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

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

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

Definition of paternalism

Paternalism is

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

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

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

Types of paternalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justifications of paternalism

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

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

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

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

The temptation of paternalism

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

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

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

The dangers of paternalism

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

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

What Are Human Rights? (26): The “Human” Part of Human Rights

Why do we need the qualifier “human” when we talk about human rights? Why is the word “rights” not enough? The obvious reason is that we want to broaden the class of protected persons to cover the whole of humanity. Traditionally, rights were accorded only to specific groups of persons, e.g. the nobility, guilds, citizens etc. The essence of human rights is their universality, which means that they are rights that belong to human beings whatever group they are part of and wherever they happen to live. People have certain rights for the simple reason that they are human; there’s no need for any other reason such as group affiliation, nationality, form of government, legal system etc.

Human rights can thus be seen as the end state of a long expansionary evolution during which ever broader groups of people acquired certain rights. However, the inclusiveness of human rights has often been countered by exclusionary movements. If some want to include a maximum number of people under the protection of rights, others have an interest in the continuation of rights violations. The latter have two options: challenge human rights directly (e.g. by claiming that they are western rights, godless rights etc.), or take the more indirect route: maintain the notion of human rights but at the same time exclude some categories of people from humanity.

Many rights violations are explicitly or implicitly justified by reference to an absence of humanity on the part of the targets of those violations. The terror inflicted by Al-Qaida, the televised beheadings of innocent hostages etc. proves that these people are less than human. They are “animals” and can’t therefore claim that their “human” rights are respected when they are executed extra-judicially, eliminated by way of targeted killing, tortured, or arrested indefinitely in Guantanamo. Perhaps people don’t mean it literally when they say that terrorists are animals. Perhaps they do accept that they are human – they look human after all – but at least they are lesser humans, and hence not deserving the same rights as the rest of humanity. Perhaps they are merely barbarians, a separate and inferior class of humans.

The same attitude is evident in certain non-consequentialist justifications of capital punishment: the people who are executed are “the worst of the worst”, “animals” that have proven their inhumanity by way of their crimes. Also the native populations of colonized territories were considered to be non-human or at least lesser humans. There was a time when westerners weren’t sure that these people had a “soul”, a classic if currently somewhat outmoded distinguishing mark of humans. For those who believed they didn’t have a soul, their enslavement and murder was as acceptable as keeping and slaughtering animals. It took a Papal Bull to attempt to reign in the more extreme colonizers, without much success by the way.

This raises the fundamental question: what is “human”, what does it mean to be human, what is humanity? Respect for human rights depends on the type of answer we can agree on. Ideally, we would like to have a broad definition that makes it difficult if not impossible to exclude large portions of homo sapiens from the category of humanity and to violate their rights as a result of this exclusion. Claiming that someone is human because of his or her “good behavior”, e.g. non-terrorist and non-murderous behavior, is not the right way forward. “Good behavior” is a moralistic notion that can be defined in lots of different ways. Hence we potentially exclude the large majority if not the totality of people from humanity if we go along that road.

On the other hand, a non-moralistic definition, for instance a naturalistic or biological one, isn’t necessarily better. Given the way in which we treat animals, it’s probably best to avoid a definition of humanity as a distinct animal species (in Plato’s phrase, the “featherless biped“). An animal species, however distinct from other species, still consists of animals that are in some sense like other animals belonging to other species. We don’t have moral rules that tell us to treat cats differently from dogs, so a definition of humanity as a distinct animal species is unlikely to yield moral rules that tell us to treat humans differently from cats or dogs.

However, biology can be a useful element in the definition of humanity since it’s biology that justifies some human rights. Some of the biological vulnerabilities that are distinctive of us featherless bipeds, and perhaps even some of the vulnerabilities we share with some non-human species (e.g. the ability to suffer) can be seen as reasons to respect certain human rights. (Although in the latter case the price to pay would be to grant the same rights to non-human species that have the same vulnerabilities; those human rights would then no longer be strictly “human” rights. But perhaps that’s a price we should be willing to pay).

However, for the reasons given above biology is hardly sufficient for the definition of humanity. I guess we also don’t want to use the concept of “soul” to define humanity, given its association with religion. Ideally, we want to be persuasive to the non-religious violators of human rights as well, and those won’t be swayed by soul talk (perhaps they won’t be swayed at all but at least we can try). “Human nature” is a discredited concept, dignity is excessively vague, and moral agency seems to be less typical of humanity than we once believed.

So what can we use? I’ve argued elsewhere that some values that are typical of and in certain cases exclusive to human beings – or homo sapiens – can be seen as adequate justifications of human rights, since these rights serve the realization of those values (examples of those values are the importance of thinking, of social and cultural life, of religion, of prosperity, peace etc.). Excluding certain specimen of homo sapiens from the category of humanity or “real humanity” is then an attack on values that are shared by all specimens; rights violators then unwillingly attack their own values.

However, one problem remains. People’s rights aren’t necessarily safe, not even if we can settle the question of humanity and define the concept in such a way that it becomes difficult to exclude people from humanity. Humanity itself can be the problem. If human rights can be violated when a person’s humanity is denied, it’s also the case that a person who’s merely human runs the same risk. Hannah Arendt has often cited the plight of stateless persons before and after WWII, people whose nationality had been taken away from them by their racist, fascist or xenophobic governments, and who therefore only had their “humanity” left. In the best of cases, they were refugees in foreign countries where their rights were far from safe given that many countries only protected the rights of their own citizens.

The notion of humanity inherent in human rights is also incompatible with widespread feelings of partiality: most of us care more for our family and friends than for the rest of humanity, and some of us also care more for fellow-citizens. Somehow that’s inevitable: not only is it psychologically impossible to care for all the misery in the world – there’s simply too much of it – but it also seems morally right to care more for those who are closer.

In all those examples, we see that human rights have to come back to partiality. Inherent in human rights is universal inclusiveness, but at the same time we see that human rights can only be adequately protected when they are at the same time rights of very specific subgroups of humans: citizens, soldiers, family etc.

More on dehumanization and universality.

Income Inequality (23): The Fable of Egalistan and Opportunistan, or the Relationship Between Income Inequality and Inequality of Opportunity

Let’s imagine two fictional societies. One – call it Egalistan – has almost total income equality, as well as consumption equality (the latter following from the former). However, people are stuck in their social roles, and there’s very limited social mobility, vertical or horizontal. The quality of education is terrible. No one has any real ambitions, and talents are dormant. However, there’s not a lot of discrimination (otherwise equality would not have been possible) and people with few or negative natural endowments are assisted so that they can come close to the average level of income. This average level, however, is rather low because people are lethargic and the high degree of equality has destroyed economic incentives.

The other society – call it Opportunistan – is very unequal: it has a very high score on the Gini coefficient for income inequality. And yet it provides a lot of social mobility and desert-based rewards, as well as good, inclusive and cheap education, and even a tax regime that doesn’t reward hereditary benefits (e.g. a high “death tax”). It also rewards a wide variety of different talents and allows people to develop their non-mainstream talents and to act on their ambitions. People with relatively little natural endowments as well as people with a handicap are assisted and jobs are reserved for them. There’s little discrimination on any basis, and people are insured against misfortune. This society therefore provides a high level of equality of opportunity. However, this equality of opportunity results in high levels of income inequality, perhaps because some people choose not to earn a lot (so-called threshold earners) or because natural endowments (like IQ or talents) are distributed in a very unequal way.

While Opportunistan is obviously more appealing than Egalistan, I don’t agree that it shouldn’t be improved. Some would argue that Opportunistan has done all it is morally obliged to do and doesn’t need to reduce the level of income inequality. I don’t think so. First, it’s not obvious that Opportunistan can maintain its equality of opportunity. Those with greater wealth and income can provide to their children resources and thus opportunities that the less wealthy cannot. The good luck of being born in a wealthy family – which is probably also a well-functioning family with a good set of values – is hard to equalize with the existing set of policies in Opportunistan. Hence, even Opportunistan will find it difficult to achieve or maintain real equality of opportunity.

So, what can Opportunistan do? Obviously, it doesn’t want to adopt the cruel and unacceptable policy of platonic child redistribution. It would lose its a priori appeal if it did. What it can do is reduce some of its income inequality. A certain level of income redistribution could remove some of the unequal benefits resulting from some people’s good fortune of being born in a wealthy family. This redistribution can, to some extent, equalize this good fortune. If there are less poor families, there are less children growing up with the wrong values or with other sets of hereditary burdens (which doesn’t mean that poor people are poor because they have the wrong values; it means that being poor tends to produce the wrong values, e.g. lack of ambition etc.).

Secondly, Opportunistan hasn’t done enough because high levels of income inequality tend to undermine the functioning of democratic institutions. Those institutions are premised on the equal influence of all voters. Obviously that’s a utopian assumption, but there’s no reason to make it more utopian than it should be. Unequal financial resources produce unequal political influence. And the same argument can be made for the judicial domain.

So, it’s I think important that we don’t delude ourselves on the merits of Opportunistan: equality of opportunity is notoriously ambitious and difficult to achieve and maintain (even though equality of outcome is generally but erroneously considered the more utopian type of equality), and yet it’s not even enough. Reducing the levels of inequality of income is also important, but not all the way towards Egalistan.

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.

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” (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