What Are Human Rights? (50): Rights and Roles

Before rights became human rights they were privileges: in feudal times, certain professions had certain rights, towns had rights, social classes had rights etc. Often only members of a so-called “guild” had a right to trade or to engage in a profession. The simple fact of being born into the aristocracy gave the members of that class rights that no one else had or could have.

When the development of the capitalist economy made it more likely that people born in one class, profession or town ended up in another one, it became more practical and wise to claim rights as human beings rather than rights as an aristocrat, a Venetian or a member of the wood worker guild. If a revolution were to destroy your status as a Lord or if an economic crisis were to force you to move to another town and enter another profession, at least you would still have your human rights.

A remnant of this is still visible in human rights as they are today. Although all human rights are explicitly the rights of all human beings, some rights at least are rights of human beings engaging in certain social roles and are unintelligible outside the context of those social roles. The right to political participation is a right of human beings as citizens and doesn’t make sense if you haven’t first made sense of the role of citizenship. The right to work, the right to a decent wage, the right to a certain standard of living and the right to unemployment benefits are rights of people as workers. The right to marry is a right of human beings as family members. The difference with the “rights as privileges” of before is that all human beings are free to engage in all roles if they want to.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (46): Equal Rights, Ctd.

The idea that human rights are equal rights is trivial at first sight. However, it becomes problematic after some reflection, and only regains its persuasiveness after even further reflection. When you think about it, equal rights for everyone is a strange idea. Why should all people have the same rights? Why should a preacher of violence and hate have the same right to speak freely as the world’s best poet? Why should a religion that oppresses women have the same right to exist as a religion that loves peace and equality? Why should people who haven’t finished primary school have the same right to vote as experts in government matters?

Agreed, they are all human beings and human rights are the rights of human beings, but that’s a tautology, not an argument. A somewhat more promising foundation for the notion of equal rights goes like this: one can argue that people need human rights in order to realize certain of their most fundamental and commonly shared values. If that is true, then rights should be equal rights.

Most people value the ability to express themselves, to belong to groups, to share a common identity (e.g. a religious one), to govern their own affairs, to enjoy peace and prosperity etc. And we know that they need human rights to realize these (and other) values. Agreed, some of us may not want any of this, but then they can waive their rights. And only THEY can. People should decide for themselves whether they need rights and need them equally; others shouldn’t decide for them. That is probably the only morally sound way to treat people.

We can also justify equality of rights on the following grounds: we don’t want rights just for ourselves and for the things we value for ourselves; we also want other people to have rights and to have them equally – or at least we should want this if we are to reason coherently. This is not a requirement of morality or altruism – although it can be, obviously – but simply one of logic and coherence. The right to express myself, to belong, to live in peace and prosperity, to vote etc. makes no sense if I’m the only one to have those rights. Even if others use their expression or their votes or whatever in a stupid way, they should have the right to do so – as long as this use doesn’t imply rights violations of course. Hence, equality of rights is a logical requirement in the system of rights.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (7): The Human Rights of Adolf Hitler

Suppose Hitler didn’t kill himself and was captured alive by the Russians in Berlin, or by Israeli commandos in South America. What would we be morally allowed to do to him if we had managed to capture him? Does a person like him have human rights that we have to respect? Of course. Whatever dehumanizing name you wish to call him, he was a human being like the rest of us, and we have to deal with that fact. Every human being has rights and those rights are not conditional upon good behavior. No one has less or more rights than the next person. It’s not because someone has committed horrible crimes that we are allowed to take away his or her rights.

Hitler’s rights include a right to life. This right is quasi-absolute and can only be limited if that’s the only way to save other lives. So for instance, we are allowed to shoot him on the spot if he resists arrest and threatens to kill us or others (such as hostages). But suppose Hitler is captured alive and is no longer a threat to the lives of others. Shooting him is then not allowed because that would be an extrajudicial execution.

Are we allowed to execute him after a proper trial? Maybe a living Hitler who’s kept in prison would still be able to encourage his followers to continue their murderous rampage and maybe that’s a sound argument for executing rather than imprisoning him. But I think that’s a far-fetched scenario. Only in the unlikely case that there is a real risk of an imprisoned Hitler ordering murder and that executing him is the only means to remove a threat to the lives of others, would his execution be allowed. This is equivalent to the case in which Hitler is holding hostages. However, even in this case, going after Hitler’s followers would be more effective.

So capital punishment is not an option. Remember also that other justifications of capital punishment aren’t available: we are not allowed to deter future criminals by killing present criminals, not even if it works, since that would be an instrumentalization of a human being. Going down that road ultimately leads to the devaluation of all human life. Life imprisonment without parole then? Not an option either because even Hitler can be rehabilitated. The problem with rehabilitation is that you never know who can do it until they do it. You can’t say in advance that some people are beyond rehabilitation.

Some form of criminal punishment is obviously warranted since Hitler acted with intent, knew the consequences of his actions, caused the consequences of his actions, wasn’t forced to act, was aware of alternative courses of action, violated existing law and was found guilty of such violations after a fair trial (ex hypothesi). Given the unavailability of capital punishment and life without parole, some fixed term prison sentence seems to be the only remaining option. And I know that’s a huge anticlimax for most of us.

But what do we want to achieve with that sentence? Retribution? Even if retribution is a justified end of punishment – which it isn’t since we should in general try to be better than criminals – a fixed term sentence is hardly retribution for Hitler: on any account, this is less than what he deserves. And more than this is ruled out (see above). Not only aren’t we morally allowed to execute him, but even executing him doesn’t seem enough. If anything, he deserves to be executed millions of times over, which we obviously can’t do even if we were morally allowed to do it.

Perhaps we want to achieve incapacitation. That’s reasonable enough in this case. You can hardly allow Hitler to walk the streets. But again, this is truly anti-climactic. It leaves us with our anger and sadness. But I guess there’s no way to leave our anger and sadness behind in this case. The morale of this story is that the same is true in many other, less extreme cases as well. We tend to be too ambitious when punishing criminals.

The Ethics of Human Rights (55): The Widening Circle of Equality

Allow me to engage in some simplistic historical generalizations. Although, like most us, I have abandoned my youthful illusions about the overall progress of humanity, I still think we’ve taken giant steps towards the moral ideal of human equality. See what you think about this:

  • During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, with the formation of the nation state in Europe and the development of the virtue of patriotism, citizens of those new states – and their copies elsewhere in the world – stopped acting as if members of neighboring tribes were somehow subhuman. Human equality, equal concern and equal rights were extended from the tribe to the nation.
  • After the end of the religious wars in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the gradual acceptance of religious liberty, adherents of other religions were no longer viewed as sinners who had to be destroyed, but rather as equal citizens enjoying the same rights.
  • From the middle of the 19th century (with the abolition of slavery) to the middle of the 20th (with the Civil Rights movement), non-whites gradually won equal rights.
  • During roughly the same period, workers and the workers’ movement convinced the other social classes that someone who has to sell his or her labor power for a living isn’t destined to an animal-like life in filth and misery.
  • From the beginning of the 20th century (with the suffragette movement) until the end of that century, women gradually won their equal place in many areas of society: politics, the labor market, etc. This movement, like all the previous ones, isn’t complete, but at least nowadays it’s rare to encounter the view that women are lesser men and should be relegated to the home.
  • The Holocaust, ironically, resulted in a dramatic acceleration of the emancipation of Jews.
  • The end of colonialism in the mid-20th century was the culmination of a long process during which westerners convinced themselves that the people they had colonized were not animals or subhumans but rather human beings like themselves.
  • The latest step forward in the history of human equality can be witnessed in our own time: gays and lesbians are now in the process of achieving what other outgroups have achieved before them.

So these are all consecutive steps during which the circle of people who are considered as “people like us” has been widened again and again. Sure, this is history painted with a very rough brush. I obviously don’t mean to say that the inclusion of new groups into the class of “equal human beings” has been complete or final after each step. There are many racists left after the Civil Rights movement; many intolerant religious fundamentalists after the acceptance of the right to freedom of religion etc. Also, there have been major steps backward: nazism came after a long period of Jewish emancipation; the end of slavery in the U.S. resulted in renewed racism etc. And neither do I mean to imply that prior to the abolition of slavery there wasn’t a single soul who believed blacks were equal human beings, or that there were no women considered as equal before the victories of feminism.

There’s no reason to believe that this inclusionary movement is about to stop. I can see at least three additional steps:

  • Our current treatment of criminals may come to be seen as unacceptable. There’s already a strong movement for the abolition of capital punishment, but I’m convinced that our whole system of criminal punishment is without justification. And I’m not just talking about overcrowding, prison rape, excessively long sentences etc. Read more here.
  • Migrants as well may become more accepted, to the point that an open borders policy will be generalized. Currently, we still condemn people to misery for no other reason than the fact that they are born in the wrong place, like older generations condemned people to slavery for no other reason than their skin color. The causes of this exclusion are an insufficient awareness of the benefits of immigration and lingering prejudices against outgroups.
  • And, finally, the inclusionary movement may one day lead to better treatment of animals: our current system of industrial meat production will then be considered barbaric.

Do I forget something?

What is Equality? (3): Equality of Rights

Equality of what? There’s hardly a more confusing philosophical question. This is my attempt at sorting things out. I apologize for the length of this post, but there’s a lot to digest.

Equality of resources

A well-known problem with theories that focus on equality of resources is that different people need different resources because they have different abilities and different needs. Someone may need more food (in terms of calorie intake) because she has a physically demanding job, or may need more education than the average person because she has a brain dysfunction making it difficult for her to read or remember. Someone with a physical handicap may need expensive tools such as a wheelchair – and therefore more resources compared to a person not suffering a handicap – in order to have the same capability or opportunity to realize freely chosen goals as that other person.

The latter is an important point which I’ll come back to later on: you can’t just think about resources in isolation; you’ll have to consider which purposes these resources serve. Even if different people have the same purposes, they need different amounts of resources to achieve these purposes (and when they have different purposes, the need for unequal resources is even stronger). Hence, equality of resources seems to be an inadequate theory of equality.

A standard reply by resource based theories of equality is to count someone’s abilities (such as the ability to walk) as resources and try to equalize those as well. In our example, the handicapped person would then have equal resources when she has more money than average and just enough money to compensate the loss of resources resulting from her handicap. So it looks like equality of resources is a theory that can be salvaged.

The problem with this rescue is that not all abilities can be equalized by way of the redistribution of resources. Certain handicaps can be reasonably compensated by way of extra (financial or other) resources; paralysis may be one of them, especially given the most recent breakthroughs. But other handicaps can’t. A blind person for instance will probably never have equal abilities, no matter how much extra money or tools she gets. Her loss of eyesight is a loss of resources that can’t be fully compensated by other, equivalent resources.

Another problem with this attempted rescue of the equality of resources theory: there’s no good reason to limit abilities to physical ones. Talents are also abilities, and if you insist that all abilities are resources that should be equalized as much as possible then you’ll have to explain how to equalize talent. It seems very difficult if not impossible to supply extra resources to the less talented so that they end up with equal resources compared to the more talented. Like in the case of many physical abilities, a lack of talent can’t be compensated by way of extra resources.

So the attempt to rescue resource theories by including abilities in the pot of resources looks like it’s bound to fail. Resource theorist could reply that abilities and talents should be viewed as commonly owned resources. And, indeed, no one deserves her talents or most of her abilities; those are largely a matter of luck. Hence it’s not silly to view them as commonly owned. A talented person using her talents only for her personal benefit seems to be making an unjust use of her good luck. If abilities and talents are viewed as a common resource, then equality of resources could be achieved by giving those with few abilities and talents a right to use a share of the abilities and talents of others. However, this solution to the problems faced by resource theories creates another problem because it seems to imply the slavery of the talented (in the words of Dworkin). A talented person will find that she is less able to realize her freely chosen goals compared to another, less talented person, and equality of resource is justified, if at all, by the fact that it allows people to have an equal ability to realize goals. We thereby reverse the initial problem faced by resource theories, and put the burden of equality of resources on those with more abilities rather than on those with less abilities. That’s not a solution; it’s shifting the problem elsewhere.

If we can’t equalize all abilities, maybe equality should be limited: we can try to equalize as many abilities as possible and as far as possible. We can’t equalize a blind person’s abilities, but we can go some distance towards equality (we can offer Braille, improved transportation infrastructure etc.). We can’t equalize the abilities of a person without any talent, but we can offer this person some resources that help her attain a decent level of abilities.

Equality of preference satisfaction

But then we’ll have to say something more: we can’t talk about abilities in isolation (like we can’t talk about resources in isolation); we have to answer the question: abilities to do or be what exactly? One possible answer, and in fact the traditional liberal answer is: whatever people think they should do or be. Then we’re essentially talking about equality of preference satisfaction. Welfare is another word for preference satisfaction and the theory that tries to equalize people’s preference satisfaction is usually called equality of welfare. The purpose is then to distribute resources and improve abilities in such a way that people’s preference satisfaction (or welfare) is equal, or rather as equal as possible given people’s different and often fixed abilities to do things.

However, this theory faces a similar problem as equality of resources: people don’t just have unequal abilities and talents but also unequal preferences (preferences in the sense of the ability to do or be something). And those different preferences require different amounts and types of resources. As such, that’s not a problem. The problem is that some people have preferences that requires very large amounts of resources in order to be satisfied, and these extraordinary preferences are often self-chosen. In this case, these people’s claim on others to the resources necessary for the satisfaction of their extraordinary preferences seems hard to justify, especially from an egalitarian viewpoint. Society is under no obligation to redistribute resources to these people in order to guarantee equal preference satisfaction. Caviar fans have to work for their own money. And if they won’t, well then they have to adapt their preferences rather than appeal to society to redistribute the resources they need for their preference satisfaction. This is one reason why equality of preference satisfaction also seems to fail as a valid theory of equality.

However, we shouldn’t always force people to take care of their unequal or extraordinary preferences by themselves or to modify their preferences if they can’t. Some idiosyncratic preferences are closely connected to people’s identities, and in some cases those may not be self-chosen. Indigenous tribes may consider it essential to their unchosen identity that they have an exclusive right to a certain part of a country’s territory and resources (such as hunting grounds and the stock of fish or deer). There may even be self-chosen preferences that merit the same treatment. People with a preference for artistic expression may have a good claim to transfers of social resources (in the form of subsidies for the arts for instance). In those cases, equality of preference satisfaction does also apply to extraordinary preferences.

Still, notwithstanding these counter-examples, there are numerous cases of preferences requiring relatively large amounts of resources that those holding the preferences can’t produce themselves and at the same time can’t legitimately claim from society. Hence, equality of preference satisfaction does not seem a worthwhile goal.

And it’s not worthwhile for another reason as well. It’s not just that some preferences require unjustifiably large amounts of resources; some preferences are immoral. One can’t justify redistribution of social resources for the satisfaction of immoral preferences. Yet another argument against equality of preference satisfaction results from reflection about the term “preferences”. What is a preference? Is it every unreflected desire? Or rather only those desires an agent would pursue if she had the chance to rationally consider and evaluate all possible desires on the basis of all pertinent information? Do we want a drug addict and a bacillophobe to engage in preference satisfaction? And to redistribute social resources in such a way that they can in an equal manner compared to students and entrepreneurs?

Welfare theories may start off with equality and neutrality regarding preferences (the liberal premise), but because of the problems of morality and unreflected or irrational preferences, they quickly become paternalistic. Welfare theories, compared to resource theories, have the advantage of focusing not on instrumental values but on what ultimately matters to people, namely preference satisfaction. But not everything that matters to people, or that people think matters to them, should receive equal social concern or approval. Some things that matter to some people should not be encouraged from a moral point of view, let alone be subsidized. Other things don’t merit support from redistribution of resources because those things are irrational or self-chosen, expensive and not instrumental to other values such as identity. But once you have to decide which things that matter to people should or should not have a place in social policies that aim at equal preference satisfaction, you are likely to act in a paternalistic way and endanger another important value, namely freedom.

And even when welfare theories manage to remain neutral regarding preferences and don’t encourage or discourage certain preferences, they face the problem of comparing amounts of preference satisfaction across different preferences. Does a music lover, who has the resources to listen to music one hour a day, have an equal level of preference satisfaction as the American Indian who is able to hunt and fish freely and undisturbed whenever he wants? Are those things not inherently incommensurable? If so, how are we to achieve equality?

Equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction

Given the problems faced by preference satisfaction theories, one could assume that theories of equality should move to equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction. Rather than distribute resources so that people have equal preference satisfaction, we could limit distribution to those resource people need in order to have an equal opportunity to satisfy their preferences.

This move, however, doesn’t solve anything. We don’t want people to have the opportunity to act immorally, let alone the equal opportunity. And neither do we want them to have the equal opportunity to do expensive and extravagant things.

Equality of rights

Fortunately, there is a way out of this mess. We have to limit the range of equal opportunity, equal resources, equal abilities and equal preference satisfaction. A social and political regime should offer people an equal opportunity to a limited set of actions, functionings and beings, namely those that are necessary conditions for their human rights (see also here). People have equal human rights, and they should therefore have an equal opportunity to enjoy those rights in an equal way. Likewise, people should have the resources and abilities that are necessary for them to enjoy their rights, and their preference satisfaction should be a social concern and should be equalized only when those preferences are preferences for human rights (or for the conditions and resources for or the opportunities to enjoy human rights). (And yes, rights are preferences in the sense that they can be waived).

A problem faced by all theories of equality – including the one focused on or limited by equal human rights – is that people often squander their resources, their abilities, their preference satisfaction and their opportunities. They should be held responsible for their voluntary choices, and if those choices put them in a situation in which they have less resources, abilities, preference satisfaction or opportunities compared to others, then they don’t have a claim to more of those. That’s true for all resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities, except the resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities for human rights. If someone squanders her financial resources, she still has a right not to be poor. But if she loses her ability to acquire enough caviar, then she should take responsibility and not claim that society restores her resources. Similarly, if someone loses the ability to use her limbs through her own negligence, she still has a right to healthcare and mobility and a legitimate claim on society. However, if she thereby also squanders her ability to seduce men, she has no claim on anyone. If the same person has a preference for the enjoyment of a particular human right, but puts herself in a situation in which this enjoyment is impossible, she still has a claim to help. But her preference for fine chocolate made impossible through self-induced or non-self-induced diabetes doesn’t generate a legitimate claim on society. And, finally, if she squandered a good opportunity to education, she still has a valid claim to get some minimum level of education; if, however, she squandered a good dating opportunity, she doesn’t have a claim to the restoration of this opportunity.

Although the sidelining of responsibility is usually not a good thing, there are some practical advantages to it in this case. It’s often extremely difficult to detect responsible or irresponsible behavior. Seemingly irresponsible behavior may look like a voluntary choice but in reality it’s perhaps a choice that is determined by genetics, upbringing etc. Theories of equality which make responsibility and choice a precondition for equality – like luck egalitarianism for instance – face some challenging problems and a high risk of mistake.

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is yet another theory of equality. It demands that people’s unchosen luck (called brute luck, as opposed to option luck, the latter being the luck that people have when taking risks) be equalized. People should start life (in some versions of luck egalitarianism, adult life) with equal fortune, and equal fortune means equal resources, abilities and opportunities. They should be compensated for misfortune due to the lottery of birth. After that, all inequalities resulting from voluntary choice should be accepted by people themselves and by society.

Luck egalitarianism, like all other theories of equality discussed here (with the exception of equality of rights), is plagued by serious problems. Apart from the epistemological one (the difficulty of detecting voluntary choice and responsibility), there’s the problem of cruelty: why should we leave people to starve even if they have brought starvation upon themselves? They have, after all, a right not to starve. And then there’s the problem of intrusiveness: the epistemological problem will force luck egalitarian governments to enact KGB style measures in order to gain as much certainty as possible about responsibility. Other problems are discussed here.

The same solution is available here: instead of compensating people for all types of bad brute luck (but not option luck), we should compensate them for bad luck – brute or option – when this bad luck implies violations of their human rights or difficulties for future enjoyment of their human rights. People who are born paralyzed or who become paralyzed later in life – due to an accident which is or isn’t their own fault – all have a right to mobility and hence an egalitarian claim to social assistance. People who are born without talents or who squander their talents, don’t have such a claim because there is no right to have talent.

Religion and Human Rights (27): Muslim Headscarves – Between Religious Liberty and Gender Discrimination, Ctd.

Once more on the issue of Muslim headscarves, because the controversy doesn’t seem to be going away. Belgium, my home country, has the dubious honor of being the first western country outlawing the burqa. Other countries like France seem set to follow, or have already interpreted existing laws on masks or police checks creatively in order to impose fines on women wearing a veil. Forcing Muslim women to show their faces is no longer a fringe xenophobic fantasy.

First of all, and before you get upset that a human rights activist such as me doesn’t take a more outspoken position against the veil, let me stress that I do worry a lot about gender discrimination (as regular readers can attest). I do believe that the veil – especially the complete face and body veil such as the burqa or the niqab – is an expression of a culture in which equal rights for women are – to put it mildly – not a priority. That doesn’t mean that every woman who wears a veil does so because of coercion or discrimination, or because she doesn’t have a right not to. Some do, but others wear it voluntarily, although the degree of “voluntariness” is something that’s always difficult to establish given the subtle effects of social pressure, tradition and education that are often difficult to notice – even for the self. However, it can be argued that also those women who wear the veil in a truly voluntary way – if truly voluntary can be something real, which I hope – contribute to an ideology of female inferiority and make it harder for other women who would like to remove the veil to do so.

Moreover, there can be different motives for wearing the veil voluntarily. Women can believe that this is a requirement of their religion (the Quran only seems to require “modest dress”), and that disregard of such requirements amounts to sin. Or women can decide to wear the veil for strategic reasons. They may believe – correctly I think – that wearing the veil enhances their freedom, for example their freedom of movement. One can argue that this strategic use of the veil isn’t truly voluntary, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I’m personally open to the argument that a prohibition of the veil can result in de facto house arrest for some women: their husbands may decide to force them to stay at home if they aren’t allowed to wear the veil in public. Now you might say that one evil doesn’t excuse another, but there is something called a lesser evil (I’ve made a similar point about sweatshops not so long ago). If wearing the veil allows women to venture outside of the home that is undoubtedly a positive side effect of something that in general may be a moral negative.

What about the arguments in favor of prohibition? Some of them are very weak indeed. It’s not because the veil makes some people uncomfortable that it should be prohibited. It’s not difficult to imagine the horror of the place where everything that makes someone uncomfortable is outlawed. Security risks also aren’t a very strong reason for a general ban, since women can be required to lift their veil in specific circumstances. The argument that modern democracies should be “secular” and that this requires the banning of religious symbols in public is indefensible in view of the human right to freedom of religion.

Some claim that the ban on the burqa is just one of many existing and undisputed restrictions on how people can dress in public: people can’t walk naked in the streets; or wear stockings on their heads inside bank buildings etc. But this confuses types of dress that are not religiously inspired with types that are. Religion does receive special protection in the system of human rights, and this special protection should be recognized if human rights are to be respected. Conflating religious dress with dress in general does not allow you to fully respect human rights. That doesn’t mean that the burqa can’t be banned in specific circumstances where there’s a good reason to do so – in Court rooms, in schools etc. But these exceptions don’t justify banning it altogether. (The justification for a ban in Court rooms is obvious and doesn’t need spelling out. A ban in schools – for both teachers and pupils – is justified on the grounds of the need for adequate education. In addition, there’s a phenomenon of peer pressure in some schools, where girls who wear the veil force others to comply).

How about the argument based on gender equality? That seems a lot stronger at first sight. But isn’t it true that gender equality wouldn’t be advanced a whole lot by a burqa ban? (Maybe a ban would even be bad for gender equality, if it forces women to stay home). And isn’t it also true that other measures in favor of gender equality, such as better education, stricter laws and better enforcement on domestic violence etc., would prove much more effective?

There’s another argument in favor of a ban, and it’s a pretty strong one, although you hardly ever hear it. A democratic community requires a common citizenship and a public space in which people can deliberate freely on their preferred policies. If democracy was just an exercise in voting, it would be compatible with the veil. It would even be compatible with complete solipsism and individuals never meeting each other. But it’s more than that. The burqa and niqab are – to some extent – incompatible with deliberation. One could argue that this only justifies a partial ban, namely a ban in places where deliberation occurs, and when it occurs. Just like the partial ban in Court rooms is justified. The question is of course whether proponents of the veil can accommodate a partial ban. Perhaps their religious belief requires the veil in all circumstances. However, we are allowed to require some level of flexibility of them. Rights often come into conflict with one another (take for example the right to free speech of the journalist wishing to expose the private life of a politician). And that’s the case here: the right to democratic government and the right to religious liberty should be balanced against each other, and maybe the former should take precedence. After all, not everything is justified on the grounds of religious liberty: for example, no one in the West argues that mutilation as a punishment for crime is justified, not even when it is prescribed by a religion.

Religion and Human Rights (20): Should a Liberal Society Tolerate Illiberal Religious and Cultural Practices Within That Society?

By a “liberal society” I mean, of course, a society respecting the equal human rights of all its citizens. By “illiberal cultural practices” I mean practices that have a cultural origin and that violate the rights of some of the members of that particular culture. An example would be certain instances of gender discrimination in Muslim migrant communities living in a Western democracy.

Such cultural practices are a dilemma for a liberal society. On the one hand, the society’s commitment to equal rights drives it towards interference within subcultures that violate these rights. This isn’t only a moral imperative. There’s also a legal aspect to it. Equal rights are enshrined in the law of the society, and the equal application of the law is a separate imperative.

On the other hand, a liberal society wants to respect cultural diversity and doesn’t require that migrant or minority communities assimilate to a dominant culture. Freedom of religion, another liberal imperative, also forces a liberal society to accept and tolerate non-mainstream cultures. And, finally, human rights are seen as individual choices: people are allowed to freely abandon their rights if they so choose.

As a result of all of this, a liberal society usually reacts to illiberal cultural practices in the following way: as long as individual members of groups within that society have a right to exit (e.g. a right to apostasy) the state, the law and social forces have no right to interfere with the internal norms and practices of those groups, even when these norms and practices constitute (gross) violations of human rights. If people stay in the groups, then this is assumed to be an expression of their agreement with these norms and practices. Any rights violations that occur are then deemed to be voluntary and no one else’s business. For example, if a Christian church discriminates against its homosexual members, this is deemed to be no reason for intervention as long as homosexuals can freely enter or leave the church.

The problem with this is that there’s not always a free choice to stay within a group, or leave. Choice is often socially constructed. Certain elements within a culture use narratives and other means of pressure in order to encourage other members to “willingly” comply with norms and practices that oppress them. People’s beliefs and preferences are, continually and from a very young age onwards, influenced by the norms and practices of the group they belong to. Hence it’s often very difficult for members of a group to view oppressive cultural norms and practices as illegitimate, even if they are the ones suffering from them. So it’s even more difficult for these members to openly defy these norms, reject them and act to change them. And even when members do understand that the norms and practices of their group are oppressive, it’s often very difficult to leave the group. Leaving may cause an identity crisis. For example, is it realistic to expect an oppressed Muslim woman to negate Islam? Leaving may be too costly, even compared to the gains that result from the end of oppression.

So, the standard liberal solution – let minorities be internally oppressive as long as they allow their members an easy exit – isn’t a solution at all. Personally, I would recommend a stronger insistence on equal rights, even at the cost of intolerance of illiberal diversity.

LGBT Rights (5): Same-Sex Marriage and the Rights of a Democratic Majority

The (in)famous Prop 8, banning same-sex marriage in California, was approved by a democratic majority. This raises the interesting question whether democracy means something more than majority rule. Does democracy mean that a majority can decide whatever it wants? I don’t think so. That would not be a democracy but a tyranny of the majority. Democracy is much more than simple majority rule. (By the way, dictatorships can also have majority approval, but that doesn’t make them democracies).

The decisions of a majority have to take place within a framework of rules. These rules have two functions.

  • First, they facilitate the decision making (e.g. rules on free speech, freedom of assembly and association etc.), and therefore they cannot, logically, be violated without undermining the whole system.
  • Secondly, these rules limit the kind of decisions that can be taken by the majority. For instance, majorities cannot decide to violate the human rights of a minority. Why? Because these latter rules are basically the same as the former ones. The rules necessary for the successful operation of majority rule are the same, or at least profoundly connected to, the rules granting protection to the minorities. This is called the interdependence of human rights.

If a democratic majority decides to enact laws or policies that violate the human rights of minorities (or individuals, or even majorities), then courts have to step in and enforce the rules of the game. This is not judicial activism by anti-democratic and elitist judges infringing on the democratic rights of the people. It’s judges enforcing democracy, but democracy as something more and better than tyranny of the majority.

We have a clear example of all this in the case of Prop 8 (unfortunately, the courts don’t seem to be playing their constitutional role, yet):

It is our position in this case that Proposition 8, as upheld by the California Supreme Court, denies federal constitutional rights under the equal protection and due process clauses of the constitution. The constitution protects individuals’ basic rights that cannot be taken away by a vote. If the people of California had voted to ban interracial marriage, it would have been the responsibility of the courts to say that they cannot do that under the constitution. We believe that denying individuals in this category the right to lasting, loving relationships through marriage is a denial to them, on an impermissible basis, of the rights that the rest of us enjoy…I also personally believe that it is wrong for us to continue to deny rights to individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation. Ted Olson (source)

There is some discussion on whether the courts should be playing a role in this. Some gay rights advocates insist that it is better to work on public opinion and hope for a general public approval of same-sex marriage in the decades to come. Of course this is a useful strategy, if perhaps somewhat naive (who knows what would have happened to the civil rights movement had the same strategy been applied then). However, the dismissal of any role for the courts, for example because of the fear of a popular backlash against equal rights enforced by unelected courts, amounts to a profound misunderstanding of democracy.

What Are Human Rights? (19): Universal Rights

What is meant by the expression “universality of human rights“? Just simply that these rights belong to all members of humanity, all members of the human family, without any distinctions. They are equal rights, not just the rights of a particular class, race, gender, nation or religion. Human beings have these rights, not because they belong to a certain group, or because they have certain beliefs of convictions, or because they fulfil certain conditions or whatever. They have them for no other reason than because they are human. This is, of course, obvious from the word “human” in “human rights”.

Why is it important to mention this? Because it’s contested. Some say that gays shouldn’t have the right to marry, even though this right is included in the Universal Declaration, a Declaration which explicitly states that

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind.

People of color, members of other ethnic groups or members of other religions are regularly treated as inferiors (or worse). Women often have less legal rights than men. And the list can go on and on.

If you oppose this, and believe that all people should be treated equally and should be able to enjoy the same rights as everyone else, then you in fact espouse the ideal of the universality of human rights. (Equality, in the sense of equal rights, is a concept that is closely related if not identical to the concept of universality of rights).

However, how would you defend this position against those who want to discriminate and treat certain people unequally? There are many possible defenses. For example, you could say that all human beings are created in God’s image, and are therefore equal. Treating them unequally would then be an offense against God. Or you could invoke a concept such as human dignity. My preferred defense is based on certain very specific human values, values which are shared by all human beings and which require human rights in order to be protected. Physical security, bodily integrity, self-government, peace, prosperity, belonging, property, identity etc. are some of these values. The problem here is not to convince opponents of human rights – or better of the universality of human rights – of the importance of these values. It will be very difficult to find anyone who needs to be persuaded of this and who is not self-destructive. The problem is how to give an adequate and convincing explanation of the way in which these values require human rights.

These values are shared by human beings in the same way as they share some biological features, like their organs, limbs, and skin. This analogy with biology can be taken quite literally, in the sense that human life can cease when these values are negated. Hearts may not stop beating and brains may not stop working (although they can in extreme cases) but people at the very least will stop living like human beings when they are unable to realize these values. Human rights are therefore indispensible for humanity: all human beings needs them, and we all need them for our humanity. I said a moment ago that all human beings have human rights because they are human beings and for no other reason than their humanity. If asked what is humanity, I would say that it is respect for these universally shared human values.

What Are Human Rights? (12)

Human rights are rights which belong to humanity, to all persons of all cultures, nations, states, color, gender etc., whether or not the legal system in which they live explicitly protects these rights. And which belong to all of us equally. No one has more or less rights than the next person.

Human rights are therefore essentially moral claims, and claims which are superior to the legal rules which happen to be in force in the country in which one lives. If necessary, they can be used to challenge these legal rules.

In many countries, these moral claims have been incorporated in the legal rules, often even in the supreme legal rules such as the constitution. This means that people can go to court to have their rights enforced in case of violation, violation either by way actions committed by the government or fellow-citizens, or by way of legislation. In the latter case, a constitutional court may decide that certain laws are invalid and “null and void”.

Different human rights are interdependent. They need each other. Freedom of expression can be quite useless without education and food. But the struggle for social justice also requires freedom of expression.

Rights can be limited. The system of human rights is not a harmonious whole. Rights come into conflict, even in a country that tries its best to respect all rights. Freedom of expression can harm the right to privacy of someone, for instance. Then there has to be a decision: which right takes precedence?

An important characteristic of human rights is their link to democratic government. One right which humans have is political participation. And a democracy is the best way of guaranteeing this participation. Read also art. 3 of Protocol I to the European Convention:

“The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature”.

But the link to democracy goes further. All human rights must be respected, and respected simultaneously, in order to have a proper democratic process. Many tyrannies allow the existence of opposition groups and even, sometimes, a limited degree of political participation, but these groups are harmless because they do not have equal access to publicity, because they do not have the freedom to organize as they wish, or because the people lack the material or intellectual resources necessary to be able to choose wisely among candidates.

It is apparent from this enumeration that the link between democracy and human rights (all human rights) is quite intense. Choosing political leaders is the expression of an opinion. There is obviously a reason for the etymological link between the words “vote” and “voice”. Democracy is the application of human rights to the field of government. Human rights are democratic rights because they are necessary for democracy, just as democracy is necessary for human rights.

The latter is also hinted at in the considerations preceding the articles of the European Convention:

“those fundamental freedoms which . . . are best maintained . . . by an effective political democracy”.

But human rights are not just a necessary prerequisite for democracy. They bring about democracy. When you have the right to express your opinions and to call all kinds of things into question, why would you stop at the government? You will automatically express an opinion on the government and call the government into question. And because it is futile and sad to express an opinion that has no consequences in the real world, people will begin to claim the implementation of their political opinions, which will be the birth of democracy.

Democracy and human rights cannot function separately. They need each other and reinforce each other. Where you have one, you also have the other. And where you have one without the other, there is something missing in what you have. A democracy without human rights is not an ideal democracy, because it cannot function adequately. Human rights without democracy are not complete because one of the most important uses of human rights – calling into question the work of the government and creating a common point of view on the work of the government – is not allowed, or, if it is allowed, does not have any useful consequences because it is impossible to have a democratic vote.

Human rights are not politically or ideologically neutral. They require democracy and are required by democracy. This supports the statement that human rights are not something primarily directed against politics or a way to limit politics. There are an essential part of democratic politics.

What Are Human Rights? (11): Equal Rights

The idea of equal rights resulted from the emergence and the ascent of the bourgeoisie in 17th and 18th century Europe, and was in the first instance, a tool for the protection of their interests. The bourgeoisie was, compared to the aristocracy, a relatively open class. One could enter and leave this class in a relatively free and sudden way and the moment of entering or leaving was sometimes hard to predict. For this reason, it was undesirable to create a new set of privileges in the style of those of the older classes. If the bourgeoisie was to have rights to protect its interests, they had no choice but to instate rights for everybody.

Historically, the transformation of privileges (or freedoms and rights limited to certain groups, such as guilds, corporations, the nobility etc.) into general or human rights was the invention of the revolutions of the 18th century. From this moment on, human rights were considered to be rights of individuals as entities detached from concrete relationships and groups.

Of course, in the beginning this was to a large extent rhetoric. Women and the working class didn’t have the same rights as white affluent men. There was also slavery, colonialism etc. It took centuries of struggle to make people aware of the contradictions between human rights philosophy and social reality. We have made enormous progress (slavery is abolished in many countries, the civil rights movement in the US has ended many types of discrimination like the Jim Crow laws etc) but still the struggle isn’t finished.

Economic Human Rights (4): Taxation

What if different kinds of equality contradict each other? For example equality before the law on the one hand (laws must be equal for everybody and should not discriminate) and material equality as promoted by economic rights on the other hand.

Material equality is often promoted by way of taxation based on legislation. The purpose of taxation is the redistribution of property. The problem is that redistribution only benefits one group of people and harms the interests of the rest of the population. Taxation laws do not seem to be equal for everybody and do not have the same result for everybody. It seems as if they discriminate against certain people. A wealthy person can claim that laws must be the same for everybody and that a law which forces one person to give and allows another to receive is illegitimate. A law against murder does not, at the same time, force one person to abstain from murder and allow another person to murder. So why should a law on taxation be allowed to discriminate?

First of all, there is no reason to believe that the principle of equality before the law is an absolute principle. It must be possible to make trade-offs between principles. If one principle – for example equality before the law – does serious harm to another principle – for example material equality – then it may be acceptable to sacrifice or limit one principle for the sake of another. Sometimes, one has to make a choice and one has to establish priorities. This goes both ways. Too much attention to material equality can be counteracted by way of the principle of equality before the law.

However, it may not be necessary to limit the principle of equality before the law. Taxation laws do not discriminate, at least when we define discrimination as giving something to one person and denying it to another without good reason. Economic rights indeed give something to one person and not to another. Even more so, they take away something from one person in order to give it to another. However, the former person is not denied the thing that is given to the latter. He or she has and continues to have the same thing as the one given to the latter. The consequences of taxes are equal for everybody because they make sure that everybody has the same minimum of material means. Taxation laws do not cause discrimination or inequality. On the contrary, they are designed to eliminate discrimination and inequality, not only at the level of material well-being but also at the level of political influence, because material inequality causes political inequality.

We have discrimination when a law only benefits one group of persons and when there is no good reason why other persons should not benefit. It is clear that there is no good reason why wealthy people should benefit from taxation laws in the same way as poor people, except of course when they themselves become poor. Everybody can be in a position in which he or she needs taxation laws.

The right to free speech does not benefit everybody in an equal way either. Some people gain more from this right than other people. A colored person suffering from discrimination needs this right more than a white, middle-class person without political worries. However, there is no reason to claim that this right contradicts the principle of equality before the law.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (1): Thinking (the Public Space and Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Thought)

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.