The Causes of Human Rights Violations (31): Adaptive Preferences and False Consciousness

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.” (source)

Human rights violations persist not only because governments continue to oppress. When people are faced with oppression or a reasonable assessment of the risk of oppression they adapt their preferences so as not to run foul of the government. For example, they convince themselves that speaking freely in public or publicly practicing their religion is not really what is most important to them. They settle for second best, and often in such a way that they forget about the first best and kid themselves that second really is first. It’s a form of false consciousness induced by an oppressive government.

This pliability of human preferences is well-known – advertising depends on it – but it’s also disturbing because it means that human rights violators just have to push harder and be a more credible threat in order to get people where they want them. In fact, it allows oppressors to make allies of the oppressed: the oppressed assist the oppressors in the act of oppression.

Now, it’s obviously true that preference adaptation can also be a good thing, and even a force for liberty. The Buddhist claim that we should rid ourselves from desires – an extreme form of preference adaptation – is motivated in part by the fact that unfulfilled desires are a cause of unhappiness. And that claim is particularly salient in our age of consumerism and extravagant attention to a vast array of often fabricated and imposed desires.

Preference adaptation can be liberating. Character building is important for freedom: when people manage to restrain some of their preferences and tell themselves that heroine use for example isn’t really what they want, then they open up other options for themselves, options that would have been closed had they indulged in their drug addiction.

However, in these two examples (the Buddhist and the junkie), preference adaptation is not a response to outside oppression determining the feasible, but rather a response to inner values and second order preferences such as happiness, freedom, self-government and choice. Still, notwithstanding the differences, preference adaptation resulting from inner motives is just as much self-delusion as preference adaptation resulting from oppression. It’s just a liberating rather than debilitating form of self-delusion. When self-delusion is a reaction to oppression, then it reinforces oppression; when, on the other hand, it’s a reaction to inner motives or second-order preferences, then it makes us more free. See here for an argument that false consciousness can be beneficial to human rights.

It’s obvious that oppressive governments do not only depend on adaptive preference formation as a means to change preferences. Indoctrination is another method. And neither do they depend on changes of preferences, whatever the method. Violence, pay-offs etc. are other weapons in their arsenal. Conversely, adaptive preference formation is not only a reaction to oppressive rights violations: poverty is a rights violation that’s not necessarily a correlate of oppression, and poor people also adapt their preferences in order to escape some of the effects of poverty, much like a religious minority in a theocratic dictatorship adapts its preference for public worship.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (2): Theoretical and Political Life

(please read part 1 first)

Theoretical life, the most elevated way of life and the only life which leads to the knowledge of truth, is incompatible with political life according to Plato. Contemplating the truth with the eye of the mind – this is theoretical life – is impossible as long as one is dominated by appearances, or in other words as long as one follows desires, participates in political deliberation or uses one’s human rights. Democratic politics and human rights are all about appearances, exposure, communication, and persuasion. Plato’s world is a solitary one, where the mind is engaged only with itself.

However, after contemplating the truth the philosopher has to return to earth, or to the darkness of the cave in Plato’s words. He is morally obliged to use his superior knowledge of the good life, acquired in the course of his solitary theoretical life, in order to improve the lives of his fellow-citizens. And the best instrument to do this is politics, but a kind of politics quite different from democratic politics. As a result of his philosophical activity, or his theoretical life, he has knowledge, not only about the good life but also about politics and the organization of society. He has the moral obligation to organize or make his society according to a plan that he knows is best and that he has obtained from his reflections. This plan is a matter of knowledge. Hence, it is the best and only plan. He will have to eliminate opposition and reaction because opposition and reaction to his plan is by definition stupid. It does not result from knowledge or from theoretical life.

This plan, according to Plato, is the roadmap to a generalized theoretical life. The theoretical life of the individual philosopher is the model for society. Everybody, or at least as many people as possible, must be given access to theoretical life through the political organization of society. Only then will there be general wellbeing because theoretical life is the only good and happy life, especially when compared to the life of the senses and of consumption. Theoretical life becomes the goal of politics, the only goal. Instead of the institutionalization of the game of action and reaction around different goals (as in democracy), politics becomes the organization of coordinated action with a single goal.

The philosopher has to become king and has to shape his society in his image, even though in principle theoretical life is far better than political life and should be chosen above political life. However, he has knowledge and the responsibilities that knowledge entails. He knows what theoretical life is, and so he knows how to lead or even force others in the direction of such a life and how to organize society in such a way that theoretical life becomes a general fact.

The philosopher-king, a dictatorial concept later translated into concepts such as the enlightened sovereign, the technocrat etc., results from the logic of fabrication. The expert maker, the one with the best knowledge of the goal or the plan, should be the leader of the construction process, construction in this case not of a product but of society and of the people in society.

Only those with sufficient knowledge of the good life, the goal of politics according to Plato, should be political leaders, otherwise politics will not be aimed at the good life. This knowledge is not primarily political expertise, knowledge of the art of rhetoric or negotiation etc., but knowledge of the way in which to lead a theoretical life. Only those who already lead it know how to guide others along the way.

We should rely on those persons who have acquired knowledge of the good life. This is true in every field of knowledge. If we want to build a ship, we rely on those who know how to build a ship. Everybody else must be polite enough to shut up. The ordinary people, people without knowledge of the good life, should remain silent when it comes to politics, just as they rightly remain silent when a ship has to be build.

Democracy is therefore undesirable. The experts of the good life, and hence the rulers, are by definition a minority. The ordinary people are ruled by their desires and have to be assisted and forced in their development towards a higher way of life. If they rule, politics will necessarily be focused on desires, on quantity rather than quality. Only those who can rule themselves must be allowed to rule others, and to rule others for their own good. That is why Socrates can say to his judges that they should cherish someone like him instead of condemning him. He does not defend himself but the entire city. The city would suffer most from his death, much more than he himself.

The philosopher-king acts in the interest of the good life of his society and not in his self-interest. The latter would be better served by a theoretical life and by avoiding politics. The fact that philosophers take over power reluctantly insulates them from abuses of power (for example, the use of power in their self-interest). They are forced to take over power for two reasons:

  • their moral obligation to improve their society, and
  • the fact that they otherwise would have to follow orders from people who are less wise than they.

Because they are forced they will rule not in their own interest but in the general interest.

A democracy can never rule in the general interest, because democratic politicians always listen to the people, always take over the claims of the people, and these claims are always materialistic and incompatible with the good life. Hence the goal of their rule is always the fulfillment of desires. Automatically, they will start to see power as well as an object of desire and use it in order to serve their own personal desires rather than those of the people.

The material appetites of the common people are not the only reason why democracy, according to Plato, is based on the senses, on appearances rather than underlying, eternal truths. The democratic style of politics is basically sense-oriented. It is about discussion, communication, deliberation. It’s policies change, are refined, repealed etc. Plato’s style of politics is different. It starts with solitary thinking, contemplation of eternal truths, which are then implemented top-down by politics.

Parts 1, 3 and 4

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (1): Appearance and Politics

In this series of 4 posts I will try to give a critical account of Plato’s pessimistic view of democracy and “human rights” or better the guesses one can make about what Plato would have thought about human rights had they existed in his time. (Athenian democracy did have free speech for example, but never extended such rights to humanity; it only respected rights for Athenian citizens. More about Ancient Greek democracy).

Plato had a preference for a very particular form of authoritarian government. Plato looked down upon the democratic polis. The people, according to him, are ruled by their natural desires. Freedom for them is in the first place the freedom to consume as much as they want. They think that they are free in a democracy, but they are the slaves of nature, of passions and lust. They live in the dictatorship of their desires.

According to Plato, the solution to this problem is not the development of technology. That would have been an anachronism and would perhaps not be a solution anyway, because technology only makes it easier to consume and does not offer a life beyond consumption, as was required by Plato. It offers merely the possibility of such a life. Plato’s solution is solitary asceticism, a radical turning away from sense perception and a dedication to an intellectual life of philosophy and theory which he called the “theoretical life“.

A philosopher has to shun the world of sense perception, sense perception in the meaning of the use of senses to fulfill desires, but also in the more general meaning of empirical knowledge production and of listening and speaking to others. In other words, he has to avoid democratic politics. According to Plato’s philosophy, sense perception, and therefore also political deliberation and the use of human rights (explicitly or implicitly), is an illusion, deception and mere appearance instead of reality. The philosopher must turn away from all this and try to take the lonely road towards the light of the eternal truths visible only to the eye of the mind.

These truths are the general ideas, also called “forms”. For example, the concrete chair, a particular appearance of the abstract idea of the chair, is only a poor imitation of the general idea, an ephemeral specimen of the eternal form, a mere approximation of the ideal. The general idea, the truth rather than the approximation, can only be seen by the eye of the solitary mind. Hence the devaluation of perception.

It is not the differences between things, the plurality, that count, but the resemblances. Plato’s ideal is a minimum of difference. Differences must be transcended in order to achieve knowledge of eternal truth. Knowledge is aimed at the unchanging and general ideas, not at the differences between concrete manifestations of these ideas. That is one of the reasons for his hostility towards democracy. Democracy is after all plurality, reaction and change, and resembles the world of appearances, of concrete things, rather than the platonic world of reality and of the eternal and unchanging forms. The people, according to Plato, constantly go from one concrete object to another, without ever seeing the general idea. For example, they go from one consumer product to another, from one policy or politician to another, from one changing opinion to another etc. The unchanging truth, which is beyond the level of the changes caused by persuasion and human rights, is unattainable for most of them.

Read also parts 2, 3 and 4