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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Democracy? (47): Something in Need of Innovation

If we agree that democracy is something valuable, and that speaking about democracy means speaking about a “thick” democracy, a “deep” democracy, a “full” democracy or a maximalist version of democracy as opposed to a democracy characterized only by regular and fair elections, then it becomes important to find ways in which to make our democracies more democratic.

Making a democracy more democratic means designing procedures and institutions that make it more likely that government policy and legislation represent the will of the people, but also that processes that guide the formation of this will are improved. A lot of thinking about democracy takes popular preferences for granted, and merely focuses on the implementation of these preferences. However, you can imagine procedures that do a very good job implementing preferences, but what use are they if these preferences are merely unreflected opinions and when there are no deliberative institutions that help to form preferences?

So, if we want to improve democracy and deepen it, we have to focus on two aspects:

  • improve the way in which preferences are implemented
  • improve the way in which preferences are formed.

Innovations in preference implementation

In mentioned in a previous post that a purely representative system of democracy isn’t able to accurately implement voter preferences. The argument in a nutshell: it’s more difficult to express preferences while voting for persons than it is while voting for issues. One person, who is a candidate for representative, holds many different opinions, and voting for this person means voting for the totality of these opinions. As a voter, you therefore vote for opinions which aren’t necessarily yours. You cannot express every single one of your preferences. You express your preference for a person, and this will be a person who more or less has the same preferences as you have, but there is some loss. And when preferences can’t be adequately expressed, they can be adequately implemented either.

For example, suppose your opinions as a voter are generally very liberal, but you oppose abortion vehemently. Suppose also that all liberal candidates for representatives are in favor of abortion. What do you do? You either don’t vote – but then you give up on democracy and the premise of this post doesn’t hold – or you vote for the liberal who holds a set of opinions closest to your own. However, when choosing the latter option you will vote for someone who favors abortion. Hence you were unable to express your preference against abortion, and democratic politics will therefore not correctly implement popular preferences.

If we want to improve this aspect of democracy, we should allow people to vote on issues, at least now and again. A modicum of direct democracy should be available. One institutional translation of direct democracy is the referendum. A referendum can be viewed as an innovation of purely representative democracy, an innovation designed to allow a better expression and implementation of popular preferences.

A vote in a referendum may be better than a vote for a representative in some cases – because such a vote means a more correct expression of preferences – but a traditional criticism against referenda is precisely that they simplify issues: they force people to put their preferences into the straight-jacket of a simple yes-no choice. People may not be able to express their preferences with the means of a simple “yes” or “no”. Many issues on which people are asked to express themselves in a referendum may not be suitable for a simple yes-no question. For example, some people may answer the question “should abortion be illegal” with a resounding “yes” or “no”, but other people may feel that their preferences require a longer, more nuanced answer.

However, instead of using this problem in order to reject the referendum as a democratic tool, we may opt for an innovation of the referendum system. Instead of offering a simple yes-no answer, a referendum can be a bit more complicated. Possible answers can take other forms, for example:

  • “Answer yes or no”; “If you have answered ‘no’, would you be willing to accept the following, less far-reaching alternative …, yes or no?”, etc.
  • “Answer yes or no”; “Since it is likely that the following consequences […] will result from the rejection of this proposal by the majority, would you be willing to accept consequence 1, 2 etc.?”; “If not, would you be willing to accept…?” etc.
  • Instead of a simple yes-no, voters could also be asked to classify a series of options according to their preferences.
  • etc.

So there are ways to improve and innovate direct democracy, which is in itself an improvement of representative democracy. But even if we stay within the realm of representative democracy, it’s possible to make it better. For example, it is well known that the political party system is not perfect. The candidates/representatives that are presented to the people for election, are selected by way of opaque mechanisms, involving power struggles within parties, fundraising, lobbying etc. This  distorts the election of representatives as an expression of popular preferences. Moreover, a party system – especially a two-party system – limits the field of debate. Topics which aren’t interesting for the parties or don’t fit within their overall ideology are ignored. One can reflect on a representative system which does away with parties altogether. Also, why should elections be the best way to represent people and their preferences? Wouldn’t a selection by lot of people from the general public not produce a more representative body of politicians? All such innovations and many more are worth considering.

Innovations in preference formation

However, what is the use of having systems that adequately express and implement citizens’ preferences if these preferences are of low quality, if they’re mere prejudice, knee jerk reactions, parrot talking points or unreflected slogans? Preferences should ideally be the result of reflection and deliberation. If preferences are formed through open discussion in which many perspectives on issues and many arguments for and against certain options can be aired, then the quality of preferences will be greatly enhanced, and that is something that benefits us all, even those of us who don’t manage to get our preferences translated into policy and legislation.

I have an older post here discussing the way in which deliberation improves thinking (based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant).

However, open and fair discussion isn’t the strongest point of our current democracies, and this is another area in need of innovation and improvement. How can we improve the quality of political discourse? The reinstatement of the “fairness doctrine” is an option, but perhaps not the best one. Citizen juries are another option. Such juries, comprised of randomly selected members of the public, are asked to discuss a topic, interview experts, and form an opinion. Either this opinion is then taken to represent the opinion of the public as a whole and implemented into policy, or the public as a whole is asked to take note of the proceedings and conclusions and debate it further in other forums.

And that’s just one way of considering citizens’ preferences not as a given but as something that has be to formed, and that can be formed in a good way or a bad way.

Thinking About Politics, and Doing Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Expression, or a Duty of Expression?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plato, 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

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (1): Thinking (the Public Space and Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Thought)

Human rights have many functions, but their most important one is perhaps the institution and the protection of a public space and a public life for every individual. This is especially true of freedom rights or civil rights (which of course also institute and protect a private space, in particular by way of the right to privacy and the right to private property). These rights protect public life because public life guarantees a number of important human values such as the ability to form, experience and preserve an individual as well as a collective identity and the ability to think more or less correctly. I will use Kant’s philosophy to substantiate these claims.

Public life as such is not dependent on human rights. There is publicity in states which do not protect human rights. The advantage of human rights is that they are equal rights. They try to protect public life and the values attached to it for every individual in an equal way. We can of course have a perfectly happy life without having a public life, but then we relinquish the values that are protected by this public life. It is also true that we can have a public life without the protection of a state and its legal instruments (such as human rights, judges, police etc.). However, public life would then be fragile, uncertain and unequally distributed among individuals.

I am conscious of the fact that not everybody will be convinced by this justification of human rights. Those who desire nothing but a completely private life or a hedonistic life devoid of any public communication or political involvement will be disappointed. However, I am sure that, once I have explained the meaning of the words “public life”, most of the people in most cultures of the world will agree that they refer to something valuable. Which, of course, does not mean that they will agree that there is a link between these concepts on the one hand and human rights and democracy on the other hand.

Human rights protect our public life, but why do we need a public life? And what is this public life? How does it protect certain values, and how is it protected by freedom rights? Let me start with the first two questions. A public life is a life dedicated to publicity, to public deeds and words, not necessarily in an active way; for most of us maybe only in a passive way. Publicity is open interaction, taking place between as many people as possible and with as little limitations as possible. Hidden, private, secret, clandestine or prohibited interaction is not public interaction.

I will not use the word “public” in the legal sense. Public law regulates the relationships between the citizens and the state (for example criminal law, constitutional law etc.), while private law regulates the relationships between citizens (for example the law of commerce or the law of succession). This legal way of understanding the word “public” is too limited for my purpose. This legal definition also leads to confusion. Hannah Arendt (1992:95) states – and I agree – that the separation of church and state has not transformed religion into an entirely private or intimate affair. Only a tyrant can destroy the public role of religion and churches and can destroy the public space where religious people meet. However, because of her purely political interpretation of the word “public” – the public domain is the political domain, and nothing more – she is forced to use the awkward expression “secular public space” in order to describe the sphere of politics or the state, and the equally awkward expression “religious public space” for the space left vacant by politics in a system which is characterized by a separation between church and state. She seems to define the word “public” in a very limited way (public = politics), but also speaks of “all forms of public relationships, social as well as political” (Arendt 1990:170). Habermas struggles with the same contradictions: his “‘öffentlichkeit” is a space where private citizens can act in a critical way towards the public/political domain. Castoriadis similarly reduces the public to the political:

The emergence of a public space means that a political domain is created which ‘belongs to all’. The ‘public’ ceases to be a ‘private’ affair – of the king, the priests, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and the experts. Decisions on common affairs have to be made by the community. Cornelius Castoriadis

A public life, in the way I understand it, consists in the first instance of sets of relationships between citizens, although the relationships between the state and its citizens can also be part of a public life (especially in a democracy; democratic political life is a part of public life). The public space is larger than the space of politics and the state (although in a democracy the latter is part of the former).

Human life is of course impossible without relationships. We all live in society. No one is self-sufficient or “atomized”. Man is always a fellow man; existence is always coexistence. Other people are there before we are and we continuously profit from their achievements. We need interaction and communication with other people – first our parents but not just our parents – in order to be able to think. Moreover, thinking has to transcend the private sphere because it is dependent on other people besides our relatives, friends and private acquaintances. It needs public interaction, not just private. The ability to think is not created and developed in any arbitrary group, but only in a community – if possible the world community – in which publicity reigns and in which there are rules and laws that can enforce this publicity. Immanuel Kant correctly stated that the authority that takes away the freedom of expression also takes away the freedom to think, a freedom usually considered to be inalienable (Kant 1992:87). Thinking needs the public use of reason. Thoughts are not something you develop on your own or in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts. (Or, which can be the same thing, you need to read books. Books are thoughts made public, which is why they are called publications). Listening to as many thoughts as possible, expanding the sources of thoughts and information, can only be done by making them public. Thinking, the inner dialogue, is always the result of a public dialogue. How much would you think if you would never speak to anyone, or even if you would always speak to the same, small and private group of people? Thinking needs thoughts that come from outside of your own limited group. Hence thinking needs human rights.

However, not only the ability to think as such, but also the ability to think in a more or less correct way, with as few mistakes as possible, depends on publicity, which is another thing we learned from Kant. By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of themselves. This means that you confront – or prepare to confront – other people and their (possible) objections, not only in order to disprove their objections, but also in order to disprove or possibly improve your own opinions.

Publicity improves the quality of thoughts both because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of a posteriori testing by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

A particular issue is forced into the open that it may show itself from all sides, in every possible perspective, until it is flooded and made transparent by the full light of human comprehension. Immanuel Kant

If you want to improve the quality of your thoughts, then you need publicity on two levels: first you have to make your thoughts public, and then you have to listen to public objections and arguments. This means that you as well as your opponents must have the right to be heard and to defend arguments.

This is the link between publicity and human rights. Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights and in particular freedom rights can help to achieve this (Kant’s imagination can also help but is probably not enough). Putting yourself in the place of someone else, looking at something from another point of view or another perspective helps you to better understand things, just as looking at an object from another point of view helps you to better perceive the object. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

Thinking correctly means thinking in community with others. Of course, I use the word “correctly” not in an absolute or scientific sense. The debate is open-ended, new arguments or new objections can always emerge and can lead to an even better understanding. Correctness in this sense can only be an approximation.

If you consider thinking and thinking correctly to be valuable activities – and it is hard not to, because without thinking you cannot consider anything – then publicity or public life as well as the rights that are necessary for its protection must also be valuable.

The fact that thinking is not an isolated business contradicts a well-known intuition.

Thinking . . . is the silent dialogue of myself with myself . . . and . . . is a “solitary business” . . . Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even bear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear. Hannah Arendt.

But not only afterwards does the thinking self leave its solitude. Before thinking can begin there must be some kind of public interaction (e.g. reading books, the public ideas of others).

I have said before that we should try to expand the public space beyond the national boundaries. Ideally, the other people who we need to think and to think correctly are not only our compatriots but also the rest of humanity. A global public space is the natural consequence of the widest possible extension of sources of thoughts required for thinking and the widest possible confrontation with counter-arguments and different points of view required for the correctness of thinking. Only by living in this kind of global public space can we hope to become Kant’s world citizen or “Weltbetrachter” and can we avoid national prejudices or national one-sidedness. The western feeling of superiority, for example, needed colonization to become aware of its errors. Both the private sphere and the national sphere have to be transcended in order to transcend our curtailed, narrow-minded, one-sided, prejudiced and unthinking existence. A life completely dedicated to intimacy, to that which is your own (“idion” in Greek), far away from the common world, is by definition an “idiot” life (Arendt 1983:76). The same thing can be said of life limited to a (national) group.

As for human rights, it is quite certain that they cannot do their job in the global public space as well as they can in the national one. It is difficult to enforce the protection of public communication between an American and a Chinese, even in the age of the Internet. The best we can hope for at the moment is the establishment of a chain of national public spaces protected nationally by national human rights instruments, although one should not underestimate the effect of cross-border action in favour of human rights. Ideally, human rights can only be justified when they are applied globally. A purely national application in the midst of an anti-human-rights world would lose much of its meaning if we accept the justification based on thinking.

John Stuart Mill has given another reason why human rights promote correct thinking. An opinion is not a purely personal possession and the act that inhibits the possession or the expression of an opinion is not a purely private crime. Suppressing an opinion is a crime against humanity. If the opinion in question is correct, we make it impossible for humanity to distinguish right from wrong. If the opinion is false, we make it impossible for humanity to make what is right more apparent by confronting it with that which is wrong.

Public life also plays a part in the development of an individual’s identity, at least to the extent that this identity is consciously created at all. Establishing your identity is intimately linked to thinking and, in the same way as thinking, it is not a purely private, individual or inward activity. It takes place in society and in the institutions of society. You become who you are by thinking and by developing your ideas. To a certain extent, your thoughts, ideas and convictions determine who you are, determine your identity. If thinking depends on publicity, then identity or personality as well depend on publicity.

You also become who you are by expressing yourself, by saying, doing or making things visible to all and by distinguishing yourself. All this implies the existence of a public or an audience and hence implies a public life. Thoughts take shape only when they are expressed or prepared to be expressed. By expressing and showing yourself, you make things public about yourself, things that were a secret before, sometimes even a secret to yourself. In this way, you get to know yourself and you shape your identity.

Furthermore, you shape your identity by looking at others, by studying them, by following them or by wittingly contradicting them. An individual identity needs a group in which there is a public life in the sense of showing, listening, following and contradicting (although groups are of course also the product of individuals). “Polis andra didaskei”, the individual is shaped by the “polis”. The identity of a member of a socialist party is profoundly shaped by his or her membership. We are who we are because we are part of a group. Belonging is not only a psychological or emotional need. It also shapes our identity. Hence the importance of the right to associate.

But we also are who we are because we revolt. People should therefore be allowed to leave groups. Because groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity (they can for example be ideological “schools” or dogmatic churches enforcing conformism), it is important that membership is free and that the communication which takes place inside these groups, is as open and as free as possible. Groups should allow members to hear outside information. In other words, groups should have a public character on top of or instead of their private character.

It is useful to point out the difference between identity and individuality. Identity can imply conformism, wittingly or unwittingly. You can define your identity by conforming to a group with a certain identity that you either like or imperatively adopt because of education, propaganda, brainwashing etc. In the latter case, you have an identity, but not necessarily an individuality. You can only have an individuality if:

  1. You consciously choose the identity of a group as a consequence of reasoned reflection of a public nature (of the kind discussed above); and
  2. You have personal and unique characteristics on top of the identity of the group you have decided to join, and this is not as evident as it sounds given the power of some groups.

Conforming to a group in order to acquire an identity is very important to most people, and rightly so, at least as long as there is room left for individuality. Most people do not feel that their personal uniqueness is enough to give them an identity. They believe that only a link between them personally and something outside of them that they consider to be important – for example socialism – is able to give them an identity (Charles Taylor 1994:46). Most of the time, establishing this link can best be done by joining other people with the same idea – for example the community of socialists. This feeling of belonging to an important group also guarantees that the rest of the world is aware of your identity. The feeling of belonging to something important is crucial here. You do not have an identity because you belong to the community of people with red hair. But even the individual identity or individuality can only exist because of a link with something important, such as an event you have witnessed or caused etc. You do not have an identity because you are the only one with blue hair. Your individuality is not the consequence of a unique but arbitrary characteristic, event or sequence of events.

The process of shaping an identity through group conformity requires publicity and human rights. Groups must be allowed to exist, to make publicity for their identity, to convince people to join them etc. All these things are explicitly provided for in human rights. The process also requires democracy because it implies an egalitarian society. You cannot at the same time emphasize the importance of people shaping their identity and individuality, and accept a hierarchical society in which identities are automatically determined by social position, role or activity. A democracy, moreover, needs groups because it needs majorities, minorities and political parties. And because it needs groups, it tends to protect groups.

It is clear from all this that language and therefore also education and the struggle against illiteracy are extremely important for public life. Language is more than just an instrument to represent or translate reality or to transfer messages (Taylor 1994:10). It also has the power to constitute the human person, to express, understand and develop our personality or individuality, to promote thinking etc. Language, therefore, also creates reality.

The fact that public life and the values resulting from it require the presence of other persons and meeting other persons, does not exclude the possibility of solitude and even loneliness. The presence of others can be indirect, for example by way of a book. Sometimes it is even useful to be alone, for example when we want to study, to open up sources of ideas and information etc. This kind of solitude is not the same thing as the absence of relationships. It is not a private solitude, but a public one, if I may say so, because it requires the presence of a book; and a book is a public thing (it is a “publication”, the thoughts of someone made public). It is the indirect presence of another person.

Proust . . . ne croyait plus en la conversation ni d’ailleurs en l’amitié. C’est même de sa longue pratique de la parole vive qu’il avait tiré, contre Sainte-Beuve, la certitude d’un abyme entre le moi social et le moi profond. Mais justement les livres sont silencieux et leur auteur absent. On peut donc les aimer sans faire de manières et sans s’inquiéter de ce qu’ils ont pensé de nous: “Dans la lecture, l’amitié est ramené à sa pureté première. Avec les livres, pas d’amabilité”. Et c’est la même image que l’on retrouve chez Arendt quand elle définit la personne cultivée comme quelqu’un qui sait choisir sa compagnie “parmi les hommes, les choses, les pensées, dans le présent comme dans le passé”. Alain Finkielkraut

Reading means having a public life because it means participating in a public phenomenon, namely the published book. This is apparent in the description of the community of readers as the “public” of the writer (it is maybe even more apparent in the French language in which “le public” literally means the audience or the readership). A public space does not only contain people who disclose something. It also contains the people to whom something is disclosed. Persons who never meet each other can have a conversation and can even arrive at a common opinion.