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The Man on the Clapham Omnibus Revisited

Who is this semi-mythical figure, and what does he really think? Tim Madigan decided that there was only one way to find out…

“A conscientious legislator who is told a moral consensus exists must test the credentials of that consensus. He cannot, of course, examine the beliefs or behavior of individual citizens; he cannot hold hearings on the Clapham Omnibus. That is not the point.”

Ronald Dworkin, “Lord Devlin and the Enforcement of Morals”, Yale Law Journal 76 (1966)

Is Ronald Dworkin is correct that one cannot hold hearings on the Clapham Omnibus? As a strict empiricist, I determined to find out. This particular challenge was sparked by the curious fact that the editors of Philosophy Now, Rick Lewis and Anja Steinbauer, reside in the Clapham district of London. During a recent visit to their house there, I couldn’t help but make mention of the famous Devlin-Hart debate over the enforcement of morality. Lord Devlin, of course, held that society has a right to enact laws that enforce the common stock of shared beliefs of the populace, while Hart took a more Utilitarian approach, arguing along the lines of John Stuart Mill that, provided no harm was done to others, people should be free to behave as they wish, regardless of whether or not other members of society are offended by their actions. Devlin countered that the civil law of any society should be based upon the beliefs of “the man on top of the Clapham omnibus”, the prototypical pillar of society whose commonsensical views could be completely trusted and easily upheld. Why “Clapham”? Presumably, during Lord Devlin’s time this section of London best represented the middle class virtues he felt civil society should be based upon. But what would the man on top of the Clapham omnibus have to say today? Philosophy Now wanted to know, and your intrepid editors Rick and Anja ventured forth with me in tow to uncover the truth. The most difficult task was actually finding the Clapham omnibus. There were several buses at the exchange we went to, with variations of “Clapham” written upon them. Not expecting such a plethora of choices, we made an arbitrary decision and ventured inside one particular bus, with Anja wielding a tape recorder and Rick and I taking turns accosting the various patrons. We eschewed the first level – no one is interested in what the man on the bottom of the Clapham omnibus has to say.

Once we got a look at the various occupants, prudence overruled our natural curiosity. We decided not to ask any pointed questions regarding the morality of such issues as abortion, capital punishment, or sexual promiscuity. We had no desire to be tossed off the Clapham omnibus, as the conductor had already given us an evil eye. So, as unobtrusively as possible, we sidled up to various patrons and asked them their views on ‘the meaning of life’. Here then is the verbatim transcript of this momentous afternoon. The first person we interviewed was the Bus Inspector himself, he of the wary eye:

Philosophy Now: We’re from Philosophy Now magazine. We want to interview people on the Clapham bus. Do you have any opinions on the meaning of life?

Bus Inspector: None at all. Live today as it is.

Philosophy Now: That’s a good one. Thanks. [This is known in Anthropology as the “Sucking Up to the Leader” method.]

We next sat beside an elderly man, who looked like he was either deep in thought or fast asleep. Philosophy Now: What do you think the ultimate purpose of life is?

Elderly Man: What the Catholic Church teaches.

Philosophy Now: You mean live this life so as to achieve eternal salvation?

Elderly Man: Yes, that’s right. Next, we sidled up to a smiling Jamaican gentleman, who kindly turned down the Reggae music he was sharing with fellow passengers in order to speak with us.

Philosophy Now: Can we ask you what you think about the meaning of life?

Jamaican Gentleman: The meaning of life. That’s a tough one. Er … Love!

Philosophy Now: Fair enough. Cheers! Another occupant, who volunteered the information that he was from South Africa, freely joined in the conversation.

South African Man: Life’s all about surfing.

Philosophy Now: Surfing?

South African Man: Six-foot barrels … It’s a great laugh. I live in South Africa, been here a week now, working. Trying to make bucks. I suppose that’s what’s life about as well.

Philosophy Now: Two answers for the price of one!

Surprisingly enough, while the bus was fairly full, no one else either chimed in with their definitions nor chose to join the general discussion. In fact, their sullen looks and threatening gestures eventually led Rick, Anja and me to disembark for fear of grievous bodily harm being done to us if we continued our philosophical investigations. Perhaps Dworkin is right after all – one cannot hold hearings on the Clapham Omnibus. At least that particular Clapham Omnibus.

Still, the answers we received from this random sampling were impressive. The cheerful nihilism of the Bus Inspector, the pious reflections of the Contemplative Elderly Catholic Man, the Agapologistical exuberance of the Jamaican Gentleman, and the strange combination of hedonism and Protestant work ethic of the South African Man all demonstrated that the Clapham Omnibus remains a fruitful venue for discussion of deep philosophical issues. And, most notably of all, the top of today’s Clapham Omnibus is far more multicultural, racially diverse and economically varied than that of Lord Devlin’s time. There was not a bowler hat to be seen anywhere. One wonders what sort of legal system could be contrived by trying to find out the shared moral beliefs of the Man (and Woman!) on top of a modern Clapham Omnibus. We leave this research to others – ours is but a prolegomenon to a Future Omnibus Morality.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2001

Tim Madigan is Editorial Director of the University of Rochester Press, and Vice President of the Bertrand Russell Society, and is also a US Editor of Philosophy Now.

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