An Almost Interesting Moral Question

berlin holocaust memorial

So we were in Berlin last weekend, and we passed the Holocaust Memorial next to the Reichstag. Our 5 year old son was intrigued by the structure and went ahead of us and entered it. He then started to use it as a playground, a maze, to play hide-and-seek. Of course, I wasn’t seeking. He still had a lot of fun, but I had mixed feelings, as you can probably understand.

On the one hand, he was showing a lack of respect for the dead. This – given his age – is understandable though still jarring. I felt ashamed of him and of myself for allowing him to do what he did. On the other hand, maybe his display of innocence and vitality was an appropriate antidote to the burden of national guilt and cosmic morbidity expressed by the memorial (which is beautiful by the way).

National guilt is a concept that is becoming less and less relevant, although you sense that Germany still suffers from it. In addition, the morbidity of holocaust remembrance, although it expresses a fitting form of respect for the dead, is also in a sense an expression of respect for the perpetrators. It makes the perpetrators more important than they should be. Perhaps the Nazis were just a bunch of ridiculous losers which should be laughed at instead of morbidly feared.

Dullness is the First Principle of Justice

Complexity

Every theory of justice should be boring and dull. Dullness is what justice is all about. “It depends on”, “it’s complicated”, “it varies”, “it’s very nuanced”, “it’s somewhere in between” should be the phrases populating any philosophical work on justice. Clear and simple principles, even if arrived at through nuanced and complex reasoning, are an injustice to the concept of justice.

Justice is about the boring middle. For instance, justice is not about equality, because “it depends”. Giving all students, no matter what their ability or effort or accomplishment an equal grade offends our conception of justice, even if in general we view equal treatment as fundamental to justice. Neither is justice about rights, or better it’s not only about rights. Rights are important, as is equality, but in primitive or dysfunctional societies without an adequate justice system it may be best from the point of view of justice to hand over a pedophile to the parents of his victim.

Clear, absolute and immediately comprehensible principles that are true no matter the context and that allow for no exceptions are tempting and often propounded as the essence of theories of justice – although not of most sophisticated ones. And yet such principles are always wrong to some extent and in some circumstances. But then what about torture, slavery, murder and rape you may ask. Well, most of us would concede that there can be extreme cases in which torture is acceptable, even if only in theory (think of ticking bomb cases). We condone forced labor on a massive scale in our prison systems. Not only do we condone it – our allowing it could be considered a moral shortcoming – but there may be good reasons, moral reasons, for it: teaching people skills, fostering a sense of community etc. While there’s probably no good reason for capital punishment, other cases of murder can be morally justified: self-defense only being the most commonly accepted. And rape? While I can’t see any good reason to rape anyone in any circumstance, we do accept that there’s rape in our societies. No theory of justice should claim that we have to do everything possible to avoid any and all cases of rape that currently occur in our societies. Trying to do that would mean giving up other important rights such as privacy. We do and must accept some amount of crime. Hence any theory of justice has to be non-ideal. Ideals are useful but only take us so far. It should be considered lazy to limit yourself to an exhortation of utopia, no matter how well you argue for it.

Even theories of justice that do allow for wishy washy nuance and boring contextuality often posit a small set of grand principles as a basic ground of justice. They permit exceptions, but rarify them. The nuance and complexity they allow is in the exceptions or in the build up to the clear and simple principles, not in the principles themselves. Theories such as those of Rawls are typical of this. The voluminous body of criticism that has followed the publication of A Theory of Justice proves my point. Not all of that criticism was justified, but some of it was – notably that of G.A. Cohen but others as well. Nobody today accepts Rawls’ principles of justice as they are stated in A Theory. We all see the complexity that Rawls avoided or ignored, for example regarding incentives.

The problem, of course, is that there’s no audience for dullness – I know what I’m talking about here. So people are tempted to strive towards simplicity and clearness. That’s OK as long as there’s a thriving community that can offer criticism and nuance. The problem is not the producers of theory, but the audience. Producers can and perhaps should offer clear and simple principles, on the condition that they have complex and nuanced justifications, but the audience should be aware that it never stops there. Unfortunately, it always stops there.

Why Your Blog Is a Failure

failure

Of course, I should say “my blog”, but if we assume, unscientifically, that my experience is shared by many other bloggers then some of you may find my answers to the question in the title somewhat useful.

Almost nobody reads my blog these days. I’ve gone from a high point of about 10,000 pageviews a day – a respectable and higher than average number – to 20 or so. (Hi mom!). Whereas failure or success are subjective notions and to some extent in the eye of the beholder, they are fairly objective at the margins. Krugman is an objectively successful blogger, and yours truly is a verifiable suck. (Much of it my own doing, I admit, but I won’t go into the specifics of my personal failure, thank you). Sure, you can call yourself a success with a tiny readership if all you want is to spread the news about your local soccer club, but let’s limit ourselves here to what we could call “serious” blogging, i.e. writing about important topics for a targeted and perhaps sizeable audience in order to change something in the world – or at least in a part of the world.

How can this go wrong, you ask? In many ways, I’m afraid.

It’s the math.

Since it’s so goddamn easy to start a blog – it literally takes only minutes and costs nothing but time – millions of people have done so. Result: there are too many blogs. Which means that you won’t show up on Google and potential readers won’t find you. The only way for googlers to find you is authoritative endorsement: other famous and credible bloggers who write about the same topics and who publish links to or perhaps even favorable comments about your writing. That, of course, is another problem.

It’s the lack of authoritative endorsement.

Even if people do find you in some way or other, they won’t be able to judge the quality of your work compared to that of the thousands of others blogging about the same thing, unless they read you and all the others carefully. Of course they don’t have time for that. They’ll only read you instead of all the others if some authority figure in the field signals to them that that is what they should do. But getting such a figure to give the right signal is hard, for the same mathematical reasons. You can try to identify these people and email them links to your posts in the hope of receiving their endorsement, but here the mathematics will trip you up again. There are very few authority figures, almost by definition, and they receive far too many endorsement requests from far too many bloggers. The chances of getting noticed by authority figures are probably even lower than the chances of spontaneous discovery by a larger public.

Furthermore, endorsement requests can make you look needy, and the need for endorsement is for many readers – including the potential endorsers – a signal that you’re not worth the trouble. People tend to assume that success is self-made and doesn’t require endorsement. If you need endorsement then that’s already a sign that there’s nothing to endorse.

It’s what you write about.

A major factor in determining readership size is the topic you write about. Some topics are more popular than others, and the things you are passionate about may only be interesting to relatively few people even if these things are objectively important to humanity as a whole. That’s OK as long as you redefine success. For instance, if you write about something like human rights – as I do – then you should realistically aim at a relatively small readership. People in general do not want to read about human rights when they can read about celebrities and royalty. You set yourself up for failure if you ignore this fact about humanity. If, on the other hand, you aim at a small readership but one that includes many of the people working in the field of human rights – academics, activists, politicians – then a small but targeted readership can be considered a success. If you can change how academic specialists in the field of human rights think about their subject, and if you can inform activists about how to be more successful in doing their work, then readership size is somewhat less important. This is true for a lot if not all of what we call “serious” blogging. This type of blogging is by definition specialized in the sense that it’s about one topic, and an important topic, and that it tries to go deep within that topic. It’s success for those types of blogs that I care about and success here is more about targeting the right people than the size of the audience.

It’s the metrics.

So it’s important to get over the fetish of readership numbers. They’re not that important for serious blogs, with possible exceptions for wide-ranging fields such as economics. And anyway, they’re notoriously difficult to measure. Pageviews don’t tell the whole story. A lot of the views you get may be just mistakes or people scraping images from your blog. And the rest of the views may last for a few seconds only (although in theory it’s possible to measure time spent on a site). Advertising income, if you have it, is also not a reliable indicator of readership. The only really useful indicator of readership is mentions of and links to you elsewhere on the internet. And especially from authority figures in the field. And that’s by definition anecdotal and impossible to measure. You’ll have to “feel” it.

It’s your style.

Suppose you have a serious blog with some level of specialization – “going deep” – and a targeted and authoritative readership that came to you by way of endorsement. You may still struggle to hold on to your audience. Even a group of specialists in the field of human rights want to have variety in what they read. Hammering on about the same thing over and over again, even if you make sense and develop good arguments, tends to become boring, even to specialists. And it’s not enough to include the occasional funny gif post as a form of comic relief. People can get that anywhere. You’ll have to find a good balance between being short and to the point on the one hand and original and deep on the other. That’s tough. People don’t go to blogs to read thousands of words (I know, I’ll wrap this up in a moment, I promise). Or to read what they already know. And remember, you’re targeting specialists and authority figures, so they know a lot and you’ll have to be original and profound.

An additional stylistic difficulty: you’re forced to write in English. No brainer. But English probably isn’t your mother tongue. Whereas English is relatively easy to learn if all you want is to communicate effectively, it’s incredible hard to write well in English. Trust me, I know. And I guess you can tell. People want to read good writing. So invest some effort in it.

It’s only blogging.

Finally: if you obsess about success or failure as a blogger, you’ve already lowered your ambitions. Try to be successful as a writer, an artist, politician or spouse. You may face some of the same difficulties but the payoff will be bigger.

What to do about the risk of failure?

If you still want to be a successful blogger after all this, then what should you do? Invest in your mastery of the English language. Continue to seek endorsements and get over your squeamishness about it. But don’t spam people. Limit your ambition and get over the pageviews. Try to get quality readers. Persevere: blogging is useful even if literally nobody reads you. You learn things by writing about them. You become a better writer and a smarter person. Also: be regular. People don’t like blogs that aren’t updated regularly (ahem). But don’t spend more than a couple of hours a day on it. Life’s too short, there’s too much good television and food. And your wife and offspring don’t care about your blog. The sun is shining and your body needs a run.

The Refugee Crisis From a Social Choice Perspective

Over the last few months, we’ve been seeing an increase in media coverage of the plight of refugees and migrants trying to make the journey to Western Europe. Here’s a graph from Google Trends:

refugees google trends

It started with events in Calais and then shifted eastwards to Hungary, Greece and other countries around the Mediterranean. Somehow, the focus is now more on refugees than on migrants, perhaps because there are now more refugees coming across from countries such as Syria. Some argue that the reason for the recent spike in media coverage are indeed the larger than ever numbers of people travelling to Europe, but I’m not sure this is correct or that it’s the main reason even if it is correct. Let’s admit that refugees are photogenic, especially when they’re in trouble, and hence easy material for journalists. Increased media coverage could be partially the result of tragic anecdotes captured on film.

Whatever the reasons for the levels of media coverage, I think it’s interesting to try to assess the impact this coverage will have on reality, as opposed to the impact of reality on the coverage.

We can look at this from both the supply side and the demand side. Let me start with the latter. An increase in the numbers of stories about refugees and migrants in Western media will most likely motivate more people to try and make the journey (foster the “demand” for migration). Although a lot of coverage focuses on the risks faced by individuals or families – people drowning in the Mediterranean or suffocating in the backs of trucks – potential migrants or refugees are well aware of these risks and increased media coverage of deaths or other negative effects of migration attempts will not change their risk assessment. (It would be different if destination countries were actively trying to increase the risks, by building walls or stopping boats, but this doesn’t seem to be happening, yet. Or at least not more than before. The so-called wall in Hungary, however shameful, is still very leaky). Compared to the risks of staying where they are, potential migrants or refugees make a rational calculation to leave, and they’re probably correct in most cases. They’re even more likely to be correct when they come from Syria and other war-torn countries.

Increased media coverage also shows that lots of people do make it some distance to their destination, and this will further push other potential migrants’ calculations towards a decision to make the journey. In addition: media coverage doesn’t typically include success stories of people making it all the way and having a good life in their new country. Potential travellers know this, and therefore include this in their risk assessment. They know that media coverage is skewed towards bad news and only tends to show journeys that go wrong and to picture people having trouble along the way or facing hostility at their destination. Migrants arriving safely, being welcomed and having a successful new life just don’t make the news, but they exist. We all know this, but we don’t know how common they are. Still, they exist, and knowledge of this factors into the risk calculations of potential migrants.

How about the “supply side”? How will countries that can potentially offer more or less supply of migration opportunities react to the recent media coverage? First of all, we’re now seeing a strong self-shaming effect, especially after events such as the drowning of Aylan. This mitigates pre-existing xenophobia and forces western European governments to allow somewhat larger numbers of arrivals. This is already happening, albeit on a largely symbolic scale. So both the demand and supply sides will go up, at least in the short term.

Feelings of shame tend not to last, however, and tragic images of dead toddlers on beaches fade from memory much faster than the sight of even a relatively small number of new arrivals squatting in squalor in Western parks and train stations. Xenophobic reactions to the new arrivals and the often imaginary burdens these people place on “our” social security systems, housing markets, job markets etc. will probably make a comeback after a few weeks of face-to-face confrontation with third world poverty. As a result, we’re likely to see a rebranding of refugees as “mere” migrants. Migrants in turn will be called “fortune seekers” and other rather more despicable labels.

FT_Econ_Burden_fw_Pre-crisis levels of toleration of migrants were already low in many European countries, and one can imagine that so-called “swarms” of new arrivals can make things worse very quickly. This in turn can have an effect on the demand side as people considering a potential journey decide to do it sooner rather than later in order to beat the clock and travel before the walls go up. These possible new waves of concentrated arrivals in Western countries will further encourage xenophobia. Etcetera etcetera, as one is tempted to say.

If you’re interested, I’ve got more and older posts on migration, refugees and citizenship right here.

What’s It Like To Live Without Illusions? Tough, And It Sucks

illusion

About 6 months ago, I decided to do a bit a self-experimentation. I tried to identify as many of my illusions as I could, and then see if I could lose them one by one. Readers of this blog – those who are still around – may have noticed one of the first: that this is an interesting blog. I stopped writing after decades of what often seemed like talking to a wall. After all, if few other people like what I do, then why should I? Wisdom of the crowds, and such. But that’s hardly the most important illusion I tried to get rid of. (“Tried”, since here I am, writing again…)

Over the last years, I read a lot about free will, blame and moral responsibility. My writing on human rights made me conscious of the harm we inflict on each other while trying to hold “wrongdoers” to account: capital punishment, mass incarceration, police brutality and so on are well-documented human rights violations, but the interesting thing about them is that they imply beliefs – in the minds of the perpetrators – about victim accountability and responsibility. The belief that people should be held accountable for their misdeeds – and should suffer for them – wraps around another belief: that people possess some form of free will.

The growing consensus in the fields of psychology and neurology (including evolutionary psychology, brain imaging and the study of systematic biases) is that free will is an illusion. “Illusion” is probably too strong a word in this case, but the literature has certainly convinced me to be more generous to “wrongdoers”. Not only should we avoid harsh punishment for consequentialist reasons – we do more harm while punishing people than the good that may come from often imaginary deterrent and protection effects – but also because punishment has become little more than an overly theatrical way of blaming people who seem decreasingly blameworthy.

finger_wag_hypnosis

So let’s say that in general I’ve tried to rid myself of the illusion of judgment. Negative judgment at least. I try to no longer blame people for their shortcomings. (Sorry for the split infinitive here, but let’s face it: grammatical rules are often used as a theatrical means of blaming people and of signalling our own superiority relative to the blameworthy. Communication is about understanding, and if rules can assist in understanding then they are good. If not, lose your illusion.)

Avoiding blame may seem dangerous: if we no longer blame people for their mistakes and misdeeds, then how will they learn and become better people? Is mutual improvement also an illusion that should be abandoned? I don’t think so. But there’s a large space between blame and indifference. You can tell people about their mistakes without judgment. It’s tricky, but doable.

What about positive judgments? Do I no longer appreciate beauty, music and art? To the extent that beauty is an illusion, that’s probably the hardest one to shed. A sensation of beauty just comes over you, unexpectedly. You can’t fight it or reason yourself away from it, as you can with free will. You can try to tell yourself that a beautiful body is just a bag of bones, meat and human waste made to look appealing because bodily attraction has helped humanity to survive during our difficult early evolution. However, you often can’t keep fooling yourself into believing this, at least not in the sense of immediate, intuitive belief.

What about music? As an adolescent I became enchanted by Wagner and I started to read a lot about him, including a lot of critical stuff arguing against his method: how silly it is to use leitmotivs, as if we can’t see that Wotan comes on stage and need to hear his tune as well; how Wagner did not respect “classical” rules of composition; how repetitive he was; how loud, bombastic and Teutonic; how the German language was unfit for opera, especially when littered with alliteration. And so on. All of this made me doubt, and I almost gave up being a Wagnerian because of it. But I couldn’t. The music is just magic, and it blows you away no matter how much you rationalise against it, at least if you’re open to being blown away. The beauty of it may be an illusion. In the narrow sense that you get tricked by a cunning and scamming composer. Or in the broader sense: beauty is no more than brain stimulations that have developed over the course of human evolution because individuals who are receptive to these kinds of stimulation are happier and therefore more likely to survive.

wagner quote

So far so good, you may say. Get rid of the noxious illusions, if you can, and keep the pleasant and harmless ones. Good work Spagnoli! But then why do you tell us that it sucks? Because illusions are like faces in things. Once you train yourself to see faces in things, you start to see them everywhere. Same for illusions. Friendship starts to look like an illusion. You try to ignore your friends to see whether they really care about you. Do they show you that they care by asking you why you ignore them? Nah. They just ignore you back because you’re being such a dick.

And then there’s LOVE: there’s a long history of love bashing. Do we really love the people we love? Why do we love that particular person and not another one? Seems a bit arbitrary to us all, at some points in our lives. Just admit it. It could just as well have been someone else. What is love really? Perhaps not a lot more than just another evolutionary adaptation inherited from early humans who were frail and needed to stick together in small family type groups that cared for each other and their offspring in a hostile prehistoric environment. Maybe. But if so, then love is no longer relevant since that kind of frailty has been largely overcome. Love is reduced to companionship and sex, both of which I’ve argued may be just as illusory (albeit in a pleasant way as long as you manage to avoid thinking below skin level.)

And now for the most dangerous illusion of all: are you actually alive? You’re losing your friends and loved ones. You’re counting the times that you were ignored during meetings at work; that the girls on the bus didn’t look back at you; that you had to repeat yourself; that your email went unanswered. You remember the accident you were in as a child, and start to wonder whether you’re Bruce Willis. At best you come under the impression of slowly fading away, quite literally. Needless to say that this is dangerously self-destructive. From a medical perspective, it looks like an illusion or delusion. But it may just as well be the product of fanatical and self-reinforcing opposition to illusion.

How to get out of this trap? I’m not sure you can, but an old analytic philosophy trick seems to help: define your terms, analyse the meaning of words. If you feel overwhelmed by the loss of illusions, start to define “illusion”. You’ll probably notice that the term is vague and overly inclusive. Which would account for the tendency to see illusions everywhere. A precise definition of the word can help you get out of the anti-illusory maelstrom. Perhaps.

Which Changes in the Spatial Pattern of Human Rights Are Most Likely?

[The drought of my inspiration continues, I’m afraid, so here’s another golden oldie. Tyler Cowen linked to it on Marginal Revolution at the time I first published it some years ago, so it must be good. Argumentum ad verecundiam, I know.]

One result of human rights measurement is a spatial pattern of human rights, a pattern that of course changes over time: countries with lower or higher levels of respect for human rights show up on a world map and this world map shows a certain spatial pattern.

The current spatial pattern of human rights is, somewhat simplistically, like this: wealthy and developed “Western” countries, although by no means free from human rights violations, show on average higher levels of respect for human rights than most developing nations. This is no reason to distribute praise or blame: developed countries share responsibility for human rights violations in developing countries, and high levels of respect for certain human rights in developed countries may be partly a matter of luck or perhaps even the direct consequence of the exploitation of developing regions. It’s also the case that rights cost money, hence wealthier countries can be expected to show higher levels of respect for rights.

Just take it as a fact rather than a judgment, admittedly a stylized fact (one can argue that human rights are better protected in Italy than in the US even though the latter is much wealthier; the same is true if you compare Botswana en China). Here‘s an example of one human rights index that confirms this spatial pattern.

Given this current spatial pattern, what’s our best guess about the future? The dynamics of human rights are poorly understood: unfortunately, we don’t really know which actions or events are most likely to change levels of respect for human rights, at least not in the positive sense. We know that war, genocide, authoritarian rule and poverty bring levels down, but we don’t know quite as well how to bring levels up. We assume that different types of forces may play a role:

  • bottom-up forces such as popular revolts, changes in cultural practice etc.;
  • top-down forces such as coups d’états, government policies, national legislation, international law, international institutions etc.;
  • horizontal forces such as peer pressure among states, conditional bilateral development aid, pay-offs, military intervention, naming-and-shaming etc.

Incentives also play a role, and maybe even forces beyond human control such as climate, geography etc. However, the exact result and impact of these forces is unclear and controversial, so we don’t really know what to do and kinda grope in the dark hoping something is successful.

Given the fact that many people and many institutions actually try to do something in order to raise levels of respect for human rights, it’s indeed likely that some actions will be somewhat effective. Hence the spatial pattern of human rights may change in the future. Here are my guesses as to how it may change:

  1. Those areas of the world where respect for rights is already relatively high are most likely to see additional improvements. I agree that low hanging fruit is easiest to pick, and that is why we may see spectacular progress in some countries where respect is currently low: the removal of an oppressive regime can, in theory, bring rapid and large improvements in levels of respect, but in practice there are very few cases (often the overthrow of an oppressive regime is followed by civil war or a successor regime that is only slightly better or even worse). Conversely, sometimes high hanging fruit is, paradoxically, easier to pick. Countries with a reasonably high level of respect often have a history of struggle for rights as well as a culture of rights resulting from that struggle. Rights are part of the ethos of the common man. Remaining rights violations will therefore be more jarring, and existing institutions necessary to tackle them are in place. Another reason to believe that improvements in human rights will first take place in those countries that are already relatively good is the dynamic of bilateral aid: aid donors are likely to give more to countries that already have a certain level of respect, not just because donors like aid conditionality but also because of things such as the “bottomless pit syndrome”. Badly governed countries just take the aid and spend it for the rulers’ personal profit. Donors understandably don’t like this and therefore tend to give to countries that are better governed.
  2. Those areas of the world adjacent to areas where respect for rights is already relatively high are likely to see additional improvements. Countries tend to see rights violations in neighboring countries as more urgent than rights violations far away. The former violations can have spillover effects: a civil war in the country next door can cause refugee flows into your own country or other types of spillovers, hence you have an incentive to do something about the war. The same is true for other types of rights violations. Rights violations in a country far away don’t create the same incentives to act. Additionally, the EU and other regional organizations insist that candidate member countries – almost always adjacent countries – first respect human rights before they can become members. These candidate countries therefore have a powerful incentive to raise levels of respect, since membership is often profitable. And there are also other, non-spatial types of proximity among adjacent countries: they may share a language – or their languages may belong to the same family – or a religion. This kind of cultural proximity makes bilateral intervention more likely and more acceptable. If one of two adjacent countries has a high level of respect for human rights, it may find it easier to intervene in the other country in order to foster human rights. It may offer effective institutional assistance for instance, assistance that is more effective – because more acceptable and easier – than assistance from a country far away, “far away” both spatially and culturally. Another reason to believe that proximity plays a role: a country that exists in the proximity of other countries that perform better in the field of human rights is in direct competition with those other countries; competition for workers, international investment etc. Both workers and companies will prefer to invest in countries that are free. Hence the underperformers in a certain region will have the incentive to do better.

If these two claims are correct, then we’ll see increasing polarization among two groups of countries. Not the optimal outcome, but perhaps the most likely one. Time will tell.

More posts in this series are here.

Why On Earth Would Someone Need Human Rights?

[You may have noticed a lack of blog posts recently. At least I hope you have. For personal reasons I’ve been having a hard time writing anything these last weeks, so here’s one from the archive (with a new title). It’s almost 5 years old but I still think it’s one of my best.]

Human rights have many functions, but their most important one is perhaps the institution and the protection of a public space and a public life for every individual. This is especially true of freedom rights or civil rights (which of course also institute and protect a private space, in particular by way of the right to privacy and the right to private property). These rights protect public life because public life guarantees a number of important human values such as the ability to form, experience and preserve an individual as well as a collective identity and the ability to think more or less correctly. I will use Kant’s philosophy to substantiate these claims.

Public life as such is not dependent on human rights. There is publicity in states which do not protect human rights. The advantage of human rights is that they are equal rights. They try to protect public life and the values attached to it for every individual in an equal way. We can of course have a perfectly happy life without having a public life, but then we relinquish the values that are protected by this public life. It is also true that we can have a public life without the protection of a state and its legal instruments (such as human rights, judges, police etc.). However, public life would then be fragile, uncertain and unequally distributed among individuals.

I am conscious of the fact that not everybody will be convinced by this justification of human rights. Those who desire nothing but a completely private life or a hedonistic life devoid of any public communication or political involvement will be disappointed. However, I am sure that, once I have explained the meaning of the words “public life”, most of the people in most cultures of the world will agree that they refer to something valuable. Which, of course, does not mean that they will agree that there is a link between these concepts on the one hand and human rights and democracy on the other hand.

Human rights protect our public life, but why do we need a public life? And what is this public life? How does it protect certain values, and how is it protected by freedom rights? Let me start with the first two questions. A public life is a life dedicated to publicity, to public deeds and words, not necessarily in an active way; for most of us maybe only in a passive way. Publicity is open interaction, taking place between as many people as possible and with as little limitations as possible. Hidden, private, secret, clandestine or prohibited interaction is not public interaction.

I will not use the word “public” in the legal sense. Public law regulates the relationships between the citizens and the state (for example criminal law, constitutional law etc.), while private law regulates the relationships between citizens (for example the law of commerce or the law of succession). This legal way of understanding the word “public” is too limited for my purpose. This legal definition also leads to confusion. Hannah Arendt (1992:95) states – and I agree – that the separation of church and state has not transformed religion into an entirely private or intimate affair. Only a tyrant can destroy the public role of religion and churches and can destroy the public space where religious people meet. However, because of her purely political interpretation of the word “public” – the public domain is the political domain, and nothing more – she is forced to use the awkward expression “secular public space” in order to describe the sphere of politics or the state, and the equally awkward expression “religious public space” for the space left vacant by politics in a system which is characterized by a separation between church and state. She seems to define the word “public” in a very limited way (public = politics), but also speaks of “all forms of public relationships, social as well as political” (Arendt 1990:170). Habermas struggles with the same contradictions: his “‘öffentlichkeit” is a space where private citizens can act in a critical way towards the public/political domain. Castoriadis similarly reduces the public to the political:

The emergence of a public space means that a political domain is created which ‘belongs to all’. The ‘public’ ceases to be a ‘private’ affair – of the king, the priests, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and the experts. Decisions on common affairs have to be made by the community. Cornelius Castoriadis

A public life, in the way I understand it, consists in the first instance of sets of relationships between citizens, although the relationships between the state and its citizens can also be part of a public life (especially in a democracy; democratic political life is a part of public life). The public space is larger than the space of politics and the state (although in a democracy the latter is part of the former).

Human life is of course impossible without relationships. We all live in society. No one is self-sufficient or “atomized”. Man is always a fellow man; existence is always coexistence. Other people are there before we are and we continuously profit from their achievements. We need interaction and communication with other people – first our parents but not just our parents – in order to be able to think. Moreover, thinking has to transcend the private sphere because it is dependent on other people besides our relatives, friends and private acquaintances. It needs public interaction, not just private. The ability to think is not created and developed in any arbitrary group, but only in a community – if possible the world community – in which publicity reigns and in which there are rules and laws that can enforce this publicity. Immanuel Kant correctly stated that the authority that takes away the freedom of expression also takes away the freedom to think, a freedom usually considered to be inalienable (Kant 1992:87). Thinking needs the public use of reason. Thoughts are not something you develop on your own or in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts. (Or, which can be the same thing, you need to read books. Books are thoughts made public, which is why they are called publications). Listening to as many thoughts as possible, expanding the sources of thoughts and information, can only be done by making them public. Thinking, the inner dialogue, is always the result of a public dialogue. How much would you think if you would never speak to anyone, or even if you would always speak to the same, small and private group of people? Thinking needs thoughts that come from outside of your own limited group. Hence thinking needs human rights.

However, not only the ability to think as such, but also the ability to think in a more or less correct way, with as few mistakes as possible, depends on publicity, which is another thing we learned from Kant. By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of themselves. This means that you confront – or prepare to confront – other people and their (possible) objections, not only in order to disprove their objections, but also in order to disprove or possibly improve your own opinions.

Publicity improves the quality of thoughts both because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of a posteriori testing by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

A particular issue is forced into the open that it may show itself from all sides, in every possible perspective, until it is flooded and made transparent by the full light of human comprehension. Immanuel Kant

If you want to improve the quality of your thoughts, then you need publicity on two levels: first you have to make your thoughts public, and then you have to listen to public objections and arguments. This means that you as well as your opponents must have the right to be heard and to defend arguments.

This is the link between publicity and human rights. Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights and in particular freedom rights can help to achieve this (Kant’s imagination can also help but is probably not enough). Putting yourself in the place of someone else, looking at something from another point of view or another perspective helps you to better understand things, just as looking at an object from another point of view helps you to better perceive the object. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

Thinking correctly means thinking in community with others. Of course, I use the word “correctly” not in an absolute or scientific sense. The debate is open-ended, new arguments or new objections can always emerge and can lead to an even better understanding. Correctness in this sense can only be an approximation.

If you consider thinking and thinking correctly to be valuable activities – and it is hard not to, because without thinking you cannot consider anything – then publicity or public life as well as the rights that are necessary for its protection must also be valuable.

The fact that thinking is not an isolated business contradicts a well-known intuition.

Thinking . . . is the silent dialogue of myself with myself . . . and . . . is a “solitary business” . . . Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even bear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear. Hannah Arendt.

But not only afterwards does the thinking self leave its solitude. Before thinking can begin there must be some kind of public interaction (e.g. reading books, the public ideas of others).

I have said before that we should try to expand the public space beyond the national boundaries. Ideally, the other people who we need to think and to think correctly are not only our compatriots but also the rest of humanity. A global public space is the natural consequence of the widest possible extension of sources of thoughts required for thinking and the widest possible confrontation with counter-arguments and different points of view required for the correctness of thinking. Only by living in this kind of global public space can we hope to become Kant’s world citizen or “Weltbetrachter” and can we avoid national prejudices or national one-sidedness. The western feeling of superiority, for example, needed colonization to become aware of its errors. Both the private sphere and the national sphere have to be transcended in order to transcend our curtailed, narrow-minded, one-sided, prejudiced and unthinking existence. A life completely dedicated to intimacy, to that which is your own (“idion” in Greek), far away from the common world, is by definition an “idiot” life (Arendt 1983:76). The same thing can be said of life limited to a (national) group.

As for human rights, it is quite certain that they cannot do their job in the global public space as well as they can in the national one. It is difficult to enforce the protection of public communication between an American and a Chinese, even in the age of the Internet. The best we can hope for at the moment is the establishment of a chain of national public spaces protected nationally by national human rights instruments, although one should not underestimate the effect of cross-border action in favour of human rights. Ideally, human rights can only be justified when they are applied globally. A purely national application in the midst of an anti-human-rights world would lose much of its meaning if we accept the justification based on thinking.

John Stuart Mill has given another reason why human rights promote correct thinking. An opinion is not a purely personal possession and the act that inhibits the possession or the expression of an opinion is not a purely private crime. Suppressing an opinion is a crime against humanity. If the opinion in question is correct, we make it impossible for humanity to distinguish right from wrong. If the opinion is false, we make it impossible for humanity to make what is right more apparent by confronting it with that which is wrong.

Public life also plays a part in the development of an individual’s identity, at least to the extent that this identity is consciously created at all. Establishing your identity is intimately linked to thinking and, in the same way as thinking, it is not a purely private, individual or inward activity. It takes place in society and in the institutions of society. You become who you are by thinking and by developing your ideas. To a certain extent, your thoughts, ideas and convictions determine who you are, determine your identity. If thinking depends on publicity, then identity or personality as well depend on publicity.

You also become who you are by expressing yourself, by saying, doing or making things visible to all and by distinguishing yourself. All this implies the existence of a public or an audience and hence implies a public life. Thoughts take shape only when they are expressed or prepared to be expressed. By expressing and showing yourself, you make things public about yourself, things that were a secret before, sometimes even a secret to yourself. In this way, you get to know yourself and you shape your identity.

Furthermore, you shape your identity by looking at others, by studying them, by following them or by wittingly contradicting them. An individual identity needs a group in which there is a public life in the sense of showing, listening, following and contradicting (although groups are of course also the product of individuals). “Polis andra didaskei”, the individual is shaped by the “polis”. The identity of a member of a socialist party is profoundly shaped by his or her membership. We are who we are because we are part of a group. Belonging is not only a psychological or emotional need. It also shapes our identity. Hence the importance of the right to associate.

But we also are who we are because we revolt. People should therefore be allowed to leave groups. Because groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity (they can for example be ideological “schools” or dogmatic churches enforcing conformism), it is important that membership is free and that the communication which takes place inside these groups, is as open and as free as possible. Groups should allow members to hear outside information. In other words, groups should have a public character on top of or instead of their private character.

It is useful to point out the difference between identity and individuality. Identity can imply conformism, wittingly or unwittingly. You can define your identity by conforming to a group with a certain identity that you either like or imperatively adopt because of education, propaganda, brainwashing etc. In the latter case, you have an identity, but not necessarily an individuality. You can only have an individuality if:

  1. You consciously choose the identity of a group as a consequence of reasoned reflection of a public nature (of the kind discussed above); and
  2. You have personal and unique characteristics on top of the identity of the group you have decided to join, and this is not as evident as it sounds given the power of some groups.

Conforming to a group in order to acquire an identity is very important to most people, and rightly so, at least as long as there is room left for individuality. Most people do not feel that their personal uniqueness is enough to give them an identity. They believe that only a link between them personally and something outside of them that they consider to be important – for example socialism – is able to give them an identity (Charles Taylor 1994:46). Most of the time, establishing this link can best be done by joining other people with the same idea – for example the community of socialists. This feeling of belonging to an important group also guarantees that the rest of the world is aware of your identity. The feeling of belonging to something important is crucial here. You do not have an identity because you belong to the community of people with red hair. But even the individual identity or individuality can only exist because of a link with something important, such as an event you have witnessed or caused etc. You do not have an identity because you are the only one with blue hair. Your individuality is not the consequence of a unique but arbitrary characteristic, event or sequence of events.

The process of shaping an identity through group conformity requires publicity and human rights. Groups must be allowed to exist, to make publicity for their identity, to convince people to join them etc. All these things are explicitly provided for in human rights. The process also requires democracy because it implies an egalitarian society. You cannot at the same time emphasize the importance of people shaping their identity and individuality, and accept a hierarchical society in which identities are automatically determined by social position, role or activity. A democracy, moreover, needs groups because it needs majorities, minorities and political parties. And because it needs groups, it tends to protect groups.

It is clear from all this that language and therefore also education and the struggle against illiteracy are extremely important for public life. Language is more than just an instrument to represent or translate reality or to transfer messages (Taylor 1994:10). It also has the power to constitute the human person, to express, understand and develop our personality or individuality, to promote thinking etc. Language, therefore, also creates reality.

The fact that public life and the values resulting from it require the presence of other persons and meeting other persons, does not exclude the possibility of solitude and even loneliness. The presence of others can be indirect, for example by way of a book. Sometimes it is even useful to be alone, for example when we want to study, to open up sources of ideas and information etc. This kind of solitude is not the same thing as the absence of relationships. It is not a private solitude, but a public one, if I may say so, because it requires the presence of a book; and a book is a public thing (it is a “publication”, the thoughts of someone made public). It is the indirect presence of another person.

Proust . . . ne croyait plus en la conversation ni d’ailleurs en l’amitié. C’est même de sa longue pratique de la parole vive qu’il avait tiré, contre Sainte-Beuve, la certitude d’un abyme entre le moi social et le moi profond. Mais justement les livres sont silencieux et leur auteur absent. On peut donc les aimer sans faire de manières et sans s’inquiéter de ce qu’ils ont pensé de nous: “Dans la lecture, l’amitié est ramené à sa pureté première. Avec les livres, pas d’amabilité”. Et c’est la même image que l’on retrouve chez Arendt quand elle définit la personne cultivée comme quelqu’un qui sait choisir sa compagnie “parmi les hommes, les choses, les pensées, dans le présent comme dans le passé”. Alain Finkielkraut

Reading means having a public life because it means participating in a public phenomenon, namely the published book. This is apparent in the description of the community of readers as the “public” of the writer (it is maybe even more apparent in the French language in which “le public” literally means the audience or the readership). A public space does not only contain people who disclose something. It also contains the people to whom something is disclosed. Persons who never meet each other can have a conversation and can even arrive at a common opinion.