Ontology, Respect and the Death of Baroness Thatcher

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away earlier this week. There have been various reactions to her death. The majority of those that I have encountered (through social and traditional media, and amongst my peers – so this is doubtless a skewed sample) fall into three broad camps: celebration; paying respects, and emphasising the sadness of any death, regardless of politics etc. Doubtless this list is not exhaustive.

It is the first of these – the celebratory reaction – and specifically, responses to that reaction, that I want to discuss. Some people, primarily, but probably not exclusively, those on the political left, rejoiced at the death of Margaret Thatcher. Many of these are people who were, and still are, being adversely affected by the policies adopted during the Thatcher years. Others are relatives of these people. Others still are feeling the ill effects of her economic and social legacy today, although they weren’t around in the 1980’s. These groupings are not mutually exclusive, and again, probably not exhaustive.

Some have responded to the celebratory reaction to Thatcher’s death with a sense of moral outrage. Included in this group are those on the right who put this down to what the Mail calls “the sheer nastiness of a certain kind of Leftie”. I am not going to discuss this response – I’m certain that others have done so elsewhere perfectly adequately.

The idea that there is something morally wrong with the celebratory reaction is not, unsurprisingly, confined to Thatcher supporters. The celebratory reaction has been criticised by some who staunchly oppose the politics of Thatcherism as inhumane, callous and sick on the basis that Margaret Thatcher, at the time of her death, was a frail, elderly human being, and that to celebrate the death of any human being, especially an elderly and frail one, is rather wicked. We’ll call this the Wickedness Criticism.

I find myself dissatisfied by the Wickedness Criticism, although it has taken me a few days to get to grips with exactly why I do. There are counter-responses to the Wickedness Criticism that all carry plenty of weight – an appeal to the cathartic function the celebratory reaction might play; appealing to considerations of Margaret Thatcher as more-than-just-a-human-being, as having some symbolic or representative existence; noting the lack of humanity so often shown by Thatcher as Prime Minister, and questioning the legitimacy of claims that, this given, she ought to be shown humanity herself in the reactions to her death. Each of these counter responses has merit, but none of them quite capture what I think is wrong with the Wickedness Criticism.

The Wickedness Criticism is unsatisfying, I think, because it misses the mark. I think it does so because it gets its ontology wrong. What, eh?

Ontology, as a philosophical sub-discipline, is the study of being. Briefly, it studies what the constituents of reality are; what categories they group into, and how these categories relate to one another. Section three of this Stanford Encyclopaedia article gives a good introduction to what ontology is about.

As well as discussing ontology as a subject matter, we can talk about particular ontologies. There are two senses in which we can talk of a particular ontology. The first is in terms of a particular system of categories and their relations: for instance, Professor E. J. Lowe puts forward an ontology with four basic categories, Professor Keith Campbell one with just one. The second sense in which we might talk of an ontology is in terms of a list of all the particular entities that actually exist.

I don’t think  that what was being celebrated by those who celebrated the most recent news story about Margaret Thatcher was in fact the death of a frail, elderly human being. Rather, the basis of the celebration was a sense of relief – of ontological relief – at a change in what particular things there are. What was being celebrated, I think, might be expressed as the fact that the world doesn’t contain Margaret Thatcher or as the falsity of “Margaret Thatcher exists”.

Both the fact that the world doesn’t contain Margaret Thatcher and the falsity of “Margaret Thatcher exists” are, given the prior existence of Margaret Thatcher, intimately linked to the occurrence of a particular event – the death of Margaret Thatcher. They depend on this event in certain ways – perhaps the event caused the fact and the falsity; perhaps some other sort of dependence relation obtains between them. My not being an uncle, for instance, depends on my sister not having any children, but it isn’t clear that the right thing to say is that my sister’s not having any children causes me to not be an uncle. Questions about the sorts of dependence relations that obtain are central to ontology – there’s an excellent introduction these questions here.

What it is most important to note is that the event – the death of Margaret Thatcher – and the sorts of things that depend on it – the fact that the world doesn’t contain Margaret Thatcher and the falsity of “Margaret Thatcher exists” – are distinct. They aren’t the same types of thing, nor are they the same particular thing. What’s true of one is not necessarily true of the other. And despite their being intimately related, taking a certain attitude to one doesn’t entail taking it to the other.  Even if it is true that it is wicked to celebrate the death of an elderly,  frail human being, I don’t think it is true that to celebrate the fact the world is a certain way – a way that means it doesn’t include the person in question – is also wicked. That the latter depends on the former in some intimate way is somewhat by the by.

To my mind, the Wickedness Criticism conflates ontologically distinct things – it takes things such as the fact that the world doesn’t contain Margaret Thatcher; the falsity of “Margaret Thatcher exists”; the truth of ¬Ǝx(x=Margaret Thatcher) (for those that like formalisation); the fact that I no longer share a world with Margaret Thatcher, and so forth, with a particular event, one which is picked out by the definite description (a description which picks out exactly one thing) the death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher and fits the general description death of an elderly, frail human being. To feel relief, to react in a celebratory fashion, to things such as those at the start of this paragraph is not wicked, or callous, or inhumane, or sick – even if to react in the same manner to a death would be.

The first thing that might come to mind in response to what I’ve said here is that surely no-one is thinking like this; those who got out the bunting on Monday weren’t attending to subtle ontological distinctions and the like. Well, sure, I very much doubt they were. But that isn’t to say their reactions were not to one thing rather than another. Granted most would probably answer something like “to Margaret Thatcher’s death” if asked what they were reacting to – but there’s no compelling reason to presume that that answer is indeed correct. Furthermore, people often do make just the sort of distinction I am appealing to here – it is common, for instance, to hear from those who’ve lost a loved one that they “don’t want to/can’t believe they/wish they didn’t live in a world without [that person]”. Those sorts of statements look like they pick out the sorts of things I’ve mentioned above – facts, falsehoods, truths about what the world contains. We are sensitive to ontology, even when we aren’t aware that we are.