The Thorny Bush of Democracy Promotion Abroad

Should we be allowed to intervene in a country for the purpose of promoting democracy and human rights, if the people in this country don’t want to have a democracy or human rights? If they do want to have democracy and rights, then it’s of course, possible and acceptable, maybe even necessary to assist them and to help them in their struggle against their government, as long as our intervention doesn’t cause violence or other unintended effects that are counterproductive.

However, what can we do if they don’t want democracy and rights? Is it not undemocratic to force someone to be democratic? On the one hand, democracy implies respect for the will, the choice and the consent of the people. But, on the other hand, if we reject the creation of democracy with undemocratic means on logical grounds, then we foreclose other widely accepted courses of action such as the restoration of peace with unpeaceful means. And we don’t want to do that.

If we’re allowed to impose democracy from the outside and without the agreement of the people, then we obviously contradict ourselves because we don’t act in a democratic way. We’re not interested in the will of the people (the will of the state is of no importance here, although in most cases it is this will rather than the will of the people, which hinders democratisation). But this merely logical objection shouldn’t, it seems, be enough to stop us. After all, the same logical problem besets those who argue that democracy implies the right of the people to decide against democracy. One can’t logically force a system to be self-destructive.

However, the logic problems of our opponents don’t make our own logic problems go away. The choice of the people is an important thing and should be taken into account in democracy promotion. Choosing something other than democracy is choosing a system in which you can’t choose, but it’s still a choice and an expression of popular will.

The will of the people is a principle of democracy, but it is not an absolute principle and democracy is more than that. The choice of the people is not sacred and can be limited. If, in a democracy, the people make undemocratic choices, choices against democracy or choices that violate human rights, then this is legally unacceptable. However, this rule applies only to a people who already live in a democracy. Interventions in undemocratic countries should take into account anti-democratic popular opinion. At least to the extent that anti-democratic popular opinion can be ascertained in undemocratic countries. After all, propaganda, indoctrination and fear can make it very difficult to get a good view of popular opinion in such countries.

Still, it may be possible to be reasonably confident of informed and uncoerced popular objections to democracy and human rights in a certain non-democratic country. In those case, the type of intervention open to outsiders is strictly limited. One may try to convince people to choose for democracy, but beyond persuasion there doesn’t seem to be much that one can do. One can’t force people to be free. In the words of JS Mill:

“[I]t is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny [a people] can … be prevented from living … under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways … So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities, I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it. Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people” (source)

In the vast majority of cases, however, we can’t be reasonably confident of popular objections to democracy in undemocratic states. The reasonable thing to believe in those cases is that we can’t ascertain the informed and uncoerced opinions of the people of those states. We can also reasonably believe that there may be hidden support, or that support would be forthcoming if more information were available to the people. If a lack of support is due only to misinformation, indoctrination or lack of knowledge, then interventions aimed at persuasion can be sufficient to convince people. And when there is popular support for democratic reform and rights protection, than the means of intervention can be extended beyond mere persuasion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are Human Rights? (25): Some Common Human Rights Misconceptions

Here’s a short and unfortunately incomplete list of common misconceptions about human rights. I distinguish between theoretical misconceptions (mistakes about what human rights are or what they mean) and factual or historical misconceptions. The former are obviously the most harmful, and I’ll start with those.

Some theoretical misconceptions about human rights

  • It’s often claimed that there are “three generations of rights“: traditional liberty rights, social-economic rights, and cultural rights. Each new generation has “followed” the other. That’s clearly wrong. So-called “poverty rights” are as old as freedom rights. For example, among the rights listed in the revolutionary Constitution of 1791 in France, was this:

    A general establishment for public relief shall be created and organized to raise foundlings, relieve the infirm poor, and furnish work for the able-bodied poor who have been unable to procure it for themselves. (source)

    This misconception is often used to discredit the more “recent” rights as being new inventions or “fads” that inflate away the meaning of the word “rights”. This misconception is typical of some American audiences.

  • Equally common is the claim that human rights are anti-democratic. Indeed, human rights, as they are translated in the constitutions of most modern democracies, are specifically – but not exclusively – aimed at the protection of the interests of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. However, that doesn’t make them anti-democratic. Democracy needs human rights, and is much more than simple majority rule.
  • Thirdly, the notion that there are negative and positive rights, that only the former are “real” rights and that the latter are too costly on society and require limitations on the freedom of citizens, is also wrong. All types of rights require both forbearance and active protection, and all rights are costly. Depending on the circumstances, what are often called negative rights may be more costly than positive rights.
  • And, finally, there’s this notion that some human rights are basic rights. If you claim that some human rights are more basic, more important and more urgent than other rights, then you can’t possibly take account of the interdependence of all human rights. If a so-called basic human right is dependent on another, non-basic right – and that’s easy to show – then it’s no longer a basic right.

Some factual misconceptions about human rights

And here are also some factual or historical misconceptions about human rights. These are of lesser importance, but fun to mention:

  • There is no evidence that the torture device known as “iron maiden” was ever used for torture. It’s often depicted in stories about medieval torture, but it looks like it was pieced together in the 18th century from several artifacts found in museums. (source)
  • A “fatwa” is a non-binding legal opinion issued by an Islamic scholar under Islamic law, not an official death sentence. The popular misconception probably stems from the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989 regarding the author Salman Rushdie, who he stated deserved a death sentence for blasphemy. (source)
  • The word “jihad” does not necessarily mean “holy war”. Literally, the word in Arabic means “struggle”. While there is such a thing as “jihad bil saif”, or “jihad by the sword“, many modern Islamic scholars usually say that it implies an effort or struggle of a spiritual kind. (source)
  • Voltaire never uttered the phrase: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The line comes from The Friends of Voltaire (1907) by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. It resembles the actual line “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too” from Voltaire’s Essay on Tolerance. (source)
  • Likewise, Niccolò Machiavelli didn’t write “The ends justify the means.” A more literal translation is “One must consider the final result”, a disappointingly sensible statement. (source)
  • And Stalin probably never said that “the death of one man is a tragedy, and the death of millions is a statistic”. (source)
  • Female genital mutilation is not required by Islam. And neither is the veil (the Quran merely requires “modest dress“).
  • China does not dismiss international human rights or the universality of human rights. It has ratified many of the major human rights treaties, although of course it violates human rights in practice, as most if not all other countries.