, and became a leading advocate for Capitalism as a force for the liberation of humanity from poverty and oppression. She would have witnessed the poverty of many citizens but believed that Freedom and initiative were all that was necessary to get out of it. She worked as a script-writer in Hollywood, and managed to get married and therefore gained US citizenship and permission to stay there. She stayed married to her husband, an artist named Frank Connor, for the rest of his life despite at least one affair on her part, but he played very little part in her philosophical or literary life. She published several novels and plays, hit the big time with “The Fountainhead” in 1943, and gained the peak of her influence with her magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged” in 1957, which has sold 30 million copies. One survey found that Americans cited it as the second most influential book after the Bible (which has quite the opposite message). Essentially, it is a dystopian fantasy with science fiction elements, where the heroes are capitalist entrepreneurs and the villains are anyone who tries to limit their freedom. She was the centre of a group of disciples who helped disseminate her ideas into American politics. She had celebrity status and was in great demand as a speaker. She died in 1982 in New York, from lung cancer that was probably consequent to her belief that cigarettes symbolized Man’s conquest of fire.


I went through a phase of reading up on her a few years back; I read "Atlas Shrugged" and some of her books of essays. Objectivism appealed to me due to its emphasis on the heroic individual (I have always suspected that I am too much of an individualist to be a true socialist!) and due to its emphasis on the supremacy of Reason. She twisted these ideas into a belief that "Ethical Selfishness" is good and that unfettered Capitalism is a force for good that will benefit the whole of humanity. I was almost seduced by this way of thinking, but soon became disillusioned by it's limitations. She certainly believed in the trickle-down theory of wealth generation which has signally failed. Regarding Reason, for instance her argument against State Healthcare would be: “If Mr. X, who I don’t know, has cancer, why should the government take money from me via taxation to pay for his treatment?” Using Reason alone, this seems like a valid argument, but it ignores the fact that human beings are emotional creatures, and the element of Reason that is left out is that almost all species including humans have evolved to find that co-operation is good for their survival and well-being. The balance of collectivism against the freedom of the individual is probably the basic question that underpins all politics and much of philosophy.


One of her disciples was Alan Greenspan who was later chairman of the US Federal Reserve under Ronald Reagan, and a leading light of neo-liberalism. I haven't been able to find a direct link between her thinking and Margaret Thatcher's but clearly many of their ideas were the same ("there is no such thing as Community, there are only individuals and their families"). Sajid Javid has cited her as an influence (and he was the Health Secretary!). Ayn Rand's heyday was in the late 1950s and the 60s, and when I read her stuff Obama was POTUS and her ideas seemed to be more or less of historical interest only. But with the rise of Trumpism and the polarisation of US politics her ideas, if not her actual influence, are relevant again: the idea that free state healthcare is socialism and therefore evil; the fear of Big Government; the right to carry guns, etc. All these ideas seem weird, even alien, to the European mind, but are perfectly normal to many Americans, and a reading of Ayn Rand will help to understand the mentality of the US Republicans. Not in every respect though; she was an atheist, and her libertarianism led her to support the removal of restrictions on homosexuality and abortion, none of which would go down well with the Religious Right, and as a Jew she also wouldn't be welcome in some sections of White America. Also, many of the villains in her books are not socialists, but businessmen and politicians who get their wealth and influence from their contacts and their devious and corrupt political dealings, so I am not certain that she would have approved of Trump. His concept of “false facts” is completely antithetical to any concept of Reason, from Rand or anywhere else, and she would have (rightly in my view) deplored the retreat from Reason that we see in the West. Elon Musk is much more like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged; and I confess that I have mixed rather than negative feelings about him: he is a man of vision for the future of humanity who gets things done rather than talk about it.


Having said all that, for all her championing of Absolute Freedom and Absolute Reason, she was not particularly receptive to deviations from her beliefs among her followers, and the Objectivist Movement developed into pretty much of a cult; it still exists, but her followers have elevated her to a Kim Il-Sung type figure, and they have a massively inflated sense of their importance. She made a distinction between her Objectivism on one hand, and Libertarianism and Anarcho-Capitalism on the other, for reasons that are hard to fathom except that people thought of the last two before she did. Her movement, before and after her death, suffered schisms over obscure points that mirrors splits among the Protestant Churches especially the Plymouth Brethren, and ironically also the splits among Marxism-Leninism. For me, the Covid restrictions were the final nail in the coffin for a position that says the government has no right to tell us what to do. An absolute belief in Libertarian-type freedom was what led to the anti-vax and anti-mask position, but when you apply Reason properly, the science tells us that masks and vaccines should be compulsory for the greatest good of humanity and the survival of individuals.

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Assisted Dying

It is impossible, at an abstract 'in principle' level, to reconcile the various ethical principles which arise in association with assisted dying. So our task is not to produce some perfect abstract system which satisfies all ethical considerations in all situations, but to describe a system which is good enough, which people are willing to accept as a reasonable, if imperfect, compromise. And a 'good enough' system will have to balance the ethical considerations in a way which is culturally acceptable.
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The story of Adam & Eve in Genesis is often described as an allegory of creation by those believers who recognise that it contradicts the evidence presented by the scientic consensus surrounding biological evolution and the origins of the universe.


However I think this is duplicitous. To me is clearly intended to explain the presence of sin in humanity rather than the origin of our species (or perhaps at a stretch both). Certainly any modern reader with even a passing understanding of the order and timescales of the creation of the universe couldn't treat it asa literal description of creation.

If, however, it is an allegory, and therefore just a metaphor, the deflection in the story becomes even more transparent. If sin is disobedience to God, as personified by Eve (of course it had to be a woman in those even more patriarchic days, leading her husband astray), then without a specific event, the fall never happened. Anyway, what is actually wrong with eating fruit from the tree of knowledge (or life, depending on which version of the tale your read in Genesis)?  Surely both life and knowledge are good things, and I cannot possibly envisage any human being who doesn't want (and need) a measure of both these things.

What has to be surely accepted is that the 'fall' is a core part of Christian theology throughout the ages and certainly central to substitutional atonement.

I would suggest that 'disobedience to God' would be better described as 'disobedience to the God I have described to you, and whose laws I have explained to you', as it is very clear there is no evidence for any kind of involved God who could explain his laws in person. It must seem quite extraordinary to the devout how the great voice rumbling from heaven, or the creator wandering through the garden, only seemed to speak or appear in person in the old writings, but never now so that we can all hear or record it.

If God didn't create the tendency for free thinking, quest for knowledge, desire for life, self centeredness that drives biological evolution, individuality, the dislike of conformity and following instructions, the inquisitive excitement that comes from living on the edge that often causes humans to make poor decisions when judged by objective terms, then where did all these things come from? Good and evil is suggested to be a 'merism', a device that pairs opposite terms in order to create a general meaning (Egyptians use an expression evil-good, which is normally used to mean 'everything'. No human does know everything, so the apple didn't help with that condition much.

Christians have of course used the story with many interpretations of the 'knowledge of good and evil' - usually to underpin a particular obsession with a particular activity they feel is particularly sinful.  

The central message of the fruit [apple came later perhaps as a Latin pun, "by eating the malum (apple), Eve contracted malum (evil)] on the tree in the Garden of Eden must surely be do as I say, even if you don't understand why I'm saying it, or cannot see what harm there could possibly be in eating the fruit. Just do it because I'm God and I'm in charge and I know better. I won't explain the consequences in advance just don't eat it. i.e. a set up.

So my suggestion is that as a description of real events or as an allegory of the nature of humanity and God the story of Adam & Eve, the talking snake and that lovely delicious looking fruit temping Eve to pluck and eat with her husband it is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. 

At least the witch in the fairy tale Snow White is openly portrayed as evil, plotting Snow White's death, and the apple was deliberately poisoned and made available to the victim by deceit and trickery. Is the God of Genesis really so much different? 

The Wikipedia article outlines the various Abrahamic interpretations of the myth as well suggesting that the 'fall of man' story predates the biblical texts, with an image on a cylinder seal, dating from c. 23rd-22nd century BCE depicting two facing figures seated on each side of a tree, holding their hands out to the fruit, while between their backs is a serpent.

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10223158278?profile=RESIZE_400xI am neither a Christian nor a Jew, however one of the great principles (largely ignored by those who claim we are a Christian country) contained in the biblical traditions is the idea of welcoming strangers.
Just a couple of references (one old testament, one new)
Leviticus 19:34 - 'The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself'.
Hebrews 13:2 - 'Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it'.
The Jewish tradition is particularly strong on this, the Talmud says that welcoming guests is 'greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.' This tradition (hakhnasat orchim in Hebrew) is considered one of the most important Jewish Values (let's not be diverted into the Palestine/Israel abomination).
So on this basis perhaps we should be offering all refugees a guest of honour welcome, offering the best accommodation (I believe Buckingham Palace is currently vacant), priority for education, care and welfare services.
I am not a believer, but as someone with empathy can see the huge benefit of this approach. We would win friends for life and could be a shining example of what humanity is capable of, a refuge for those desperate for help, love and kindness.
Come on politicians, rise to the occasion.
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Ethical Foreign Policy

10223162480?profile=RESIZE_400x1. Introduction

We often hear politicians (or campaigners) using the term ‘ethical foreign policy’, sometimes as a reaction to something that has caused feeling of gross injustice or hypocrisy. However we very rarely hear any analysis or description of what such a policy would look like or how it would operate.

The world is very complex, and growing more interconnected at all levels. Decisions about one thing can very often have unwelcome and unexpected repercussions in another area. Because it is so complex, and I have really struggled as I’ve considered this subject, leaders often adopt a pragmatic approach, suggesting that ethical considerations nearly always have to take a back seat as the national interest takes priority and the unspoken matter of their electoral popularity. Consequently it is sometimes difficult to separate the national interest from the interests of those in power in the subsequent debates.

An early example of introducing ethics into foreign policy is the Lieber Code, drafted by Francis Lieber when he found himself caught in the middle of the American Civil War. The code was a guide on how warring nations should treat neutral citizens that were in the wrong place at the wrong time in conflicts that didn’t concern them. The code condemned cruelty, gratuitous violence and unnecessary destruction of property of these neutral parties.

After World War 2, and the terrible persecution and terrors inflicted upon minorities across Europe, new crimes were introduced into the world order, namely ‘Crimes against humanity’ and ‘Genocide’. The story of how these words (and the ideas and legal thinking behind them) is brilliantly told in ‘East West Street’ by Phillipe Sands, a book which brings alive the process by which human beings translate experience into serious attempts to change and improve things for the future and also demonstrates the enormous difficulties in turning ethical considerations into a matter of criminal law, particularly international law.

To me there are several questions that have to be addressed before considering whether ethical foreign policy can ever be an achievable aim.

2. Questions

2.1 Whose ethics?

Ethical truths are sometimes described as ‘universal’. However even a superficial survey of attitudes suggest that this isn’t true in practice. For example, some would say it is wrong to kill another human being. Even if we ignore the blatant contradictions (killing in war, judicial executions etc) there are so many ways that our actions contribute directly to the death of other people, for example smoking, environmental pollution, dangerous driving). The dominating religious and cultural framework of a particular nation state clearly influence the decisions and behaviours of their governments, including their willingness to sign up to international obligations and then subsequently whether or not they stick to their promises.

2.2 Can any ethical approach rely on the threat of war as the
back stop?

Without getting into the whole philosophical objections to war (does the victory of the mightiest warrior have any bearing on the rightness of the cause), we have to face up to the reality that the ‘laws’ of war are by definition not ethical. Goebbels said ‘In war, the law is silent’. The job of a soldier is utilitarian, they must obey orders and achieve the mission given to them. The end justifies the means. International law has attempted, through mechanisms such as the Geneva Convention, to limit and control the behaviour of warring nations, but with limited success. History is after all always written (and judged) by the victors.

The philosophy of a ‘Just War’ is just one example of trying to allow realism to live side by side with ethical values. Is it satisfactory? Has it really had any power to moderate behaviours?

Does military intervention ever work for the wider good. If a nations past actions have contributed to a conflict situation, surely that nation has responsibility, even culpability? It should surely help to find a solution, but certainly not impose a solution. e.g. Kosovo bombing of 1999 increased the flow of refugees, destabilising neighbouring states, but eventually UN peace keepers allowed in.2.3 Could it ever work? Much of a nations dealing with others requires a level of secrecy, diplomacy and sometimes overt muscle flexing. Could an ‘all cards on the table’ ever result in anything other than being completely taken advantage of. This raises another question.

2.4 Should inter governmental interactions have different
governing ethics to personal interactions?

Treating others as we’d wish to be treated, the Golden Rule, is a central value that’s been central to human philosophical thinking since the beginnings of recorded history. Most people attempt or aspire to that approach when dealing with interpersonal relationships – no-one likes being lied to for example, or threatened, or demonised. Yet we see these behaviours frequently in the exercise of international relationships between states.

One my beliefs, one which I hope is true, is that adoption of the golden rule doesn’t require any fundamental belief about ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but is a pragmatic approach. If I treat others well, then I am more likely to be treated well. Is this a valid approach in international affairs?

Of course intention is a central consideration of ethics, why are we seeking something – is it for narrow national interest or for wider global interest. The whole debate about global warming has brought this consideration to the fore. Surely it is ethical for our nation to do it’s best to reduce carbon emissions even if others don’t? Do the means justify the ends? Are we right to use both the carrot and stick to pursue an ethical agenda such as the overwhelming expert agreed crisis such as global warming?

2.5 National Interest

Narrow, myopic national interest would be seen as selfishness in the personal realtionship sphere. However I would suggest there is a big moral difference between a broad long definition of national interest that would include citizens of other nations and ‘global good’. Of course, rather like my hopes for the Golden Rule, it may be that if we adopt a more open and generous attitude to other nations, they may do the same with us. What is the biblical saying, ‘Wise as serpents and harmless
as doves’? Eyes and arms both open? Palmerston once said that ‘Britain has no permanent alies, only permanent interests’. Well perhaps, but there are an awful lot of interests that are common to all countries. Global warming, despeciation, the rise of fundamentalism, over population, environmental polution etc. We can either allow these calamities to divide us and therefore send us to ruin, or unite us in a common effort to save our civilisation. Warring over the ruins will be on no-one’s interest.

Cosmopolitanism, the belief that all people are entitled to equal worth and consideration is surely contradicted by narrow nationalism?

Liberalism the philosophy that is based on the consent of the governed and equality before the law is also sometimes an enabler of populism. Surely no nation can survive long without sound leadership, intelligence and knowledge which is controlled and constrained by ethical values?

2.6 The problem of ambivalence

Suppose you are a good swimmer reading at the beach and you notice a child drowning in the surf. Would you put down your book and rescue her? Most would say yes. Would it matter whether she called, “Help!” or cried out in a foreign language? Most would say the foreign language would make no difference. If she were somewhat further out and you were not a strong swimmer, how much risk would you take? Answers would range from the prudent to the heroic. If there were two children, one of which was yours, and you could rescue only one, would it matter whether it was yours? Most would say yes.

Do electors really care much about citizens of another country? Do their elected leaders?

On the other hand, does deliberate distancing ever helpful (their problem, they need to solve it)?

2.7 Enforcement

Even when nations sign up to international treaties, this is no protection against nations breaking their treaty obligations in the future.

Ethical policy not enough, we would need ethical behaviours and ethical moderation. How can moderation be achieved without international jurisdiction when some countries simply opt out?

Also the resort to threats of violence is often an unspoken underpinning to the enforcement, which is perhaps unethical of itself.

3 Summary

I have no profound thoughts to answer these problems. Perhaps the thoughts of experienced leaders
may help?

William E Gladstone said:
“Here is my first principle of foreign policy: good government at home”

Henry Kissinger said:
“to strike a balance between the two aspects of world order - power and legitimacy - is the essence
of statesmanship. Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement
into a test of strength. Moral prescriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend
toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering
the coherence of the international order itself” and:

“No foreign policy - no matter how ingenious - has any chance of success if it is born in the minds
of a few and carried in the hearts of none” and:

“A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor

This balancing act certainly requires prudence a great deal of intelligence, sensitivity, leadership skills and experience.

When one cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue in an ethic of responsibility, while hubristic visions can do serious damage. Prudence usually requires emotional intelligence and the ability to manage one’s emotions and turn them to constructive purposes rather than to be dominated by them.

Thomas Jefferson said:
“Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none”.

John F Kennedy said:
“The purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or
indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world”,


“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us”.

George Washington said:
“My ardent desire is, and my aim has been, to comply strictly with all our engagements, foreign
and domestic, but to keep the United States free from political connections with every other
country; to see that they may be independent of all and under the influence of none”.

Jimmy Carter said:
“Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy, because human rights is the very soul of our sense
of nationhood.”

And finally, something to keep all our feet on the ground:

“No modern nation has ever constructed a foreign policy that was acceptable to its intellectuals”.
Irving Kristol – American neo-conservative journalist

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Personal Statement

I've put this on my Profile, as a statement of where I am now. My relgion and politics have evolved over the years and will probably continue to do so. If someone believes the same about everything as they did ten years ago, they probably aren't thinking. 


I am over sixty now, and the world has changed far more over the last twenty years than it did in the previous years of my life. 

After the end of the Cold War, Progress seemed to be inevitable. Internationalism was triumphing over Nationalism; Tolerance and Inclusivity were overcoming bigotry and tribalism. But then there were the Balkan Wars, and 9/11, and now Brexit and Trumpism. Many countries have gone backwards in terms of democracy - China, India, Russia, the United States. The UK is not exempt. The Covid pandemic hasn't helped, and if we don't sort out Climate Change nothing else will matter. 

I am still proud to be a Liberal (in the broad sense, not necessarily in voting for that party). and a Free-thinker. I am probably what the Daily Mail calls a Metropolitan Liberal. I prefer the term Classical Liberal, though that has become conflated with neo-liberalism which isn't really liberalism at all. 

I was a Christian until the age of 53 in 2012. Exclusive Brethren until the age of 11; regular Brethren until the age of 19, Charismatic Evangeilical until about 28, then slightly saner and increasingly more liberal evangelical. The loss of a Christian friend in a car crash in 2005 caused huge doubts to open up and the whole thing became more untenable the more I thought about it. Looking back, I had had niggling doubts for at least ten years before that. It took another seven years after the event to acknowledge that my attempts at constructing a looser framework of faith were failing. 

I am not going to substitute one dogma for another; Evangelicalism for atheism. There are certainties but we cannot always be sure what they are. The Argument from Design is not one that can easily be dismissed; maybe we just don't know enough science, but it seems that the more we know about how evolution might have occurred, the more complex life appears to be. But if there is a God, he, she or it exists in a very different paradigm to evangelicalism. 

I'm not keen on labels, but to roughly encapsulate my thinking: 

Worldview and ethical framework: Liberal Humanist

Epistemology: Scientific Rationalism

Spirituality: Somewhere between Agnostic Humanism and Unitarian Universalism. 

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