Do We Live in a Simulation, Or Are We Already Dead in the Real World?

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Some say that we live in a computer simulation, and that we just don’t know it yet. Perhaps God-like creatures, on another planet somewhere, have colonised us and put us in Matrix-style liquid-filled pods, our brains attached to a computer and fed with fake experiences. Proponents of the simulation hypothesis rightly point out that it may be wrong to call such experiences “fake”. We do have them after all, and whether these experiences come from a real world interacting with us or from a computer program pretending to be a world doesn’t make a lot of difference as long as we don’t know the truth of the matter. “Truth” may be a similarly slippery concept. (Nozick’s experience machine is a whole different case, because in that thought experiment the point is whether we would choose to live in such a machine. Here we assume that we don’t have such a choice).

Elon Musk has recently popularised the simulation hypothesis, although it’s centuries old. Descartes’ “dieu trompeur” is a famous example: an evil demon presenting a complete illusion of an external world to our senses, or maybe directly to our minds, or mind in the singular.

Also, rather than Matrix-style pods, we may simply be brains in a vat, or even less: emulations of brains “living” in a computer.

Whatever the merits of this hypothesis, I think they pale in comparison to another one: we are, in fact, already dead. The latter is, in my opinion, much more likely and fits better with the available evidence. Let me have a go.

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The simulation hypothesis can indeed explain all the evidence – since all evidence is facts and all facts can conceivably be simulated by some or other entity. The problem however is precisely this entity. Who or what could it be? The most likely explanation is that the simulating entity is part of humanity itself, perhaps a future generation. But why? Why on earth (or elsewhere) would they enslave physical human bodies, put them to sleep, immerse them in vats and connect them to computers in order to feed them sensations of a non-existing world? Why would they remove their brains or emulate their brains? I don’t see the point. The Matrix plot – humans as a power source – is obviously ridiculous. Emulated brains as instruments of computing power is a similarly weak rationale for the simulation hypothesis (when it becomes technologically possible to emulate brains, there won’t be a reason to fool them; just use their computing power if you don’t have better, non-brain based computing machines, which seems unlikely to me). The same lack of rationale applies to the possibility of aliens or Gods as simulating entities. It seems likely that they as well, just like future humans, would have better things to do.

Whomever is the simulating entity, it must have a reason for its actions. Even the fun of it or outright sadism could not support the simulation hypothesis: it wouldn’t be much fun to the simulators, not even if they’re sadists: our possibly simulated world is often awful but not awful enough to be the product of a sadist entity seeking to enjoy itself at our expense.

So the evidence seems to be against the simulation hypothesis. What about my alternative? Let’s call it the Cotard hypothesis after the well-known Cotard delusion: a mental illness in which the affected person holds the delusional belief that he or she is already dead. Although of course in this case we’re not dealing with a delusion. The delusion would be that we’re still alive.

Think about unrequited love, the glances in the subway that went unnoticed, the promotion that you failed to get, the times that your husband ignored what you were saying… Often trivial and banal occurrences, but taken together they may have some weight. Perhaps more weight than the simulation hypothesis. Countervailing evidence can also be explained. The times when you weren’t ignored may have been wishful thinking. After all, it’s easier to believe that you are alive than that you are dead, and so your mind may fabricate “evidence” to convince you that you are in fact alive. Such fabrications are not unheard of: there’s the just world fallacy, we have adaptive preferences and suffer from confirmation bias. And a lot of these biases are unconscious.

Think also about the sadness of some of the memories of early childhood. Good memories maybe, but also sad at the same time because that world is gone, that life is gone. Your life is gone. This fits also nicely with the increasingly popular notion that there is no such thing as en enduring personal identity. We “die” every moment.

(An interesting fictional treatment of the Cotard delusion is the TV-series Talking to the Dead – forget the IMDB ranking, it’s BS. And there’s of course The Sixth Sense).

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Cultural Rights (13): Their Place in the System of Human Rights

I know I’ve neglected cultural rights on this blog. That’s not because I think they should be neglected. Cultural rights are indeed important and they deserve a thorough discussion. First, what are they? Cultural rights are the rights of

  • indigenous peoples,
  • ethnic, racial or linguistics minorities or “nationalities”,
  • immigrants
  • and perhaps also other marginalized groups.

In certain circumstance, some such groups can legitimately claim cultural rights because without these rights they will be unable to preserve, experience and act in accordance with their cultural identity. This cultural identity includes institutions, beliefs, practices, a way of life, a language etc., all of which can be under pressure from another, dominant culture or from some other hostile forces (e.g. globalization, capitalism etc.). Other, more commonly accepted human rights such as religious liberty, non-discrimination etc. are of course helpful as well but sometimes insufficient for this purpose. For example, a state can’t help but to impose an official language, and the users of this official language have therefore an unfair educational, economic and political advantage. Minority groups can then claim that they need the cultural right to receive education in their own language. Non-cultural human rights won’t be much help.

The background assumption of cultural rights is the equal value of all cultures. All cultures have an equal right to survival and all groups have an equal right to preserve their cultural way of life. The pressures that threaten cultures can take various forms, going from genocide (or ethnocide, or cultural genocide) at one extreme to milder forms of acculturation at the other extreme. Some typical forms of pressure are:

  • reducing birthrates through forced sterilization
  • forcibly transferring children to other groups
  • relocating entire groups
  • interfering with education or the transmission of culture to future generations of a group
  • forced conversion
  • erasing the group’s existence or practices from the historical record
  • attacking a culture’s resource base (e.g. deforestation)
  • etc.

The concept of cultural rights should be distinguished from related concerns about economic or political domination. Marginalized cultures can indeed suffer cultural as well as other types of oppression simultaneously, and depriving a culture of its economic base can be as lethal as a direct attack on its identity. However, I think it’s useful to isolate the cultural and identity issues. So I’ll focus on those, and I’ll also deliberately sideline the thorny question of the definition of “culture”, a notoriously overbroad concept: which groups can legitimately claim to be a “culture” deserving of cultural rights? Are cultures really distinct and self-contained? Let’s just assume that there are some such groups, and that some of those are threatened.

Which cultural rights?

Apart from the general right to cultural survival, it’s not very clear which are the more specific rights that are bundled together under the general right, and it’s commonly accepted that the concrete realization of cultural rights depends on the circumstances. In some cases cultural rights can imply a right to some form of affirmative action, in other cases a right to regional self-determination etc.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights only mentions a right of groups to enjoy and practice their own culture. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is somewhat more precise, but only somewhat. Hence, cultural rights are often attacked for a double vagueness: vagueness about the specific rights involved, and vagueness about the beneficiaries (which groups qualify as a “culture”?). However, we’ll see below that a more fundamental criticism of those rights is also possible.

Justifications of cultural rights

And yet, I do believe that cultural rights are an important addition to the body of human rights. The justification for these rights is based on two things:

  • the importance of culture for individuals, and perhaps also some vaguer notion of the general importance of cultural diversity and the “heritage of humanity” (in which case cultural rights are important for everyone and not just for members of threatened cultures)
  • the failure of more traditional human rights to protect culture in all cases.

People need a cultural life, a life in a community that transcends time. They want to belong to a group and share a traditional identity. These human values can only be enjoyed collectively and are often neglected in more individualist and liberal theories of rights. Individual human rights such as freedom of religion and association, anti-discrimination laws, tolerance, democratic pluralism etc. are helpful for the preservation of culture and other collective values (such as religion), but not in all circumstances. Take the example I gave before: the simple fact of an official state language and school language puts some minorities in a disadvantaged position, not just culturally but also economically and politically. And indeed there’s nothing that ordinary human rights or tolerance can do about that.

Another justification of cultural rights can be based, not on the value of culture, but on the need for reparations for past injustices. For example, indigenous people can claim that respect for their cultural rights is due to them because of the injustices perpetrated by past generations of the dominant culture, even if there are no present-day threats to their culture.

Criticism of cultural rights

Contrary to the more traditional, individual human rights, cultural rights don’t require the recognition of individuals as equal human beings, equally deserving of respect in spite of their differences. They demand, on the contrary, the recognition of differences and respect for those differences, and differences between groups of individuals rather than differences between individuals. Common identity, group difference and recognition are the keywords behind the notion of cultural rights.

This explains why these rights are often criticized in liberal democracies. Liberalism focuses on the individual. It recognizes group interests but those are typically understood as cooperative, associational and interest based. People, according to liberalism, voluntarily join groups in order to advance their interests. Groups are defined by shared goals and interests, not by the shared identity of the members. Individuals are there first, and groups are secondary. From this point of view, cultural rights can be seen as essentialist: they reduce the identity of members to the identity of the group to which they belong.

This essentialism can indeed be detrimental to individual group members. Because cultural rights are rights aimed at the preservation of cultures, there may be a temptation to use these rights in order to discipline members who deviate from the cultural orthodoxy. Such deviations can be viewed as a threat to the group’s identity and survival. In that case, cultural identity becomes a goal in itself rather than a good for the members. Ideally, cultural rights are valuable because the members of the cultural groups in question value cultural identity, cultural practices and language and can use these rights to protect what they value. It’s those members who have an interest in cultural preservation, not the cultures themselves. (Will Kymlicka has developed this argument). This means that when members lose this interest, they should be free to do so, and cultural rights should not be used to impose an identity, practices or a language. Individual members should be free to evaluate their culture and to reject it if that is what they decide.

It follows that cultural rights should not grant groups power or priority over individuals or over individual rights. If an individual member of a group decides to use her freedom of religion to change her religion, her freedom of movement and residence to physically leave the cultural group, her freedom of expression to decide to start speaking another language etc., then there’s nothing the group can do. The group’s cultural rights can’t trump the individual’s rights. And if individual rights are threatened by cultural rights, the latter should give way. For instance, if a religious group claims the right to oppress its female members or sacrifice its children, that group can’t claim cultural rights as means to protect those practices.

That doesn’t mean a group can never legitimately limit the individual rights of its members. It can, as long as it guarantees a realistic exit right. Individuals can waive their individual rights if they think the rules and practices of their group are more important than their individual rights. This exit right, however, should be realistic and not just formal. There should be no indoctrination and alternatives should not be cut off. For example, Muslim communities should be allowed to discriminate against their female members as long as these members have a realistic right to go elsewhere, realistic meaning that going elsewhere shouldn’t imply abandoning their religion, their family etc., meaning also that they have a real choice and haven’t been indoctrinated into submission (more here).

The priority of individual rights over cultural rights does not force us to adopt an extreme individualist philosophy in which the individual is always prior to the community or in which the community doesn’t count at all. This priority of individual rights is compatible with a communitarian stance. Cultures and cultural rights are important, and they are important for communitarian reasons, but they are not so important that they can trump individual rights. Cultures or other groups have value only in so far as they are of value for the individual members. They can’t have intrinsic value. In other words, they can’t have value for themselves.

The problem of enforced internal orthodoxy within cultural groups, which I mentioned above, may be exacerbated by the possible recognition of cultural rights. Group leaders may believe that they need to enforce orthodoxy and silence “minorities within minorities” in order to present a united culture. Presenting a united culture can make it more likely that the wider society recognizes cultural rights for the minority culture. For example, a leader (or leading class) of an indigenous group may believe that it’s necessary to emphasize the distinctive nature of the group by reviving traditional practices. This revival makes the group seem more valuable from a cultural point of view, and that’s something which will make it more likely that special recognition and special rights are forthcoming. Leaders may even have a personal and selfish interests in those rights, for example their personal leading role may be cemented after the recognition of those rights or during the struggle for recognition. However, some of these traditional practices can be harmful to the individual rights of certain members (e.g. gender discrimination, polygamy etc.) or can go against one particular current of belief within the minority group which is subsequently repressed.

So cultural rights may harm individual rights and may promote internal orthodoxy before they are recognized – and as a means to achieve recognition – as well as after they are recognized – for example, regional autonomy can imply restrictions on intervention by the central authority in the case of rights violations occurring within the regional group. It’s relatively easy to make the granting of cultural rights conditional on respect for individual rights within the group demanding cultural rights (and withdraw those rights when they result in violations of individual rights), but it’s a lot more difficult to avoid the dynamic of groups violating individual rights and suppressing internal dissent in the process of a struggle for cultural rights.

Actionability of cultural rights

Individual rights trump cultural rights, but this raises the question of the actionability of cultural rights: when exactly can they be used to protect cultures? They can’t if a culture’s preservation is in danger because individual members decide to leave, for example through voluntary assimilation into other groups, or decide to fashion the group’s identity differently. Neither can they be actionable when a culture dies because of low fertility rates for instance. Artificially propping up fertility rates for the sake of cultural preservation would harm the rights of individuals in a manner which few would accept. A culture that can’t gain the uncoerced adherence of its members or promote the vitality necessary for the reproduction of its members at replacement rates, doesn’t seem to be worth preserving. Again, cultures are important for individuals. And if individuals lose their interest or change their minds, there’s not much one can do.

If one were to limit individual rights in order to prop up a culture, one would violate the principle that culture are important because they are important for individuals. One would have to adopt the unlikely view that cultures are important in themselves whatever people believe, and that they have an intrinsic value even if no one wants to be a member. Of course, it’s sad when a language dies or when some cultural practices disappear, but this sadness isn’t enough to give cultures the right to force people to do something against their will. Even if it would be somehow morally OK to force people, it would be pointless. One may succeed in getting people to speak a language, take part in rituals etc., but that would happen for the wrong reasons. A culture has to come from within. It shouldn’t be an externally imposed duty.

Perhaps cultural rights become actionable when the preservation of a culture is threatened, not by the free choices of individual members, but by economic forces, migration patterns or political oppression. Indeed, it’s not entirely unreasonable for the French government for instance to subsidize French language cinema in order to protect it against the “onslaught” of Hollywood. Or for the Tibetans to complain of Chinese “demographic aggression”. (Similar talk about Eurabia seems a lot less reasonable). Or for native Indians in the U.S. to resist forced resettlement.

Realization of cultural rights

And when we decide that cultural rights are actionable in certain cases, we still don’t know which actions short of violations of individual rights we can take to protect them. Some possibilities:

  • An obvious policy could be some kind of federalism and limited self-government, primarily but not exclusively when the minority cultures are geographically isolated and when they haven’t voluntarily chosen to live within a larger political unity (e.g. tribal sovereignty for indigenous peoples).
  • Maybe some quota systems in representative bodies could also help to give culture a voice.
  • Affirmative action.
  • Reparations.
  • Special educational provisions (for example the provision of some hours of education in a native language) or other types of assistance to do things that the majority takes for granted (e.g. multilingual ballots).
  • Certain veto powers (for example, the right of indigenous people to veto the use of land).
  • Some group-based exceptions to general laws (such as an exemption to the rule forcing drivers to wear a crash helmet).
  • Granting jurisdiction over family law to religious or tribal courts.
  • A politics of recognition (e.g. teaching black history in U.S. schools).
  • And perhaps even a right to separate from the political community if nothing else works or if the claim to authority of the central state is weak (as in the case of colonies).

It’s clear from this that cultural rights can in some cases restrict the rights of non-members. For example, the use of English is restricted in Quebec; affirmative action restricts the rights of non-group members; veto-powers over land use restrict the property rights of outsiders etc. However, it’s not the case that cultural rights necessarily restrict the rights of outsiders. Subsidies or regional autonomy for example do not, by definition, involve such restrictions. But if they do restrict some of the rights of outsiders, then we should be very careful. As stated above, cultural rights don’t trump individual rights; the opposite is true. But this general priority of individual rights doesn’t mean that there will never be cases in which it’s better to give priority to cultural rights (the good this will allow us to do may sometimes far outweigh the harm to some people’s individual rights). The general priority of individual rights over group rights doesn’t mean that there can’t be specific cases where the balance goes the other way.

Migration and Human Rights (38): The Cultural Argument Against Open Borders

People have a legitimate interest in the preservation of their distinctive cultural identity, their language, customs, habits, institutions, traditions etc. Opening the borders and welcoming massive numbers of immigrants – something that I favor – is supposedly incompatible with this interest. Relatively wealthy countries in particular risk being overrun by masses of poorer migrants, often from very different cultures. Opening borders or even relaxing immigration restrictions in such countries means cultural suicide.

There are some hidden assumptions behind his argument:

  • There is a uniform culture of the host country.
  • The culture of immigrants is fundamentally different from the culture of the host country.
  • Immigrants will be numerous and permanent enough to make a difference.
  • Immigrants will, on balance, influence the hosts more than vice versa. In other words, they will generally fail to assimilate and they will be hostile to the host culture.
  • Cultural change, occurring independently or following intercultural contact, is a bad thing.
  • Cultural change in the host country would not occur independently, i.e. without the physical presence of immigrants in the territory of the host culture, or will do so less rapidly or extensively (e.g. cultural change through other causes such as globalization and intercultural exchange).
  • Because people have an interest in preserving their cultural identity – to the extent that this identity exists – they also have an absolute right to preserve it.
  • The right to preserve a cultural identity supposes a right to exclusive control over a part of the surface of the earth.
  • The right to preserve a cultural identity always trumps the right to free movement of immigrants.

I would argue that none of these assumptions is correct. More here.

Migration and Human Rights (29): Is Freedom of Association a Means to Promote or to Restrict Immigration?

Freedom of association is an important human right (see here for example). Linked to freedom of association is the right to exclude: groups that aren’t allowed to exclude whomever they want from membership aren’t free to associate. Another reason why the right to exclude is an important consequence of freedom of association is that association is meaningless without the concept of group identity. People associate in groups because these groups have a certain identity, and this identity is or becomes an intrinsic part of the individual identities of the members. Hence, groups should be able to have a coherent identity and that means allowing them to exclude people who don’t conform to or accept this identity.

For example, freedom of association means that Christians have a right to join a “truly” Christian group. And if the meaning of the word “truly” means excluding gay Christians or atheist (people who, according to some, don’t “conform to” or don’t accept “true Christianity” respectively), then that is what is required by freedom of association. (Which doesn’t mean that this freedom of association or this right to exclude is unlimited. Non-discrimination is also a right and sometimes we’ll have to make a trade-off. Non-discrimination can sometimes prevail over freedom of association. And yet, every exclusion from a group or every exercise of the freedom of association which in some way harms outsiders isn’t a case of discrimination. I, a non-Scot, may fail to be accepted in the clan of the MacDonalds, but I’m not discriminated against by this decision, even if it hurts my feelings and my sense of identity).

Some see a link between freedom of association and immigration restrictions. If groups are allowed to exclude, why not countries? Countries are also groups. If you force Americans, for example, to take in immigrants, despite majority opposition, then you violate their freedom of association and their right to exclude. In addition, you are accused of harming their identity – in this case national identity – because the stated reason they associated and continue to exclude, is precisely the preservation of their groups identity (made up of US values, the English language etc.).

People who don’t take a restrictionist position on immigration – such as myself – can respond in two ways.

  • First, one could claim that the rights of immigrants should be taken into account. The American freedom of association isn’t the only right in the world. When rights clash, they should be weighed against each other and the path of the “least violation” should be chosen. In the current case, one could easily argue that violations of the rights of immigrants (i.a. the right to a certain standard of living) caused by restrictions on immigration are much more severe than violations of the right to associate caused by relaxed immigration. After all, do people really believe that a culture as strong as that of the US would be harmed by immigrants? Or that immigration would change the nature of US society beyond recognition?
  • Another way to respond to the restrictionist arguments based of the right to associate, is to use the right to associate against the restrictionists. Many immigrants come or would like to come to a country because employers in that country (would) like to have them as employees. Immigration restrictions therefore violate the freedom of association of employers. Even if the country as a whole – or better the majority – feels that its right to free association is violated by immigration, it’s not obvious that the rights of the majority automatically trump the rights of a minority, however tiny this minority may be (and it’s not tiny in this case). If anything, human rights are there to protect minorities against majorities. You can make the same argument for nationals wishing to marry a foreigner, immigrants already in the country wishing their families to join them etc.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (13): Why Do We Need Freedom of Expression?

Here’s a list of some of the traditional rationales for the right to free speech (Eric Barendt for example has identified some of these in his book “Freedom of Speech“):

1. Freedom of speech serves the search for truth

There’s a long tradition in philosophy claiming that freedom of speech and the equal right of everyone to express himself or herself in public on any possible topic improves the quality of opinions and knowledge. Rawls, Mill and Kant for example have fleshed out this claim. In the words of Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Or in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

2. Freedom of speech serves individual self-fulfillment

People who can express themselves freely are better placed to develop their personality and identity. When you can say what you think and believe, you can better give shape to your thoughts and beliefs. Also, thoughts and beliefs depend heavily on the possibility to receive information, which is something that in turn depends on free expression. On top of that, persuasion is an important element of wellbeing: people who can persuade others feel better about themselves. And when they can persuade others, they can form communities and associations, and belonging is another important aspect of wellbeing and self-fulfillment. Finally, when the right to free expression is respected, people can better enjoy culture, education and other things that improve wellbeing.

3. Freedom of speech improves the functioning of democracy

Even for a minimal democracy (regular, free and fair elections for representatives) freedom of speech is very important. Candidates have to be able to advertise themselves and their policies and argue amongst themselves. Lobbyists should be allowed to make their case (publicly and transparently, of course). Etc. But democracy should be more than that. Ideally, democracy requires deliberation among the people on the best possible policies. It’s obvious that this deliberation requires free speech. More on democracy and free speech here.

4. Freedom of speech is a check on the corruption of power

People have to be able to receive information about the functioning of government. Free speech is a necessary prerequisite of government accountability. Freedom of information acts are just as much an element of free speech as a free press, and both are required to counteract corruption and abuse of power. At the margin, elements of free speech such as freedom of information, a free press and the right to protest can make the difference between freedom and tyranny, but they also limit the risk of lesser evils such as administrative corruption, betrayal of election promises, covert government activities etc.

5. Freedom of speech is a right that is required for the protection of other rights

Historically, it has been the case that other rights have depended on freedom of speech for their full protection. The civil rights movement and the struggle against racial discrimination in the U.S., for example, would have been impossible without freedom of speech (which doesn’t mean that the right to free speech of the proponents of equal rights was never restricted). Equally, the feminist struggle for equal voting rights for women was made much easier by freedom of speech. And finally, the right to religious freedom cannot be separated from freedom of speech. And there are many other examples.

6. Freedom of speech serves prosperity

Without freedom of speech there is less innovation and less trade. Scientists who develop new products or services need freedom of speech, and business people have a lot of difficulties trading or advertising without it. Hence, it can be said that economic growth is fostered by free speech. But free speech doesn’t only promote prosperity in general (on average); it also benefits the poor. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. If the poor aren’t able to make their case, they won’t get help.

More on freedom of expression.

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.

Religion and Human Rights (19): Between Equality and Diversity – The Rule of Law, Except When…

One of the principles of liberal democracies is equality before the law. The law shouldn’t protect or harm some citizens more than others (and to some extent this even applies to non-citizens within the jurisdiction of the democracy). The law applies equally to all.

Diversity

This principle, however, can be put to the test by another principle that is important to liberal democracies, namely tolerance of diversity. Most democracies are multicultural in the sense that they are made up of many different groups that have often radically different and incompatible beliefs, customs and norms. Liberal democracies value this diversity and have mechanisms to protect it, such as rules on tolerance, religious liberty, freedom of association etc. They value this diversity and try to protect it for at least three reasons:

  • They believe that group identity is an important source of individual identity and well-being.
  • They believe that group diversity offers a plurality of perspectives, and that this is necessary if deliberations on fundamental issues are to progress towards the truth.
  • The believe that national unity isn’t only or primarily a matter of assimilation or convergence towards a single, national and official doctrine, but rather of peaceful coexistence in diversity.

Rules and exemptions

This tolerance of diversity can be burdened by equality before the law. Many liberal democracies have been forced to accept certain exceptions to the principle of the equal application of the law, and have exempted some groups from certain generally applicable laws. Some  examples:

  • Anti-discrimination laws: groups have been allowed to discriminate, for example regarding their membership rules, or their internal operating rules, on the condition that they allow a right to exit of members who come to find this unacceptable.
  • Because of their religious obligations, Sikhs have been exempted from the obligation to wear crash helmets for motorcyclists or safety helmets for construction workers, or from the prohibition to wear knives in public.
  • Certain indigenous peoples have been exempted from prohibitions to fish or hunt or to slaughter animals in a certain way.

The rationale for such exemptions is that a “neutral” law, which is by definition equally applicable to everyone, may not have the same effect on everyone. It may unintentionally place a relatively heavy burden on a very specific minority because it unintentionally prohibits or compels a certain practice which has special significance for that minority. Such exemptions may be deemed necessary to preserve the distinctive identity and way of life of the minority, and to preserve the diversity and harmony of society as a whole.

This opt-out right, which allows minorities – usually cultural or religious minorities – to not apply or respect the general law, is similar to the right of conscientious objection. In many countries, refusal to serve in the military – otherwise a general legal rule – is a legally recognized option. (However, the opt-out right is not the same as civil disobedience, which isn’t a legally recognized option and the disobedient usually accept the consequences of breaking the law. Breaking the law and publicly accepting the consequences is precisely their purpose. They want to create a public spectacle showing the injustice of the law).

Possible objections against the opt-out right

1. Illiberal consequences

Exemptions are often granted for rules that are not really intended to protect third parties (such as crash helmet rules) or that do not create substantial harm when occasionally they are not applied (e.g. hunting exemptions). However, if we accept the general possibility of an opt-out right, can we not end up in a situation in which minorities are allowed to disrespect fundamental rules such as human rights, either internally in the group or externally? The classic example is the possible right of Muslim minorities in liberal democracies to apply Shari’a law within their communities.

Obviously, such far-reaching exemptions sound outrageous to those of us for whom human rights are very important. Yet I believe that even those exemptions can be justified in certain cases: they would only be acceptable if the following three conditions are jointly met:

  • The groups in question do not violate the human rights of people outside of the group.
  • The groups provide the right to exit in a substantial way. “Substantial” means that they do not only provide the formal right to exit but also provide members the educational, intellectual, moral, financial and other resources necessary to make a free and conscious choice about staying or leaving. However, it’s often very difficult to say whether a particular group is a truly voluntary association and whether members have a real choice to leave. Only when this is indeed and obviously the case can such far-reaching exemptions be allowed. There’s also the case of group members that are incapable of making a real choice, e.g. children. Exemptions cannot be allowed to produce violations of their rights, since they cannot exit.
  • The rights violations are an essential part of the group’s identity rather than an opportunistic policy of the group’s leadership.

2. Exemptions for what?

This third condition leads to a second possible objection to the opt-out right: which elements of a group’s identity are strong and central enough to warrant an exemption from a generally applicable law? Who decides which are these elements? Do we trust the spokespersons of the group? But how are they appointed and do they speak for the group? Or is it not likely that they have some selfish reasons for exemptions and the possible rights violations resulting from them, given that they are likely to be in a position of power inside the group? If not the spokespersons, should it be outside elements, engaging in anthropology, or cultural exegesis?

3. Domino effect of exemptions

Another objection: every law puts more burdens on some citizens than on others. Smoking bans put a heavier burden on smokers, shoplifting laws on kleptomaniacs etc. If we provide exemptions for laws which burden cultural, ethnic or religious groups, why not also for kleptomaniacs? And if we would do so, wouldn’t the whole construction of the rule of law tumble under the weight of exceptions? Of course it would, but that’s not the reasons why we limit exceptions or exemptions (one can argue that these are not the same, but I’ll bracket that for the moment) to those which protect group identity. As stated before, group identity – contrary to kleptomania or other possible reasons for exemptions – is deemed to be a very important value in liberal democracies, and important enough to override in some cases the other important value of equality before the law.

Citizens who do not belong to a group that has received an exemption to a general rule may complain that they are discriminated against, compared to the members of the group. These citizens may also want to opt out of the rule – for example a rule imposing military service – not for religious or cultural reasons, but for other reasons, and not necessarily for opportunistic reasons. Indeed, it may seem arbitrary to limit exemptions to cultural and religious groups. But we have to admit that such groups are more likely to suffer from  special burden imposed by general rules, and that they are particularly important to the diversity of liberal societies.

4. Calcification of groups

Exemptions or the opt-out right require strict identification of group members. It must be possible to decide which individual citizens in a society are free to not respect a certain law, otherwise law enforcement becomes impossible. This may have consequences for the exit right. The state fixes group membership. Not only should the state not do such a thing, but it shouldn’t be done at all. The exit right is important, especially when we decide to allow controversial practices. And this right can be harmed if group composition is officially sanctioned.

Moreover, this strict identification of membership implies a simplification of human identity and group identity. Groups are often complex and internally contradictory. Opt-out rights fix not only membership but also group identity: the state decides once and for all, by granting a legal exemption for a certain practice, that this practice is typical of a group. Internal dissent within the group, and directed against the practice, is then stifled. The state has then sided with the most powerful factions within a group, and that’s not something a liberal state should do.

One could object to this objection by claiming that the “losers” of the internal struggle to determine the group’s identity still have the right to leave the group. However, that also isn’t a choice that the state should determine. It should allow dissenting group members – such as feminist Muslims or gay Catholics – to continue to dissent within the group, rather than impose the limited choice of either accepting the dominant doctrine of the group – a doctrine elevated to dominance with the help of the state and the opt-out right granted by it – or leave the group.

The effort to protect groups from external pressure can inadvertently promote internal pressure. In other words: the effort to protect a group from externally imposed change can stifle internally promoted change. By recognizing a practice as typical of a group and worthy of an exemption to a general rule, the state helps to cement this practice, perhaps against the wishes of minorities within the group that work against the practice.

5. Opportunism

It’s often difficult to tell if an exemption is demanded by a true group member for identity reasons, or by a wavering member for opportunistic reasons. Or, for that matter, by an individual who decided to join the group, not for substantial reasons but to escape the law.

Conclusion

I believe exemptions are sometimes justifiable, especially if the risk of harm created by the exemption is relatively small compared to the benefits for the groups enjoying the exemption. But there are many practical problems related to the decision whether or not to grant an exemption.

The Ethics of Human Rights (23): Cultural Relativism, Challenging the Universality of Human Rights

There is no universal agreement on the universal applicability, validity and desirability of human rights. This post focuses on what I believe is a particularly strong attack on the universality of human rights, namely cultural relativism (henceforth CR). I’ll describe it, and then I’ll try to poke a few holes in it.

It’s a strong attack because it’s a moral one. It’s not just about things like national sovereignty, non-intervention or the supposed economic necessity of authoritarian government. Why is it moral? Because it’s about the importance of culture for people and for people’s identity, and because it’s about safeguarding cultural diversity. These are obviously important concerns, but not – as defenders of CR assume – the only or most important concerns (see here). It’s not obvious that concerns about culture, identity and diversity have – automatically and in all cases – priority over other moral concerns, e.g. those inherent in human rights. Yet that is the claim of CR.

CR is therefore a one-dimensional moral theory, or one that fails to take into account different values and different moral concerns. It is also a conservative moral theory: it wants to protect cultures and cultural or national identities against externally imposed change. It’s true that the universality of human rights, and human rights promotion that is based on this notion of universality, sometimes require the modification or abandonment of certain cultural practices. Think for example of FGM. We can limit the possible impact of CR on human rights by stating that this is the exception and that human rights in general targets distinctly non-cultural practices (e.g. corruption, state violence, disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, terrorism etc.).

However, let’s assume – for the moment and for the sake of argument – that CR has a residual impact, namely with regard to those cases in which human rights promotion requires modifications in cultural practices. CR draws an analogy between those cases and the experience of western colonialism. Human rights promotion is, according to CR, neo-colonialism. Like colonialism, it destroys cultural identities and cultural diversity. When cultural practices that violate human rights are eliminated following outside pressure, the ultimate result is that all cultures become like the culture of the West. Human rights promotion is the export of western culture, exactly the same thing that happened during colonialism. (I should say that this view defines only one type of CR. Other types argue that human rights promotion harms cultures but not necessarily imposes the culture of the West). The reason for this is that human rights aren’t just legal or moral rules; they are an expression of the individualism and antagonism that is typical of the West and incompatible with the collectivism, harmony and respect for authority that can be found in many other cultures.

I have at least 3 objections to CR.

  • Human rights don’t, by nature, promote individualism or antagonism. Many rights are designed to protect communities, bind them together, and allow them to co-exist with other communities (religious freedom, assembly, tolerance etc.). So if we accept that the West is individualistic and antagonistic, compared to other cultures (which I don’t accept), human rights promotion cannot be the imposition of the culture of the West. On the contrary, under this hypothesis, human rights are rather more typical of other, more communitarian cultures. And indeed we see that some of the values inherent in human rights can be found in different cultures. Also, the fact that human rights are regularly violated in the West (as elsewhere) is an indication that these rights are probably not central elements of the culture of the West (if there is such a thing as “a culture of the West”). The struggle for human rights is more a struggle between different parts of a culture than a struggle between cultures.
  • Another problem is the understanding of change. The cultural change required by human rights doesn’t imply the destruction of culture. It’s just a certain limited number of cultural practices that have to be modified, not the culture as a whole. Most elements of most cultures are not incompatible with human rights, and can even profit from them.
  • And finally, why should the protection of culture be the supreme value? Why should culture always have priority over everything, even human rights? Culture is important to people, but their rights are as well. Accepting rights violations for the sake of culture means that this culture is considered to be more important than the people that are a part of it. Let’s not forget that culture is there for people, not the other way around.

The Recession, the Economics Profession, and the Prediction of the Future

The current economic recession has cast a shadow on the economics profession. Economists are blamed for not having foreseen the recession. There’s for example this famous article by Paul Krugman.

Whereas many economists undoubtedly have encouraged wrong policies and harmful trade practices, I think it’s unfair to criticize them for failing to predict the future. Contrary to the natural sciences, human sciences (or social sciences) such as economics are constitutionally unable to predict the future. The reason is their subject matter: human beings. Contrary to celestial bodies, atoms or DNA, human beings have free will, which means that we can decide to change our goals and plans. And this kind of decision cannot be foreseen because the decision is our own free choice, a choice therefore that isn’t determined by other factors. Moreover, because we live in society with others, there’s necessarily interaction between people’s goals. Other people have different goals which interfere with our own goals. And because of their own goals, they often do not wish to cooperate with us or even actively oppose us.

There is therefore an uncertainty and unpredictability inherent in our goals. This seems to be an unavoidable fact of social life. An action causes reactions, and that is why the consequences of the action are often different from the ones we intend, expect, predict or desire. Consequences are often unknown beforehand, or at least uncertain. You never know if the result of your action matches your intentions, if you will reach your goal and if things turn out as planned, as foreseen, as initially desired.

That is also why you cannot and should not be held legally or criminally responsible for all the possible consequences or results of your actions. Only for those consequence which could reasonably have been foreseen. Part of the legal definition of a mentally ill person and one of the reasons why such a person’s criminal actions should be punished in a different way (if at all) is this person’s inability to judge the consequences of his or her actions.

Reality often does not live up to expectations. Events are not always anticipated events. Many events escape the power of those who have initiated them or wish to guide them.

“Siramnes the Persian replied to those who were amazed that his enterprises turned out so badly, seeing that his projects were so wise, by saying that he alone was master of his projects while Fortune was mistress of the outcome of his enterprises . . . What he undertakes is vain if a man should presume to embrace both causes and consequences and to lead the progress of his action by the hand”. Michel de Montaigne

We all have the experience that the future is not completely determined by the will of an individual or a group. The unexpected and unwanted is part of social history because history, and even many different parts of history – many “stories” – are the result of both action and reaction, of a game of action and reaction over which no one has complete control. This is the inevitable result of the plurality of social life. Demanding prediction and predictability – as is now done of economists – means neglecting plurality. Only in the absence of plurality can predictability be conceived, because only when there is one goal will there be no action and reaction.

Hannah Arendt has lambasted the equation between history and production. History is not made by man in the sense that an artifact, a cultural object or a technological application of scientific knowledge is made by man. It is not written beforehand like a blueprint or a production procedure. History, and every social story involving different actors, is written afterwards, in retrospection, and often not even by those who act in it but by an outsider. Everybody is the author of his own actions or reactions, but not of the complete story. The complete story – all interconnecting actions, reactions and consequences – becomes clear only when it is more or less finished, afterwards, when we can know how it was and what the reactions and consequences have been.

In the words of Hegel: the owl of Minerva, the symbol of wisdom, only flies out at dusk. The actor, contrary to the author, looks forward or better tries to look forward, and by definition knows less than the author of history. It was Kierkegaard who said that life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards.

Of course, history is not entirely unpredictable. We can guess. We can try, on the basis of the past, to identify some trends, patterns, regularities etc., and hope that they will hold for the future. Some guesses are better than others. Also, contrary to the criticism of Arendt, there is sometimes creation or “production” in history. Some actions do not encounter reaction and unfold as planned beforehand. These stories do not result from the game of action and reaction or from a plurality of separate and contradictory desires. They result from one desire and one goal. In some instances, people have a goal, a desire, and can realize it in a predictable and controlled manner, without or notwithstanding reactions. Life would not be worth living without such stories. Sometimes, people have a grip on the future. Politics is also impossible without a consensus on a purpose.

Suppose we think of ruling as being an exercise of power. For someone to exercise power is for their wishes to be effective. So someone is a ruler if it is the case that what happens happens because it is in accordance with their wishes. If, then, the people rule, this means that the people’s wishes are effective. (source

Somebody who is in power has a desire and realizes this desire. Otherwise it cannot be said that this person has power.

However, such kind predictability is probably the exception. History in its entirety and many parts of it can never be a creation, a simple purpose or the realization of a plan, a process or an evolution. History and most of its parts are the result of different and contradictory actions, reactions, desires and goals interfering with each other. Therefore, the idea of progress has to be limited. There may be fields of progress, but these evolutions are counteracted by reactions and other evolutions. Progress is never global or certain or predictable.

Not even one’s personal history is written or produced entirely by the person in question. And since our identity is perhaps the same thing as our personal history, our identity is not entirely the product of our own actions and decisions either. It is also the product of the things that happened to us and of the actions and reactions of others. We act, we strive to achieve goals, but there is a plurality of goals. The single, uniform goal, either in overall history (e.g. the overall goal of progress, communism or democracy dragging people along) or in many small or personal histories, is a pipe dream. Plurality results in things happening to us, things that we cannot control or foresee but which shape our lives, histories and personalities irrespective of our will.

History and most of its parts are not made by man, but they are not made by any other force either. I do not believe that God or Fate or the Economy or whatever makes history. History is to a large extent if not entirely the result of consciously chosen human actions and reactions. Consequently, people remain responsible for their actions, although not for all the consequences of their actions. They cannot claim that things happen because God or Nature (the genes for example) or Race or Culture (the unconscious national character) or Fate or whatever wants these things to happen or causes people to make them happen. People are relatively free. Most of their actions are not caused by some necessary force outside of them (or inside of them, for that matter, but beyond their power).

In order to remedy the defects of plurality – uncertainty, unpredictability and the powerlessness which this implies – one can try to eliminate plurality. Reactions and contradictions are excluded (and maybe “reactionaries” are persecuted) and all actions are focused on one and the same goal. Instead of the plurality of individual projects, we get a collective project. Individuality disappears.

“Le groupe en fusion” or “la volonté générale” implies that the individual individual is absorbed by the community. Everybody’s individual goals or desires must be harmonized with the collective one. Every action is forced into a coherent whole. The individual will is discredited. It is egoistic, focused on the short term, subjective, reactionary; it is useless and powerless because of the contradictions with other individual wills; or it is futile because contrary to the trend of History or the forces of Biology etc. If the individual is only a part of a whole, then he can be sacrificed for the whole. Individual rights become less important. At best, people are interchangeable, specimen instead of unique individuals; at worst, they are eliminated.

As many successful dictators have shown, eliminating reaction will indeed make it possible to control the future, to remain in control of an action, to enforce certain consequences, to realize goals, to make history like an artifact or to write history like a novel. It makes it possible to know the future, to know how things will turn out, to put a clear purpose in history, a plan which unfolds exactly as it was contemplated beforehand, a clean process rather than a volatile and uncertain multi-directional chaos. If there are no reactions and only one general will, then all actions go in the same direction and toward the same goal, and only nature or inactivity can thwart our plans (hence the dictatorial need for “mobilization”). We can with much greater certainty predict the future and the realization of our plans. The expected consequences are the actual consequences. We are masters of the consequences and we control the future.

This has always been the great selling point of authoritarian government. Compared to the chaos of democracy, the “strong man” can be very efficient. I’ve refuted this here. Democracy indeed doesn’t offer predictability, precisely because it guarantees plurality. The common will of a democratic majority can be undone by reactions of the minority, by the reactions of a future majority, or by some outside force. Predictability requires unanimity rather than majority, if possible global unanimity (dictatorships are therefore often imperialistic). Only a unanimous group can have power as it was described above: power means that wishes are effective, that things happen because they are in accordance with wishes. A majority can only have limited effectiveness, effectiveness limited by future majorities and by the reactions of minorities (in a democracy, minorities have some power, e.g. their rights cannot be violated by the will of the majority). Of course, unanimity is often obtained by force: reactions are forcibly suppressed because unanimity of convictions and goals is a rare occurrence. Force then produces power, although Arendt, again, has something to say about the confusion between these two terms.

A democracy does not try to suppress or eliminate reactions and contradictions. On the contrary, it fosters them. But it does try to ritualize and soften them, take the violence out of them, because they can take a nasty turn. Democracy needs conflicts, opposition, criticism, plurality etc. It is the game of action and reaction institutionalized and accepted as an inevitable fact of life in a community with different people and different goals. It cannot exist without events initiated by some and reacted upon by others. Hence democracy embraces uncertainty and unpredictability, however unpopular and perhaps ineffective this may be.

However, democracy also needs some level of predictability. It wants to be certain of its own survival and that is why it accepts only opposition within the system. It tries to eliminate anti-democratic reaction and opposition and asks people to promise respect for democratic values. Promises produce some certainty, a certainty and predictability based on freedom and free choice, which is not the case with certainty produced by the elimination of reaction. In a tyranny, everybody is certain that the regime will survive because nobody can or dares to react, or because indoctrination and propaganda have conditioned people in such a way that they do not even contemplate reaction. In a democracy, there is relative certainty because enough people keep their promise to respect the regime. This is the rationale behind the so-called “pledges of allegiance”. Promises are based on freedom, because a promise is only valid if it is voluntary.

Of course, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is free and voluntary. Although a democracy wants to limit coercion as much as possible and tries to secure its future by way of promises, education, persuasion, judicial review etc., there has to be some coercion because some people will not make or keep the necessary promises. There will be coercion, not of promises, but of actions. Promises cannot be coerced. Coercion in this case is the use of force against anti-democratic reaction.

An anti-democratic reaction is a contradiction in terms. It is because of democracy that reaction is possible. If reaction becomes an activity without risk, as is the case in a democracy, then reaction blossoms. Reacting against democracy is not only ungrateful, it is self-destructive.

But apart from this predictability of the institutions necessary for unpredictable political life, it is clear that the focus of democracy is on conflict, contradictions, opposition, reactions, unpredictability and uncertainty. Those who want to limit the game of action and reaction are necessarily anti-democratic. More freedom and more democracy means more reaction, more plurality, more kinds of actions which can interfere with each other, and therefore more unpredictability, less control over the future, and less certainty that goals will be achieved. Democracy does not only accept the game of action and reaction as an inevitable fact of social life. It also promotes this game, as long as it remains a game and does not become violent or a threat to democracy or to people’s rights and freedom.

Counter-intuitively, freedom does not always go hand in hand with control, although on an individual level this may be the rule. An individual is free if he controls his life. But a society is not free if people try to control consequences and the future. Unpredictability does not mean that people are not free to choose their future. They are just not certain that the future will be the one they have chosen. It’s when they want this certainty that they are tempted to destroy the freedom of society. When people want to be certain of their goals and want to be in control – when, in other words, they want to be free – they need to eliminate interference from other people and other goals. Other people with other goals become a nuisance, and their freedom has to be sacrificed. However, this may not result in control. It is far from certain that the elimination of reaction is possible. It may be counterproductive and create more reaction than initially anticipated. Plurality is probably unavoidable.

What is Democracy? (35): A Complete Waste of Time?

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of an election are very small. Close elections are very rare, and even rarer are those in which one vote is pivotal. So it doesn’t make a difference whether you participate or not. In light of this, it’s a small miracle that turnouts are as high as they are, and it’s ridiculous for people to lament a turnout that’s “only” 60%.

Clearly, people know that their votes don’t affect the outcome and vote for other reasons than a mere sense of responsibility. But what reasons? Signaling is certainly part of it. People vote because they are more than individuals. They identify with others, they want to belong and they want to be part of a “movement” or party that has a certain set of beliefs. Voting makes them such a part, and hence gives them an identity and a cause. Let’s not forget that an identity is highly dependent on expression and on recognition of this expression by others. Elections, even with a secret vote, are highly effective tools for the production of identity. The seemingly meaningless anf futile vote of an individual becomes quite meaningful when aggregated with the votes of like-minded individuals.

It’s only when you adopt an economic and reductionist view of people, in which individuals only pursue their self-interest, that you cannot make sense of apparently silly behavior such as voting in which the costs (transport, risk, time etc.) outweigh the benefits (if any).

There’s also the mysterious force of the “if-everyone-were-doing-this” rule, which we apply regularly. Throwing one piece of garbage in the park is almost absolutely harmless. Someone will clean it, and if not no one will notice. And yet most of us just don’t do it because “if everyone was doing it” – which they are not – it would be hell, and that’s how we teach our kids not to do it. And they understand. And they – or most of them – listen and don’t do it. Part of the reason why this rule works is the force of example. We don’t want to give a bad example because when people follow it, we will suffer, even though we may in the short run benefit from doing what we shouldn’t.

Similarly, when large numbers of voters believe that their vote doesn’t make much of a difference and isn’t worth the cost of participating, then they give a bad example which can be followed by large numbers of people. As a result, the usefulness of the remaining votes increases, and these votes will then determine the behavior of the rest of the population. People will be ruled by a minority with perhaps harmful views. So in order not to find themselves in this situation which is detrimental to most people, most people choose to vote.

A better way to express this idea:

The idea is not that one person’s decision to forgo voting would crash the system—how would that possibly happen?—but that it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on. So if I … will abstain from voting because the costs of voting outweigh the benefits, I will first need to see if the maxim passes a test implicit in Kant’s categorical imperative. I ought not act in accordance with the maxim if it fails the test.

So let’s see: can I universalise the non-voting maxim? Can I imagine living in a world in which every eligible voter opts for a nap or a game of Temple Run in lieu of going to the polls? No. The logic of American democracy does not support such a universalised principle. No one votes, no one is elected, a moment of constitutional failure brings an emergency convention in which unelected delegates draft a new constitution calling for an alternate system of specifying leaders that doesn’t involve the public. The franchise, and America as we know it, disappears. Since the logic of the system cannot be sustained were everyone to adopt the nap-over-voting maxim, I am morally bound not to act on it.

Now, again, the force of Kant’s argument is not empirical: you don’t need to show that a decision not to vote will actually bring a constitutional doomsday. You just need to show that if universalised it would. (source)

What is Democracy? (28): A Way of Life

He who is without a city is either a poor sort of being, or a being higher than man. The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the city, and must therefore be either a beast or a god. There is therefore, a natural impulse in all men towards an association of this sort. Aristotle

Citizens in a democracy which allows some kind of direct participation, are active citizens. They can decide on issues and not only on their representatives. Because they have a right to decide, they will, in many cases, become automatically interested in the topics on which they will have to decide. Discussions will take place. Arguments are exchanged. And, as a result, people will be interested in public affairs and have knowledge of these affairs. They are able to transcend their private interests and to take part in community life and group identification, which are important human values. They also have some measure of control over their lives, another universal aspiration.

This means that democratic political participation is not only a means to an end (for example, the end of having decisions that are acceptable to the people). It is also an end in itself because some important values become real only when people participate. These values are not the result of the process of participation; they are part of the process itself. People participate for the sake of the things that happen while they participate (knowledge, activity and a feeling of self-control or control over the decisions that affect them), and not only for the sake of something which results from the process of participation after it has finished (for example, certain kinds of decisions).

Democratic political life is something valuable for human life. The ancient Greeks even considered political life as the essence of human life, as something that corresponds to the nature of man. Man, in their eyes, is a creature destined for political life, a “zo-on politikon”. This is expressed in the quote from Aristotle.

So democracy is more than a form of government. It is a way of life, the life of the “homo democraticus”, the citizen who participates in politics, as directly as possible and as much as possible, in order to realize some of the things which he or she deems important in life.

The importance of political life shows how foolish it is to reduce democracy to a system in which people can give or take away the consent to be ruled. A form of government that only allows the people to express or withhold consent can never be called a democracy. A dictatorship can also rule with the consent of the people, can realize the will of the people and can collapse once this consent disappears. A democracy is more than just an elegant and peaceful way to change the rulers. It is also a society, which can determine the rules for and the conditions of its own life. It gives people control over their own fate and at the same time guarantees some other fundamental values.

Where democracy is end as well as means, its politics take on the sense of a journey in which the going is as important as the getting there and in which the relations among travelers are as vital as the destinations they may think they are seeking. Benjamin Barber

People do not engage in political life for the sole reason of regulating their non-political life. They participate in politics because something important happens when they participate. Political life realizes certain values, but these values are not a result or a product that political life leaves behind when it is finished. They are real only as long as political life takes place. Political activity is not purely instrumental; it is valuable in itself.

An individual actively engaged in political life is not only able to belong and to have an identity. He or she can also lead an informed and educated life (because participation and control require knowledge and education) and can be attentive to politics and to things, which he or she has in common with all the other citizens, and which transcend his or her own private needs.

Democracy needs communities and therefore, corresponds to the widely shared need to belong, to associate, to cooperate and to interact. Community life and common action are as important for democracy as for human wellbeing. We are dealing here with important human values, shared by most people across all cultures. These values are important as such, but are also important because they assist the development of an individual identity, another important and universal value. Membership of groups is an important source of identity.

Religion and Human Rights (10): Apostasy

Apostasy (from the Greek word for defection) is the explicit and formal abandonment or renunciation of one’s religion. The word has a pejorative connotation and is mostly used by the adherents or dignitaries of the former religion of the apostate. It is used as a condemnation. Most if not all religions consider defection a sin, which is a normal position for any religion to take. Religions, like any other group for that matter, are communities that quite naturally regret the loss of a member and consider such a loss the concern of all remaining members. They try to minimize such losses and to recover the “lost sheep” and bring them back into the “umma”. The word “apostasy” as such may not be frequently used by all religions, but all religions and all groups know the concept.

However, most religions believe that persuasion is the only legitimate tool to keep members in the group and that the sin of apostasy will be punished by God in the afterlife. Only some, and a certain form of Islam is an example, believe that it is up to man on earth to punish apostates. They make apostasy a punishable offense and these punishments are human rights violations in two different ways. First of all, the punishments themselves often inflict harm on the victims thereby violating their rights to bodily integrity or even life. And secondly, they violate the right to freedom of religion.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to change one’s religion:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. (my emphasis)

Islam is often targeted for its treatment of apostates. However, within Islam there are those like Egypt’s grand mufti Ali Gooma, who take a more liberal stance and use the Koran to back up their position. There are three verses in the Koran that are important:

“There is no compulsion in religion”. “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion”. “Whosoever will, let him believe. Whosoever will, let him disbelieve”.

The punishments for apostasy are often not purely religious. Politics is implicated. When a state identifies with a religion and receives its authority and legitimacy from this identification, it naturally wants this religion to be the majority.

Belonging

Belonging to a group is an important human aspiration. People want to belong to something larger than themselves. Belonging gives them an identity. However, groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity. They can, for example, impose ideological or dogmatic rules, practices or beliefs. While some people may desire enforced conformism, others will see it as contrary to their freedom. For the latter, belonging and identity should be a free and voluntary choice. It is important therefore that membership is free and that people are allowed to leave. Groups exist for the benefit of the members, not vice versa.

The fact that membership of a group is a free and non-final choice is not an expression of individualism. Communities are a very important part of an individual’s life, but not all kinds of communities. Individuals as members of a particular group must be able to decide when this group is no longer important or has become harmful. It is not up to the groups to decide that they are an important part of their members’ lives. Individuals decide which groups are important, which groups they wish to join or to leave.

If individuals, who wish to leave a group because this group violates their rights or forces them to conform, are forced to stay, then one uses the individuals as means for the survival of the group. The survival of a group is dependent on the presence of members. Using people as means dehumanizes them.

Self-defeating

If a religion forces someone to remain a member, it defeats its purpose. Someone who stays within a religion in order to avoid punishment is not guided by an understanding of the genuine value of the religion.

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. [Such a] 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

Cultural Rights (11): Genocide

 

Genocide is the deliberate, systematic and violent destruction of a group (an ethnic, racial, religious, national or political group). This destruction can take many forms:

  • the outright murder of (the majority of) the members of the group
  • inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about destruction
  • measures intended to prevent births
  • systematic rape as a means of terror and a means to “dilute” the identity of the group
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
  • destroying the (cultural) identity of the group (forceful assimilation; imposition of a language, religion etc.)

“Systematic” is important here. Short-term outburst or pogrom type actions will probably not amount to genocide.

The “intent to destroy” is also crucial when labeling actions or campaigns as genocidal. The destruction, however, doesn’t have to be physical (i.e. large-scale murder). As is obvious from the list above, cultural destruction or destruction of the groups’ separate identity is also genocide.

Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide is

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group…”

The “in part” bit has led to some confusion. When is the part of the group that is being destroyed big enough to warrant the label of genocide? There is still some discussion about absolute numbers of victims, percentages of the total population of the group, degree of killing in the territory controlled by the killers etc.

Of all the generally recognized genocides that have taken place throughout human history, the most infamous ones occured in the 20th century (the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, Stalin’s forced famines, Mao’s Great Leap Forward etc.).

Before a genocide is actually carried out, the perpetrators usually take a number of “preparatory” steps:

  • dehumanization of a group (vermin, insects or diseases…)
  • promotion of narratives of “us and them
  • hate propaganda, polarization
  • criminalization of a group (group has to be eliminated “in order that we may live”; them or us)
  • identification of victims (“yellow star”)
  • concentration of victims (ghettos)
  • mobilization of large numbers of perpetrators
  • state support and logistical organization (arms, transport, training of militias etc.)

The causes of genocide are often hard to pin down. They include:

  • long-lasting tensions
  • imbalances in political power
  • imbalances in wealth or economic power
  • scarcity
  • religious incompatibilities
  • indoctrination and propaganda
  • civil war
  • ideals of cultural purity and autonomy
  • ethnological constructs (e.g. the creation of “hutuness” in Rwanda) which get a life of their own
  • colonial heritage
  • outside indifference
  • etc.

Cultural Rights (10): Tolerating Intolerance?

Some people urge us to accept and respect other cultures, other practices and beliefs unconditionally and without exceptions. Every cultural practice, whatever its content, is valuable and should be protected, even if this means giving up certain or all human rights. This means that rejecting intolerance in a certain culture is intolerant and rejecting discrimination is discrimination. Diversity should be tolerated, even if elements of this diversity are expressions of intolerance or discrimination. Otherwise, we would show a lack of respect for cultural identities and we would de facto return to the days of colonization and imperialism.

Respect is important, and human rights are created precisely as tools to make different people with different beliefs and practices or habits live together peacefully.’a0But they are not designed to protect practices which violate them. We can never tolerate intolerance and that we must always discriminate discrimination. One cannot force an idea to be self-destructive. A tolerant system tolerating intolerance or failing to discriminate those who discriminate, will never last very long. Those who are tolerant must be intolerant of those who are intolerant (and the latter include those who attack the institutions protecting tolerance, such as human rights).

This has nothing to do with “an eye for an eye”. It is purely a matter of consistency and self-preservation. We must accept and respect diversity, but not in an unlimited way. Some things are just unacceptable.

Cultural Rights (4): Cultural Relativism

Are human rights universal? Or is the worldwide application of human rights the imposition of the culture and norms of the West on other cultures? Universal human rights are said to imply the immoral destruction of other cultures, which in turn diminishes the well-being of the people of those cultures. Identity, especially cultural identity, and a feeling of belonging, are important for everyone’s well-being.

The underlying hypothesis of this theory, which is often called “cultural relativism“, is that human rights are part of the culture of the West, typical of this culture, and compatible only with this culture. They are therefore Western rights rather than universal norms. Under this hypothesis, the worldwide promotion of what we call human rights can be seen as the imposition of the culture of the West. Human rights in this view belong to the cultural identity of the West with its emphasis on individualism and individual freedom. Other cultures have other identities, values and norms. They may cherish harmony and collective goals more than individualism, discipline more than freedom, respect for authority more than democracy, tranquility more than adversarial politics, the afterlife more than free consumption and maximum gratification in the present life, etc. Hence, they will have norms that are different from the norms of the West and different from the application of human rights for every individual. Their norms may even be opposed to human rights.

Respect for the cultural identity and the well-being of other people means that they should be allowed to adhere to these norms and to violate human rights when these rights come into conflict with their own norms. Insistence on human rights, then, could mean disrespect, erosion of cultural identity, and hence also erosion of individual well-being.

According to cultural relativism and its many overt and covert adherents, human rights have a claim to existence in the West, where they are part of the culture and are in accordance with cultural norms and values (such as individualism, conflict, etc.), but not in parts of the world where they are at best inappropriate and at worst damaging to cultural identities and therefore also to people who depend on culture for their personal identity and feeling of belonging.

Is there really a perfect analogy between colonialism and human rights policy, and does the acceptance of human rights necessarily mean the loss of identity and belonging? It is true that respect for human rights must lead to the abandonment of some cultural practices (although in most cases it must lead to the abandonment of distinctly non-cultural practices), but certainly not of all cultural practices and probably not the most important ones. Culture or identity is above all something that is in the mind. What is in the mind cannot cause harm and should never be abandoned. To the extent that culture is part of the mind, it enjoys complete protection by human rights. The extension of human rights will never harm culture in this sense. The freedom of thought is perhaps the most fundamental human right and is an example of the way in which rights protect rather than harm culture. Freedom of religion, tolerance and other values embedded in human rights also protect culture.

Cultural Rights (2): Clash of Civilizations

Theories about the “clash of civilizations” are very popular these days. According to this strand of cultural reductionism, the struggle between capitalism-democracy and communism, which was mainly an ideological struggle, is now replaced by the struggle between civilizations or cultures, a struggle no longer based on convictions, ideology or the economy but on identity.

The identity of one culture may be threatened by another one, or one culture may be expansionist at the expense of others, which causes conflicts. The bloody borders between civilizations (in Israel, Serbia, Russia etc. or even lower Manhattan – 9-11 – given the virtual nature of borders in our globalized age) are given as proof. In order to avoid these conflicts, one has to separate cultures. Multiculturalism, immigration etc. have to be avoided, and the borders have to be defended militarily against aggressive and hostile other cultures. Every civilization should strengthen its identity if it wants to be in a strong position vis-à-vis others.

All this is true to the extent that culture is the cause of conflict. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not, and then other measures are more adequate. Conflicts between the West and Islam are perhaps in part caused by differences in culture, but probably also by economic circumstances, the Palestinian problem, etc. In any case, there are just as many conflicts within civilizations or cultures than between them (Iraq, Rwanda, Korea…). The differences between members of one civilization are often more important than the differences between members of different civilizations.

Cultural Rights (1): Identity

In political discourse, we often see that individuals, as part of a nation, a culture, a political party or an ideological group (e.g. conservatives and liberals), are subject to a kind of homogenization. Individuals are no longer different personalities but rather parts of a group.

In the case of cultures: every culture has its typical personality, its way of life, its way of being human, its national character or “Volksgeist”. The personal identity is a collective identity. People are specimen rather than different individuals. This cultural identity – Chinese are hard working people, Scandinavians somewhat to themselves etc. – influences or even determines the ideas and behaviour of the individual members of the culture and is formed by the religion of the nation, its language, history etc. An individual is born in a culture and formed by it, from his earliest years on. He cannot choose another one and cannot reject his collective identity. His life follows certain patterns that are older than him and that will live on after him. Everything which may seem at odds with the collective identity is in fact comparable to the small movements on the surface of the sea that may go in different directions but that cannot escape the underlying current. Like the current, the culture may not always be visible but it does determine everything.

If individuals receive their personality from their environment and culture, then the members of one group share the most basic assumptions and convictions. And if that is true, it is a justification of ethnic cleansing, wars for national independence, separation etc. because a mono-cultural society will have fewer conflicts than a multicultural one, given the common identity and convictions of people of one culture. This discourse is common in nationalism.

The same, but less extreme, can be seen in political discourse like the “culture war” in the U.S. We reduce people to the groups to which they belong.

However, all this is based on psychological simplifications. Although it is undeniable that the environment we live in, the culture we belong to and the groups we are part of shape our identity, there is no reason to ignore the possibility of individuals to free themselves from their immediate environment and tradition. The whole world can influence us and we may choose to be extremely individualistic. Belonging and identifying with a group are important, but so are originality and individuality. Human rights are designed to give us the possibility of dissent, difference and individuality.

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.