A number of blog entries contribute to this series "The Problem of Power and Governance." Since there are often many new entries between entries that are part of this series, this page is meant for anyone who wants to read the series from start to finish chronologically. These are reflective essays, not a research paper.
As of November 16, 2005 (new entries to be added as I develop ideas in my blog)
II. The State and Morality
III. Human Nature
a. Not evil, but corruptible
b. Alienation and emotion
c. Why human nature?
IV. The nature of society
a. Individual rights: the is/ought question
b. Assumptions and rights
c. The meaning of rights
a. Liberty = Freedom and Justice
b. Is it a particle or a wave?
The gap between the rich and the poor is growing constantly,
both world wide (between industrialized and developing states) and in the US. In
the US the gap narrowed between 1929 and 1969, and has since ballooned into
something akin to the robber baron period. With oil prices nearing all time
highs, the US involved in a war that looks costly and likely to promote more
terrorism, and dangers on the horizon involving global warming and other
potential disasters, it is very likely that we are on the verge of some
fundamental disruptions in politics, both globally and domestically. I think a
lot of people will be taken by surprise; those who now feel invulnerable are
going to likely find the tables turned on them. This is all taking place in an
era of globalization and technological change that is fundamentally altering the
way the world operates. We are at the start of an era of fundamental and
profound political transition. This makes the timeless questions of politics
more relevant than ever.
How should societies be governed? What is the role of power, of the state, and of individual rights? What does inequality mean, and is it a good or bad thing? What is the proper role of economics? Is human nature good, evil, malleable or immutable?
These questions are all linked, change the answer of one, the answers to the others change as well. These questions have also been asked for a long time. In the West we can look back to Plato and Aristotle who posed the same questions, and whose answers still persuade many (though, to be sure, the two of them had some major disagreements!)
I begin with two ‘biases’ which I’ll assess and develop as this series progresses. On their face they may appear contradictory, especially to those who haven’t really studied politics and/or political thought. One is a bias against the state, centralized power, and bureaucratization. I find centralized state power the most dangerous attribute of modern society, guilty of crimes that have killed hundreds of millions, including genocides, purges, and wars. Power, I believe, corrupts.
My second bias is I believe that Rousseau and Marx were each correct in much of their critique of modern society. Each recognized the dangers of modern capitalism, and Marx was eloquent in his discussion of alienation, both for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Marx was wrong in his economic determinism, and his 19th century attempt to unify everything under one grand theory simply didn’t work. But much of his critique of capitalism was accurate; in essence, Rousseau and Marx addressed fundamental problems of a modern, materialist, society.
The reason people might think those biases contradictory is that we’ve seen Marx connected to big government. Marxists starting with Lenin used the state and its ability to control people as a means for trying to radically remake the system so it would conform to what Lenin thought communism would create: an end to oppression, alienation, and exploitation, thus allowing humans to become truly free. Instead, it led to the ability of evildoers like Stalin to grab power, and kill 20 million in a purge. Variations on this approach led to genocidal butchery like that of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, or even mass death through governmental incompetence, such as the 30 million who died when Mao tried quick industrialization. Add to that the way that oppressive governance choked the creative spirit of individuals, increasing alienation, and damaging the human soul, and it is clear communism was an evil force in the 20th century.
For awhile, that led people to dismiss Marx. But now that the era of communism is nearly two decades dead (save a few holdouts) most people have moved beyond the old stereotypical belief that Marxism necessarily meant a big, oppressive state. Indeed, with people under 30, calling someone a “commie” is more likely to bring a roll of the eyes than anything else, that’s a movement of the past, part of history. I believe that the big mistake was for Marxists to fall for the temptation of using power – governmental power – to try to alter society ‘from the top.’ That only leads to disaster.
Just as communism was evil, it is evil for people to ignore the suffering and poverty of the third world. It is evil for people to rationalize the use of sweat shops out of some abstract goal of long term economic gain, dismissing the sanctity of the humans involved. Like in communism, in such a mind set humans are like numbers, part of a greater equation with little concern for the humanity of each individual. Neither Marx nor Rousseau would have countenanced big government communism, it denied the concern each had for individual liberation. Their insights were powerful and they remain relevant; the lesson brought by the way people tried to actualize Marx proves that the state and governmental power is not a way to solve the problems they identify.
If a kind of “socialism” is to work, it must be anti-statist, and must eschew governmental power in favor of individual liberty. If it is to work, it must develop over time, within the culture, not through the fist of the state. It must be evolutionary, not revolutionary. It must embrace the ideal of human liberation on the basis of individual empowerment, not governmental control.
Is this possible? I’ll argue yes. Given a belief in the general goodness of human nature (Rousseau’s idea of an instinct for compassion), the ability of humans to behave rationally, and the fact that our natural state is one of freedom and autonomy, I am convinced that someday – perhaps not for tens of thousands of years, when we look back at the current era as the barbaric pre-history of humanity – the state will be replaced by voluntary associations of people, cooperating out of mutual self-interest, based on a desire to live full, joyful lives, rather than to simply accumulate wealth. That, however, is not something I’ll see in my life time, and at this point I’m not about to write some kind idealized description of a perfect society. Instead, this series will deal with the problem of power and governance in the here and now, as we struggle through this barbaric period in the early history of human kind, trying to make baby steps to some kind of better future. Questions about governance have at their core moral and ethical issues.
II. The State
Even though governance raises fundamental moral and ethical issues, there is a disconnect between state action and individual concerns about morality. That leads me to repeat a conclusion that I know irritates some colleagues: governments are perhaps the most dangerous social constructions humankind has ever developed. I do not, however, think that governance can be done away with. I further don't think that the governments are dangerous simply because they are governments. Rather, the danger comes from an intense concentration of power, combined with the ability of power to corrupt human morality and create an ease of both abstraction (see yesterday's entry) and action. Even if we got rid of government, large corporate actors (businesses, corporations, etc.) with wealth and clout would be just as prone to abuse their power, since they, like government, are made up of people. People in powerful, centralized bureaucracies, without strong accountability, are capable of massive corruption. And I say that as someone who has an essentially positive view of human nature. I don't think people are bad, but they are self-interested, and self-interest plus the human capacity to rationalize and self-delude create situations where even otherwise good, ethical people become party to acts of, well, often acts of evil.
First, if you doubt the danger of government power, look at Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Mussolini, and current governments around the planet from Burma to Saudi Arabia. Look at the wars taking place, including an unnecessary and misguided war (in my opinion) even by our own democratic government, and we can see the number killed through state power. The American war in Vietnam killed a million Vietnamese, and landmines left over in the region continue to maim and kill. States kill, even democratic states based on solid principles, and led by people of good intent. It's nothing as bad as the true evil doers listed above, and I think there are reasons that democratic states are less prone to those errors, but we are not immune. I think leaders are led astray by the temptations of power, and the way abstraction and concerns of power can lead the mind away from proper ethical thought. That plus propaganda can lead to national delusions and confusions. Even the Roman Catholic church, based on the pacifist teachings of a Jewish philosopher they believe the son of God, has in its history times of awesome power and awesome corruption. Power corrupts, states have the most power.
Obviously, it doesn't have to be this way. Clearly the governments of, say, Norway or Belgium are not engaged in mass killing or warfare. Often governments do more good than harm, solving problems and bringing people together for collective action otherwise unlikely to be completed. Governments are the result of politics, and politics is omnipresent. States exist because humans had reason to create them (with the modern sovereign state beginning in Europe as the Church fell from being the dominant political power). States persist in large part because there is a need for a forum for political contestation, and a requirement that some legal entity protect rule of law and act in the name of the larger community. If an anarchist were to get his or her way and governments would disappear, people would soon choose to re-construct them, governance of some sort is unavoidable, and governance must adapt to the historical context of an era and a culture.
The modern state is an odd entity, traditionally defined by territoriality and sovereignty. A state is simply a place, a piece of territory, over which originally a sovereign (now a sovereign government) has legitimate power. That power includes, at least in sovereignty’s pure form, the right to regulate all activity within the borders of that state, and to act on the world stage by entering into relations with other states. Sovereignty became the fundamental organizing principle of the European system after the 30 years war (in 1648), beginning the era of modern international relations. Later, colonialism extended this principle to the rest of the globe, and to this day states claim sovereignty as a reason to act against systemic norms, defend against charges of human rights abuse or other complaints about internal treatment of citizens, or to reject global agreements such as the ICC or Kyoto Accords.
Clearly, sovereignty is both at the core of international law and politics, and a core cause of the problem of power and governance. Sovereignty is centralized power, the ability of a government to control all aspects internal to a state. Furthermore, a state is not a society. A state can contain diverse ethnic groups that see little common interest, or it can (as is more often the case in Europe where these things developed) generally follow cultural and linguistic borders. States can be very large, with bureaucratic governing structures unresponsive to the needs of citizens, and they can also have varying levels of corruption and abuse of power by governments.
I believe (and this will be developed as the series progresses) that the days of the modern sovereign state are numbered. Globalization, interdependence, economic and environmental crises, and the emergence of transnational actors all point to a reconfiguration of the international system on a scope perhaps rivaling that of 1648; we may be in the end days of the era of the sovereign state. But for now, let’s consider the problems inherent in the state.
First, states create a disconnect between the rules of power and governance, and the rights and status of individuals. This is not surprising; sovereignty emerged when individuals didn’t matter – sovereignty was for sovereigns, who ruled by divine right. Yet even when popular sovereignty emerged, arguing that the power to rule came from the people not God, the status of the state remained one where the state was the actor with rights in international affairs, the people’s status depended upon the choices and powers of sovereign governments within states. Movement away from this, including concern on human rights, came only grudgingly, as most sovereign governments jealously guarded their power. Sovereignty protects states, not people.
Second, the size of states (excepting, of course, very small ones like Monaco or Andorra) tends to work towards a large bureaucracy and distance between the government and the governed. This increases the probability of corruption, and decreases the likelihood that individual rights will have priority. It further creates dangers of abuse of power, both domestically and internationally.
Third, states are as organizations contrary to the globalization trend of the international system. As global capital crosses borders increasingly without significant obstacles, trade expands interdependence, and corporations merge to create large multi-/trans-national entities, the state appears to be an anachronism. An organization based on territoriality in a world where territoriality is consistently losing importance. This can have huge consequences. Consider: states like the US and China hold on to sovereignty, believing their size and military power mean they don’t need international institutions or the international community as much as smaller states. Yet they are so linked to the international system that they actually rely on the international community for their economic vitality. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of power and capacity, and acting upon a false understanding of what a state can accomplish can yield foreign policy disasters. Not only is the state an organization contrary to how the system is changing (in what in many ways is a revolution more than an evolution), but the way of thinking it engenders could lead to international crises that might threaten the system.
The sovereign state system is unlikely to last the next century. Yet we are not sure what will replace it. By the way, anyone reading these should see that there are parallels between my two ‘series’ and why I’m taking both on at once. Society is going through a transformation caused in part by technology, in part by the expansion of trade and interdependence that alters how we think about our world, and the nature of power within it. The old traditional sovereign state is analogous to old traditional organized religion – a structure that served its era, but now is being challenged by forces which will ultimately overwhelm it. It is necessary to think about what this means, and analyze the dilemmas.
III. Human Nature
a) Not evil, but corruptible
I am convinced that sometime in the future we’ll look back at the era of the state, and the notion of coercive governmental power as a time of barbarism. The current modern era of which we are so proud will, when placed in historical context, be seen as brutal, irrational, and ignorant. In that time voluntary associations of humans will cooperate to achieve mutual interest, there will be an inherent understanding that humans are in a way connected, and that which detracts from the dignity of any one life, detracts from all. The true goodness that we all carry in our hearts, some more deeply buried beneath personal and cultural baggage than others, will prevail, and the true potential of human nature achieved.
None of us will see that day; I’m thinking of thousands of years in the future, not decades. But I’m convinced it will happen. The reason I hold this perspective – and the rationale behind much of my argument as it will be developed in this series – is my belief about human nature. What one believes about human nature goes a long way in determining ones view of politics and governance.
Human nature can be seen as inherently evil/malign, malleable, or benevolent. Those who see a malign human nature (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Freud, etc.) tend to view humans as beasts, able to reason, but driven primarily by their passions (or for Freud, the ‘id’). This view of human nature predisposes one to believe a strong, coercive state is necessary in order to maintain order and provide security. People in fact prefer order and security to freedom, according to this perspective, because freedom will lead to chaos and tumult. The proper state, then, is one that uses power justly and wisely to maintain an order that protects custom and tradition, and serves to provide for the common welfare. Democracy is distrusted because it relies on flawed humans to reach collective decisions, and these decisions will more likely be driven by passion than reason.
Those who see human nature as malleable believe that changing the governmental system will alter the way humans behave in the world. Thus if you grow up in a competitive capitalist society, which looks at the plight of sweat laborers as simply necessary to develop the world economy, then you will have a competitive nature that does not connect with the suffering of those who are exploited. Socialists traditionally have argued that if you change the economic system, you’ll change human nature, and create a more cooperative, caring human. Yet when they have tried to do that with rule from above, the results have been disastrous, and human nature was not improved.
Those of us who see human nature as good, the reason for atrocious behavior is not some kind of fatal flaw in our nature, but, absent actual mental disease, a disconnect between our true nature, and our ability to live according to it. This disconnect is caused in part by culture, in part by the nature of human interactions (e.g., alienation, psychological reactions to coercion, self-doubt, low self-esteem, fear, etc.). Quite often, the state, in trying to maintain order, is part of the problem. Coercion, corruption, and being a victim of arbitrary power dulls ones’ ability to sense what is true to ones’ heart. This causes people to replace empathy with abstraction, dehumanizing others and not recognizing the inherent connectedness of humankind.
Whenever one travels, even in lands of ‘enemies’ of ones’ country, there is almost always hospitality and friendship from normal folk (though perhaps not from people caught up in some abstract political cause, something which causes one to caricature and abstract the other into some kind of enemy image). When students read, for instance, of the suffering of Loung Ung as a young girl in her book First They Killed My Father, they are almost all driven to a mix of shock and sadness, identifying with her suffering as real and important. Not just a statistic, but a life like their own, whose suffering is just as tragic as is one suffered such a fate themselves.
That, I am absolutely convinced (though obviously this issue will have to be better developed) is the true potential of human nature. Our hearts recognize our common bond, an inherent ethical truth that is natural and just. Our heads find ways to rationalize around this, aided by ideologies, fears, and claims to power. And given all of the confusion, abstraction and ‘dehumanization’ in our cultures today, it’s not surprising humanity is living so far away from our true nature. That won’t be fixed overnight, but the kind of systemic and radical change the world is going through creates opportunities to, at the very least, try to move a step or two closer.
b) Alienation and emotion
If human nature is basically benevolent but corruptible, then the problem of governance is to determine what kind of system will not act as a corrupting influence on individuals. The problem is multi-faceted. Any person can theoretically be ‘corrupted’ – or led to act against their basic nature – by any kind of interaction with the world. That explains why there are so many negative beliefs about human kind, it is easy to find examples of people acting negatively (I’d argue unnaturally or corrupted), even in cases where it doesn’t appear there is much motivation to do so. The logical conclusion is that this is part of our nature, to be aggressive, greedy, or dishonest.
A negative experience with nature, or with other humans, can lead to fear or alienation, thereby leading people to try to compensate. Glibly this causes low self-esteem, and people try to remedy that by exercising power over others, or through self-punishment. Freud thought of this as an interplay between the wild forces of the Id, the stern morality of the super ego, and the self-interested ego, based in reality. But Freud’s notions ultimately are only a metaphoric starting point. A warning: I don’t have time to delve into all the issues of human nature and why we behave negatively. I want to focus on the major problems: dehumanization of the other, and hatred of the self.
Consider: we do have passions (anger, lust, etc.) that are rooted in the emotions, and which can lead to actions that are not rational, and seem to deny our benevolent human nature. When such things happen, we can act negatively, but out of an emotional response to a stimulus, not because our nature is truly corrupted. The corruption comes afterwards when we rationally try to deal with the actions we’ve undertaken. To borrow Freud’s terminology, the ego tries to make sense of what the id lead the self to do, recognizing (via the superego) that it was not a moral or correct kind of behavior. To put it in my terminology, the conscious self tries to understand why emotion or passion led to actions that one recognizes upon reflection as contrary to ones’ true nature. I don’t see a superego there as some kind of stern authoritarian (if Freud saw that, it may be because the culture in Germany in that era led to particular personality traits), but rather there is a basic knowledge that humans have of what they believe is right behavior. Humans are capable of recognizing when they violate that behavior, and then they try to deal with it.
The problem comes when people are afraid to accept that they have acted negatively, or if they are consumed by guilt at their actions. In such cases, there is a temptation to either rationalize the behavior (often through dehumanization of the victim of ones’ act; leading to racism, sexism, or an ability to see the other as less than a true subject), or to hate the self for giving in to the passions that caused the behavior. In the case of the former, the self creates abstract realities in which negative action is defined as acceptable, even though at some level the self knows it is not; this sets up a life time of contradictions that can lead to personality problems and difficulty with social interactions (sociopaths have this in the extreme). In the case of the latter the result is an inability to master the self (self-control or self-reliance) because the self is not trusted, and guilt creates a desire to punish or deny the self.
A point here has to be made about chemistry, since so much of psychology now focuses on chemical imbalances. Obviously, there are cases where there is real abnormal behavior, people’s ability to live in conjunction with “human nature” is thwarted by physical/chemical problems with the body. However, in non-extreme cases, there is probably a feed back mechanism in place; the inability to deal with the consequences of negative acts might cause mild chemical imbalances, creating a chicken/egg problem. I suspect that chemical treatment is only needed in extreme cases; most of the time self-mastery or self-control can be learned with work and therapy.
To wrap up today’s entry: events in the world can cause people to respond with emotion or passion in a way that denies the basic ethics humans in their nature know to be true. After doing this (or experiencing this from others), humans have a challenge to understand their behavior, accept their imperfection, try to develop ways to prevent such loses of control in the future (just like an infant learns to control temper tantrums after a certain age), and with honesty and realism reflect on and try to improve their behavior.
Most of what is needed to do this comes from family and community. Alienation is a disconnect from family and community (community defined as a close net group which shares experiences and most values), and thus the people most successful at dealing with their own imperfections have solid relationships. Much of this is outside politics. Yet since our definition of community has been overtaken by notions of polity and the state, the political system and how we experience it has an impact on our ability to live according to our nature, with the strength to not fall victim to the problems that occur as a result of negative actions out of passion or emotion. This gives a hint at another bias of mine: I’m being very reductionist in my search for a way to solve the problem of power and governance, I’m connecting the issues (at least in part) to individual psychology. This isn’t really popular these days, and may be misguided, but I’ll run with this approach for now.
c) Why human nature?
One might wonder why speculate on human nature when thinking about governance? After all, human nature questions are notoriously contentious. One can’t prove a particular perspective correct, and evidence can be found to support a number of views on human nature. Even as psychologists probe the brain and the causes of behavior, the ‘big questions’ remain unanswerable in any definitive, scientific sense.
In political theory, however, the role of human nature is fundamental. The views of politics put forth by Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Rousseau and others can only make sense if their conceptions of human nature are accepted. Likewise, debates about war, international law, and human rights are all informed by various views about the nature of the human being. Change your view on human nature, you’ll change your political philosophy.
That puts us in a difficult situation. We all have biases that are inherent in any view on human nature one might have. Thus political philosophy is potentially simply the construction of systems of thought designed to formulate and explain what one subjectively believes true, but cannot prove. In that respect it has more in common with politics than with science! Consider political debates, especially between people who don’t really think through issues, but just emotionally connect with their biases. Often these get very nasty and emotional, with personal attacks replacing reasoned discourse. That is politics at its worst; people with biases and opinions waging war on those with different views, with the desire to win political power, or at the very least get some emotional satisfaction at cutting down “the other.” That’s why emotion-laden forums like talk radio do so much better than shows focused on fact and reason. Politics veers to the emotional, to the defense of opinions lacking reflection and self-criticism.
The goal of the political scientist and the political philosopher is to try to overcome this with (when possible) testable hypotheses and rigorous qualitative or quantitative research (sometimes simply to develop hypotheses and data in the absence of truly testable hypotheses). But for questions of human nature, a fundamental starting point for any political philosophy, we have to work with a framework that is usually unfalsifiable. Yet that does not mean we sink to levels of simply defending biases. It is necessary to:
a) be upfront about one’s perspective, and the fact it is a belief about human nature, not a ‘proven fact’;
b) work through the ramifications from that perspective (along with other core assumptions) on a theory of governance or politics;
c) compare this theory or perspective with those of other scholars, and with data from the real world.
At point “c” some theories will be less compelling than others. Different types of comparisons might yield different insights. But it is absolutely fundamental that anyone engaged in thinking about politics take very seriously the need for self-reflection, the ability to admit when one is wrong (that is a capacity that generally separates great thinkers from mundane ones), and an openness to different ideas. Note that while “b” can be done in relative isolation (looking at data, reflecting, writing), “c” needs communication and the sharing of ideas, especially with those who disagree with ones’ ideas.
One reason I publish this blog is that, even though no one may be reading it at this point, I am contributing to debate and discussion on this issue at some level, and that at least creates the possibility that this can make a difference, and expand or aid the development of political philosophy. That is not something just for professors or ‘movers and shakers.’ Every student, every factory worker, almost every person on the planet has the capacity to learn and think critically. In the age of the internet, everyone can at least put out a contribution. If it is read by only one person, it may make a difference (even if that person violently disagrees). Even if it is only read by my children decades from now, that can be very important. So onward!
IV. The nature of society
The need for governance seems undeniable; there has never been a society without some form of governance, ranging from a set of shared unwritten norms and rules that allow peaceful social reproduction to highly bureaucratic legalistic regimes that rule via law and the threat of force. There are no successful advanced economic states without a solid rule of law and tradition of government; states without governments tend to disintegrate into violence between subgroups, or some kind of corrupt rule by what we would consider organized crime.
Theoretically the first question that needs to be asked is why is there this apparent need for governance? After all, if humans are free, autonomous individuals with the right to choose and a basically good, if also corruptible nature, shouldn't people be able to govern themselves by making rational choices to cooperate or compete when appropriate? Why should people be compelled to submit to either an unwritten set of social norms or a written legal code that requires they pay taxes, follow regulations, and honor obligations they might not believe in? There can be only one answer to this question: humans are not just discrete individual entities acting by choice; humans are social animals which form societies. Societies have a dynamic of their own, and are part of the identity of individuals, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Think about an interstate, with cars blazing by at tremendous speeds, sometimes within a few feet of each other. It is a sure formula for mass destruction if not for certain rules governing behavior. Most people follow these rules by choice, but laws exist to both deter people from violating them, or to determine responsibility when something goes awry and there is an accident. If each individual simply determined on their own how to navigate those four or more lanes, there would be chaos. That is one kind of society; a society of drivers whose actions affect not just themselves, but all others. One car violating those rules endangers the lives of many.
Of course in my other series on 'Spirit and Belief' I mention modern physics. At a basic level the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is obvious when you look at what an individual human is. We are, frankly, just a collection of up quarks, down quarks and electrons. The interactions between them give coherence to atoms, molecules and ultimately a body. Without those interactions, we're just tiny particles, made up of the same stuff that makes up your desk, computer, or a lump of clay. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The reason for both the individual and these particles, and for society vis-a-vis the individual, is the interactions and relations between the members. Whether by choice (as in choosing a spouse) or simply by being in a position (such as driving down the interstate), you are involved in relationships and interactions. Now, one could argue that choice is a part of all of these -- you choose to drive on to the interstate, for instance. But the choice is not truly free -- you choose between a variety of options, all of which have some kind of interaction and/or relationship involved. That is inherent in a society; you choose from a range of possibilities, you're not free to determine what these possibilities are, they come from the nature of and structure of society.
Arguably one could choose the option of leaving society completely. We all do that at one level. If you move from Germany to France you have left one society and entered another one. If you managed to get some goods together and head to Antarctica and live alone, you would effectively be outside any society.
So the nature of society first is: a) it is defined by a series of relationships and interactions; and b) there are different kinds and levels of society. Indeed, even our friend in Antarctica may find some options unavailable due to ecological effects of human action (global warming, etc.) At some level, for all living beings on earth there may be no escape from being at least loosely part of a global society, whether you like it or not.
There is also difference between a society where your membership is primarily in individual actions affecting each other and one where there is intense social cohesion and common bonds. The latter is usually called a 'community,' and involves the ability of people to more clearly communicate their desires and choices, thereby creating the ability for people acting together to be able to alter the range of possibilities you can choose from. On the interstate I can't choose to simply drive 20 miles per hour without disrupting the lives of many people. But I could form a community where we'd buy our own bit of land and determine who can drive on it, and under what rules. Communities are, in practical terms, societies where agreement amongst the members forms the basis for the nature of the relations and interactions. Societies that are run by unwritten rules and traditions, for instance, are usually communities -- small, with strong sets of beliefs and traditional practices that people do because it's the way things are, they see their practices as natural.
Modernism has created certain kinds of societies, larger, more diverse, and with relationships and interactions that cross greater distance, endure for greater time periods, and cover more people with an intense web of activity. To think about the best form of governance, we need to nature the nature of modern society.
A. Individual rights: the "is/ought" question:
If society reflects the impact relationships and interactions between people have on human identity and choice, the question of individual rights becomes central. Do people have "rights" inherent in their individuality, or are the rights a societal construction, dependent upon the kind of society/ies constructed through human action?
Two general views on the nature of individual rights predominate, which I’ll call the scientific and philosophical perspectives. The scientific perspective simply looks at the world, hypothesizes, gathers data, and tests. Do people have a right to liberty? In the USA they do, with certain limitations, in Saudi Arabia they do not, with certain exceptions. This is the “IS” question of rights, what rights actually exist in a way we can measure and study them. The key is to define what a "right" is, and then look to see if people have them.
Yet…what about the “ought” question? The issue is more complex than one might realize at first blush. If Jews in Naziland have no rights, on what basis do we say they ought to have rights? Unless we deal with the "ought" question, the scientific approach simply pushes us to accepting rights as dependent upon society (or really government) choice, since that is what "is." Moreover, if the basis for making ought statements rests on something real and absolute, then we have another "is" question. That would mean that the "ought" is more important than whim or belief, but rests on something real. This would be the basis for saying that rights exist for all people, even if in reality those rights get denied.
When most people talk about individual or human rights, they are talking about the ought question, and they are implicitly assuming an existing, real basis for making that ought statement. So – is there really such a basis, or do we simply construct systems of rights based on our cultural situation and that’s all there is?
If you say they are simply cultural constructs, you are stuck with accepting slavery, virgin sacrifice, ethnic massacres and a number of horrific acts if they fit within a particular cultural view. That seems very unsettling, but in my experience that is the default view most people have, including most students who are reacting to questions like this for perhaps the first time. It is, to be sure, the easiest answer – you don’t have to do the hard work of justifying one view over another, and you can more easily rationalize what you do, or what is countenanced in ones’ own culture. Yet I don’t think that should be the default answer. It’s too convenient.
The “philosophical” approach to the question tries to derive these rights from either human nature, or some kind of view of how individuals function in society. How does one go about doing that? First is to recognize that we still need data: even the philosophical approach is nothing without data and evidence from the real world. We need to look at how humans act, psychology, sociology, etc. Comparing moral systems around the world also provides evidence; the fact that almost every culture has general moral norms against theft and murder create a strong sense that humans see these things as wrong for something other than just subjective opinion or cultural chance.
So the next issue is to start to work at determining whether the ought question is an “is” question as well, and if so, how do we decide what rights ought to exist in the real political world, and ultimately how these affect views on power and governance.
b. Assumptions and rights
In the last section I concluded that we can only say individual rights exist as ought statements, and claims to their existence must be based on there being a real basis for those ought statements. Given that we are in the realm of philosophy when approaching 'ought' statements, there is no objective way to prove that there is a basis for the existence of rights absent assumptions. Thus any conclusions made about whether or not rights "really exist" are dependent upon people believing the core assumptions made about reality. This may seem like a weakness, and it does create inherent doubt, but such doubt exists for all knowledge. Science in fact is predicated on seeing this inherent doubt as a strength -- it is a correcting mechanism in the case of wrong conclusions. This entry introduces the assumptions, at some point they have to be 'tested.'
One absolutely essential assumption is that life has inherent value. If you do not think life has value, if you think humans are essentially no different than insects or even molecules of matter, then the idea of inherent rights will seem silly. If we're just interesting products of nature and life has no meaning, then rights are something we create simply because we can and want to, but there is no natural set of rights based on justified "ought" statements.
Another assumption is that human lives have equal inherent value. That isn't the same as egalitism whereby one says all humans should have equal resources. It just means that no human can claim superiority against other humans on the basis of who he or she is (e.g., what race, religion, height, weight, etc.) That doesn't mean that a person who works hard can't claim a right to more material wealth than someone who is lazy; it does mean that this claim is available equally to people of all races, religions, and both genders. Obviously racists and people who believe they are special due to their religion may disagree with this assumption, and thus make claims for "their people" which grant them privilege (or rationalize oppression or mistreatment of others).
A third assumption is that value (as described above) is best understood as a moral concept; value is a moral good, whereby one should not diminish value, but instead protect it.
It is good to keep assumptions as basic as possible; the more assumptions one makes, and the more complex they are, the less persuasive the conclusion. Can we generate "ought" statements from the above three assumptions? I believe so. If all human life has value, and value is a moral good, then taking a life is a moral wrong, as it diminishes value. Or, in other words, these assumptions create the basis for saying that people do have a right to life.
That people have equal inherent value has a variety of implications. Such an assumption requires that humans have freedom. Denial of freedom means that someone is exercising authority over an individual, or making claim to being of greater value than that individual. Another way to look at this is that there is an admonition against exploitation or theft. Exploitation is taking from others in a way where one claims to have a greater right to something than another. So from these three assumptions we get a right to life, a right to liberty/freedom, negatively stated as a right not to be exploited. The admonition against theft is entailed in the right to liberty or freedom.
Of course, these are the basic rights that the United States is founded upon, and upon which there is general agreement in the western world. It's hardly surprising I'd come to the same conclusion, I'm a product of my culture. Yet I also think such ought statements flow naturally from the three assumptions made above. So are those assumptions valid, or am I stacking the deck to get the answer I want?
There is no way to answer that question definitively. The best I can do is run a thought experiment where I think about conclusions I would make should those assumptions NOT be accurate. If human life did not have value (with value defined as a moral good) then warfare, genocide, abuse, and all the like would be just as "good" as love, help, and respect. There are really no cultures that make such a nihilistic claim. Some people playing philosophy games might arrive at nihilism, but that requires a stretch, it hasn't emerged naturally in any culture or society I know of. Moreover, while we need to use reason to approach these questions, we are also creatures driven by emotion. My emotions scream out in agony when I hear about abuse and murder, and I feel happy and even joyous when I experience or even hear about people helping others and showing compassion and caring. From what I see, others have similar emotions (and those who don't -- sociopaths and the like -- usually are seen as having psychological abnormalities). Perhaps emotions are part of our natural sense of morality.
In any event, both evidence from the world, and evidence from my subjective experience of life as a human, strongly suggest that human life does have value, with value defined as a moral good.
The second assumption, if false, would allow groups of people to claim superiority based on what they are. This assumption is more problematic, since looking at history we see numerous cases of racism, nationalism, religious bigotry, slavery, and exploitation/theft. Moreover, a sense of superiority of the 'self' vis-a-vis a strange 'other' seems to fit with many peoples' emotional experience. It could even be that a sense of greater value for the group one is in emerged as an evolutionary development to help societies persist. It can also be seen as the basis for the family unit, an essential core of human interaction.
Yet on what basis can one claim greater inherent value? People do, but they do in different ways, and with different rationales. These claims contradict each other, since not every group can really have greater value than other groups. But even if the claims of greater value have no basis in reality, that doesn't mean that there is an inherently equal value. Moreover, if this assumption does not hold, then people claiming greater inherent value can potentially rationalize killing or enslaving people of lesser value; this assumption is fundamental to the claim about rights which I make above.
Consider: in the fields of psychology, sociology, philosophy, genetics/biology and anthropology, there are no studies I know of that give any kind of support to a notion that a particular person or group of people has higher inherent value as a human than others. There are differences in capabilities and physical characteristics, but that provides no reason to assume a difference in inherent value. In fact, any claims about differences in inherent value are rooted in cultural beliefs, or social constructions. One might say a person is more valuable if they are more intelligent. But there are different kinds of intelligence, and while our society might value a computer scientist, past societies would value someone skilled at carpentry or hunting.
It is through those social constructs that inequality amongst people of inherent equal value may emerge -- cultures can set up systems to reward those who contribute to society, and give them more value within that society. But that value is totally dependent upon the cultural norms and understandings within which an individual operates. In a different culture, they would be valued differently. Inherent value by definition cannot be altered by culture, it is there regardless of culture.
Therefore it seems clear that if there is inherent value (with value defined as a moral good) in human life, then the default hypothesis must be that all humans have equal inherent value since any claims of justifiable differences in how an individual is valued is the result of social constructs and interactions of people within a society. Furthermore, a study of religions shows that this kind of "ought" statement is common to religious teachings, even if religions often veer away from it.
Thus if one makes the assumptions that human life has value (with value defined as a moral good), and that all human life has inherent equal value, then we have real grounds on the basis of the existence of humanity to conclude that there are ought statements which are real, and not merely the result of whim or culture. Furthermore, these ought statements entail basic rights, including a right to life, and a right to liberty (negatively expressed as a right not to be exploited.)
That's the easy part. The more difficult issue is to determine what these rights mean for social life and governance. How much leeway do societies have to construct cultural value to bestow on people, and what grounds are legitimate and illegitimate for doing so? What is a true human? There was a case in the courts recently about a woman who was irreparably damaged so that she was in a persistent vegetative state with no chance of recovery. The court ruled that, based on her past stated preference to be let die in such a state, the hospital should do nothing to maintain her life, thus allowing her to die. Some people said that was barbaric, that she was still a human, and had a right to be kept alive. Others said that it would be barbaric to keep her alive by intrusive means, that she obviously could no longer function as a human and was in reality merely a body that could be kept functioning, but nothing more. What about abortion?
Those questions are not answered via the assumptions and basic ought statements I developed. They involve higher level definitions, as well as theories about the way societal structures affect individuals and how these ought statements are to be interpreted in context. But at this point I do have a profound starting point for addressing this issue: a belief that logic and evidence strongly indicates that basic human rights are real as ought statements, and rest on the very nature of human existence.
c. What do rights mean?
If there is, as I argue, inherent and equal value to human life, and if this does lead to a conclusion that humans do have some basic rights that stem from this assumption (fundamental human rights), then the obvious question is what does this mean in the real world? If every human has a right to life, then does that mean we have to do everything we can to keep everyone alive for as long as possible? Or does it just mean that we aren't allowed to kill people. And if it's the latter, does that mean we can never kill people, or are there times when a person's actions and choices create a condition where he or she has sacrificed their right to life?
What about theft and exploitation? That raises the question of how one determines if ownership is valid. Is just claiming something for ones' self before someone else does make ownership valid? Are massive inequities coming from historical circumstances mean it is valid for person X to have 1000 acres and millions of bars of gold, while person Y is starving, owning no land of their own? Is it theft if a wealthy person exploits the fact a poor person needs money to feed their family, and pays him barely enough to survive in exchange for work that disproportionally increases the wealth of rich person?
These are questions which have no objective answers. If you alter assumptions and definitions you can create answers to fit those assumptions/definitions, but agreement on assumptions/definitions will be much more difficult than getting agreement that all humans have equal and inherent value (and, of course, there are many who disagree with that assumption -- the one that gave us the claim that human rights exist as ought statements).
This gets made even more complicated by the fact that the kind of contexts we can talk about vary between cultures as well as historical eras. It's not just that conditions were different, but the very meaning of social interaction changes. A culture might, for instance, consider property to be more collective than private, meaning that anyone who needs something not in use can take it if needed. What about sacrificing virgins to the Gods if these virgins willfully submit their lives, believing they will receive special rewards in the afterlife? In short, how does culture and context impact our understanding of what these rights mean, and do they provide clues for how to answer the questions posed above?
One key point in all of this is the idea of some kind of consent. Taking the collective property is not theft because there is general societal consent to the fact that the property in that culture is collectively owned. The sacrificial virgin who consents to her death is different than one who fights it. But even consent is loaded; we think of it as an individual thing, but the collective ownership culture may not recognize the right of individuals to simply claim something as their own personal property if it is of greater use to the community. The idea of consent (or social contracts and the like) has always been a difficult issue in political theory. We can not address the issue of what rights mean, however, without considering the question of consent.
a) Liberty = Freedom and Justice
The issue of rights and the relation of the individual to society already has confronted the problem of social structures: relationships which constrain and empower individuals, thus creating unequal opportunity. That issue often leads some (usually on the left) to justify government or even extra-governmental action to right the imbalances caused by structure.
However, if what I wrote about human rights is accurate, there is a problem: the action to correct structural imbalances almost always will entail some kind of claim on the liberty or property of someone else. However, if what I wrote about structure is accurate, hidden claims on the liberty and property of others takes place in the normal activities of humans, often invisible as the 'hidden claim' or 'exploitation' is seen as a natural part of the social process. While often people will veer to one side or another (socialists emphasize fighting against exploitation and those hidden claims; libertarians emphasize fighting against the explicit governmental claims on others), the reality has to include both, and that's not easy. The concept of consent is key here.
What does it mean to consent to something? For instance, if I am an unemployed father of five, with my family hungry, and a local factory is willing to hire me for a dirt low wage, where the work I do will yield tremendous profits for the owner, and a small wage for me, have I truly consented to that relationship by taking the job? A negative definition of consent -- you consent if you choose to do it -- is inadequate. By that logic almost anything is consensual -- if I point a gun at you and demand your money and you choose to comply, you have consented.
But wait a minute, in the case of the worker there is direct threat of force involved. Surely that makes it different than robbery! Not necessarily. If the structure of the situation gives one person the power to benefit from the work or property of someone else, even absent a direct threat of force, the consent is just as coerced. The former is easy to recognize in most cases, the latter is subject to interpretation. Yet it is just as real, and just as much a limitation of freedom as direct force.
The only solution is to conceptualize consent as something other than overt permission. Consent is granted not just by consciously saying, "sure, I'll go along with that." Instead, participation in structural relationships implies consent for actions that correct for violations of individual liberty or cases of theft/exploitation (which are two sides of the same coin). If ones' participation in a structural relationship grants one advantages through the exploitation of others, then their involvement and profit from that relationship implies that they must consent to justifiable corrections to undo the impact of that exploitation. Those who benefit from their position in society, but reject the implications of their having enjoyed such benefits, are no better than common thieves, even if their actions seem only to be saying, "leave me and my money alone."
So far, this isn't anything that controversial. If people didn't believe that, they wouldn't accept taxation, regulations, and other aspects of modern political systems designed to connect notions of freedom with those of justice. Just like (let me allude to my other series) light is both a particle and wave, freedom and justice are both attributes of liberty. Deny justice by allowing exploitation and you are denying liberty and freedom. But denial of freedom by intrusive government or powerful actors is a denial of justice.
Yet there is something troubling about implied consent. Is it really consent, or just a word-game being played to try to define away the problem inherent saying people might have consented to something they claim they do not consent to. Can consent be divorced from a conscious choice, can it really be implied?
b) Is it a particle or a wave?
If anyone is reading my other 'series,' there are sections there where I talk about modern physics, including the realization from about a century ago that light is both a particle and a wave. In fact, all matter has both wave like and particle like properties, you just can't capture both at the same time. Although that raises really interesting issues about the nature of reality, for this series I'll use it as a metaphor for the way in which freedom and justice seem to be contradictory, but are really complimentary.
When quantum mechanics first dealt with the particle or wave dilemma, it seemed like this was a contradiction; light (or matter, ultimately) cannot be both a particle and a wave, these are two different things. Photons exhibit wave properties in a double slit experiment even if they are done one at a time, with a long distance between them -- you can't see photons creating waves in the same way water molecules might. Niels Bohr argued that rather than being contradictory, these things were complimentary; you can't understand reality without recognizing that light (and again ultimately all energy and matter) was both a wave and a particle.
In social science this is analogous to the agent/structure problem. If you look at a situation and ask "why did this person become successful or why did this policy get underaken," and you look for the actions and motives of individuals to give you the answer, you'll get a perfectly good reductionist agent-based explanation. If you more broadly ask "why is it that poverty tends to persist in certain geographic areas or among certain groups," you'll end up with a good structural answer which looks at how ones' position in society constrains and empowers. Is society a collective entity which constructs individuals and perhaps even provides them with interests and shapes their perspective, or are individuals builders of society, with their choices creating the overall outcome?
If you look for structural solutions you'll find them; if you look to individual explanations, you'll find those. Of course, unlike quantum mechanics, we have access to investigating how these two interact, or as constructivists say, agents and structures are 'mutually constituted,' (you can use Bohr's complementarity principle as the metaphor here). While one might be able to fantasize that someone could be left completely alone, and somehow manage to survive without a society (though clearly in the early years someone else would be needed), that person would not have any language, thoughts would be very subjectively formed based on experience, and likely the person would seem almost inhuman to us; psychologists would expect a myriad of psychological problems too. But to ignore the individual in looking at society dismisses the spark of creativity and drive that propel humans to choose and do.
This also can be compared to science: Newtonian classical physics had a deterministic universe, whereby if you knew where everything was and how they were moving, you theoretically could predict ad infinitim into the future. Modern physics destroyed that, though Newtonian physics still works. Structuralism is deterministic, but recognition of human will and choice breaks that determinism, but doesn't render the concept of structure meaningless. We are discrete individuals with identity, and we are part of a structured society.
Freedom and justice are also linked. One might think that to get justice you have to deny freedom; to assure that the poor get a chance for an education, you may have to tax the rich, supposedly denying them the freedom to use their wealth as they see fit. But in reality, the wealth of the rich person and the poverty of the poor person are in part structural; the rich person has achieved wealth due to his or her position in society and how he or she has become part of society. Structural injustice creates a lack of individual freedom; structural advantage means privilege. By taxing the rich person one isn't necessarily denying freedom, but rather removing part of an inherent structural advantage that gives the person power beyond that which true individual freedom would grant.
Thus: freedom and the quest for social justice are not contradictory. Stating this in the abstract is, however, very easy compared to trying to figure out what it means in the real world of complex society and politics.