This is the text of this morning's thought. You can also listen again by clicking here and going to 1:51:00
George Bernard Shaw once said that “Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap”. So how should we unwrap the verbal stamps that say the British government did not want the Lockerbie bomber to die in a Scottish prison?
“Not wanting” can mean simply lacking a desire for something. For example, I don’t want you to eat beetroot, not because I’d be annoyed if you did, but simply because I have no particular desire that you do.
But “not wanting” might also mean that we have a desire that something doesn’t happen. I don’t want to eat beetroot, for example, because I hate the taste of it.
Once you appreciate this important difference, you can see that it is not clear what it means to say that the British government did not want the Lockerbie bomber to die in a Scottish prison. It could mean, as the Foreign Secretary David Miliband said yesterday, that the government was simply “not actively seeking” the death of Abdelbasset al-Megrahi in prison. Or it could mean, as most have assumed, that they really wanted him not to do so.
The difference, however, matters beyond this specific debate. In a diverse society, our capacity to live together, as people with different desires, depends on our ability to see that, just because we don’t particularly want something to happen, that doesn’t mean we should want it not to happen. More than that, mutual toleration requires that we do not actively seek to prevent everything that we actively seek to avoid.
We should therefore be careful how we unwrap the word “want”, because the result of confusing not wanting with wanting not is unnecessary intolerance.