The Ethics of Human Rights (75): Should We Economize on Virtue?

There’s a lot we can do to raise levels of respect for human rights without appealing to people’s sense of altruism, benevolence and humanity. Since virtues like these are often in short supply, this is a good thing. We can get somewhere even if we can’t make people more virtuous. For example, we can reduce global poverty by removing trade restrictions. That’s a lot easier than asking people in wealthy countries to pay higher taxes for higher levels of development aid. More examples like this are here.

We can sometimes even use people’s vices in order to further the cause of human rights. For instance, if people cherish their own rights – as most of them do – then it may be wise of them to cherish the rights of others because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity. Selfishness can then lead them to involuntary benevolence (much like in other “invisible hand theories). Other examples of selfish reasons to respect human rights are here.

This strategy has been called “economizing on virtue“. It has a special appeal to economists because it means getting done more with less. Realists about human nature – often conservatives – are also fond of it, for obvious reasons. And perhaps it is indeed all we can hope for at the moment. The obvious risk, however, is that people will start to believe that we don’t need virtue at all. Maybe we can go a long way without virtue, but I don’t believe we can go all the way. After all, if automatic mechanisms and undemanding policies would allow us to protect all human rights of all people all of the time, how come we’re not there yet? Also, let’s not forget that virtue is also intrinsically valuable, apart from its possible role in raising levels of respect for human rights. Hence, we have two good reasons to try to foster not only beneficial self-interest but also virtuous behavior.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (12): What Makes People Care About Human Rights?

Human rights are not like music or love, things people care about for their own sake or for the pleasure or happiness they provide. If people care about human rights they do so because they view those rights as means to achieve some other goals or purpose. I personally see the following reasons why people care about human rights.


Human rights function as signaling tools (see also here). People who engage in human rights talk don’t necessarily have as a first priority the goal of improving respect for human rights, but perhaps only want to convey some meaningful information about themselves and use human rights talk to do that. They may of course improve respect for human rights along the way, sometimes unwittingly (for example because their talk contributes to a culture of human rights), but human rights are valuable to them primarily because they allow them to communicate certain things about themselves. For example, it’s possible that some of the people who are very expressive about perceived discrimination of a particular minority group may be primarily motivated by a possible leadership position within that minority group. Their human rights talk signals leadership aspirations. This kind of reason to care about human rights is not by definition useless for the promotion of human rights – it can advance the cause of human rights – but it’s obviously not the best possible reason.


Human rights promote people’s self-interest. That’s obviously true for their own rights, but also for the rights of others. I’ve written here about the ways in which people may view the promotion of the rights of others as a means to protect their own self-interest. This reason to care about human rights is more beneficial to the cause of human rights than the signaling reason, but it’s still not the best possible reason. People’s self-interest does not advance all human rights of all other people.


People may believe that human rights promote some of their cherished values or ideals, such as freedom or equality, for themselves and for humanity in general. Like the previous two reasons for caring about human rights, this reason will only advance the cause of human rights contingently: if freedom is what you care about, you will only promote human rights to the extent that they enhance freedom, and only those rights that enhance freedom.

It’s not true that freedom is served by all human rights all of the time, at least not if you adopt a restrictive definition of freedom. For example, those human rights that guarantee a basic standard of living are not clearly meant to enhance the freedom of poor people – within the bounds of a certain definition of freedom – and they may even limit the freedom of those who have to contribute the means necessary to guarantee a basic standard of living for others. Conversely, if you’re an egalitarian and equality rather than freedom is what you care about, then you may not feel especially attached to the right to property for example.


People may cherish rights because they believe human beings are uniquely valuable creatures who should be treated in a certain way. For example, you may believe that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Or that they deserve to have their autonomy protected. Or that people have been created by God in His image and that this requires a certain treatment. Human rights are then viewed as means to achieve this treatment. Compared to the previous reasons to care about human rights, this reason is potentially more inclusive and wide-ranging and less contingent on facts about personal motivation. However, it depends on a substantive and inherently controversial philosophy about human nature, dignity or religion.


Conversely, people may cherish human rights, not because of their views about the inherent worth of human beings, but because of the evil inherent in humanity. Human rights are necessary not because they protect the good in people but because they protect people from the evil in others.

What is Democracy? (62): Impossible?

When you start to think about it, democracy looks more and more like an impossible form of government. And this happens not only when you conceptualize it in a maximalist manner – although its impossibility obviously becomes more and more apparent with each additional requirement we impose on it. This is disconcerting for those of us who believe democracy is worth having.

Let’s begin with democracy in its most basic form: a system of government that is supposedly best equipped to help people protect their interests. In the words of John Stuart Mill:

that the rights and interests of every or any person are only secure from being disregarded when the person interested is himself able, and habitually disposed to stand up for them. (source)

Here we already run into problems. What are people’s interests and how exactly do they “stand up for them”? Take the example of alcohol: people have an interest in not suffering the bad consequences of alcohol abuse, either their own abuse or that of others. That sounds simple enough, but upon reflection it’s not so easy to define this interest correctly, let alone act efficiently on the basis of it. At some point in time, the potential or actual alcoholic may believe it is in his interest to have laws that make it impossible for him to buy alcohol. At other points in time, this may seem too harsh and he may believe that it’s better for him to try to restrain himself. After all, a real cure for (potential) alcoholism is inner conviction, not outside coercion. Coercion will simply drive the market underground. But then again, alcohol abuse destroys the inner conviction that is necessary to stop it. So, what to do? Is it in his interest to vote for prohibition and solve the problem of deficiency of conviction? Or is it in his interest to trust human agency?

Hence a first difficulty with the basic model of democracy is the determination of the interests that democracy should serve and of the policies that are best suited to protect these interests. Lot’s of possible choices, value judgments and empirical facts come into play, including facts about future consequences. Moreover, thinking about and examining the facts won’t suffice: testing, trial and error etc. are also necessary.

Hence a second problem: even if interests and the policies that best promote these interests can be clearly determined, it’s not necessarily true that the people are best placed to do this. Experts may be more likely to hit the mark. But how to select the experts? We can’t let the people select them, because if the people were able to select them then they would need to be experts themselves. We can’t just let the experts select themselves, because then everyone could claim to be an expert. Peer selection is also fraught with problems: who’s a peer? How to select the peers?

A third problem: most of us believe, correctly, that people should not simply pursue their self-interest – if that is something they are even able to do. People are expected to discover the common interest as well as those policies most likely to realize the common interest. The common interest can be defined in several ways, but in one interpretation it’s that which is best according to moral standards about justice, rights etc. We also don’t believe that this common interest and those moral standards result automatically from effective self-interested actions.

Here we have exactly the same difficulties as with self-interest: what is the common interest, and which policies serve it best? Arguably the problem here is even more difficult: one’s self-interest is probably less complex, and one is at least motivated to determine it. Obviously, this doesn’t guarantee success – as I argued above – but success in matters of morality and justice is even further away. If even the best philosophers can’t agree on these matters, how could ordinary citizens?

Fourth problem: even if all this is doable in theory, wouldn’t it require an enormous effort? Do people have the time to do all this, or would doing it require the sacrifice of other goals that may be just as important or even more important from a moral point of view? One could argue that the refusal to participate in democracy is a moral requirement given the cost and effort required by democracy. Even voting and participating in an uninformed manner seems to require too much of too many. 

Fifth problem: even if all of the problems above could somehow be overcome, there are huge practical problems involved in allowing large numbers of people to vote on issues. Hence, deliberation about interests, justice, laws and policies takes place not in preparation of a vote on the substance of the matter but in preparation of the election of politicians who in turn will vote on the substance. This results in an additional problem: once – or better if – the people have decided on matters of interest, justice, law and policy, they’ll have to select those politicians most likely to hold the same views. That, obviously, is a problem. Not only can politicians pretend to hold certain views and do something completely different once in office. It’s also unlikely that people find a politician that holds all the good views. Hence, people have to elect politicians who will, predictably, implement some wrong views. This leads to a conclusion in favor of votes on issues rather than votes on people. In other words, a conclusion in favor of direct democracy. However, this type of democracy imposes even more duties on citizens and raises a whole new set of difficulties.

So the conclusion seems to be that democracy is a poor system for generating laws and policies that effectively protect both people’s interests and the common interest. We can try to save democracy by arguing that the problems cited above aren’t caused by democracy and aren’t limited to democracy. They are what life is about: “what is my self-interest” is just another way of asking “what do I want in life”? And people seem to have a hard time ignoring the big questions about morality and justice. The problems don’t go away when democracy goes away. If it’s clear how difficult the problems are for democracy, it’s not at all clear how they are less difficult for other forms of government.

I admit, that is a weak defense of democracy, so more needs to be said. We could, for instance, argue that problems 1 to 3 above are knowledge problems. Now, I’ve argued before that democracy has certain things going for it in that respect. The massive participation in open and free public discussion typical of a democracy makes it possible to show, examine and argue for points of view, and this in turn can lead to a filtering out of weak points of view and a selection of the better ones. In other words, democracy may be able to solve the knowledge problems that seem to render it impossible. In addition, problems 4 and 5 above also don’t look fatal to me: they are of a practical nature and can perhaps be solved by technological developments and increased productivity.

If all that’s the case, then democracy may not be as bad after all.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (21): Selfish Reasons for Respecting the Rights of Others

People usually have no problem acknowledging their own rights and demanding that others respect those rights. (I say “usually” because it’s not unheard of that people waive their rights. For example, some don’t want to live in a democracy). It’s the rights of others that are often a problem. One can try to foster benevolence, tolerance, mutual respect and humanitarianism as means to increase the level of respect for the rights of others, but perhaps that’s utopian, depending on your assessment of human nature. It’s true that the concept of human rights arose precisely because of deficiencies in human nature and an overall insufficiency of benevolence, tolerance etc.

So perhaps it’s better to try to find selfish reasons that may convince people to respect the rights of others. There’s a couple of those here:

  • To the extent that social stability and peaceful coexistence depend on some level of respect for certain human rights, and break down below that level, everyone has an interest in maintaining that level of respect. Massive and ongoing violations of certain human rights for a large enough subgroup of a population can cause social unrest that may ultimately affect the prosperity and security of all members of that population, including the violators.
  • I argued before (see here and here) that the optimal process for thinking and knowledge acquisition requires the free and public appearance of a maximum number of arguments for and against a theory or idea. Only those theories and ideas that survive this process will be of high quality. The multiplication of perspectives can, to some extent, be the result of solitary reflection (“imagination”) but is enhanced by the actual participation of others in the thinking process. It’s like you can’t know that a square shape is actually part of a cube rather than simply a square if you don’t look at it from all possible perspectives and if you don’t shine a “light” on all possible sides. Hence, if we assume that everyone has an interest in the quality of his or her own thinking and knowledge, then we can also safely assume that everyone has an interest in at least certain freedom rights being granted to a maximum number of other people (even people in other countries or cultures, since the marketplace of ideas should be extended as wide as possible in order to avoid national or cultural prejudice and to allow the appearance of unusual perspectives and arguments).
  • And then there’s reciprocity. If people cherish their own rights, it may be wise of them to cherish the rights of others, because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity: others will to some extent return the favor. Respecting the rights of others can encourage them to respect your own rights. Conversely, if you claim the right to deny the rights of others, that sets the precedent that someone might deny your rights. This reciprocity operates on several levels: it’s probably a basic social instinct to answer respect with respect; and you may hope for reciprocity because your own practice of respect for the rights of others has contributed to a general culture of human rights.
  • Aging populations in developed countries will need more immigrants to keep their economies going. Hence their economic self-interest will convince them to be more positive about the freedom of movement and association of potential immigrants, something which will also be beneficial for those immigrants’ right to a certain standard of living.
  • Some other selfish reasons to respect the rights of others may seem a bit far-fetched but not completely unlikely. For example, people have an interest in art and want to consume art. Hence, they must grant artists freedom of expression.

The big question here is obviously the weight of these selfish reasons to respect the rights of others. There are, after all, numerous selfish reasons for violating the rights of others (for example, discrimination, like dishonesty, is an important producer of profit for the discriminators). And those reasons can easily be considered more important than the reasons to act benevolently. We wouldn’t need to discuss human rights if things were any different because the “invisible hand” would have eradicated all rights violations. Still, I believe it’s useful to emphasize some of the selfish reasons to respect the rights of others because those are clearly not understood well enough most of the time. A proper understanding could at least make things better at the margin, and in some cases.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (17): Private Interests and the General Interest

What kind of state do we desire? What kind of education for our children and for the children of the future? What kind of health care, not just for ourselves but for all citizens? How will we leave the environment for future generations? These questions and many others concern us all, no matter which private interests we have and which interest groups we belong to.

Unfortunately, it looks like the first objective of politics today is not to serve the general interest but to serve a variety of private interests expressed by pressure groups whose support the government must buy by way of special benefits, simply because it cannot retain its supporters when it refuses to give them something it has the power to give, in the words of Friedrich A. Hayek.

But not only governments and legislators are forced into this. Groups in society quickly understand that the best they can do is to play the game and try to win as many benefits as possible, otherwise they end up paying for the benefits of the rest of the population. We find ourselves in a vicious circle in which

  • politicians are forced to grant interest groups special benefits, simply because they can and because they would lose voters if they refused
  • interest groups are forced to ask for special benefits if they don’t want to end up as the only suckers paying for the benefits of others
  • different interest groups are out-asking each other because otherwise they end up paying more than they get
  • politicians are forced to give more because people ask more, but also have to tax more because the money has to come from somewhere
  • interest groups are forced to ask more to compensate for the heavier taxes
  • etc.

Of course, this is a libertarian dystopia which fortunately doesn’t quite work out the same way in reality. But it serves the purpose of highlighting the risks of interest group politics.

Given these risks, it’s unfortunate that politics in most democratic countries is so much focused on private interests. The majorities that do exist are not inspired by a general interest or by a common will to achieve something that will benefit society as a whole. They are no more than collections of different pressure groups which have all been promised benefits in exchange for their votes. These pressure groups can be certain states or provinces, whose representative will only vote for a proposal when he or she gets something in return which benefits the locals. Or they can be a certain profession, a religious group or whatever.

As a result, people do not see themselves as a community that can identify with the state and with politics. They only identify themselves with a particular interest group (or with several different interest groups, depending on the types of private interests that they want to see protected), and they see politics as an instrument to fulfill their interests or as a warehouse of advantages ready to be looted by whoever comes first.

This makes effective common actions and actions that serve the general interest very difficult if not impossible. Any vote on something that is of general interest – e.g. healthcare reform – can only pass if a series of private interests are satisfied at the same time. And again we have a vicious circle here. If the state cannot prove itself as a vehicle for common action and for the general interest, then people will not be encouraged to fall back on their private interests. Only successful common action can enable people to transcend fragmentation, to escape decomposition, to identify with the political community and to think of the state as something else than a loot. On the other hand, if the meaning of this political community is diluted, then it is very difficult to mobilize people for a common action, in the words of Charles Taylor.

This focus on private interests and sub-communities is completely different from the way in which the Ancient Greeks for example reflected on politics. In the Greek city states, the inhabitants of border regions were not allowed to participate in a vote concerning a declaration of war with neighboring countries. It was assumed that these inhabitants were unable to vote in accordance with the general interest. Their immediate private interest would inhibit a reasonable reflection on the general interest. In this case, some legitimate private interest where neglected. But today we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other.

Of course, there ‘s nothing wrong with self-interest as such. A conception of the general interest that is established without the cooperation of everybody or that is incompatible with the interests of a majority is likely to cause resistance. And also the interests of the minority are important. The basic interests of the minority are expressed in human rights which can’t be overridden by a democratic majority. We have to start from self-interest, but we do not have to end there. A general interest is always a reformulation of self-interest. And it’s this reformulation through political debate that is often missing, and politics tends to be  a mere sum of or a compromise between private interests.

However, the other extreme is also a risk. Exaggerating the importance of the general interest can be very dangerous as well. Those who have witnessed nazism or communism—or both—can testify to this. The general interest — whatever it is — can justify oppression because it can require the sacrifice of “small” private interests which hinder the development of the community, of the race etc.

Religion and Human Rights (21): The Attractiveness of Religious Liberty to Those Who Hate it

Religious extremism

This post examines the relationship between religious liberty and religious extremism. The expression, “religious extremism”, does not only or even mainly refer to terrorism, jihad or sectarianism. Those are only the more flagrant instances of religiously inspired human rights violations.  All religiously inspired human rights violations are covered here by the concept of religious extremism.

Two other remarks may help to avoid misunderstandings. First, this post by no means focuses exclusively on Islam. Although most news stories about religious extremism nowadays tend to highlight rights abuses in Islamic countries or Islamic terrorism, history shows that none of this is the monopoly of any religion.

Second, the existence of religiously inspired human rights violations does not prove that religion as such is necessarily incompatible with human rights. This post does not make that claim. We should be well aware that rights abuses can be inspired by many different ideologies, religious and secular. Moreover, there is ample evidence that the historic evolution of human rights was and still is underpinned by religious motivation. The incompatibility of religion and human rights is the exception. It is limited to some interpretations of some practices of religions. Religion is above all a matter of conviction and belief, and only then a matter of practice. And conviction and belief can never harm human rights, which is why they benefit from absolute protection by human rights.

Religious liberty

Regarding the concept of religious liberty: what is it and why is it so important? Religious liberty is a human right among other human rights. It contains the freedom of belief, the freedom to practice and promote a freely chosen belief, both in private and in public. It is also the freedom to change belief and the freedom to have no belief at all (the freedom to be non-religious, or the freedom from religion).

Here’s the way it’s formulated in the Universal Declaration, article 18:

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

Religious liberty is in general words the right to be protected against religious coercion and persecution. Of course, one can and does discuss this definition. There is a lot of literature about the precise meaning of religious liberty. I just assume that we can use the definition given here as a working definition for the purpose of this post.

By protecting people against religious coercion, the right to religious liberty promotes a diverse and plural society, even beyond the field of religion. If there can be diversity and debate in something as important as religion, why not in other fields? So religious liberty functions as an example and a benchmark. It promotes diversity and debate in general, and hence it promotes other human rights – such as freedom of speech – which can occupy the free public space created by religious freedom. Religious liberty, in the same manner, promotes tolerance. If people can be tolerant – or, better, can be forced to be tolerant – in religious matters, it will be easier to enforce tolerance in other fields.

As a consequence, religious liberty is of importance to everyone, including non-religious persons, and not only because it protects them against the imposition of a religion. It also allows them, and everyone else, to live in a world of diversity, tolerance and human rights. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of the system of human rights and of crucial importance to a plural world. It is a prerequisite for the whole system of human rights, but also vice versa. Freedoms of speech, of assembly and of association are religious freedoms as well and are prerequisites for religious liberty strictu sensu.

The attitude of religious extremists towards religious liberty

The relationship between religious liberty and religious extremism is ambivalent. On the one hand, we see that religious extremists, especially those living in democracies, use or better abuse religious liberty to justify certain religious practices and norms which violate human rights. On the other hand, and more generally, religious extremists do not like religious liberty. They are universalists. They want to impose their norms on others and do not want others to enjoy religious liberty. Unbelievers do not deserve freedom because they oppose the laws of God, the only God and the God of all human beings. Man does not have the freedom to violate the laws of God.

Religious universalists naturally try to take over the machinery of the state, because then they can use the law, the police, the judiciary, state education, etc, to bring back the “lost sheep”, against their will if necessary.

[R]eligiously wrong – a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against.  Deorum injuriae Diis curae.  Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods.  It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offense to Omnipotence which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures.

The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them.  […] a determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion.  It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty

Universalism is of course inherent in most major religions (perhaps not in Judaism). However, religious extremists go beyond the normal religious tendency of promoting universality by persuasion and voluntary conversion. They try to achieve universality by taking away the religious liberty and other human rights of their opponents. They use force and violence, sometimes even terror and war. Even the members of their own groups often suffer rights abuse because of the objective of universality (for example, punishment for apostasy).

(By the way, universalism is not an exclusively religious phenomenon. We can also find it in many non-religious worldviews such as capitalism and communism. We can observe that these other worldviews also tend to violate human rights if they take their universalism too seriously. One could even claim that the ideology of human rights is a kind of universalism. Fortunately, this ideology cannot permit itself to violate human rights for the sake of its universalism, because that would be self-destructive).

First-level protection against rights violations by religious extremists

I’ve mentioned above that there is a two-way causation, unity and interdependence in the system of human rights (by the way, this is a recurrent feature in the system, even in parts of it unconnected to religious liberty). This unity can help to solve the problem of the violation of religious liberty by religious extremists and the violation of other human rights justified by religious liberty. Religious extremists can violate human rights in two ways:

  • either internally in their own groups, again in two ways:
    • for example, certain religious practices such as gender discrimination, forced circumcision, etc). These practices are often justified as falling under the protection of religious liberty;
    • or by prohibiting exit-attempts (apostasy) – which often occur as a consequence of the previous type of violation – and taking away the freedom of religion in the sense of the freedom to change one’s religion;
  • or externally, in their practices directed at outsiders (for example, forced conversion, terrorism, holy war, etc). These practices can violate only the freedom of religion of outsiders, or also their other human rights.

Now, all these practices cannot and should not benefit from the protection offered by religious liberty. No single human right, including the freedom of religion, can justify human rights violations. Human rights have to be balanced against each other and must be limited when they produce human rights violations. Limiting rights for the sake of other rights or the rights of others is a normal practice in the system of human rights. This system is not a harmonious whole. Rights can be contradictory. Take the right of privacy of a public figure trumping the right of freedom of expression of a journalist. Or the right to life of people in a crowd trumping the freedom of speech of one of them wanting to yell “FIRE!” without good reason.

In the case of religious liberty: one could argue that the right to equal treatment and non-discrimination of women, the right to life of apostates and the religious freedom of adherents of other religions trump the right to some religious practices which would normally enjoy protection under the religious liberty articles.

Second-level protection against rights violations by religious extremists

This first-level protection implies, of course, the enforcement, often by force, of human rights against the will of religious extremists. A better protection would be based not on external force but on internal motivation. The central thesis of this post is the following: notwithstanding the hostility shown by extremists with regard to religious liberty and other human rights, they can be persuaded that they have tactical reasons to accept religious liberty and human rights in general, even if their religious views tell them otherwise. This thesis is based on the force of self-interest as a universal human motivation. It therefore excludes the ultra-extremists who blow themselves up for their religion. They have forsaken self-interest and cannot be convinced to take a course of action based on self-interest. However, they are a minority even among extremists (some of them probably have not forsaken self-interest but are forced to do what they do). So let us concentrate on the other extremists.

There is reason to believe that societies are becoming more and more diverse, culturally and religiously. As a consequence of migration and globalization, states are becoming collections of religious sub-communities. This increased diversity of societies means that religious sub-communities need the protection of religious liberty and other human rights. Even the extremists among them, those who want to coerce, can one day, when the demography has changed, be coerced by the opposing extremists. Therefore, they can be tempted to adopt religious liberty and human rights for their own long-term protection even if these contradict their religious beliefs and practices and their universalist claims. At first sight, a universalist religious extremist may not consider religious liberty and the freedom and equality of all religions as being in his self-interest, or even in the self-interest of the adherents of the other religions. On the contrary, it is in his interest that a maximum number of people convert to his religion. From the point of view of salvation, this is also in the unconscious interest of the people to be converted. He may claim that the latter not only should lose their religious liberty, but also their other rights, and perhaps even their life.

But rejecting the religious liberty and other rights of others means destroying the state mechanisms which he may one day need to defend himself against other extremists who immigrate or become stronger through other means. After all, globalization means that everyone can become a minority everywhere.

It makes sense for a strong majority with universalist claims to reject the rights of minorities, but only in the short-term. In the long term, it’s much more rational to keep the human rights protection mechanisms intact, if not out of conviction, then tactically in order not to cut off the branch one may need to sit on in the future.

Even the protection of human rights internally in a group makes tactical sense. Here it’s not a question of counting on reciprocal respect, if necessary enforced by your own reluctant example or by enforcement mechanisms kept intact by your own groups’ respect for them. Respect for the rights of the members of your own group also helps to maintain a rights enforcing state which can help protect you against other groups.

Of course, this reasoning requires rationality and objective analysis of self-interest on the part of religious extremists, which is perhaps utopian.

Inclusive and exclusive norms

We can put all this in another way by making the distinction between inclusive and exclusive norms. Inclusive norms are norms such as tolerance, freedom of speech, etc. They try to protect plurality and hold different people with different convictions together.

Exclusive norms try to win a competitive struggle with other norms and try to exclude difference. For example, homosexuality is a sin. Religious norms are often exclusive norms, but not always (think of charity for instance) and many exclusive norms are not religious at all (racism for example).

Someone who is attached to an exclusive norm will try to change people, to persuade, convert, perhaps even impose or force. (To stay with my example on homosexuality: there are “clubs”, if you can call them that, in the US where people help homosexuals to “convert” to heterosexuality). So, exclusive norms may lead to rights violations or violations of inclusive norms.  In that case, inclusive norms should, in my view, take precedence. However, for religious people, the commands of God clearly trump human rights. It’s easier to protect inclusive norms against exclusive norms if religious communities have internalized inclusive norms and only promote, rather than impose, their exclusive norms. In doing so they guarantee that the inclusive norms are alive and well when the exclusive norms of other sub-communities start to manifest themselves. Even extremists may be convinced that this is a rational approach.

What is Democracy? (29): Vote Buying

Or, rather, what it should not be. Vote buying is a perversion of democracy. It is a system in which groups of citizens try to force the government to take decisions that correspond to their self-interest and that give them certain advantages, such as tax breaks, subsidies etc. Citizens try to force politicians by giving or threatening to take away their votes. They desire something and the price they pay is their vote. They give their votes and expect to be compensated for this. They sell their votes and their electoral fidelity for certain advantages. Citizens have votes and politicians need these votes; politicians have access to government-provided benefits and citizens need these benefits. Hence, it is natural that exchanges take place.

However, this kind of logic is of course detrimental to democracy. A first problem is that a benefit for one group is always at the expense of the rest of the population. The financial loss that results from a tax cut or a subsidy for a certain group, has to be compensated by increased contributions by the rest of the taxpayers. The advantages given to some people in return for their votes are, of course, not paid by the politicians themselves, but by the rest of the population. In fact, politicians buy their votes with the money of others. It is often the less vocal and hence those already disadvantaged who end up paying the bill.

Because politicians run the risk of losing power when voters go elsewhere to sell their votes, we often find politicians outbidding each other and promising ever more important benefits, to preserve or conquer power. They have to buy votes and fidelity by way of more and more benefits. Politics becomes a kind of inverted sales. Politicians have to grant ever more important benefits to entice voters in their camp. Votes are scarce and demand is high, especially before election periods. If demand is high and if there are several competing buyers, then prices go up. Votes become ever more expensive because buyers can be played off against each other.

This results in budget deficits, an over-sized state, and dependency. An economic logic is applied to politics, which as a result loses its identity. Democracy degenerates into an economic system in which groups of citizens use the competition between political parties (the competition for the votes of the citizens instead of the competition for the money of the citizens, as in the real economy), in order to achieve as many material benefits as possible in return for their votes (their only political capital). The political process has become a market process. The laws of economics (offer and demand, free competition etc.) take over politics.

Of course, it is true that democracy is a free competition between would-be leaders searching for as many votes as possible, but it should be much more than that. It should be a place of debate and discussion, of freedom and equality, and of the pursuit of the general interest.

In a system of vote-buying, politicians represent groups and interests instead of society as a whole and the will of the people as a whole. Resources are redistributed, not from the rich to the poor, but from everybody to those who are vocal and have the best bargaining power. Transfers depend more on electoral importance than on real needs.

Direct democracy is the only solution to the problem of vote buying. In a direct democracy, there are no representatives who have to grant all kinds of benefits to pressure groups, in order to cling to power.

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