The Ethics of Human Rights (64): Value Pluralism Supports Human Rights

The justification of human rights – the quest for reasons why they are important and why we need them – is probably the most important topic of this blog (some previous posts are here, here, here, here and here). One element of justification is their compatibility with an important tenet of moral theory, namely value pluralism. Value pluralism is, in my opinion, a principle of morality that comes very close to being a “moral fact“.

In short, the principle says the following. There are many different moral values – or different moral “goods” if you want – such as happiness, liberty, equality, loyalty etc. Those values differ qualitatively from each other and don’t seem to be reducible to one super value. And neither is there a clear ranking of importance so that conflicts between values can be easily decided. Different values can’t be compared to each other. Friendship is not clearly more important or a higher value than loyalty; freedom is not prior to equality; being happy is not better than developing your capacities etc. When two values seem to be incompatible, it’s hardly ever certain which of the two should be favored. And neither is it easy to say that a decrease of x in value v is acceptable if it results in an increase of x or y in value w; it’s often even impossible to determine the x and y in this equation because values are quantitatively and not just qualitatively incomparable. An increase of x in friendship is not comparable to an increase of x in loyalty. What does an increase of x in friendship even mean? Furthermore, there are problems in cases that don’t involve incompatible values: in general, is it better to strive towards increases in value v rather than increases in value w? For example, some say a society and a government should promote equality as the prime value; others prefer to maximize liberty. It’s difficult if not impossible to decide if either of these goals is the most important.

And yet, even if value pluralism is true and moral theory can’t therefore offer guidance in cases of incompatible values or in the choice of the single value to pursue in life, people have to solve conflicts between values on an almost daily basis, and they have to decide which value or values should guide their lives. If moral theory is useless in those everyday decisions, then it’s better to let people decide for themselves about what is good and right. People should be left free to live their own lives according to the guiding values they choose independently, and they should be allowed to decide conflicts between values according to their own conscience. If value pluralism is true, then there is no single way of life that is the highest and the best for all, and then it’s also true that people should be given the freedom to decide for themselves.

This is where human rights enter the scene. Human rights support this freedom in two ways, a direct and an indirect way. They allow people to choose a type of good life independently from the pressures of government or society: minority religions are free, people are free to associate, expression is free, they can use their property the way they like etc. In addition, there’s is nothing in the system of human rights that prohibits self-chosen and self-regarding value decisions, as long as the rights of others aren’t harmed (for example, drug use that doesn’t harm others cannot be prohibited on the basis of human rights).

Indirectly, human rights oppose authoritarian governments which favor and enforce one value or one way of life as the only desirable way of life: communist societies that promote equality at the expense of all other values, Catholic dictatorships that prohibit other religions, Muslim theocracies etc. If value pluralism is true, then there is no basis for coercive policies intended to systematically favor one value or one way of life. (Of course, in specific cases of incompatible values, it may be necessary for coercive government intervention in favor of one value or the other, especially when government inaction would cause more overall harm to certain values than government action; but that is the exception to the general rule that people should be free to solve those issues themselves – a rule that is based on morality’s inability to find good general reasons to favor one value over another. An example of such an action would be a government prohibition on religious child sacrifice).

One problem with the line of reasoning that I set out here is that the opposite can also be true: value pluralism can support authoritarian government. Not the type of authoritarian government that is paternalistic and that favors the realization of one value above all others, but the type that presents itself as a bulwark against anarchy, instability and factionalization. Governments which take the latter approach start with the presumed fragility of the bonds of community. These bonds, it is said, can only be maintained if society is inspired by a single purpose and a single good. The freedom to let people decide for themselves what type of life they want to pursue can undo the necessary sense of community because it erodes the single purpose, but also because groups of people will turn away from each other in disgust over the other groups’ lifestyles. Conflict and a lack of solidarity will destroy society. One purpose should therefore be enforced, not because this purpose is generally superior to all others, but because otherwise society will fall apart. I’ve argued here against this justification of authoritarianism. The crux of my argument is that you can’t enforce a common purpose; this has to come voluntarily and “from within”, and enforcing it merely encourages violent dissent on the side of those who see their own purposes suppressed. If this is correct, then value pluralism doesn’t support authoritarianism.

More on value pluralism 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

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (8): The Harm Principle and the Freedom to Damn Yourself

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. John Stuart Mill

This is the so-called “harm principle“, for which Mill has become famous. In other words, people have the right to “damn themselves”, as long as they don’t hurt others in the process. If being an alcoholic or drug addict is part of a person’s vision of the good life, and if it doesn’t make him beat his wife or children, steal from others etc., then no government should intervene.

Obviously, this is limited to people who act rationally and are sane. Who, in other words, know the consequences of their actions, and then primarily the consequences for themselves. In some cases it must be possible to ignore someone’s desires for the sake of his or her own well-being. Some people have to be coerced for their own good because they fail to understand and to pursue their good or their interest autonomously. I’m thinking of children for example. No one would sincerely believe that we would hurt their freedom if we allowed them to engage in unsafe sex or to abandon their studies. They cannot assess the consequences of their actions and the harm they inflict on themselves.

In general, however, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, as long as their choices don’t impact other people. We should do so even if we believe that the people in question have chosen a wrong, inferior or offensive way of life and harm themselves as a consequence of the way in which they understand their interests.

We can, of course, advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people, no matter how reasonable and beneficial this way of life seems to us. What is best for me is not necessarily best for everybody. Most people value the possibility to decide for themselves. It is much more dangerous to enact laws that only deal with people’s own lives than it is to enact laws that deal with social relations.

Even if the state can encourage or force people to pursue the most valuable ways of life, it cannot get people to pursue them for the right reasons. Someone who changes their lifestyle in order to avoid state punishment, or to gain state subsidies, is not guided by an understanding of the genuine value of the new activity. … We can coerce someone into going to church but we will not make her life better that way. It will not work, even if the coerced person is mistaken in her belief that praying to God is a waste of time, because a valuable life has to be led from the inside. A perfectionist policy is self-defeating. It may succeed in getting people to pursue valuable activities, but is does so under conditions in which the activities cease to have value for the individuals involved. If I do not see the point of an activity, then I will gain nothing from it. Hence paternalism creates the very sort of pointless activity that it was designed to prevent. We have to lead our life from the inside, in accordance with our beliefs about what gives value to life. Will Kymlicka

That is why we can only propose the “good way of life” (if we have an idea of what it is) and argue for it (and we need democracy and human rights to do that). Except in very exceptional cases, we should not impose this way of life and we should accept other ways of life, not because these ways of life are better, but because they are other people’s autonomous choices. The good way of life should be led from the inside. It should be a choice, a conviction, not something that is imposed from the outside. If your life is not your choice, it can never be good.