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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QTWTAIN: Does the Problem of the Self Undermine Human Rights?

The view that there is no such thing as a personal identity or a self has become commonplace among philosophers. This view is of course counterintuitive, but may very well be correct. Why is it counterintuitive? Well, despite all the changes we go through over the course of our lives – changes that are sometimes “life changing” – we still have a sense of persistence and sameness of our selves over time. (At least, most of us do. There are some mental illnesses that disturb this sense of continuity). It’s “I” who changes, and although I change there is an unchanging entity – me – that goes through the changing process. I or my own self remains the same at a deeper level underneath the changes of some parts of me. I keep my distinct personal identity over time. I don’t have it at birth, but I develop it throughout my early life and keep it until my last second. (Again, conditional upon my mental health, in particular during old age).

At least that’s how I feel. I don’t feel like I’m a different person – at least not literally – compared to the one I was yesterday, even if important parts or aspects of me may have changed today, perhaps as a result of a life-changing experience. I may feel like I’m a different man – figuratively speaking – but it’s “I” who feels like a different man. The same “I” that felt different things yesterday. I’m still Filip, even if I’ve changed somehow, and the people who know me know that I am.

Of course, my sense of continuity does not only resist life changing experiences. Even without such experiences I continually oppose a barrage of more mundane changes throughout my life. Although apparently I look just like I did yesterday, my body is in fact changing every second. I gain and lose matter; my body cells are continually replaced. Over the span of several years, my body matter will be almost completely renewed. (A bit like the parts of the ship of Theseus which somehow remains the ship of Theseus even though every part is replaced one after the other). However, my brain cells typically last a lifetime, so this could be a refuge for the idea of personal continuity. Were it not for the fact that although brain cells don’t die we do make new ones and the combinations and interactions between them change all the time. We learn new things and forget other things. We have new experiences, memories and opinions and lose others. Compared to cellular replacement or life changing experiences, neurological changes such as these should be equally devastating to the notion of persistence of identity over time, a notion which is, apparently at least, a sine qua non for any theory of the self.

So, if it’s true that we can’t assume the same person to exist and persist over time, then what does that imply for that person’s human rights? Human rights typically attach to a human person. If the human person is a myth, then does it still make sense to talk about human rights? The obvious answer would be “no”. Something that doesn’t exist can’t have anything: no attributes, no character and certainly not any enforceable rights.

However, you may have noted the sleight of hand here. It’s not because a person can’t be said to exist over time that he or she does not exist at all. “Synchronic identity” is much more difficult to dispute than “diachronic identity” (although it’s not impossible). We are all persons during that infinitely small period of time that is now. (Even those of us who have multiple personalities or other personality disorders). And that synchronic identity is a sufficient basis of rights, because we need our rights now (we can be harmed, hurt, oppressed and killed now). It follows that if we have rights now, then we always have rights because there will always be a now. The fact that we may be different persons from one now to the next – if that is indeed a fact – is neither here nor there and doesn’t imply anything regarding the need for or justification of our rights. Just as it doesn’t imply anything regarding the need for our physical bodies, at least as long as mind uploading isn’t feasible. The day it becomes feasible we’ll return to the question: is there anything to upload?

Terrorism and Human Rights (41): The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario

I recently wrote a blind referee report for a paper about the so-called ticking time bomb scenario (a short intro about the concept is here), and it occurred to me that it may make a useful blogpost. I can’t show you the paper itself, since it’s not published yet and I don’t know who wrote it (that’s what blind refereeing is about), but I don’t think that’s necessary in order to understand my comments. Undoubtedly, by publishing my comments here I also violate the blind refereeing process, since there’s a chance the author(s) of the paper, whomever it is, might find my comments here and hence find out who I am. It’s a small chance, since this is a small blog. But, truth be told, I don’t care because I object to the whole blind refereeing thing: it stifles discussion. I only go along with it because I get to read interesting papers.

So here goes:

While the authors do an excellent job of doing what they set out to do, I have an objection to their basic objective. The paper is intended as a defense of thought experiments in philosophy in general and of the Ticking Time Bomb scenario (TBS) in particular. That in itself is a laudable objective, and the discussion of the ways in which the use of TBS as a thought experiment has been misunderstood, especially by opponents of torture, is on the mark.

However, it is my view that the authors focus too much on TBS as a philosophical device and as a thought experiment and lose sight of common usage of TBS. As a result, they run the risk of producing a paper on a topic that is irrelevant to the main discussions regarding the topic. If one were willing to count, one would find that a large majority of citations of TBS are not in the context of strictly philosophical discussions regarding our deeply held moral intuitions, but rather in a context in which philosophical discussions about TBS are intended to have policy implications. In fact, TBS is hardly ever a purely philosophical device and almost always a philosophical slash political device. A paper on TBS – even a philosophical paper – should not lose sight of the ways in which discussions about TBS are often intended to have policy implications, especially when these intended policy implications are highly disturbing.

The authors make assumptions about the motivations of proponents and opponents of discussions about TBS. For instance: proponents are assumed to use TBS as a merely philosophical device intended to highlight our moral intuitions, whereas opponents are assumed to be motivated by their fear of the – supposedly non-existent – policy motivations of proponents. The authors seem to be arguing two things:

  1. Those who use the TBS in order to argue that a ticking bomb should perhaps authorize torture only or mainly do so in order to highlight moral intuitions, not in order to actually promote the use of torture were a ticking bomb to be found.
  2. Those who object to the use of the TBS as a means to argue that a ticking bomb should perhaps authorize torture therefore miss the point.

I believe that both arguments are wrong, sociologically speaking. The authors would probably agree and respond that they do not speak sociologically but philosophically and that their point is an “ought” rather than an “is”: even if TBS “is” used as a policy device and a means to promote torture, it “ought” to be used as a mere philosophical device (“the proper use of the TBS is not intended as a policy-making device”, p. 12). Be that as it may, the paper would benefit from

  1. A clearer statement of this difference.
  2. A clear recognition of the actual way in which a majority of citations of TBS are evidently philosophical slash political in nature rather than merely philosophical.
  3. A more thorough discussion of the respective motivations of proponents and opponents of the use of the TBS experiment.

The paper also contains some statements without arguments. For example, the already cited phrase “the proper use of the TBS is not intended as a policy-making device” (p. 12). While the usefulness of TBS as a philosophical thought experiment is very well argued elsewhere in the paper, the claim that this and only this use of TBS is the proper one is merely stated, not argued. Many actual users of TBS would disagree and would claim that it is and should be a policy making device. For example, one could make the case that the frequent use of TBS by Bush/Cheney officials was intended as a justification of actual torture. Another phrase that does not receive sufficient argument: “strenuous attempts to show that the TBS … leads to terrible social policy are misguided” (p. 26). Perhaps actual torture during the Bush/Cheney administration combined with frequent citation of the TBS by that administration would indicate that those “strenuous attempts” are not in fact “misguided”. If the authors wish to maintain the two cited phrases, they’ll have to make the argument.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (24): Richard Rorty on Human Rights and Sympathy

Richard Rorty has an interesting take on human rights. If we want universal acceptance of and respect for human rights, we shouldn’t try to argue about it. We shouldn’t attempt to work out rational justifications of human rights, or arguments that will convince people that human rights are a good thing. Instead, according to Rorty, we would achieve better results if we try to influence people’s feelings instead of their minds. And the best way to do that is by telling sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc., or by making political art. Such stories and art make the reader sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience or the reader to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position. The victim, who may be of another class, race or nationality and who seems so very different that he or she initially isn’t even considered to be of the same species and therefore cannot possibly claim to enjoy the same rights, is transformed by the story into a living human being. The sympathy engendered by the story gives the victim a human face. This person also grieves for the loss of children, also has an opinion and a moral sense. He’s or she not a barbarian. As a consequence, the victim can be given human rights.

This approach to human rights doesn’t justifying human rights in an abstract and philosophical way – something which according to Rorty isn’t possible anyway (Rorty’s a post-modern anti-foundationalist highly sceptical of the power of reason or rationality). Instead it motivates specific individuals to respect the rights of other specific individuals. So motivation instead of justification. And the focus isn’t so much on human rights themselves, but on humanity. When human rights are violated, it’s often not because people object to human rights, but because they consider the targets of rights violations as somehow outside the realm of humanity. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was very eloquent about human rights, but was a slave holder at the same time. Undoubtedly because he had convinced himself that negroes were more akin to animals than humans.

The big advantage of the sentimental approach is that is can convince people to accept others into the realm of humanity. Sympathy means after all the recognition that someone else’s suffering is akin to your own. Rorty harked back to David Hume for this insight:

Hume held that corrected (sometimes rule-corrected) sympathy, not law-discerning reason, is the fundamental moral capacity. Richard Rorty (source)

This approach, or “sentimental education” as Rorty called it, can indeed be very useful. However, I think we should and can use both strategies, the emotional and the rational one. The emotional approach isn’t without a downside. Human rights violations do not always occur because of a lack of sympathy or because of dehumanization. They are often the result of power structures, cultural practices, legal rules, institutions, international relations etc. Just engendering sympathy won’t do much good there. Moreover, sentimental education implies a willingness to listen – not a notable characteristic of many of the worst human rights violators, i.e. Taliban c.s. – and a certain standard of living that allows people to relax long enough to be able to listen. These are problems which Rorty recognized (source) and which indicate that his approach cannot be exclusive.

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 Democratic Destruction of Democracy

We’re all familiar with the phrase. Democracies allow so much freedom that anti-democratic forces can develop inside of them and ultimately destroy them from within, using the very tools that make democracy what it is (freedom of speech and association, elections etc.). The archetypal case is, of course, the Weimar Republic of pre-WWII Germany (although one can claim that Weimar wasn’t really a democracy and Hitler’s rise to power didn’t occur through purely democratic means). The democratic destruction of democracy is also, misleadingly, called the self-destruction of democracy, as if it is the democracy as a whole rather than an abusive part of it that causes the destruction.

However, I also have a problem with the phrase “democratic destruction of democracy”. There is, after all, nothing democratic about the abuse of democracy by anti-democratic forces trying to get elected with the sole purpose of ending all future elections. Their actions may be democratic in the strictly legal sense, but not in the moral or philosophical sense.

I believe the “democratic destruction of democracy” means something else. Most people, and even those who care about democracy and are willing to die in its defense, view one of its basic characteristics – the plurality of opinion – as a suboptimal state of affairs, and something to be overcome. We all believe strongly in certain opinions, and we may even consider those opinions to be more than mere opinions. In other words, we make truth claims about our opinions. That means that we believe that other people, who have adopted other opinions, are wrong, mistaken. We want to convince them, but that means that we want to eliminate the plurality of opposing opinions. It also means that we want to abolish democracy, because it’s impossible to imagine a democracy in a world of unanimity.

Paradoxically, the most typical democratic activity – persuasion – has the objective of ending democracy. I wouldn’t call it a “destruction”, because the end of democracy is a byproduct, not a conscious goal. Of course, this democratic (let’s call it) termination of democracy is possible only through persuasion, and by the looks of it, that’s not a very sharp tool. Hence the termination is still a rather abstract and long-term possibility. The undemocratic termination of democracy does not suffer from tool-limitation, and is therefore a much less theoretical possibility.

This undemocratic termination can occur inside or outside of democracy, with the tools offered by democracy or with other tools. Anti-democrats can decide to try to get elected, or they can stage a coup. Or whatever. Common to many anti-democrats is impatience with persuasion. Some are motivated simply by power or money, but many believe that the “democratic masses” just can’t see the light and are immune to even the best arguments. Instead of persuasion, the impatient anti-democrats are led to believe that imposition of a worldview is the only remedy for error and mistake. Re-education camps are quick to follow, and extermination camps for those for whom even persuasion in the form of re-education is impossible.

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…

The Ethics of Human Rights (22): Caring for What Happens in the World vs Moral Indifference or Moral Apathy

I guess we all have, now and again, the feeling that it’s strange that we go about our business as usual, being content or even happy, when at exactly the same time in countless other places in the world, someone is suffering, being tortured, killed, raped or whatever. Normally, we don’t think about these facts, because that would make our lives impossible. Thinking about it causes feelings of guilt and unease. Even though we’re often not directly responsible for what happens to these people, there’s always the lingering thought that there may be something we can do to help. And probably there is something we can do, especially if we invested some more effort in associating with others. (Individually we may indeed be powerless).

And there’s an even more unsettling thought lurking deeper in the backs of our minds, namely that we are responsible to some extent, even for the suffering of people thousands of miles away, people we don’t know and will never know. Thomas Pogge for instance has claimed – correctly in my view – that in our globalized world we all contribute, to some extent,  to institutions, rules and processes that violate human rights. For example, we buy clothes from companies that use child labor or ban trade unions; we still profit from colonial exploitation that happened more than a century ago; we acquiesce in democratically enacted laws that exclude poor producers from our markets etc.

The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem. Thomas Pogge (source)

By the way, Pogge’s argument can be used to counter the claim that “poverty human rights” are substantially different from “normal human rights” such as the right to free speech etc. (are perhaps not even “real human rights” at all), because they impose positive duties instead of merely negative duties, duties to help instead of merely duties not to interfere. For Pogge, poverty is a negative duty: people aren’t poor because we fail to help them but because we actively – albeit often unconsciously – contribute to their poverty. Rather than focusing our efforts on how we can help the poor, we should focus on how we hurt them. This is reminiscent of recent debates on the continued usefulness of development aid.

OK, back to the main point. It’s all very well to encourage “caring”, and possibly also “helping”, but thinking about what we could call the “synchronicity of heaven and hell” makes it very difficult to get on with our lives. Hence we tend to suppress such thoughts. It’s a survival strategy, and quite understandable as such, but the consequence of not thinking is not helping. We know in the back of our minds that while we’re doing fine, elsewhere it’s hell, but we just don’t think about it too much. Only when we watch the news, donate something, or sit in the park and have nothing else to do. And then we’re amazed at how cold-hearted we can be. But at the same time and unconsciously, we continue to function in structures, institutions and sets of rules that underpin the problems that occasionally make us angry. And then we return to our normal mode of moral indifference. Much like the people in the “Fall of Icarus” by Breughel, a painting commented upon in a poem by WH Auden:

… In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. (full text here)

Also like the father figure in the “Elf King” poem by Goethe, ignoring the suffering and anxiety of his own sun until it’s too late. We can try to rationalize our moral indifference in several ways. First, we may reject the claim that we have any part in the problems that occur far away. We may believe that poverty and dictatorship are home-grown, and not supported by globalization or our own countries’ involvement. Perhaps we believe that individuals failures are the only cause of their problems. Instead of being a bleeding heart Atlas supporting the misery of the world (as in the poem by Heinrich Heine below), we should simply “shrug“.

Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas! Eine Welt,
Die ganze Welt der Schmerzen muß ich tragen,
Ich trage Unerträgliches, und brechen
Will mir das Herz im Leibe.
Du stolzes Herz, du hast es ja gewollt!
Du wolltest glücklich sein, unendlich glücklich,
Oder unendlich elend, stolzes Herz,
Und jetzo bist du elend.

We also rationalize our inaction and moral indifference by pointing to the distance between us and those who suffer. This distance makes action on our part difficult, we believe, and makes it more likely that actions by others who are closer and more familiar with what’s happening will be more successful. While it’s generally correct to state that closeness is a factor in the ability to help, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the causes of problems are very distant indeed, and hence the solutions have to be distant as well.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (8): Liberty = Freedom From the State + Freedom From Social Pressure + Equality of Opportunity

Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom, and, more precisely, limited negative freedom: they believe that individuals should be free from interference by the government. They seldom accept that individuals can be coerced by private and social constructs, such as tradition, the family, gender roles, cultural racism etc. Here’s a rather long but exceptionally well-written quote that makes this point:

I am disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow [libertarian] skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state; that social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist; that the fight for freedom stops where the reach of government ends. … [L]ibertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun. … [W]hen a libertarian claims that his philosophy has no cultural content — has nothing to say, for instance, about society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians — he is engaging in a kind of cultural politics that welcomes the paternalism of the mob while balking at that of the state. …

To take a very basic example, at mid-century 5.5 percent of Americans entering medical school happened to have female bodies. This number may well have reflected women’s limited interest in pursuing medicine as a career. But that level of interest also reflected a particular view of women in positions of authority, a certain range of social spaces that girls could imagine themselves inhabiting. Norms that positioned women as wives and mothers obviously functioned as constraints on identity formation. None of this has much to do with limited government, but it has everything to do with individuals struggling to assert themselves against a collective. …

Libertarians will agree that laws requiring racial segregation and prohibiting victimless, though controversial, sexual practices are contrary to their creed. But if the constraints on freedom of association suddenly become social rather than bureaucratic [or legal] — if the neighborhood decides it does not want black residents, or the extended family decides it cannot tolerate gay sons — we do not experience a net expansion of freedom. Kerry Howley (source)

In other words, libertarians are stuck in the first part of the following equation:

Liberty = Freedom From the State + Freedom From Social Pressure + Equality of Opportunity

But there is also a tendency to go no further than the second part. Many accept that society can restrict the freedom of individuals, but don’t grant the same powers to inequality of opportunity. As I stated in two previous posts (here and here), it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with by the state or by their social environment, but because they can’t choose between opportunities. Someone who’s left alone by her government, and who isn’t pressured by her family, tradition or society, may still lack freedom because she doesn’t have a basic income or education necessary to make choices and realize these choices. Amartya Sen has pioneered this view. Hence the importance of helping people to develop their capabilities, e.g. anti-poverty programs, investments in education and healthcare etc. Of course, it’s precisely such programs that often horrify libertarians…

All this is of course a gross simplification, but if you wanted to explain human political ideology to Martians, that’s probably how you could start:

  • Libertarians focus on freedom against the state; freedom against social pressure isn’t very interesting or at least not a priority; equalizing opportunities, resources and capabilities is harmful because it empowers the state and violates property rights.
  • Conservatives agree with libertarians on the first and last part of the equation, but preserve the right to use social pressure to impose their – often Christian – ideology (e.g. same-sex marriage), sometimes even with the help of the state (in which case the freedom from the state isn’t important anymore).
  • Liberals think all three parts of the equation are important but sometimes struggle to find the right balance. So-called “big spending liberals” may accept a large state apparatus.
  • Socialists focus on the last two parts, often at the expense of the first. State intervention is believed to be highly beneficial, without substantial risks to individual freedom.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (10): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Regular readers will know that I see democracy as a human rights issue. The standard human rights texts (declarations, treaties and constitutions) all provide a right of the people of a nation to take part in the government, choose representatives in free elections etc. As with human rights in general, many people are in favor of democracy, but are unable to say why, or are unable to agree on the reasons why they are in favor. Some people may not have a particular reason to favor democracy, apart from a pragmatic one: it has worked quite well, especially compared to other forms of government that have been tried before, and it’s such a fuss to change.

Those who have reasons can be divided into two “camps”: those who view democracy as the best means to an independently valuable  goal, and those who view democracy as intrinsically valuable. The former group is the most numerous (and includes me). An instrumental justification of democracy can take many different forms, depending on the ultimate goal that is supposed to be promoted by democracy. The most common forms are:

  • Democracy promotes prosperity, economic growth and poverty reduction.
  • Democracy promotes peace (internally and externally).
  • Democracy leads to better political decisions.
  • Democracy leads to less repression and more respect for human rights.

I believe all of these statements are very persuasive, and taken together they form a very powerful justification of democracy (although we may need to agree on a very specific definition of democracy in order to be convinced by these statements – but that’s another discussion).

The non-instrumental justification, the one that says that democracy is good, not because of what it produces, but because of what it is, is also very interesting and persuasive. It focuses on what happens to people when they participate in government, what happens when democracy takes place, not what happens after it has taken place. So instead of pointing to beneficial consequences of democracy – more prosperity, more peace etc. – it points to the benefits of community, association, participation, self-government, self-determination etc. and how these things improve people’s characters, virtues and happiness. Read more here.

The only problem I have with this non-instrumental approach in which democracy is an end in itself, is that it tends to collapse into the instrumental approach: if democracy improves people’s character, then it’s also instrumental. It’s only an end in itself in the sense that it’s product doesn’t appear afterwards (like peace follows from democratic rule), but is simultaneous with it (people’s characters and virtues improve because of democracy, but only as long as democracy “happens”).

However, often it’s quite irrelevant which type of justification of democracy we prefer, and how successful (or not) the chosen justification is. Such exercises can be no more than “preaching to the choir”, intellectually interesting but practically irrelevant. People who already accept democracy don’t need a philosophical explanation of why democracy is so wonderful. And people who don’t accept democracy are often immune to rational justifications or to philosophy in general. Good luck approaching the Taliban with a philosophy paper on the benefits of democracy… (In fact, good luck approaching them at all).

Capital Punishment (22): Deterrence

Many crimes, especially violent crimes and property crimes, are human rights violations. The fact that theft, assault, violent attack and murder are crimes in most if not all national legal systems, indicates a high degree of normative consensus on the importance of a subset of human rights, namely the right to life, the right to property and the right to physical security.

Moreover, there’s also a high degree of consensus across different national legal systems as to the best way to react to these rights violations and to stop them from happening in the future: isolate the perpetrators in prisons. We believe that this will prevent crime in three ways:

  • It stops the criminal from re-offending during the period of his/her isolation.
  • It stops the criminal from re-offending after the period of his/her isolation.
  • It stops other people from following his/her example.

The last two bullet points are what’s called “deterrence”. We tend to believe that this deterrence effect correlates with the severity of the punishment. More years in prison means more deterrence. More brutal punishments – such as capital punishment – means even more deterrence. The belief in this correlation between degree of deterrence and degree of punishment rests on the “rational actor hypothesis”: people will take only those actions that produce more benefits than costs. If the punishment for a certain type of crime imposes a much lower cost on the potential criminal than the benefits the result from the crime – for instance a few weeks in prison for a theft worth several millions of dollars – and if the chances of being caught are reasonably low, than a “rational actor” is likely to become a criminal. Deterrence is therefore a function not only of the severity of the punishment but also of the probably of getting caught.

There are three problems with deterrence understood like this.

Irrationality

Many people don’t fit the rational actor description. They don’t make cost-benefit analyses before engaging in actions, especially not when crime is concerned (and certainly not in cases of certain types of crimes, such as “crime passionnel”).

Reductio ad absurdum

There’s an element of “reductio ad absurdum” in deterrence: if you want to deter certain types of crimes, especially crimes with very high potential benefits, you have to impose very high costs. Hence you may find that your logic leads you into acceptance of very brutal punishments: e.g. very painful, prolonged and public types of capital punishment, the killing of the family and friends of criminals etc. The danger with all cost-benefit logic in human affairs – and with utilitarian philosophies in general – is that you wind up accepting the sacrifice of some for the larger benefit of society as a whole. Rawls called this the failure to take distinctions between persons seriously. Utilitarianism means

extending to society the principle of choice for one man, and then, to make this extension work, conflating all persons into one through the imaginative acts of the impartial sympathetic spectator. Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons. John Rawls (source)

It seems that if you want to defend deterrence, you have to stop at some point and accept that there are limits to it. There are certain things you just can’t do to people, and no amount of deterrence or other benefits can justify doing these things.

Doesn’t work, unless…

It’s not beyond doubt that deterrence works, probably in part because of the first point. There’s solid evidence to the contrary in the case of capital punishment (see here). But also for crime in general and prison sentences there’s doubt:

Although long sentences are now common and the incarceration rate is five times what it was during most of the 20th century, the crime rate is still two and a half times the average of 1950-62. … most criminals are not the dispassionate rational actors who populate standard economic models. They are more like impulsive children, blinded by the temptation of immediate reward and largely untroubled by the possibility of delayed or uncertain punishment. (source)

Detention only seems to work when the odds of apprehension and punishment are very high.

The evidence suggests that when hardened criminals are reasonably sure that they will be caught and punished swiftly, even mild sanctions deter them. But not even the prospect of severe punishment is effective if offenders think they can get away with their crimes. (source)

This would seem to undermine the argument for capital punishment. Of the two elements that are believed to cause the deterrent effect, only the odds of getting caught seem to matter, not the severity of the punishment. Hence, capital punishment is useless. What counts is the odds of getting caught, not what happens when you’re caught. In general, people take costs that are relatively modest but immediate and certain much more seriously than higher costs that may or may not happen in the longterm.

Experimenters have found, for example, that even long-term alcoholics become much less likely to drink when they are required to receive a mild electric shock before drinking. Many of these same people were not deterred by their drinking’s devastating, but delayed, consequences for their careers and marriages. (source)

The Ethics of Human Rights (21): Social Mobility, Egalitarianism, Equality of Opportunity, and Meritocracy

In the best egalitarian society, people can change occupations, groups, associations etc. but their income, poverty level or social class will not change a lot as a result of this, since there’s not much difference between different income levels. This means that the society in question has decided that different occupations, talents and efforts should receive roughly the same financial reward. That may or may not be a good thing. Intuitively I would say that some occupations and some amounts of effort investment should receive higher financial rewards than others, in which case a somewhat inegalitarian society is what I want, notwithstanding my concerns about the problems created by inequality (see here for example). What I certainly don’t want is the worst egalitarian society, which combines the problem of equal rewards for morally diverse activities with the problem of fixed occupations and lack of social mobility, Soviet style.

In the worst inegalitarian society, there isn’t a lot of social mobility, social mobility in the sense of children ending up in adult life in a higher or lower level of income than the level of their parents.* There may be relatively many people changing occupations, but always within a limited class of occupations that yield roughly the same income levels. Such a lack of social mobility is an indication that income levels are not the result of merit, desert, reward, effort or talent, but rather the result of society’s choice not to equalize opportunities and to let people’s opportunities be determined by factors such as the family in which they happen to be born, unequal access to education etc. Genes do play a role in determining talent, and perhaps even willingness to invest effort, but only if genes were the sole force determining talent and effort could we claim that a lack of social mobility in an inegalitarian society is an inevitable characteristic of this society and not the consequence of a conscious choice of this society.

Since I don’t believe that genes have such a strong determining force, I have to conclude that the worst inegalitarian society chooses to limit social mobility and to accept (or even promote) unequal opportunities. Such a society in fact chooses to be a class society, a society that limits entry and exit into the various classes or income level groups and that forces parents and their adult children to share similar income levels (income levels are transmitted across generations).

The limited power of genes also allows me to conclude, positively now, that the best inegalitarian society can and should try to enact policies that promote social mobility. Such policies should remove obstacles that hinder people from using their talents and efforts in order to achieve a position in society that corresponds to a higher income level than the level their parents “enjoy”. These obstacles can be parental poverty, lack of access to quality education or to cultural resources, parental crime, peer pressure etc. In short, the best inegalitarian society should try to equalize opportunities. People with similar talents and willingness to develop and use these talents should have a roughly equal chance of ending up in a similar income level. If they don’t have such an equal chance, then it means that they don’t have the same opportunities and that certain obstacles hinder some of these people in the use and development of their talents. I can see no reason why the imposition of such obstacles on some people and not on others could ever be justified, but I’m open to suggestions.

Those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system. In all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class. Chances to acquire cultural knowledge and skills should not depend upon one’s class position, and so the school system, whether public or private, should be designed to even out class barriers. John Rawls (source)

If we assume that genes have a limited role in distributing talent, that the distribution of talent among people is therefore to some extent random and not determined by who their parents are; and if we further assume that the willingness to invest effort isn’t completely determined by parental influence or by genetics – and if, on top of that, opportunities are equalized (to some extent), then we should find a lack of correlation between the economic status of parents and their children. We should, in other words, find high levels of social mobility. If not, the influence of genes on talent and the influence of parents on the willingness to invest effort are more powerful than we think; or – more likely – the society hasn’t been successful in creating equality of opportunity (hasn’t provided equal access to quality education for instance). The levels of mobility are therefore a good indicator of the equality of opportunity in a society.

If the best inegalitarian society tries to equalize opportunities and is reasonably successful, then this doesn’t mean that it will necessarily become an egalitarian society. Equalizing opportunities doesn’t imply equalizing rewards for different activities, and neither does it mean that everyone will make equally successful use of the equal opportunities. There will be a lot of social mobility and a lack of correlation between the social position of parents and children, but the mobility can go up for some people and down for others, depending on the talents people have, the efforts they are willing to invest, and the rewards that society gives to particular talents, activities and efforts. Because of these different rewards, and because equal opportunities will be used unequally, there is no reason to expect a convergence of income levels. The best inegalitarian society will become a meritocracy, which produces, by definition, unequal income levels because it differentiates between deserving and less deserving activities, and between deserving and less deserving efforts within an activity.

This kind of society differs fundamentally from the worst inegalitarian society which is a class society and which therefore locks people in positions whatever their merits (class society can mean different things – caste society, nepotistic society etc. – but the effect is always the same). It also differs from the best egalitarian society which allows people to move between occupations but rewards all occupations equally and can’t therefore be called a meritocracy.

I mentioned before that a society can choose to be the best or the worst inegalitarian society. But how does it do that? “Society” is a vague concept. Who are the people actually making those choices? Well, it can be the politicians for instance. It’s quite clear that different policies have different effects on the equality of opportunities and on social mobility. Estate taxes or inheritance taxes play a huge role. Redistribution policies and policies aimed at education as well. But the processes leading towards and away from equality of opportunity can also be more below the surface:

It turns out that there’s a bit of a paradoxical relationship between believing your country has a lot of economic mobility and your country actually having a lot of economic mobility. If you believe that your country is extremely mobile, you’re likely to believe the results of the economic competition are relatively fair. As such, you won’t want to slap the rich with particularly high tax rates and you won’t be terribly concerned about spreading economic opportunity. After all, anyone can make it!

On the other hand, if you don’t believe your country is terribly mobile, then you’re less likely to believe economic outcomes are fair. And if you don’t believe the outcomes are fair, you’re likely to tax the winners relatively heavily and plow those profits into things like universal health care and free college. Policies, in other words, that spread opportunity more widely and thus make your society more mobile. Put like that, it sort of makes sense. If you believe your society is already economically mobile, you don’t spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem of insufficient economic mobility. if you don’t believe that, then you implement policies meant to increase mobility. Ezra Klein (source)

* “Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents’ circumstances at a certain time in life – say, the age of 30 – serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?” (source)

The Ethics of Human Rights (20): Why Are There Genocides?

How can there be genocides? Genocides, and especially the holocaust, seem to be impossible to understand. They leave even the most astute thinkers perplexed. What is it that makes ordinary people, people who have never before engaged in violence or crime, turn on their neighbors and even friends in the most extreme way, without any apparent rational reason or provocation?

Hannah Arendt has written a lot about this, and she made the following observation while watching the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem:

Eichmann committed his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. (source)

Under extreme circumstances people seem to lose their “moral compass”. They are

swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in. (source)

This is what Heidegger called the “dictatorship of the They“: society, the general cultures or mores and the common practices force individuals to act in certain ways and undermine their independent judgment.

It is indeed difficult to tell right from wrong, independently, if almost everyone around you tells you that wrong is right. People’s sense of morality – or moral compass – is deeply influenced by the society they live in and grow up in. If you live in a racist society, chances are high you end up being a racist.

When this “dictatorship of the They” is purposefully cultivated by political elites, propaganda, indoctrination etc, and when, furthermore, it is combined with thoughtlessness or the willingness to give up on thinking – as was the case of Eichmann – then evil and genocide are just a small step away. Thinking, according to Arendt, makes it hard to engage in evil. Thinking is the silent dialogue with yourself. Since people generally want to be in harmony with themselves, it’s better to be the victim of an injustice than the perpetrator (in the words of Socrates), because the perpetrator has to live with the criminal. In this way, a conscience is a byproduct of thinking (Arendt), and the absence of thinking leads to immorality.

However, this explanation of evil, immorality and genocide is unsatisfactory, because it abandons moral responsibility and the possibility of moral and legal judgment. Arendt was acutely aware of this. If we again take the case of Eichmann, how can we possibly judge and convict him if his actions were the result of social pressure and his inability to think? Civilized legal systems as well as moral systems understand that the intent to do wrong and freedom of choice are necessary prerequisites for the commission of a crime.  No responsibility without mens rea: “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty”.

It’s good to understand how morality is influenced by circumstances and culture, and how crime can result from education, society and thoughtlessness, but that’s not the whole picture. People aren’t just products of their environment. They can think and choose, except perhaps under the most extreme circumstances (such as torture). And I don’t think Eichmann lived in such extreme circumstances. This element of moral freedom is shown by the fact that evil people can arise from the best of circumstances.

Human Rights and International Law (18): Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

The “Responsibility to Protect“, or R2P in U.N.-speak, is a humanitarian principle that aims to stop mass murder, genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It refers initially to the responsibility of states to their own citizens, but in case states can’t or won’t protect their own citizens, other states can step in, respecting the Security Council procedures. However, this is a last resort, especially if the intervention is of a military nature.

The concept is closely linked to, if not indistinguishable from, humanitarian intervention. Often it’s also called the principle of non-indifference, a sarcastic pun on the principle of non-intervention. Some for whom national sovereignty and non-intervention is still the main and overriding rule in international affairs, see R2P as an excuse for Western interference. Noam Chomsky is a notable if unsurprising example. You can read his arguments here. He is joined by a number of governments that risk being a future target.

However, most in the West aren’t jumping the queue to enter into a legal obligation that can force them to undertake expensive and risky interventions in the name of humanity. The fact that these interventions aren’t only expensive and risky but often also without collateral benefits, doesn’t help either. R2P is not yet a legal rule, more a quasi-legal rule. Some legal or quasi-legal texts include the concept. The Constitutive Act of the African Union includes “the right of the Union to intervene in a member state pursuant to a decision of the African Union assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”. The same is true for the Security Council of the UN. The concept was endorsed unanimously by heads of state during the World Summit of 2005, so it can be argued that the principle is part of international common law (i.e. international law established by coherent and unanimous state practice).

Crime and Human Rights (5): Decreasing Levels of Violence

Violence is obviously a human rights issue. Violent actions, either by the state or by fellow citizens, violate our physical integrity and personal security. Several articles of the Universal Declaration protect us against different forms of violence: art. 3 protects our right to life and personal security, art. 4 prohibits slavery, art. 5 prohibits torture etc.

Levels of violence throughout history

It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but violence has been in decline throughout modern history.

Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers – which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago – he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. … From the Middle Ages to modern times, we can see a steady reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. Steven Pinker (source)

This is true for most kinds of violence: war, ethnic conflict, state violence (criminal punishment, torture, repression etc.), war, one-to-one violence (homicide) etc.:

When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.

And since 1945 in Europe and the Americas, we’ve seen steep declines in the number of deaths from interstate wars, ethnic riots, and military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, the number of battle deaths has fallen from 65,000 per conflict per year to less than 2,000 deaths in this decade. Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, we have seen fewer civil wars, a 90 percent reduction in the number of deaths by genocide, and even a reversal in the 1960s-era uptick in violent crime. Steven Pinker (source)

A cognitive illusion

We tend to believe that the 20th century was the most bloody of all, and that the 21st hasn’t started any better. That’s probably a misconception or “cognitive illusion” fueled by unprecedented information flows. Today, we have magnificent information systems delivering facts, figures and images instantaneously. Compared to that, information about the centuries before is by definition more scarce: few images and newspaper reports, no television reports, less systematic historiography, less durable data sources etc.

That doesn’t make the present-day levels of violence acceptable. On the contrary. Rather than looking at history and concluding that man will always be violent, the recent decreases in levels of violence should encourage us to go all the way. And then it’s important to understand why the levels have gone down.

Why has violence declined?

One reason is undoubtedly the development of the modern state and its judicial apparatus. This apparatus can of course be used to inflict violence, but the risk of this happening has decreased as states have become more democratic, more respectful of the rule of law, and more sensitive to human rights. The democratic nature of many contemporary states has also diminished the risk of inter-state violence (this is the so-called democratic peace theory).

Another, and related, point is that

Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short – not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. … These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband. Steven Pinker (source)

Yet another reason for the decrease in the levels of violence is the development of the modern economy. This development has increased the costs of violence. It’s easier to be violent towards your fellow human beings of you live in a subsistence economy and produce everything you need for yourself. When you depend on others for your job and income, your consumption goods, your transport etc. it becomes more costly to act in a violent way towards them. The same can be said of nations: like individuals, nations have become more interdependent in the globalized economy. Acting violently towards other nations has therefore become more costly. Self-sufficiency is no longer an option for nations either.

Yet another reason:

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one’s own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general. Steven Pinker (source)

Types of Human Rights Violations (2): Self-Inflicted Human Rights Violations

We usually think of human rights violations as a harm inflicted by one person on another, by the state on some of its citizens, by companies on citizens etc. And that’s indeed the natural way to think of them. But there is also something we can call self-inflicted human rights violations.

Self-inflicted human rights violations can be classified into different subgroups: involuntary self-inflicted human rights violations, voluntary ones, mixed cases or unclear cases, cases similar to risk taking, cases involving individual and their rights, and cases involving groups and the rights of their members.

Involuntary self-inflicted human rights violations

Some people make mistakes, or act in a self-destructive way or in a way that causes involuntary harm to themselves. For example, while poverty has many causes, some people are poor because of their own actions or omissions. Hence they violate their own right to a certain living standard (art. 25 of the Universal Declaration). Other people act in such a way that they make it very hard on themselves to find a job, violating their own right to work.

Voluntary self-inflicted human rights violations

Some people just decide to give up some of their rights voluntarily. They may decide that these rights are not important, or less important than something else, e.g. their religion or culture. Some examples: the participants in certain reality TV shows such as Big Brother, forfeiting their right to privacy; people choosing euthanasia or (assisted) suicide; people choosing to be unemployed etc. As long as these people don’t cause harm to anyone else, it’s difficult to see how one can disapprove of them. After all, it’s their life and their rights, so they alone can decide what to do with them.

Between voluntary and involuntary

It starts to become difficult when the involuntary masquerades as the voluntary. And there are indeed many cases that are mixed or where it’s not clear if we’re dealing with voluntary or involuntary self-inflicted rights violations. Take the school drop-out for example. At first sight, one can say that someone who decides not to finish school takes a voluntary decision to do so, and that we can’t label this an involuntary self-inflicted violation of the right to education. However, is such a choice really voluntary? Remember we’re often dealing with children in these cases. Voluntary means that there is a choice. And a choice implies knowledge of alternatives, as well as knowledge of the different consequences of different choices. Without these two types of knowledge, we can hardly say that there is a choice. This knowledge assumes that there has been education, and hence that we are dealing with an educated grown-up, not a teenage drop-out.

Another example: Muslim girls or women who voluntarily accept the restrictions imposed on their gender by their religion, hence violating their own right to equal treatment and non-discrimination. Again, no problem if it’s really voluntary. But is it? Didn’t their education and social environment condition them in believing that a certain interpretation of their religion is more important than their human rights? Possibly so.

Risk

I talked about risk and human rights before, albeit in another context. Risk is relevant here because it can lead to self-inflicted human rights violations. People who do not voluntarily violate their own rights, or who don’t make mistakes that cause violations of their own rights, may nevertheless act in such a way that they take a conscious risk that their actions will lead to violations of their own rights. Take the criminal for instance. He takes the risk that his actions will cause him to end up in prison, in which case he has violated his own right to free movement, and possibly other rights as well.

Such a risk is also on the borderline between voluntary and involuntary. If you take a risk, it has to do with risking certain consequences you want to avoid. You don’t want these consequences, so if they occur the situation can be said to be involuntary. On the other hand, the fact that you take the risk of these consequences occurring, indicates some level of acceptance of these consequences, but not full acceptance (otherwise it would be silly to speak about a “risk”). And acceptance equals voluntary. To take the same example: the convicted criminal did not enter prison voluntarily, but the fact that he took the risk of ending up in prison indicates that his predicament is to some extent voluntary. He could also not have taken the risk.

The rights of group members rather than individuals

There’s a difference between individuals giving up or violating their own rights, and groups doing the same for their members. Take the example of the Roma minorities in parts of Europe. Many of the Roma parents don’t register their children at birth. Without a birth certificate, it’s hard to receive benefits or access to schools. When girls reach the age of 14 or 15, they are taken out of school and they enter into arranged marriages. Such actions cause serious harm to children’s education, and are a major cause of the continuing poverty of many Roma communities.

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.

Types of Human Rights Violations (1): Fake Zero-Sum Human Rights Violations

We usually, and correctly, think of human rights violations as a zero-sum game (although the word “game” is hardly appropriate here). A rights violation is a harm inflicted by one person on another, for the benefit of the former. And although the benefits for the violator do not always equal the harm for the victim in a quantitative sense, we can safely call it zero-sum. In fact, neither the harm nor the benefits that result from rights violations can always be quantified.

I have represented these harms and benefits in the table below (just look at row number 1 for the moment): a plus sign for “violator value” means that he or she receives some benefits from the violations (otherwise there probably wouldn’t be a violation); a minus for “victim value” means a harm done to him or her. And indeed this is the usual case. But you can see in the table that other combinations of values and signs are possible. But more on that in a moment.

The usual case – number 1 – is what we could call the typical human right violation. It’s zero-sum: the thief who steals from me gains what I lose; the oppressive government that limits my right to free speech or movement or assembly or organization, gains stability and regime security while I lose freedom. In case number 1, the violator always wins, and the person(s) whose rights are violated always lose(s), in roughly the same proportion (if proportions are at all relevant here).

The second, more exceptional case, occurs when not only the victim of the violations loses out, but also the perpetrator. Examples: the suicide bomber (except when he or she is right about Paradise, which I doubt); the use of torture, invasion, drone attacks etc. by the U.S. in its “war on terror” (tactics which may create more terrorists than they eliminate).

The third case is still more exceptional, unfortunately, because it is really a win-win situation, disguised as zero-sum. Two examples. Take the development of the economies of India and China. It can be argued that these economies “take jobs away” from the developed countries, and that in a sense the right to work of many people in the West are violated because of it (the fact that none of this is intentional isn’t sufficient to claim that no rights are violated). However, as these developing countries increase the size of their economies, they will provide valuable and relatively cheap goods and services to businesses and households in developed countries, stimulating the economies there, and boosting disposable income, which reduces poverty in developed countries. As developing countries develop, they will also start to consume more western goods and services, with the same result. Again, no guarantee of course that the gains of one will equal the gains of the other, but at least it’s win-win and not zero-sum.

A second example, also to do with work: when a government withholds or stops unemployment benefits, it violates the rights of the unemployed. But when done under certain circumstances, this will encourage people to find work, and hence will make them better off in the end.

At first sight, these two examples look like typical zero-sum human rights violations, but not when look a bit closer.

The fourth case, where the victim of rights violations benefits from them, and the perpetrators lose out, is extremely exceptional, I guess. I could only come up with one example: the dictator becoming so oppressive that he creates revolt and ushers in his own downfall and the liberation of his people.

The Ethics of Human Rights (19): The Universality of Human Rights vs. the Importance of Culture

Is it appropriate, desirable and coherent to impose human rights law and norms on cultures when these cultures have adopted norms and practices that violate human rights? Such an imposition would clearly upset and perhaps even destroy cultural arrangements and traditions, something which would in turn have numerous adverse consequences for people’s well-being and sense of identity (not to mention the consequences for human diversity, humanity’s heritage etc.). Add to that the likelihood that “imposition” usually means “violence”, and you can rest your case.

Or can you? Is it really a no-brainer that culture should by definition have priority and preferential treatment compared to the universality of human rights? I’m very receptive to the requirements of culture and I accept that cultural imperialism and neocolonialism are real problems. But I also believe that the culture-universality problem is contaminated by a long list of mistakes and misunderstandings, making the choice between culture and universality a lot less obvious. Here’s a short list:

  • Cultures need human rights. Especially in today’s multicultural world, cultures need freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc. in order to survive. Sacrificing human rights on the altar of culture ultimately means sacrificing culture as well. So cultures at least have a strategic reason to adopt human rights, even if this means giving up certain of their more cruel and barbaric practices and norms.
  • Cultures change. With or without the prodding of human rights activists, governments or international institutions. So why not promote change in the good direction, meaning in the direction of human rights? Cultures are not, and should not be, untouchable. Changing parts of them – i.e. certain norms and practices – doesn’t necessarily mean destroying them.
  • “Culture” is often a tool in the hands of oppressors. They are all too willing to dress up their tyranny in the clothes of culture, giving themselves an aura of respectability and inevitability. Many of the rights violations that are supposedly “cultural” are nothing of the sort.
  • Cultures aren’t monolithic. They are complicated and self-contradictory. While some elements of a culture generate rights violations, other elements of the same culture prohibit those violations. In fact, most if not all cultures have elements that can back up human rights protection, although often this is implicit rather than explicit. Giving priority to elements of a culture that violate human rights is just one specific interpretation of a culture, and possibly a self-interested one if it’s done by those in power. When human rights and culture contradict each other, often the problem can be solved, not by ditching human rights but by favoring another interpretation of the culture. In the words of Charles Taylor, different cultures will travel different routes to the same goal of universality of rights, each culture finding within itself the resources to justify and ground human rights.
  • Linked to this: who can decide what is a truly cultural practice or norm? Ideally it’s the people making up the culture, not some self-interested spokesperson. The people, however, rarely if ever get to decide this. One can assume that, if they would be able to decide, they wouldn’t favor an interpretation that harms their rights. Also, and importantly, if they would be allowed to decide, they would need human rights to do so.
  • An assumption of those granting automatic priority to culture is that imposing something on a culture, or coercing a culture to evolve in a certain direction, is by definition wrong. They assume that this is a dogma of post-colonialism. However, nobody worries about coercion of domestic practices that violate the law, not even if these practices can justifiably be labeled as “cultural”. We don’t allow “mafia culture” to flourish, or certain violent forms of macho culture or whatever. States pride themselves on the uniform application of domestic law, no matter how diverse their citizenry. And international human rights law is law as well, and also merits uniform application. Why is coercion in one case allowed but not in the other? By the way: many authoritarian countries that claim the right to violate human rights as a means to protect “their” culture (or what they claim is their culture) impose a dominant culture domestically at the expense of minority cultures.
  • The charge of cultural imperialism and the analogy with colonialism imply that human rights advocacy equals the attempt to impose western culture on the rest of the world. That human rights promotion is cultural export, a crusade or a holy war. However, human rights aren’t western rights, not by a long shot. The West violates human rights just as much as anyone else. And other cultures can find human rights within their traditions. Unlike the crusades, human rights promotion doesn’t attempt to impose a worldview, a morality or a religion. If it imposes something, it imposes diversity and plurality.
  • Finally, their is the relativity of relativism. If all values are based on culture and there are no universal values that can take precedence, than that’s true as well of cultural relativism. Why would the rule that all culture can decide for themselves be the only universal and non-cultural rule?

Freedom of Expression, or a Duty of Expression?

I often have the impression that people transform the right to free expression into a duty to free expression. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. For example, Muslims in western countries are often told that they should distance themselves from the more violent members of their religion. We require them to speak out against Muslim terrorism.

Another example: politicians, especially in the U.S., are required to speak out on a number of subjects, e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, their faith in God etc. As if it would be a disaster to elect a politician who happens to doubt about abortion. After all, many people do (myself included).

A somewhat exaggerated view on democratic transparency is undoubtedly a small part of the explanation for this. Democracy can’t function without public knowledge of politicians’ opinions, or without some sense of what our fellow citizens believe (part of democracy is group formation, and group formation is based on discussion and persuasion; and you can’t persuade someone if you don’t know what he or she believes).

But the most important cause of this “duty of expression” is, I think, the manichean nature of contemporary politics. Every issue is painted in black and white, good and evil, for or against. We force people to express themselves on issues so that we can see if they are with us or against us. And if someone expresses him or herself in a nuanced way we automatically assume that he or she takes a position opposite from our own. For example, if Muslims reject Islamic terrorism but at the same time point to the situation in Palestine, we assume that they really think terrorism is OK, or justifiable given certain circumstances. We can’t accept muddled or nuanced middle ground positions, or positions which change according to the circumstances. Gray isn’t an option.

Clarity, simplicity and certainty are important human objectives, but often they aren’t appropriate in thinking. Of course, sometimes manicheism is the only possible position: you either believe the holocaust is a fact of history or you don’t; there’s no middle ground, and those who don’t believe in it are either stupid or evil. But when it comes to political or moral opinions (rather than facts), those who really think about them often find themselves occupying a gray, complex and uncertain position.

I suspect that the difficulty to let go of manicheism and to accept uncertainty and nuance has something to do with the nature of democratic politics. It’s hard to vote for nuance, and easy to vote for or against a clear and simple proposition. And simple propositions get more attention, sell better and make it easier to mobilize large constituencies (see the cartoon below). But then again, when we look at political reality, manicheism is much more common in autocratic societies. The public debate on issues which is made possible by democratic societies forces nuance to appear.

The difficulty to let go of manicheism also has something to do with the fear of the other extreme: the paralysis that follows from endless nuancing and thinking. Politics is a realm where decisions have to be taken, contrary to philosophy where thinking is unending in principle.

However, it doesn’t follow from this that decisiveness has to be manicheism. Decisions can be based on nuanced thinking. The risk of paralysis is averted by the realization that our decisions, often taken under the pressure of urgency, are necessary yet provisional, based on the best thinking available at the time, and open to revision when time has improved our thinking.

The Ethics of Human Rights (18): A Right to End Your Life

There’s currently some controversy over the Swiss Dignitas clinic where people can receive help in their attempt to end their own lives.  This is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding “Doctor Death”, Jack Kevorkian, in the U.S. some time ago, and the Oregon Death With Dignity Act.

The issue of assisted suicide or euthanasia usually arises in discussions on terminal illnes and suffering, but it is part of the wider problem of self-determination: do human beings have the right to determine and chose the time and the method of their own death, irrespective of health issues? And do other people have a right to assist them if they can’t execute their will themselves?

I’ll focus on the first question here, and I’ll avoid the legal issues for the time being, apart from this: in international human rights law, there is no right to end your life, hence no right to suicide, assisted or not, and hence no right to euthanasia (the differences between assisted suicide and euthanasia are negligable according to me).

Should there be such a right? I don’t know. I certainly support the moral right, based on some arguments which I’ll mention below. A legal right would remove some of the prohibitions on assisted suicide and euthanasia in some countries. In such countries, people have to travel abroad – to Switzerland for example – to end their lives, at least if they want to do it in a painless and guaranteed way. This means that there is discrimination: rich people have a painless way out (the Swiss ask a lot of money), whereas other people have to use painful or riskier methods or – worse – have to continue their lives involuntarily if their (medical) circumstances don’t make it possible for them to take matters into their own hands.

Why should there be a moral right to end your life? We own our own body. Our body is part of our private property. It is something that is ours; it is the thing par excellence that is our own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning our body means that we are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of our body; they should not use it, hurt it or force us to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. But it also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. We should therefore be able to cimmit suicide without interference, at least as long as we are able to determine our will independently, and as long as our suicide doesn’t harm other people’s rights (e.g. if we throw ourselves in front of a moving car, or if we believe that our suicide leads us to heaven on the condition that we take a few infidels along with us in the grave).

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (6): Freedom and Economic Rights

If freedom is a good only because of the value that lies in exercising it, then those who lack the capacity or resources to exercise a given freedom are being denied the enjoyment of it, even though they may not formally be being obstructed. David Beetham (source)

Either freedom is important, or it isn’t important. It can’t be the case that freedom is important for certain people and that it may be legitimately denied to other people. I don’t think that we’ll still find many people defending such a position.

If people should be allowed to enjoy freedom equally, then we should try to remove the obstacles which make it harder for some people, compared to others, to enjoy freedom. Traditionally, these obstacles were believed to be government restrictions on freedom, such as laws against certain religions, laws against the expression of certain ideas, or laws discriminating against people of a certain race or gender for example. Gradually, people began to understand that private actions can also counteract equal freedom: slavery, gender discrimination in the family etc.

A third step was the realization – still incomplete – that equal freedom doesn’t only suffer from active obstruction – public or private – but also from unequal capacities or resources. Equal freedom requires both the absence of coercion and the presence of resources. People who lack a decent income, a basic education and good health will never be as free as their fellow human beings who possess these resources.

The question is then, how can people acquire these resources in case they lack them? Much depends of course on their own efforts. Their fellow human beings may decide to act charitably and in a spirit of “fraternité”. A lack of charity is as effective as discrimination when it comes to restricting equal freedom. And the same is true for governments.

However, people who find themselves at the wrong end of unequal freedom don’t have to count on government or private charity. They have a right to those resources necessary for equal freedom. This right has been translated into the concept of economic rights. Read more.

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.

Capital Punishment (16): The Lesser Evil Argument for Capital Punishment

Let’s assume, arguendo, that capital punishment has a deterrent effect. (I stated here that this is far from obvious). It’s important for proponents of capital punishment that this effect exists, because other justifications for capital punishment are no longer widely accepted (e.g. justifications like, for example, those based on the conviction that murderers somehow deserve to be killed).

My point here is that, even if we assume that deterrence works and reduces the overall number of killings (and we shouldn’t assume this), it doesn’t justify capital punishment. I will argue this on the basis of one of my previous posts and on elements of this paper.

The expression “deterrence works” means that there are fewer overall killings in a society with capital punishment than there would have been without capital punishment. In other words, capital punishment deters more killings than it inflicts. The taking of a life by the state reduces the number of lives taken overall. This is what is called a “lesser evil argument”. Proponents of this kind of justification of capital punishment do not believe that executions are a good thing, or a moral thing to do. Executions take people’s lives, and are evil, but they are a lesser evil than not engaging in executions, because failing to execute would mean failing to deter more murders than the murders we commit by executing killers. If an execution saves more than one life (and there are studies claiming that every execution saves around 18 lives), than it is morally required. It may be immoral and evil, but less so than the failure to execute because it leads to a net gain in terms of numbers of lives saved compared to the failure to execute.

This lesser evil argument is what is called a consequentialist moral argument. Consequentialism is opposed to deontology. The latter states that some acts are intrinsically wrong and can’t be justified by the value of their beneficial consequences. Consequentialism, as the name suggests, claims that beneficial ends justify the means. Of course, neither position is ever defended as an absolute. No one, I guess, believes that a more beneficial overall outcome always justifies certain acts. I think it’s hard to find someone who accepts that it’s moral to kill someone if his or her organs can save the lives of two others. Saving two lives at the cost of one is an overall gain, but it seems that sacrificing someone in this manner just isn’t something you can do to a person. On the other hand, absolute deontologists are also a rare species. At some point, negative consequences have to be taken into account and to hell with the principle then.

The deterrence effect is said to justify capital punishment because of consequentialism: the overall result or consequences of capital punishment are better than the alternative, namely failing to inflict capital punishment. Whereas a deontologist would reject capital punishment regardless of the beneficial consequences, a consequentionalist will not. He will admit that executions are no better than private murders, and just as evil, but still acceptable and even morally necessary if it can be shown that they deter more murders than they inflict.

The problem with this argument isn’t so much that it’s based on dubious deterrence statistics, but that it supposes that state murder is the same as private murder, and that a lesser number of the former is acceptable and necessary if they make it possible to deter a higher number of the latter. Of course, state murder is worse than private murder, and, as a result, the consequentialist calculus of the lesser evil argument is corrupted. If a state murder is worse than a private murder, it’s no longer obvious that capital punishment is a lesser evil.

Why is state murder worse than private murder? As I stated in a previous post, capital punishment is the instrumentalization and dehumanization of people. Private murder of course also instrumentalizes and dehumanizes the victims because these victims are used for some kind of gain, but state murder pushes this instrumentalization to the extreme and makes it the norm of behavior, rather than a criminal exception. Individual criminals are used as instruments to advance the collective interest. They are sacrificed for the greater good and a resource for the benefit of others (namely the intended future victims of future murderers). And this is even made worse if we consider that the lesser evil argument seems to justify the execution of innocent people, as long as this deters a higher number of private murders.

When the state instrumentalizes people in this way, it sends a clear message that this is a normal way of treating people, with possibly disastrous consequences.

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.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (4): Freedom as Autonomy

Limits on freedom can equalize freedom. If my freedom is limited by yours, then our freedom is roughly the same. If I’m stronger than you, then a limit on my freedom makes it impossible for me to use my freedom to the detriment of yours. However, the problem of freedom and equality isn’t solved by limiting freedom. Notably the freedom of the poor and the freedom of those who, for one reason or another, don’t have a reasonable set of resources and alternative options to choose from, are still very unequal kinds of freedom. Limiting the freedom of others doesn’t help these people.

The ability to do as you want, limited by those restrictions imposed by the state necessary to ensure that the freedom of one doesn’t harm the freedom of another, does to some extent equalize freedom, but not the freedom of the poor and the freedom of those with a limited set of choices. Another problem is that it is essentially an anti-political freedom. The state is not a place of freedom; the state is a set of institutions which limit freedom.

However, it is my view that the state can be a place of freedom if we understand freedom in another way. Democratic political participation in the decisions of the state (especially on a local level) can be a source of freedom; freedom not necessarily in the sense of the ability to do as you want, but freedom in the sense of autonomy.

Autonomy in this context must be understood as the ability of a group of people, living together, to participate equally in deliberations, and to come to an agreement (by majority vote for instance) on certain matters that shape their living together. It is a more communal and less individualistic notion than the ability to do as you like, since it requires political self-government through democratic participation. It is also closely related to equality since the right to participation is an equal right and the adequate functioning of the decision-taking process requires equal attention to all arguments and alternatives.

Autonomy does not result from the isolated exercise of an individual will outside of state control.  Similar to freedom as self-development – see the previous post in this series – autonomy is mediated through life in a communityFreedom as self-development means that you can only do as you like when you know about the options and when the options appear in public debates, in education and in other circumstance that require a community. Freedom as autonomy profits from the same kind of debate. The advantage of debate in this case is not the clarification and expansion of choice as a precondition of real freedom of choice, but a better decision on things that are common to a group of people.

Autonomy is not a freedom outside of the state. It is necessarily a part of it and cannot survive without it. Autonomy is a kind of self-government. It’s a community that determines the social conditions in which it lives. People usually engage in self-government within some form of state institutions, local or even national. By determining the structures, laws and rules which govern their lives, people govern themselves. So we see that freedom and the state are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The Ethics of Human Rights (8): Mutually Advantageous Exploitation

exploitation: utilization of another person or group for selfish purposes. American Heritage Dictionary

To exploit someone means to take unfair advantage of that person. Usually, we define “unfair advantage” as somehow resulting in harm or coercion for the person who is taken advantage of. If A takes unfair advantage of B, we assume that B is harmed in some way, is forced to deliver the advantage, or is otherwise involuntary involved.

For example: A rapes B. The advantage gained by A is sex. This advantage is gained unfairly by A because the rape harms and coerces B. Otherwise it would not be rape. Rape is therefore charaterized as sexual exploitation.

However, it is possible to speak about exploitation and the taking of unfair advantage by A if A takes an action that benefits B. We can call this mutually advantageous exploitation, or mutually beneficial exploitation. A benefits, obviously, but B as well. B gains an advantage and is better off had the action not taken place, yet still is exploited.

Here’s an example to make this counter-intuitive statement more acceptable. Take the case where A and B have unequal bargaining power. A sells bread in an isolated village where the people don’t have the means to produce their own bread. A overcharges for the bread because B and friends don’t have the strength to find another seller or to wait. The sale of bread makes B etc. better off, because without bread they would be worse off. Yet A takes unfair advantage of the buyers’ condition. A exploits but doesn’t cause harm. However, A does coerce B. The transaction isn’t completely voluntary. B doesn’t have a choice.

It seems that the old maxim, volenti non fit iniuria – no injustice can be done to the willing – is still valid. Injustice implies coercion. But the other maxim, that injustice implies harm, can sometimes be wrong, unless the simple act of coercion by itself means harm.

A similar and politically more salient example would be if A were a transnational company offering to buy cacao from local cacao producers (B).

The Ethics of Human Rights (6): Human Rights and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Classic economic theory, based as it is on an inadequate theory of human motivation, could be revolutionized by accepting the reality of higher human needs, including the impulse to self actualization and the love for the highest values. Abraham Maslow

Economic theory is or was dominated by the assumption of the homo economicus, the human being as a rational, perfectly informed and self-interested actor who desires nothing but wealth and profit. It is certainly one of the achievements of Maslow that today we are all conscious of the variety and complexity of human motivation and human needs.

A human need is something that is essential to survive and to survive in a decent, happy and fulfilling manner. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often represented as a pyramid, with the lowest or most fundamental needs at the bottom. He distinguished 5 types of needs:

  1. Physiological needs such as food, water and sleep
  2. Safety needs such as security of the body, health and property
  3. Social needs such as friendship, family, belonging and identity
  4. Esteem needs such as recognition, self-esteem, confidence, justice and respect
  5. Growth or self-actualization needs such as creativity, problem solving, art, beauty, personal fulfilment and freedom.

The assumption of the hierarchy is that the lower needs have to be met first, and are preconditions for the realization of the higher needs, although a temporary insufficiency in the lower levels will not undo the aspirations of the higher levels. For example, a surgeon who normally has no problem satisfying his or her physiological or safety needs, and instead focuses on recognition, may be forced to concentrate temporally on his or her health without sacrificing the overriding importance of recognition.

Conversely, someone who normally has problems satisfying lower level needs, will not find the resources necessary to focus on higher level needs.

Criticism of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The hierarchy is not strict or linear. Higher needs can sometimes become so strong that they override the lower needs: the need for recognition for example can overcome the need to survive (we’ll call this “courage”). And people do not always automatically move from one, satisfied need to a higher one. It’s not because someone’s physiological and safety needs are satisfied that he or she necessarily strives towards recognition or self-development. The latter needs are very weak for some people, just as they can be overriding for others.

Also, how do we determine that a particular need is “higher” than another? Doesn’t this imply subjective judgment? Why would hedonism for example be inferior to self-development? I agree it is, but that’s just my subjective preference. I have no way of proving to a hedonist that he or she is wrong.

Some needs can also become too important, at the expense of other needs. In the American culture for example one can observe that recognition (“fame”) is given way too much attention, and to a certain extent the physiological and safety needs are reduced to a matter of individual responsibility. In Islam, there is an exaggerated focus on respect and honor, and’a0too little attention’a0is given to’a0self-development and freedom.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and human rights

This indicates that a strict, universal hierarchy among human needs does not exist. But while it is certainly impossible to offer a fixed hierarchy or even classification of ever-changing needs in an ever-changing society, the model of Maslow offers some advantages. Especially its relationship to the issue of human rights is interesting.

First of all, one could claim that all human rights violations are caused by conflicts between human needs, between one type of need for one person and the same need for another person (e.g. food or safety), or between different types of needs for different persons (e.g. the needs of justice and the needs related to the safety of property).

This is not completely correct because many rights violations have other causes: outright evil, unintended consequences of actions, structural or institutional causes, self-inflicted causes etc. But it remains useful to see rights violations in the light of needs. However, one shouldn’t expect too many useful results from this approach. How to quantify which needs are causing which violations or conflicts? Or to quantify which needs would be met when respecting a particular human right?

Secondly, there is a hierarchy in the system of human rights that can be linked to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are different types of human rights, and one can claim that respect for some types of rights is a precondition for respect for other types. In this post I outlined the argument that social and economic human rights, which are rights that give people the opportunity to fulfill their physiological and safety needs, are necessary prerequisites for the exercise of freedom rights, which are rights that are more focused on people’s social, esteem and growth needs (and some safety needs as well such as bodily integrity, property and life).

However, things are not as simple as that. Here I argued that freedom rights and even political rights can help to meet physiological and safety needs. Furthermore, it is far fetched to describe some of the purposes of some human rights as “needs”: is equality or justice a need? Or is it rather a “value”, something that is important in our lives but not quite a “need”?

The Ethics of Human Rights (5): China, Confucianism and Authoritarianism

Confucianism, the traditional Chinese ethical and philosophical system based on the teachings of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE), is often blamed for the lack of freedom and the authoritarian and anti-democratic form of government in China. This post examines the merits of this attack.

Confucianism is not a religion, although many believe it is, perhaps because of its emphasis on morality and the extent to which it has shaped and become synonymous with the culture of much of East-Asia, including of course China but also Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and many other countries with large Chinese communities. It is rather a philosophy and a culture.

Although vigorously attacked by the Chinese communists, it is beyond doubt that Confucianism still remains a strong force in Chinese thinking.

Arguments against the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Confucianism does not have to lead to authoritarianism. Indeed, Confucianism places more value on internalized morality than on external repression of deviant behavior:

Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; whereas with ritual, patterns of behavior are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face. (source)

The exercise of rituals or rites (not in the religious sense but in the sense of everyday ritual actions or routines) teaches people to internalize norms and respect them voluntarily, not because of fear of punishment. Formalized behavior through rituals becomes progressively internalized. Laws and governmental power are relatively unimportant to Confucianism.

Another reason why Confucianism is not necessarily autocratic is the teaching that the king’s personal virtue spreads a beneficial influence throughout the kingdom. With a virtuous king, the need for the use of force is limited.

Arguments in favor of the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Rituals are not only used to internalize morality and to instill a sense of propriety or politeness, but also to assign everyone a place in society, a kind of relationship to others and a form of behavior towards others.

While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe strong duties of reverence and service to their seniors, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. (source)

This leads to a strict hierarchy in society, which is opposed to equal rights, universality of rights and the equal influence that is found in a true democracy.

Social harmony is the ideal that results from every individual knowing his place in society, assuming his role and responsibilities towards others and establishing the right kinds of relationships and forms of behavior. However, this social harmony is clearly opposed to adversarial democratic politics.

There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son. (Confucius, Analects XII, 11).

There can be no objection to filial duties and filial piety. But the duty of benevolence and concern of the older towards the younger, and the extension of this duty to the rulers with regard to the people, can lead to paternalism and an infringement of the right to chose one’s own style of life.

Confucianism sees a moral role of government, and a responsibility of the government for the physical and moral well-being of the people. Filial piety is extended within Confucianism to political loyalty of the subjects of a state or even outright submission to authority. This leads to political inequality and elitism which is hard to reconcile with democracy.

However, the original teachings of Confucius forced the subjects to obey only as long as the rulers showed moral rectitude and responsibility for the well-being of the people. When the rulers assume their duties, strict obedience is required. But when they fail, the people can rebel. So no “might is right” or absolute power. Later rulers of course interpreted Confucianism in a more authoritarian way, for their own benefit.

Other aspects of Confucianism, such as the priority of the state and the community over the individual, meritocracy etc. make it hard for a democratic culture of freedom to take root.

Incompatibility of Confucianism and democracy, human rights and freedom?

Democracy, rights and freedom are not the exclusive product of the West and they are compatible with all cultures and religions. However, all cultures and religions also contain elements that inhibit the development of freedom. But it is possible tochange these elements.

Other causes of authoritarianism

One should also be careful not to overstate the importance of culture. First of all, culture is often used by rulers to justify themselves, and in doing so they tend to distort the real meaning of the culture in question. As is evident from the examples above, many elements of Confucianism cannot justify authoritarianism. Secondly, authoritarianism has other, non-cultural causes. In the case of China: the legacy of communism, the priority accorded to the economy (a priority that is supposed to warrant human rights violations) etc.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (4): Real Theoretical Life

(please read part 1, part 2 and part 3 first)

In the ideal Platonic society, led by thinking people who use force to train others to become like them, there will be wellbeing because spiritual life, free from the slavery of nature and desires, is the only good life. It means freedom, the satisfaction of knowledge, and peace because the desires and passions of people are the main reason for strife. Also other reasons for strife, such as scarcity, will be eliminated by a planning state taking care of population and birth control. The number of citizens will no longer cause scarcity, envy, territorial expansion and other reasons to go to war.

So Plato started from an initially attractive premise, the importance of a thinking life compared to consumerism, but then issued a whole range of proposals to protect and promote this life which invariably lead to dictatorship. In all this, he is perhaps the classic example of the way in which the combined hostility to nature, materialism and the plurality of society causes hatred for democracy.

But even his premise is questionable. Is solitary reflection of the general, free from appearances and the particular, really the road to wisdom? Perhaps it is more correct to say that sense perception, expression, and hence the use of one’s body and the interaction with other bodies is the best way to gain knowledge. Much of science is still very material, and discussion, argumentation, deliberation and the testing of opinions through expression and discussion protected by human rights can radically improve our opinions.

We need interaction and communication with other people in order to think correctly, and even to think at all. Would we think without our parents and teachers, without speaking and listening to anyone, without engaging in the world of appearances? And would we be able to think more or less correctly without public interaction protected by a democracy and human rights, without venturing in the bigger world of appearances and without leaving our own small and private group of people? Thinking needs the public use of reason (see also this post on Kant). Thoughts are not something you develop on your own, not even in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many freely expressed thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts, and then you need to test your own thoughts in confrontation with others.

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 himself.

The world of appearances, so disliked by Plato for its volatility and imperfection, actually improves the quality of thoughts because of the range of sources of information and opinions, because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of the a posteriori testing and objecting by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

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 can help to achieve this. 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 and therefore it is difficult to understand how a theoretical life can benefit from the elimination of the world of appearances.

Knowledge can hence be defined in a way which is completely different from the Platonic, passive, lonely, anti-social, introvert, non-discursive contemplation. More on the problem of knowledge and politics here.

Parts 1, 2 and 3

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (3): Violence

(please read part 1 and part 2 first)

The philosophers are the only ones who know the value and superiority of theoretical life. The rest will only appreciate their efforts once they are successful. This is an effort on the part of Plato to justify the use of force. Ordinary people will not strive autonomously or voluntarily towards a theoretical life because they do not understand the value of such a life. They will have to be forced (e.g. educated, moderated etc.). An emotional and materialist way of life must be prohibited. The leaders must not follow the desires of the people – as they do in a democracy – but on the contrary suppress these desires.

People have to be coerced. They must be taught the value of theoretical life. Their intellect must be stimulated, and their passions moderated. Censorship is therefore important. Art which stimulates the passions and desires must be prohibited. Art must be rational instead of emotional. Plato did not appreciate the art and mythology of his time, because they depicted the gods with the same shortcomings as man. Art must give the right example (Christianity and communism later followed in Plato’s footsteps).

However, Plato wanted to avoid physical force. He believes that truth is better than force and also better than persuasion based on opinions and argumentation. Self-evident truth forces the mind to accept it, but this force is quite different from physical force and it is more persuasive than opinions based on arguments.

The question is whether physical force can always be avoided. First, though, Plato wants to try the transmission of truth by way of education. He even proposed to take away the children from their families in order to insulate them from the bad habits of the ordinary people. A kind of tabula rasa. The purpose of education is to mold people according to the image or the model of the philosopher, to make a new man. If it is impossible to have a tabula rasa by means of forced adoption, then the old habits must first be taught away before new habits can be imprinted.

However, this is already a very violent form of education. Moreover, not everybody is adequate material for the fabrication of a philosopher. What happens with those people who turn out to be somewhat different from the plan? The best that can happen to them is hard discipline; the worst is elimination. They may be a bad example to the rest. Elimination either directly or through eugenics and arranged marriages.

The Platonic ideal is a society of people who lead a thinking life, who know the eternal truths and disregard the changing appearances, the desires of the body and the cycles of natural necessity. But it is not democratic to force one vision of the good life on all citizens. In a democracy, people must be free to choose their own good life. If we force them to lead a particular kind of life we enslave them, even if we think that it is for their own good and that later they will thank us for it.

And after we enslave them, we run into the problem of those people who are not able to live up to the model. Plato believes that the power of thinking can overcome the body and that this power can be developed and trained. Every human being has the power of thinking and the capacity to develop this power in such a way that it is correctly balanced with other powers such as emotions, ambitions etc.

But Plato admits that this training and discipline may sometimes be unsuccessful. The mind may not be able to gain a position of superiority with regard to other, more bodily faculties and desires. Some people will never be strong enough to fight the beast in them, not even with extreme discipline in a dictatorial state led by philosophers with an iron hand. The one who, in the eyes of Plato, was the best master of the beast in himself and hence the example to us all, was Socrates. By refusing to escape after having been condemned to death, he showed the undisciplined democrats how to live beyond desire, the ultimate desire being the wish to live.

Parts 1, 2 and 4

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

(please read part 1 first)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parts 1, 3 and 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read also parts 2, 3 and 4

What Are Human Rights? (16): Limited Rights That Need to be Balanced Against Each Other

Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Some rights can cause violations of other rights or of the rights of others, which is why rights have to be balanced against each other.

In specific instances of rights that come into conflict ’97 for example the right to free speech and the right to privacy ’97 a judgment has to be made about the priority of one right or the other. The decision can be made by a judge, but also by the legislator. There can be laws that limit one right for the sake of another. The phrasing of human rights articles in constitutions and treaties often provides the possibility of such legal limits.

These limits are an almost daily occurrence, even in a perfect system. The system of human rights is not a coherent and harmonious whole.

Libel or expressions of racial hatred, for instance, are often illegal, and with good reason. Expressions of hatred are not only insulting (people should be able to live with insults); they can also lead to discrimination or even physical harm. It is a thin line between aggressive words and aggressive actions.

The problem of course is how to decide between rights. On what grounds do we give priority to one right or the other? Only if we have a rule for this can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate limits on rights, or better between limits and violations. Part of the rule could be that some rights are clearly absolute. It seems unacceptable to kill someone, even if doing so would allow us to protect some other right of some other person. Limits on the right to life will then never be legitimate and this right should always have priority and can in turn limit other rights.

However, this rule leaves most problems of conflicts between rights unsolved because most rights are not absolute. One cannot always avoid moral, philosophical and hence contestable reasoning when taking a decision between rights. Some subjective judgment on the harm we would inflict when limiting one right or the other might help. In the case of a journalist who divulges intimate details about the private life of an actor, what would be the harm inflicted on the journalist when we limit his or her right to free speech? Probably less then the harm he or she inflicts when limiting the right to privacy of the actor.

Again, a judgment may not always be as easy as in this example. Deciding between rights remains a difficult matter and one that is better left to professional judges.

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.