Adventures in Meta-Blogging: What is the Truth Value of Writing About Rights?

Some words about the epistemological status – or the truth value – of the narrative contained in this blog. I argue that all writing about human rights and democracy is a mere proposal and an attempt at truth. Whenever I say something about those topics I do not pretend to proclaim the truth. If there is any truth in the world at all, then probably not in the domain of political theory, morality and values. Perhaps there is, but we won’t know. It’s likely that all we can say about such subjects is mere opinion.

However, even if in political theory or morality we cannot prove anything or be certain about anything, this doesn’t mean that all opinions are equivalent. There can be good and bad opinions because opinions are – or should be – based on arguments and reasons, and arguments and reasons can be good or bad. If all opinions were of the same quality then no one would ever try to convince anyone.

Opinions are, by nature, non-despotic: they can’t be forced on you. The truth can. No one can escape the truth. The laws of physics for example have a despotic character. You have to accept them. Opinions can be accepted or rejected, depending on the (perceived) force of the arguments for or against, on your personal disposition, your intellectual powers of understanding etc. Another characteristic of opinions is that they are part of a contradictory world of different opinions. An opinion exists only as long as its contrary also exists. If the latter ceases to exist, then the former becomes what we may call some form of truth, at least to the extent that

  1. opposite opinions disappear as a result of free discussion and persuasion rather than force and coercion
  2. an opinion that is the object of a worldwide consensus resulting from free discussion and persuasion can reasonably be called a truth.

Truth implies consensus. Who dares to resist the truth? Only a fool or a moron. Truth eliminates debate because no one contradicts the truth. As long as someone who is neither a fool nor a moron contradicts the truth and gives good reasons for doing so, we have not yet attained the level of truth and remain in the world of opinion. This world is one of plurality and contradiction; the world of truth is one of uniformity. Only when everyone is convinced and when there remain no good reasons or arguments against a claim do we have something like the truth. Even when some opinions are predominant, they remain mere opinions as long as good arguments against them are available, or, in other words, as long as contradictory opinions based on good arguments—and not mere prejudices—are available.

As everyone who expresses an opinion, I also would like to see my opinions, expressed throughout this blog, elevated to the status of truth. But that depends on many things: the force of my arguments, the disposition of my readers etc. It’s not a result that I can determine or even predict. If I would force this elevation—on the condition that I would have the power to do so—then I wouldn’t be acting democratically and I would therefore be incoherent. Democratic politics does not take place in the world of truth or the world of uniformity and despotism. Opinions are the fabric of democracy. Democracy is the game of different and contradictory opinions, some of which become temporarily predominant because they are backed by the better arguments or the arguments that can convince a majority, on the condition that we speak about a perfect democracy unhindered by manipulation. The predominant opinions then inform government policy, but non-predominant ones continue to exist and continue to make their case in an effort to become predominant themselves. If these other opinions no longer exist, then it is not opinion but truth that informs government policy. Which can and does happen, even in the case of perfectly democratic governments. But it’s not typical of a democracy and not its essence. One can even say that the job of a democracy is finished when it happens.

For example, the fight against inflation is no longer an opinion. There are no longer good arguments for the opposite policy and everyone is convinced that it’s a good policy. Hence, there is no democratic debate for or against the fight against inflation. The policies of all governments, including democracies, are inspired by this truth, but this has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy can only enter the stage when different actors present different and contradictory opinions, for example opinions regarding the maximum or minimum amount of inflation, or opinions regarding topics such as abortion, equality, justice etc. There is intense debate about those topics. The predominance of opinions regarding those topics, and hence also government policies, shift from one side to another.

But what we see in topics such as abortion and many others, is that democracy does not only stop when an opinion is elevated to the level of truth. It also stops when contradictory opinions continue to exist but are no longer argued. Proponents and opponents of abortion have practically stopped giving reasons and arguments. They just throw citations from the Bible or general and vague claims of rights at one another. In fact, their opinions have not been elevated to the level of truth but have rather descended to the level of prejudices or “feelings” or beliefs. Democracy requires opinions, not something more or less. Opinions are based on arguments and reasons, not on evidence, proof, certainty, prejudices, feelings or beliefs. Democracy only has a function when there can be debate and there can only be debate when there are opinions, not when there is more or less, not when everything is either truth or belief. Of course, beliefs should not be excluded from democratic politics, just as truth should not be excluded. Beliefs can be a powerful force behind debates. They can inspire thinking and discussion, but they will never be the essence of democracy. If there is nothing more than beliefs, then there is no democracy.

Capital Punishment (44): The Retribution Argument Against Capital Punishment

Retribution is the last refuge of those seeking to justify capital punishment, given the failure of other arguments (deterrence, incapacitation etc.). Retribution is a punishment that fits the crime: the severity of the punishment should be proportionate to the severity of the crime. Intuitively, therefore, retribution should justify capital punishment for murder. Only death is a punishment that is as severe as murder. The Latin origin of the word “retribution” indicates that something should be given back or returned: someone “gives” death and hence death should be returned.

However, in theory, retribution does not necessarily mean that the punishment has to be strictly equivalent to the harm caused by the crime: some claim that retribution simply means that we must punish severe crimes more harshly than less severe crimes. Yet we see in practice that capital punishment as punishment for murder is defended on retributivist grounds.

Retributivists, ancient and modern, have always been lured by one or another form of lex talionis. (source)

There’s often an element of desert introduced in retributivist arguments. A murderer should be put to death because this punishment fits the crime, and because this punishment fits the crime, the murderer deserves to die.

So, given this “natural” tendency of retributivists to favor capital punishment for murder, how can it be possible to construct an argument based on retribution against capital punishment, as the title of this post suggest? Thom Brooks has made a highly interesting attempt here. It’s based on a decision by Judge Jed Rakoff ( in US v Quinones):

What DNA testing has proved, beyond cavil, is the remarkable degree of fallibility in the basic fact-finding processes on which we rely in criminal cases. In each of the 12 cases of DNA-exoneration of death row inmates referenced in Quinones, the defendant had been guilty by a unanimous jury that concluded there was proof of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and in each of the 12 cases the conviction had been affirmed on appeal, and collateral challenges rejected, by numerous courts that had carefully scrutinized the evidence and manner of conviction. Yet, for all this alleged “due process”, the result in each and every one of these cases, was the conviction of an innocent person who, because of the death penalty, would shortly have been executed (-some came within days of being so-) were it not for the fortuitous development of a new scientific technique that happened to be applicable to their particular cases. (source)

This should even convince retributivists that capital punishment has to be rejected. Even if you adopt the moral rule that murderers deserve to die you, shouldn’t apply the death penalty in practice because you can’t be certain that a particular defendant is really guilty of the crime and hence deserves to die. And there’s no point arguing that the systematic use of DNA testing gives you this certainty: first, it’s not always possible to use DNA tests, because the crime has to be of such a type that DNA traces are potentially available, and even if they are potentially available they may not be actually available; and second, we don’t know if DNA testing is accurate enough and won’t be discredited in the future.

You could also argue that the same lack of certainty is the case for all types of crime, and that rejecting capital punishment because of a lack of certainty implies rejecting criminal punishment tout court. Not quite: all other types of punishment allow for the possibility to correct mistakes resulting from uncertainty. Capital punishment rules this out.

And there’s another kind of uncertainty that militates against capital punishment and that should convince retributivists to reject it. The desert of a criminal is usually based on more than mere physical evidence of his actions. Intent also plays a part. Take the case of someone who caused the death of someone else by his actions – and let’s assume that we are certain about this, e.g. we have DNA evidence and we know that no future scientific developments will cast doubt on this evidence – but did not intend to kill. Many would argue that he doesn’t deserve to die. However, intent is impossible to prove because it requires reading someone’s mind, and hence we can never be certain that someone intended to kill. A desert based argument for capital punishment is void if desert includes intent.

The Ethics of Human Rights (47): What’s So Funny About Paternalism?

In general, those who promote human rights will not be tempted to engage in paternalistic policies. That’s because human rights are about protecting people against each other, not about protecting people against themselves. And one of the foundations of human rights is the moral value of personal autonomy: people have a right to organize their lives according to their own plans and reasons, free from the influence and manipulation of others, even if others believe they are mistaken or self-destructive. Personal autonomy in this sense of the word is the basis of rights such as the right to privacy, property, political participation etc.

So, paternalism can be seen as detrimental to human rights. On the other hand, all societies are to some extent paternalistic, with the apparent consent of all. So what’s the deal? Let’s go through this topic in a systematic way, starting with some definitions, typologies and proposed justifications of paternalism, in order to end up with a clearer vision about paternalism’s temptations, dangers and limits.

Definition of paternalism

Paternalism is

  • interference
  • usually by the government
  • with an agent’s strictly self-regarding actions
  • and against the will of the agent.

It’s the use of coercion, force or incentives, against the initial will of the agent, with the purpose of imposing or preventing a certain type of action or lifestyle that has, respectively, positive or negative consequences for the agent and that does not harm or benefit a third party.

The purpose of paternalism is therefore to make the agent who is the object of paternalistic force, better off. She’s better off because she is forced, by the paternalist, to do good things to herself or to abstain from doing harm to herself.

Types of paternalism

This definition allows us to distinguish two types of paternalism: positive and negative (these qualifiers do not imply value judgments):

  • positive paternalism means forcing people to benefit themselves
  • negative paternalism means forcing people not to harm themselves.

The latter is much more common, I believe. Examples are anti-drug legislation, laws forcing people to wear seat belts or crash helmets etc. An example of the former are laws requiring people to contribute to a pension fund (although that case may not be strictly self-regarding since part of the motivation for such laws is the protection, not only of the future pensioner, but of his or her descendants or society in general).

Paternalism should therefore be distinguished from other types of coercion that aim at preventing people from harming others or forcing people to benefit others (such as laws against murder or laws imposing taxation respectively). Such non-paternalistic types of coercion focus on other-regarding consequences, whereas paternalistic coercion focuses on self-regarding consequences. Paternalism wants to limit the harm people’s actual or possible voluntary actions can do to themselves, and maximize the benefits that people’s possible but not voluntarily chosen actions can produce for themselves.

Paternalists are therefore “do-gooders” who want to maximize people’s utility, benefits, happiness, wellbeing etc. and who believe that this requires more than mutual protection.

(Other typologies of paternalism are, of course, possible: a soft form of paternalism would not intervene if people consciously and with full knowledge harm themselves, and only when self-harm results from lack of information; or would only intervene using incentives or “nudges” rather than coercion; hard paternalism would discount knowledge and intervene anyway; paternalism may be limited to the means people choose for their ends, or may also include these ends etc.).

Justifications of paternalism

Paternalists offer different reasons why they think that people, in some cases, should be prevented from engaging or forced to engage in certain actions.

  • As stated a moment ago, there may be a lack of knowledge on the part of the agent forcing the agent to unwittingly harm herself or fail to benefit herself. And this can be a lack of knowledge of different kinds:
    • First, the agent may not be aware of the harmful self-regarding consequences of a chosen or intended action, or may not be aware of the beneficial self-regarding consequences of an unchosen and unwanted action. In such cases, there are two possibilities. Either the simple delivery of information regarding the consequences – for example through education or communication – is enough to convince the agent to avoid harmful action or to choose beneficial action, and then no paternalistic action is necessary. Or this is not enough and paternalistic action is necessary. An example of the latter can be marijuana: according to some paternalists, the consequences of marijuana use are harmful, but this “information” doesn’t seem to register with users.
    • The absence of knowledge may be a deeper problem. The agent may not be aware of her true interests. Example: a terminally ill patient who wants to die may not be aware that her true interest – according to some – is respecting God’s will and God’s rules against suicide.
  • In many cases, people justify paternalism not because there’s a lack of knowledge, but because there’s a lack of “character” on the part of the agent. The agent may know very well what is and is not in her interest and what actions have beneficial or harmful consequences, but she just can’t bring herself to engage in or avoid those actions. There’s clarity about her interests and about consequences, but not the will, the courage, perseverance etc. to act correctly.

Most cases of paternalism, I guess, are of the first kind, where it is assumed that there’s a lack of continuous knowledge and a lack of conscious and lasting awareness of the consequences of certain actions, and that someone else, e.g. the state, knows better.

Hence, paternalism deserves its name. Paternalists assume – much like Plato – that society is divided into two groups of people, the “fathers” and the “children”, those who know better and are more rational, and those who don’t know and can’t be counted on to take their lives into their own hands. However, paternalism goes beyond the father-child metaphor because it believes that the “children” will never fully grow up: knowledge about consequences acquired through information and education, knowledge about which actions are or are not in the best interests of people, or knowledge about how people can act to best serve their true interests will often not be enough to act in a certain way. Apart from knowledge, character can be lacking, and that’s a fault that is much more difficult to correct without continuous paternalistic force.

The temptation of paternalism

So, all that sounds pretty awful, and yet all or most societies engage in some kind of paternalism without much public opposition. The examples given above are quite common. And indeed, some forms of paternalism are quite harmless and difficult to avoid. John Stuart Mill cites the case of a bridge that is about to collapse. The circumstances are such that only engineers are in a position to know this. Regular drivers don’t and can’t know the consequences of their actions – in this case driving across the bridge – and should therefore be prevented from acting by those who know better. This isn’t usually called paternalism, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear difference between this case and real cases of paternalism, such as laws forcing people to wear crash helmets (assuming that the reason why people don’t wear helmets is an insufficient awareness of the possible consequences), or moral rules dictating that we should try to convince our friends not to commit suicide if they are so inclined.

So, paternalism is there to stay. I don’t think there are many “hard anti-paternalists” around. Hence, as is often the case on this blog, we are faced with value pluralism and two contradicting values: in some cases it’s obviously good to protect people against themselves, but at the same time it is generally correct to respect people’s autonomy, their self-determination and their right to make their own decisions and to live according to their own reasons and motives, free from external forces.

Where’s the trade-off? I would say that the burden of proof is on those wishing to limit people’s autonomy, given the general importance of autonomy. Their case can made stronger when, for example, there’s absolutely no doubt that a certain course of action will produce serious harm to the agent. Otherwise the case for paternalistic coercion is less strong and the best we can do is simply warn people of the possible consequences. Their case can also be made stronger when medical opinion about an agent’s neurological or psychological disorders is unanimous.

The dangers of paternalism

The burden of proof is on paternalists because of the risks inherent in paternalism. We also tend to overestimate the effectiveness of paternalism. Generally, individuals are the best judges of their own needs and wants and of the means to realize them. It’s not obvious that a paternalistic class of “fathers” can have better knowledge, given the vast number of people, options and risks involved. And even if individuals make mistakes, the harm done by forcing them into a system in which they are treated like children may be greater than the harm they do to themselves when left alone. Most people value the freedom to decide for themselves and the value of this freedom can sometimes compensate the cost of self-inflicted harm. It’s also likely that mistakes make people better judges.

Does that mean that people should have the freedom to damn themselves? In most cases, yes, if that’s someone’s free and voluntary choice, made in the light of all the information available and accessible to her.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (26): Are False Beliefs Useful For Human Rights?

I would say yes, but only some. For example, if we go around and successfully propagate the theory that wrongdoers will burn in hell, then this may have a beneficial effect because fear may inculcate morality (as all deterrence theories about crime have to assume). Similarly, false beliefs about the efficacy of law enforcement and the honesty of law enforcement officials also help.

Many false beliefs about high levels of risk can produce risk-averse behavior which in fact lowers the risk and makes it more likely that human rights are protected. For example, if people wrongly believe that their privacy is threatened in certain circumstances, they will take action to secure their privacy and make their privacy more secure than it already was. (More about human rights and risk here).

Human equality – “all men are created equal” – is obviously a false belief when taken as a fact, and in the quote it is taken as such. People are born with different abilities, talents, endowments, advantages etc. And yet we act as if the phrase is more than just a moral imperative. It seems like it’s easier to convince people to treat each other as equals when we say that they are equals.

Certain forms of self-deception also seem to be beneficial from the point of view of human rights:

Self-deception … may be psychologically or biologically programmed. The psychological evidence indicates that self-deceived individuals are happier than individuals who are not self-deceived. … Lack of self-deception, in fact, is a strong sign of depression. (The depressed are typically not self-deceived, except about their likelihood of escaping depression, which they underestimate.) Individuals who feel good about themselves, whether or not the facts merit this feeling, also tend to achieve more. They have more self-confidence, are more willing to take risks, and have an easier time commanding the loyalty of others. Self-deception also may protect against a tendency towards distraction. If individuals are geared towards a few major goals (such as food, status, and sex), self-deception may be an evolved defense mechanism against worries and distractions that might cause a loss of focus. Tyler Cowen (source)

We can claim that, to some extent, happiness, self-confidence, achievement and risk taking are indicators of and/or conditions for the use of human rights. Happy and confident people who are willing to take risks are more likely to engage in public discourse, to vote, to associate and to exercise their human rights in other ways. If that’s true, and if there’s a link between happiness, confidence and self-deception, then self-deception is another example of a falsehood that is beneficial to human rights.

I could go on, and I also could, very easily, list several counter-examples of falsehoods that are detrimental to human rights (take the 72 virgins for instance, or communism). The point I want to make is another one: should we actively promote certain false beliefs because of their beneficial outcomes?

Most of us believe that there is something like a benevolent lie and that lying is the right thing to do in certain circumstances. A strict rule-based morality is hard to find these days. Few would go along with Kant who said that we shouldn’t lie when a murderer asks us about the whereabouts of his intended victim (“fiat justitia et pereat mundus“). People tend to think that the expected consequences of actions should to some extent influence actions and determine, again to some extent, the morality of actions (“to some extent” because another common moral intuition tells us that good consequences don’t excuse all types of actions; most of us wouldn’t accept the horrible torture of a terrorist’s baby in order to find the location of his bomb).

On the other hand, we should ask ourselves if such an enterprise, even if we deem it morally sound, is practically stable. Some false beliefs have proven to be vulnerable to scientific inquiry and public reasoning (hell could be one example). It’s not a good idea to build the system of human rights on such a weak and uncertain basis. But perhaps we should do whatever we can to promote respect for human rights, even if it’s not certain that our tactic is sustainable.

And yet, actively promoting falsehoods is in direct opposition to one of the main justifications of human rights, namely epistemological advances (I stated here what I mean by that). We would therefore be introducing a dangerous inconsistency in the system of human rights. We can’t at the same time promote the use of falsehoods and argue that we need human rights to improve thinking and knowledge. So we are then forced to promote the use of falsehoods in secret – which is necessary anyway because people will not believe falsehoods if we tell them that they are falsehoods – but thereby we introduce another inconsistency: human rights are, after all, about publicity and openness.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (14): Does Confirmation Bias Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable. It’s a form of self-deception that we all suffer from, to a different extent, and that leads us to stick with our original beliefs rather than review them, even if a whole lot of contrary evidence is available. We just seem to be very good at ignoring it and focus on other, confirming evidence, even if the quality of this other evidence is dubious. The “stickiness” of beliefs resulting from confirmation bias is in turn an important cause of polarization of beliefs, the “dialogue of the deaf” style of political discourse, and “gladiator politics“.

Now, why is there confirmation bias? We all value consistency in our identity and self-image, and are afraid to acknowledge mistakes, especially regarding values or facts that are and have been for decades the foundation of our identity. We want to feel good about our “original” and fundamental views and affiliations. If our views are intertwined with our group affiliations, then the elements of group pride and loyalty also promote confirmation bias and our disregard of evidence that contradicts our views. It’s then not only our views that are at stake, but also our sense of belonging and the future of our group. Suppose evidence is found that Jesus Christ could never have lived. If we, as Christians, disregard this evidence, taint it or reinterpret it, then we are able to keep feeling good about ourselves and our previous thinking – we feel like consistent human beings with reasonable thinking powers and without a strong propensity to error – but we are also able to support the continued existence of our group, and that’s important for the wellbeing not only of ourselves but of millions of people. Our pride in our belonging, our identity and reasoning powers, as well as our loyalty to the other members of our group are powerful forces that produce confirmation bias. Patriotism and nationalism can also be seen in this light.

How does this relate to freedom of speech? This human right is often justified by and grounded in the argument that the public and equal appearance of a maximum number of viewpoints and arguments for and against something enhances the quality of thinking, much like the observance of a physical object from different angles yields a better understanding and knowledge of that object. It’s the famous concept of the “marketplace of ideas” where opinions have to enter the struggle of competition, review and criticism. These opinions are then either rejected or they come out better at the other end. The same idea justifies democracy because democracies – ideally – use freedom of speech to find and test the best policies and laws. Equal participation of a maximum number of citizens should then guarantee the same market processes. (More on that here, here and here).

That, of course, is an ideal. In reality, we see that even in free societies public discourse is often – but not always – far removed from the search for truth and improved thinking that should characterize it. Confirmation bias is one of the causes of the distance between reality and ideal because it inhibits the public examination of viewpoints and arguments. Propaganda, dysfunctional media, inept institutions, group pressure, vote buying, disregard of expert views, irrational behavior, deliberate polarization etc. are other causes. But here I’ll focus on confirmation bias.

At first glance, confirmation bias seems to undermine the whole “epistemological justification” – if I may call it that – of free speech and democracy. The more information there is (thanks to free speech), the more likely that people can just pick those pieces of information that confirm their biases, and I understand the word “information” in a broad sense, not just including facts but theories and arguments as well, however “wild” they are. So freedom of speech seems to be more like a bad thing, when viewed in this light.

However, in order to know if something is really bad you have to imagine what would happen if it went away. Without freedom of speech, the appearance of new and conflicting evidence is much less likely, and hence it’s more likely that people stick to their biased and pre-existing beliefs. Freedom of speech doesn’t promote confirmation bias, but doesn’t eliminate it either. People have to do that for themselves. However, freedom of speech gives people the tools to combat confirmation bias, if they are so inclined. And therefore freedom of speech is neither invalidated nor validated by confirmation bias.

Truth vs Reasonableness in Politics

Some will disagree, but I believe that many of the important questions in politics, society and morality aren’t matters of truth, knowledge and certainty. For example, it isn’t “true”, in any sense of the word, that justice means the equal distribution of goods, that abortion is wrong, or that free speech is important. Those who advance those propositions may use facts, data and logic in their arguments, but ultimately the propositions are value judgments rather than statements of fact or knowledge. They are about right and wrong, not about true or false. (I made a similar case here).

This view of morality is known as moral skepticism. The opposing views are often called moral intuitionism or moral realism, and state that there are objective facts of morality independent of human opinion. I’ll do these views an injustice and summarize them in the question: “Don’t you know that slavery is morally wrong?”.

I can understand the attraction of such claims, but still I think moral skepticism holds because political and moral matters are fundamentally different from mathematical or scientific claims based on logic, data gathering, experimentation, statistical analysis, falsification etc. In politics and morality, we’re stuck with mere opinions; opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. Of course, also in matters of scientific or mathematical truth will there always be people with other opinions – take the example of global warming, or the vaccination skeptics – but these other opinions can be easily dismissed by facts, experiments, proofs etc. (which doesn’t mean that these opinions will go away; many people are immune to facts and proof). The same is not the case for basic political and moral questions. These questions may also be supported by data and experiments, but ultimately they rest on arguments for or against value judgments, and hence they can’t be settled on a purely cognitive or scientific basis (in other words, they aren’t – or better don’t have to be – caused by the mere ignorance or stupidity of one of the parties).

So, if data aren’t sufficient and truth and certainty aren’t a possible result of politics and morality, and if, as a result, there will always be a plurality of contradicting opinions, should we just keep on arguing indefinitely? Obviously we don’t. We decide on these questions all of the time. A large proportion of political activity is taken up by decisions on moral matters. And many consider those decisions not only necessary but also urgent. But then how do we decide? How do we distinguish good from bad decisions? We decide, not simply on the basis of facts and experiments, and certainly not on the basis of proof or a priori given truth or knowledge. Instead we use reasonable procedures guaranteeing the best possible decisions in a situation of uncertainty and urgency. These reasonable procedures produces reasonable decisions, not true or certain decisions. It is not because truth and certainty are unavailable that we have to find ourselves at the other extreme of arbitrary, impulsive and purely individual decisions. It is not because we cannot be certain of something that we cannot act in a reasonable way. There’s space between moral realism and moral nihilism, or between moral subjectivism and moral objectivism.

Reasonable decisions have at least the following six characteristics:

  • First of all, reasonable decisions have to have a high level of acceptability and have to be relatively easy to attain and to execute. The decisions of the majority of the people are more difficult to attain but also more acceptable and therefore easier to execute than the decisions of an individual, a monarch or a minority. A decision by consensus is, of course, even more acceptable, but it is also much more difficult to attain. The system of majority decisions seems to be the most reasonable one because it strikes the right balance between the two different criteria of acceptability and ease.
  • However, a reasonable decision has other characteristics as well. A decision of a majority can have terrible consequences, even if it is highly acceptable to the majority and easy to attain and to execute, especially when it is directed against a minority. A decision is a solution to a problem and should not cause problems that are worse than the one it tries to solve. The consequences of a decision should be taken into account. In other words, a reasonable decision is a responsible decision, in the sense that responsibility means taking into account and being accountable for the consequences of your actions.
  • A reasonable decision must be the best possible one under the given circumstances. This means that all possible decisions must be allowed to appear and to be defended in public before the actual decision is taken. The advantages and disadvantages of each one must be compared to the advantages and disadvantages of all other possible decisions. The choice between competing decisions must take place in public and as many people as possible should participate in this choice, otherwise we may not find the best possible decision. If we exclude some people, we may exclude some possible solutions or some arguments against or in favor of some solutions. In order to be able to identify the best solution, the choice of a solution should be preceded by thorough examination of every possible or proposed solution and by public argumentation and deliberation. A maximum number of people should consider every possible solution. Reasonable decisions or reasonable solutions to problems should be public and should involve massive and free participation. Dictatorial, secret or impulsive decisions can only by chance be the best possible decisions.
  • We should not be impulsive, but some things are urgent nevertheless. Sometimes we do not have time for massive participation and for thorough consideration of all possible solutions and arguments. Timeliness is also a characteristic of reasonableness. A decision that comes too late can never be called reasonable.
  • The characteristic of timeliness is balanced by the characteristic of provisionality. Every reasonable decision is provisional, experimental (but not in the scientific sense) and therefore possibly transitory. It must be possible to correct or revoke a decision if it turns out to be the wrong one, if better arguments for other decisions turn up or if the circumstances change. This makes the speed of some decisions more acceptable. Regret and self-criticism are important democratic values. There is a Scottish rock band, The Proclaimers, that sings: “what do you do when democracy’s all through, when ‘minority’ means you, when the rest can’t see its true?”. The members of the band are Scottish nationalists who favor independence. However, there seems to be no Scottish majority ready to follow them. The error in their argument is that democracy is never “all through”. You can always continue to advocate your case and maybe, some day, you will find the right argument to convince a majority.
  • The provisional character of a decision should, of course, be balanced against the need for stability and continuity. Decisions that change all the time are not the best possible decisions either.

These remarks indicate that democracy and freedom of speech are necessary or at least very helpful to arrive at the best possible decisions. Of course, massive participation and free discussion are also important in the discovery of scientific truth. But the “massive participation” is limited to scientists with knowledge of the domain in question. No one will propose a nation-wide referendum to decide on the correctness of the theory of relativity for example. Moreover, scientific discussions rest heavily on data, proof, experiments etc., which doesn’t have to be the case in moral and political matters.

Politics is not concerned with an a priori given truth. Political decisions do not exist because someone declares them after contemplation of the truth. They exist because a democratic majority has taken a decision with its limited knowledge of the moment and after reasonable, public and large-scale discussion, and because afterwards experience has shown that the decision has done what was expected and that arguments for other decisions have remained unconvincing. Reasonable procedures and experience, rather than truth, data, proof etc. give legitimacy to decisions.

Thinking About Politics, and Doing Politics

What’s the status of thinking about political subjects? I think it’s fair to say that there’s no way of achieving something called “truth” or “scientific knowledge” when dealing with basic political concepts. For example, there’s no truth about democracy, human rights, justice etc. We’re stuck with mere opinions. Opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the unquestionable truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. This doesn’t mean that we should all become extreme relativists for whom everything is equally valuable. Opinions can be based on prejudice or arguments, on good or bad arguments, on arguments picked up more or less randomly or on arguments that are properly tested and investigated, on correct logic or flawed logic etc.

This doesn’t mean that there can’t be any truth or scientific knowledge in the field of politics. We can do scientific work, for example we can do quantitative analysis on support for democracy, on preconditions of democracy etc. but not on the concept of democracy as such. The basic terms of the debate will remain contestable concepts that mean different things to different people, and that are valued differently by different people.

Opinions – contrary to the truth – do not have to be accepted, do not eliminate difference and do not impose consensus. They can be accepted or rejected, depending on the force of the arguments, your inclination to properly investigate the arguments, your prejudice, your upbringing and education, your social environment etc. Needless to say that the proper way of thinking about politics or about anything else requires investigation of the arguments for and against any opinion.

The world of political thinking is therefore very similar to the world of politics itself, at least as long as we limit ourselves to democratic politics (which for many is the only proper type of politics – any other kind is really just force rather than politics): it’s a world of plurality, contradiction and persuasion. We like to hope that the similarity between these two worlds goes even further than this, that democratic politics isn’t just a clash between opinions, but that the persuasion taking place in democratic politics is based on the proper investigation of all the arguments for and against, and that the opinions which temporarily gain the upper hand (and become policy or law) are the ones that are strongest intellectually. Just like in the world of political thinking.

Of course, democracy is only potentially like this. In reality, the predominant opinions aren’t necessarily the ones that are backed by the best arguments. Sloppy arguments or even prejudice (the absence of arguments) often determine which opinions “win” in a democracy. But that also happens in the world of political thinking, although perhaps (and hopefully) less often (if it happens less often, this doesn’t have anything to do with the supposed superior “intellects” of political scientists or philosophers compared to the ordinary people; it’s because of structures and procedures such as peer review and citation requirements, the time these people can spend on investigations of arguments etc.).

Democracy falls short of its potential because arguments aren’t investigated properly or are replaced by prejudice, but also because some players in the game regard their opinions not as opinions, but as the truth. As a result, they don’t believe it’s necessary to investigate the merits of other opinions or the arguments behind other opinions. Other opinions are no longer equal players in a game of persuasion, but are mistakes, errors, lies, or even sins (if the “truth” is of godly origin).

Ideally, the world of political thinking and the world of democratic politics would merge. Democratic politics, if it’s to avoid prejudice, faulty argumentation and claims of truth, needs an education in argumentation. Political thinkers (and, yes, I’m not thinking of myself) can provide this, not because they are smarter than the ordinary people who engage in politics, but because they have the benefit of practice in the art of argumentation. However, the benefits don’t have to travel in this direction: Soviet political science in the 1930s or 1940s, for example, could have benefited a lot from the example of ordinary US politics at the time. I’m not so sure about present-day US politics…

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (9): Free Speech, Democracy, Socrates and the Search for Truth

Just a few additional remarks on the way in which the equal right to free speech, and democratic deliberation based on this right, improve the quality of “knowledge” and of political decisions. (Continuing where this and this post left off).

Of course, “knowledge” and “truth” not in any absolute or objective sense, but in the sense of the best kind of thinking a given society at a given time can achieve.

Before arguing how Socrates is relevant in this discussion, allow me to cite a few 20th century thinkers. Justice Louis Brandeis, in his concurring opinion in Whitney v California, stated that the

freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth. (source)

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)

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.

The freedom to speak, the equal freedom to speak, and massive use by large numbers of people of this freedom, result in the appearance and confrontation of a large number of points of view and of perspectives on an issue. It means that a proposal or opinion or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it survives this, it is bound to be of better quality. Unfounded opinions or opinions that are open to sound criticism are not likely to survive this process. Free speech in general, and free speech as it is implemented in democratic decision procedures, initiate such a process. That is why opinions in a free society and political decisions in a democracy have what we could call an epistemological advantage. They are of better quality. At least as long as we contemplate the ideals. Real free societies and real democracies may fall significantly short of this ideal.

Again, epistemological advantage doesn’t equal “truth” and “knowledge”; just the best thinking we can get. Unfortunately, I’m not being very original here. This is obvious when we return to the Ancient Greeks. The Athenians especially believed that democratic deliberation (which for them was the same as free speech) was essential for wise decisions because it sheds the light of diverse opinions and criticism on policy options. Pericles, in his Funeral Oration, as recorded by Thucydides, said:

Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.

None of this is limited to highly participatory systems of direct democracy such as the Athenian democracy, or to politics. The process can occur in modern, representative democracies and in any setting, political or non-political, guaranteeing free and equal speech. The scientific community for example heavily relies on peer participation. It’s fair to say that freedom of speech is essential for any collective search for of or advancement towards truth. In fact, the word “collective” is superfluous here, because the process is by definition collective. No one thinks more or less correctly in isolation.

We normally assume that an ideally conducted discussion among many persons is more likely to arrive at the correct conclusion (by a vote if necessary) than the deliberations of any one of them by himself. Why should this be so? In everyday life the exchange of opinion with others checks our partiality and widens our perspective; we are made to see things from their standpoint and the limits of our vision are brought home to us … Discussion is a way of combining information and enlarging the range of arguments. At least in the course of time, the effects of common deliberation seem bound to improve matters. John Rawls

I know, I know: “what about Socrates!”. Well, the Socratic method is a type of discussion with adversaries which is intended to expose the adversaries’ pretensions, prejudices, dogmas and conventional beliefs. In other words, it targets opinions which are accepted as such, without having first passed through a process of examination and criticism. Socrates is a one man democratic agora, launching different criticisms and counter-arguments at an opinion, and shining the light of many perspectives.

Plato, Aristotle, Democracy, and the Quality of Political Decisions

A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers. Plato
Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth. Aristotle

I’m with Aristotle here. Plato is well known for his aversion to democracy (see here; Aristotle is more moderate in this respect). With this quote, Plato initiated the long tradition of juxtaposing rule by experts (or meritocracy, aristocracy or whatever) and rule by the people (majority rule in a democracy). This tradition is, of course, intuitively attractive. Politics is a profession like any other. You wouldn’t have a popular vote on the best design for a bridge, so why on government policy and legislation? Better give political power to those who know what they are doing. (In Plato’s case philosophers, but I guess his contemporary followers would prefer other types of expertise).

I accept part of this argument, but I include the need for popular control of experts, thereby safeguarding democracy to some extent. What I want to do now in the current post, is go a step further, and claim that the quality of political decisions doesn’t necessarily or always depend on expert knowledge of the matters at hand, but rather on mass participation in the decision process, and hence on democracy. Or, more precisely, on a democracy that isn’t just about electing and controlling experts but also about large numbers of people participating in the determination of policy and legislation. The important thing here is the element of MASS participation, of numbers.

What’s interesting in the Plato quote above is the implied opposition between knowledge and numbers, typical of Plato of course. But we can turn this around, and say that knowledge DEPENDS on numbers. The equal participation of large numbers of people in a democracy results, perhaps not in more knowledge stricto sensu, but at least in better decisions compared to the political inequality that goes with rule by experts. The opinion of the people, as established through democratic decision procedures, is – potentially at least, and given certain preconditions – better than any other opinion (which does not mean that the people are infallible).

Why is this? In ideal circumstances, the opinion of the people results from an inclusive, widespread and free discussion, guaranteed by human rights, among large numbers of people who all have an equal say. A discussion in which as many people as possible participate in an equal way contains the largest possible number of arguments for and against a proposal. Such a discussion, therefore, makes it more likely that false arguments are refuted and that good arguments are recognized and are widely tested. Two heads are better than one, and 4 better than 2 etc.

A group of individuals is more intelligent than the sum of the individual intellects. Massive participation means massive criticism and this improves the quality of a proposal which can survive this massive criticism.

Political equality is a value because it improves the quality of decisions. This idea is also behind John Stuart Mill’s defense of equal political participation rights for women:

The inequality of the sexes has deprived society of a vast pool of talent. If women had the free use of their faculties along with the same prizes and encouragements as men, there would be a doubling of the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity. The injustice perpetuated against women has depleted the human condition: every restraint on freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow creatures … dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being. John Stuart Mill

Excluding or neglecting certain opinions or certain people from political decision procedures does not only harm the interests of the people concerned but also harms the thinking process of the community and the quality of common decisions. The best decisions – on average – require the equal participation and activity of as many persons as possible.

Elitism has always been very popular, both at the right and at the left of the political spectrum. Decisions of the “common people” are said to be stupid by definition. The people are not qualified to rule and are perhaps, not even qualified to choose their rulers. An elite must rule the people and this is in the best interest of the people. The people must be protected against their own stupid decisions. Only an elite has the necessary qualifications to rule. It knows better than the people what the people need and it knows better how to achieve the real goals of the people. That is the legacy of Plato.

However, an elite is more likely to make wrong decisions because it does not know all possible arguments and it does not have to submit itself to criticism. Large scale discussion is not an obstacle for action; it is a necessary condition for wise action.

The majority of the plain people will day in and day out make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller body of men will make in trying to govern them. Theodore Roosevelt

Be that as it may, how do I explain the phenomenon of demagogy or the often very irrational, unreasonable and emotional reactions of the people (lynching, for example, or voting for Hitler)? Of course, nobody in his right mind would maintain that the people are always reasonable, rational or infallible. The quality of the decisions of the people can only be good in the setting of ideal democratic procedures in which discussion, deliberation and argumentation take a prominent place. This setting is an ideal but many existing procedures come very close to this ideal. If the right institutions, mentalities etc. are given, then the ideal can become a fact.

Besides, individuals or elites are often just as unreasonable, emotional or irrational as large groups of people. It is even easier to excite a small group than it is to excite a large group, because it is more difficult to have a unity of feeling in a large group. There are more conflicts and contradictions in large groups than in small groups, which makes it unlikely that a large group of people gets excited in the same way.

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.

What is Democracy? (26): Democracy or Experts?

The proper judge of the expert is not another expert, but the user: The warrior and not the blacksmith for the sword, the horseman and not the saddler for the saddle. And evidently, for all public (common) affairs, the user, and thus the best judge, is the polis. Cornelius Castoriadis

The best method of choice is to choose experts by their success. The best experts to choose are the ones whose bridges have not fallen down. In this the more views about what is actually happening, or has happened, the better. Dictators or oligarchies are more insulated from what is going on than the people at large. To find out whether the people have actually been fed, the best people to consult are the people themselves. Ross Harrison

A frequently heard argument against democracy is that the job of governing requires expert knowledge. The government is better left in the hands of experts. The “populace” has other things to do than investing in the knowledge necessary for governing. I’ve mentioned this argument in my post on Plato.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious objection against this argument – that many acts of government have nothing to do with knowledge but are rather a matter of judgment, values, personality, character, conviction, courage etc. All things in which no one is an “expert”.

Let us grant that certain parts of the act of governing are better left to experts with the appropriate knowledge, for example the management of the road and bridge infrastructure as in the quote above. But even though the people sometimes need individuals with expert knowledge in places of government, it is up to the people to choose and judge the experts and the result of the experts’ work, because this kind of judgment requires as much information on what is happening as possible.

It is wrong to say that you always need an expert to judge an expert. The role of experts must always be integrated in and subject to a democratic system. Experts should only play a supporting role. They use their knowledge and truth to assist the people, often at the level of means and not at the level of goals.

First, there has to be a decision on whether or not to build a bridge and only then can the experts come into play. The decision to build a bridge is not only based on facts, mathematics, if-then calculations etc. Values and interest play an important part (for example, ecological values). It is up to the people to decide on their goals, and when values come into play there often is no knowledge available to do this. They decide if they need a bridge and they determine which values will be served by having a bridge and which other values can possibly be harmed by the bridge. These value-questions will rarely be the consequence of knowledge and truth. They cannot, therefore, be left to experts.

In politics, values are more important than truth or knowledge. I do not think that there can ever be a certain answer to the question whether a particular bridge ought to be built or not, whether dishonest asylum seekers ought to be expelled or not, whether education has to continue until the age of 18 or not, etc. This kind of decision will be based on discussion, debate and arguments, not on truth. Once there is a decision on these questions, we can leave the technical aspects to the experts: how do we expel dishonest asylum seekers, which techniques do we use, what is the planning etc. It may be possible to find elements of truth and knowledge at this level, in which case we may need experts. But it can happen that these techniques again give rise to value questions (for example, the use of stock cars for the expulsion of dishonest asylum seekers).

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

(please read part 1 first)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parts 1, 3 and 4

Religion and Human Rights (2): God is Alive and Kicking; Mostly Kicking

This is a post on the logic of religious terrorism.Those who listen to the daily news, and that’s about all of us, know it very well: God is not dead, whether you like it or not. Many of the major news stories are about religious conflict: Islamic terrorism, Muhammad cartoons, the Pope insulting other religions…

It seems that God is directing world affairs, or at least the God in the minds of the numerous religiously inspired actors who initiate the world events that reach our news programs. In many cases, these events are violent and bloody. God is alive, and He’s kicking, of course not personally but through His representatives on earth. And of course He’s kicking the unbelievers or the believers of a rival God.

So it is not uncommon to hear complaints about the pernicious effects of religion. I want to argue that it is not religion as such which should be blamed for religiously inspired suffering, but the status of religious beliefs in the minds of those causing the suffering. There is an enormous difference between the action patterns of those who think that their religious beliefs are their personal opinions and those who think that their beliefs are exact images of the Truth.

Opinions are, by nature, non-despotic: they cannot be forced on you. The truth can. No one can escape the truth. The laws of physics for example have a despotic character. You have to accept them. Opinions can be accepted or rejected, depending on the force of the arguments for or against, on your personal disposition, your intellectual powers of understanding etc. Another characteristic of opinions is that they are part of a contradictory world of different opinions. An opinion exists only as long as its contrary also exists. If the latter ceases to exist, then the former becomes what we may call some form of truth, at least to the extent that we may give this label to an opinion that is the object of a worldwide consensus. The laws of physics for example have attained this level of consensus and therefore can be labeled truth rather than opinion. Religion obviously has not.

Truth implies consensus. Who dares to resist the truth? Only a fool or a moron. Truth eliminates debate because no one contradicts the truth. As long as someone who is neither a fool nor a moron contradicts the truth and gives good reasons for doing so, we have not yet attained the level of truth and remain in the world of opinion. This world is one of plurality and contradiction; the world of truth is one of uniformity. Only when everyone is convinced and no good reasons or arguments against are left can we claim to have something like the truth. Even when some opinions are predominant, they remain mere opinions as long as good arguments against are available, or, in other words, as long as contradictory opinions based on good arguments and not mere prejudices are available.

As everyone who expresses an opinion, I also would like to see my opinions elevated to the status of truth. But that depends on many things: the force of my arguments, the disposition of my readers etc. It is not a result that I can determine or even predict. If I would force this elevation on the condition that I would have the power to do so then I would not be acting democratically. Democratic politics does not take place in the world of truth or the world of uniformity and despotism. Opinions are the fabric of democracy.

Democracy is the game of different and contradictory opinions, some of which become temporarily predominant because they are backed by the better arguments or the arguments that can convince a majority, on the condition that we speak about a perfect democracy unhindered by manipulation. The predominant opinions then inform government policy, but non-predominant ones continue to exist and continue to make their case in an effort to become predominant themselves. If these other opinions no longer exist, then it is not opinion but truth that informs government policy. Which can and does happen, even in the case of perfectly democratic governments. But it is not typical of a democracy and not its essence. One can even say that the job of a democracy is finished when it happens.

For example, the fight against inflation is no longer an opinion. There are no longer good arguments for the opposite policy and everyone is convinced that it is a good policy. Hence, there is no democratic debate for or against the fight against inflation. The policies of all governments, including democracies, are inspired by this truth, but this has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy can only enter the stage when different actors present different and contradictory opinions, for example opinions regarding abortion. There is intense debate about this subject. The predominance and hence also government policy shifts from one side to the other and back again.

But what we see in the example of abortion and in many other examples in the field of religion, is that democracy does not only stop when an opinion is elevated to the level of truth. It also stops when contradictory opinions continue to exist but are no longer argued. Proponents and opponents of abortion have practically stopped to give reasons and arguments. They just throw citations from the Bible or general and vague claims of rights at one another. In fact, their opinions have not been elevated to the level of truth but have rather descended to the level of prejudices or feelings or beliefs. Democracy requires opinions, not something more or less. Opinions are based on arguments and reasons, not on evidence, proof, certainty, prejudices, feelings or beliefs. Democracy only has a function when there can be debate and there can only be debate when there are opinions, not when there is more or less, not when everything is either truth or belief. Of course, beliefs should not be excluded from democratic politics, just as truth should not be excluded. Beliefs can be a powerful force behind debates. They can inspire thinking and discussion, but they will never be the essence of democracy. If there is nothing more than beliefs, then there is no democracy.

So truth can enter democracy; democratic governments would be literally stupid not to allow this but it will never be its essence. When truth becomes the essence of politics, democracy dies. This can happen when people forget that what they believe is not an opinion but the truth, and this often happens in the case of religious beliefs. People become unable or unwilling to see that other, contradictory opinions based on good arguments continue to exist, and try to transform politics from a space of discussion into a machine for the application of the truth. Other opinions are suppressed and violence is used against people who hold them, because these other opinions are not recognized as valid opinions based on arguments. Instead, they are seen as mistakes or errors or even lies because they contradict the beliefs of those who believe to posses the truth. And who would not admit action against errors or lies?

This unwarranted renaming of opinions into truths and the subsequent actions against opinions that are not in fact errors or lies but real opinions based on sound arguments, not only destroys debate and democracy but destroys the very lives of many people. Politics becomes a tool to transform reality, to shape the world according to some theory or utopia considered to be the true teaching. Islamic fundamentalism is a typical example of this approach. The adherents of this ideology are convinced that they possess the truth and are unable or unwilling to recognize the views of others as valid opinions based on sound arguments. Everything outside of their worldview is false and needs to be corrected or destroyed.

If you see yourself as the carrier of truth rather than one who holds a particularly well argued opinion, then you have to suppress other views. You are morally obliged to act against mistakes and lies. Allowing someone to lie or to live a life of mistakes is immoral. This person is not someone who happens to hold another opinion based on arguments that according to you are less successful, and who has to be respected for this. He or she is clearly stupid or even of bad faith, and has to be re-educated in order to access the truth. Democratic argumentation and discussion will not help in these cases because argumentation requires a target that is either sensitive to good arguments and hence not stupid, or of good faith. And in any case, truth does not need arguments. It is self-evident and, if not, merely requires explanation. But explanation does not help either when the target is stupid or of bad faith. Force is then the only means left. This is the fatal logic that drives people who believe to be the holders of truth away from democracy and in the arms of tyranny and terrorism.

All this does not mean that democratic politics cannot or should not be based on strong beliefs. Participants must believe that their opinions are valid and that they have good reasons for believing in these opinions, and they can act according to these opinions. Democratic action can be inspired by beliefs and theory, and even should be if it wants to be intelligent and something more than pure activism. But it should never forget that others may be inspired differently and have sound reasons to follow other opinions. Action inspired by theory has to take place within the democratic game of competing opinions and should not replace this game by the effort to impose something that is mistaken for the truth and that is in fact merely one opinion in a setting of many competing opinions.