FIRST MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Wednesday, July 25, 2007)

All philoso­phies stand on choic­es that can­not be jus­ti­fied by proof. Any ama­teur Socrates can demon­strate that I can’t prove that two and two are four, or that free­dom is desir­able, or even that I exist. Ulti­mate­ly, ideas, no mat­ter how pas­sion­ate­ly held, rest on assump­tions that can­not be known with absolute cer­tain­ty. It does not fol­low from this that we should avoid act­ing on sig­nif­i­cant assump­tions, or that we should aban­don the analy­sis of ideas. If I’m stand­ing in the mid­dle of the street, and see a twelve-ton truck hurtling in my direc­tion, I don’t stand there, par­a­lyzed by epis­te­mo­log­i­cal uncer­tain­ty. I jump out of its way. Lat­er, seat­ed on a com­fort­able couch, with a cold beer in my hand, I might indulge in the lux­u­ry of reflect­ing that the truck may have been an illu­sion, or that I can­not prove with cer­tain­ty that being hit by a truck is worse than not being hit by a truck. All of us must choose our basic assump­tions, either in a con­scious process, guid­ed by rea­son, or unconsciously.

This is a med­i­ta­tion on democ­ra­cy, and democ­ra­cy only becomes a coher­ent idea when it rests on the assump­tion that human beings have rights. This, in turn, rests on the assump­tion that there is a moral dimen­sion to the uni­verse. Out­side of these assump­tions, polit­i­cal thought becomes arbi­trary. If indi­vid­ual human beings have no rights, then what­ev­er hap­pens is self-suf­fi­cient­ly jus­ti­fied, and any state of affairs that human beings find them­selves in is as desir­able as any oth­er. Effec­tive­ly, if there is no moral dimen­sion to the uni­verse, then it is a mat­ter of indif­fer­ence what hap­pens. Events just come to pass ― say, the Holo­caust, or the Slave Trade, or Abu Graib ― and there is no point in dis­cussing them. It is point­less to seek jus­tice or defy injus­tice, because the very idea of jus­tice depends on the assump­tion of a moral­i­ty that rests upon some­thing more sub­stan­tial than cus­tom or whim. In the absence of moral choice, peo­ple seek some sense of order in human affairs through some amoral orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple. Loy­al­ty to a group, obe­di­ence to author­i­ty, or the famil­iar­i­ty of rit­u­al become sub­sti­tutes for eth­i­cal conscience.

The unavoid­able choice that a demo­c­rat makes is to assume that the uni­verse has a moral aspect, just as it has a math­e­mat­i­cal aspect, and an aspect of mat­ter and ener­gy ― no mat­ter how hard to grasp these aspects might be. In the Democ­ra­t’s view, the demands of eth­i­cal con­science overule loy­al­ty to groups, obe­di­ence to author­i­ty, or ritual.

Moral­i­ty comes into play where there is con­scious­ness. A human brain may be com­posed of cells, and those cells of chem­i­cals, and those chem­i­cals be reducible to atoms, but those sim­pli­fi­ca­tions do not rob it of its inher­ent com­plex­i­ty. It is fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent, as a pat­tern, from a lump of coal, which can also be reduced to atoms. To get a hint of this kind of com­plex­i­ty, imag­ine an old-fash­ioned can of movie film con­tain­ing the clas­sic dra­ma The Mal­tese Fal­con. There is no mate­r­i­al object inside that film can oth­er than a long strip of cel­lu­loid, on which are print­ed blobs of opaque emul­sion com­prised of sil­ver halide grains sus­pend­ed in a gelatin col­loid. What dis­tin­guish­es these par­tic­u­lar blobs is that they cre­ate a pat­tern of selec­tive trans­paren­cy and opac­i­ty, and that when light is pro­ject­ed through them, they cre­ate an image on a screen. That pat­tern is not an arbi­trary jum­ble of light and dark. It pre­serves the rec­og­niz­able images of human beings named Humphrey Bog­a­rt, Mary Astor, Syd­ney Green­street, and Peter Lorre. These human beings actu­al­ly lived and breathed and thought. Their faces, voic­es, and many sub­tleties of their per­son­al­i­ties are pre­served by the cel­lu­loid. These “mere” blobs of light and dark amount to some­thing with mean­ing. Lev­els upon lev­els of mean­ing can be dis­cov­ered in this pat­tern, includ­ing irony, sus­pense, com­e­dy, love, betray­al — all the intri­cate sub­tleties of an artis­tic cre­ation. If there was only one sur­viv­ing print of The Mal­tese Fal­con, I would run into a burn­ing build­ing to save it. I would not run into a build­ing to save a ran­dom expo­sure of film embody­ing no sig­nif­i­cant pattern.

One does not have to pro­pose some super­nat­ur­al agency to assign sig­nif­i­cance to a human mind, or to imag­ine a “ghost in the machine”, or some­thing as unde­fin­able as a “soul”. There may very well be such super­nat­ur­al events and agen­cies. I have no way of know­ing whether they exist or not. But their pres­ence is not nec­es­sary for me to make a moral analy­sis, or to make moral choices.

Moral rela­tion­ships come into being where there is con­scious­ness. Any two con­scious beings com­ing into con­tact with each oth­er can be sub­ject to a moral analy­sis. I have no moral rela­tion­ship with a rock. Noth­ing I can do to a rock, or that a rock can do to me, requires moral judg­ment. But I have a moral rela­tion­ship to any­thing that is self-aware and can think. This is why I assume that I must exer­cise moral judg­ment in my rela­tion­ship with Stampy, my pet rab­bit. Stampy has an evi­dent degree of mind and self-aware­ness, which means in polit­i­cal terms that he has some “rights”. These rights emerge direct­ly from his exis­tence as a con­scious being, and because of these rights, I can­not tor­ture him for my own amuse­ment, or let him starve to death in agony because I would rather spend his food mon­ey on dvds.

It’s con­scious­ness, not life, that is the sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor here. A bac­teri­um and a car­rot are liv­ing beings, but they are not con­scious beings. I do not have to wor­ry about vio­lat­ing the rights of a car­rot. My respect for life impels me to act in defense of endan­gered species of plants, or to oppose the clear-cut­ting of ancient forests, but it does not impel me to enter a moral dis­course with a par­tic­u­lar tree. How­ev­er, my rela­tion­ships with con­scious beings are indi­vid­ual rela­tion­ships with a moral dimen­sion. Wher­ev­er there is any degree of mind, I must exer­cise some degree of moral judg­ment. The pres­ence of mind in human beings is self-evi­dent to me, and I can­not evade the con­clu­sion that human beings have rights, which I am bound to respect. “Rights”, in this sense, emerge from the nature of con­scious beings, from the real­i­ty of the world. That is why it is appro­pri­ate to refer to them as “nat­ur­al” rights. They are not arbi­trary cus­toms. They are not fab­ri­ca­tions of society.

The prac­tic­ing demo­c­rat assumes that the rights of humans emerge from their sta­tus as high­ly con­scious beings, and that all human beings share the same basic type of con­scious­ness. Con­scious­ness should not be con­fused with intel­li­gence. Peo­ple may vary, indi­vid­u­al­ly, in men­tal skills, but these skills are triv­ial vari­a­tions with­in the frame­work of con­scious­ness. All of us, clever and not-so-clever, are self-aware beings, with per­son­al­i­ties. Only those who have suf­fered extreme forms of brain dam­age, wip­ing out per­son­al­i­ty entire­ly, could be con­sid­ered to have a sub­stan­tial­ly dif­fer­ent lev­el of con­scious­ness. It fol­lows from the recog­ni­tion of this uni­for­mi­ty, that all human beings have rights, and that these rights are iden­ti­cal for all human beings. In fact, a con­sis­tent­ly prac­tic­ing Demo­c­rat would assume that these rights would hold true for mem­bers of an alien civ­i­liza­tion, if we should come into con­tact with them.

Rights, emerg­ing from indi­vid­ual con­scious­ness, and pre­sumed to be iden­ti­cal for all indi­vid­ual human beings, can be eval­u­at­ed only in rela­tion to indi­vid­ual human beings. There is no such thing as a “col­lec­tive right” that some­how super­sedes, or can­cels out the rights of any indi­vid­ual. A group of human beings does not have a con­scious­ness. It is mere­ly a sta­tis­ti­cal abstrac­tion. Nations do not have rights. Eth­nic­i­ties do not have rights. Cor­po­ra­tions do not have rights. Church­es do not have rights. Gen­ders do not have rights. Asso­ci­a­tions of peo­ple with sur­names begin­ning with the let­ter L do not have rights. Only indi­vid­ual human beings have rights, and those rights are absolute­ly iden­ti­cal for all self-aware human beings, any­where, at any time, with­out excep­tion. Rights are not affect­ed by, or depen­dent upon, cul­ture, cus­tom, or tra­di­tion. Rights do not vary geo­graph­i­cal­ly or tem­po­ral­ly. They can­not be trad­ed, rescind­ed, can­celed out, renounced, dis­posed of, or altered. They are, in the charm­ing vocab­u­lary of the 18th Cen­tu­ry, “inalien­able.”

These three con­cepts — a moral aspect to human rela­tion­ships; inalien­able human rights; the moral equal­i­ty of all human beings — are the fun­da­men­tal premis­es of demo­c­ra­t­ic thought. Attempts to estab­lish demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tice on a the­o­ret­i­cal foun­da­tion with­out rights or moral­i­ty are too intel­lec­tu­al­ly slip­shod to stand up to scrutiny.

In the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, such an attempt was made, by a clus­ter of philoso­phers called Util­i­tar­i­ans. Their influ­ence was pre­dom­i­nant­ly in the Eng­lish-speak­ing part of the world, but echoes of their thoughts often occur else­where. To this day, Util­i­tar­i­an argu­ments can be heard in polit­i­cal sci­ence class­rooms, and have been absorbed into the vision of “Lib­er­al Democ­ra­cy” por­trayed in many text­books. The Util­i­tar­i­an phrase that is most often repeat­ed is that the pur­pose of gov­ern­ment is to secure “the great­est good for the great­est num­ber”. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly con­fus­ing, because this phrase is usu­al­ly accom­pa­nied by the asser­tion that there is no such thing as an objec­tive moral choice, but only the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a “util­i­tar­i­an cal­cu­la­tion”. Since the “good” implic­it in the cal­cu­la­tion of the “great­est good” can­not be allowed to refer to any­thing but the cal­cu­la­tion itself, then it’s rather hard to deter­mine exact­ly what is being cal­cu­lat­ed. Any action can, with a lit­tle cre­ativ­i­ty, be made to fit the Util­i­tar­i­an for­mu­la. Could not 51% of a soci­ety choose to exter­mi­nate the oth­er 49%, serv­ing the “great­est good of the great­est num­ber”, then 51% of the remain­der exter­mi­nate anoth­er 49%, fol­low­ing the same log­ic, con­tin­u­ing until there remained three peo­ple, and two of them solemn­ly vot­ed for the exe­cu­tion of the third? In fact, many of the out­rages of his­to­ry have pre­sent­ed them­selves as some form of Util­i­tar­i­an cal­cu­lus. The Holo­caust, after all, sac­ri­ficed a few mil­lion Jews, Gyp­sies and homo­sex­u­als on the alter of the “greater good” of the greater number.

We find the same type of sta­tis­ti­cal cal­cu­la­tion, with­out ref­er­ence to human rights, where “democ­ra­cy” is crude­ly con­ceived of as an ide­ol­o­gy jus­ti­fy­ing the absolute rule of any major­i­ty. There are many nations where polit­i­cal par­ties are noth­ing more than fan­cy names for par­tic­u­lar eth­nic groups, and the elec­toral vic­to­ry of the largest group is fol­lowed by a ruth­less per­se­cu­tion of the smaller.

In prac­tice, Util­i­tar­i­an thought was usu­al­ly inter­pret­ed to mean what­ev­er pol­i­cy seemed most con­ve­nient to a rul­ing or man­age­r­i­al class. The ear­ly Util­i­tar­i­ans, whose pre-emi­nent spokesman was Jere­my Ben­tham, had lit­tle inter­est in the demo­c­ra­t­ic process. The “great­est good” was some­thing that was to be cal­cu­lat­ed by a rul­ing elite, with as lit­tle inter­fer­ence from the “great­est num­ber” as pos­si­ble. But a lat­er gen­er­a­tion, tak­ing its cues from John Stu­art Mill, inher­it­ed the philo­soph­i­cal trap­pings of the ear­ly Util­i­tar­i­ans, and mod­i­fied them to the end of pre­serv­ing social sta­bil­i­ty. The pro­po­nents of what came to be called “Lib­er­al­ism” saw demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions as a use­ful safe­ty valve to head off rev­o­lu­tion in the low­er class­es. Elect­ed par­lia­ments and a wide­spread fran­chise would pro­vide use­ful input to guide a rul­ing class, pre­vent it from get­ting dan­ger­ous­ly out of touch with its sub­or­di­nates, and head off extremes of pol­i­cy by pro­mot­ing com­pro­mise. It would also invig­o­rate a rul­ing class with “new blood” in the form of ambi­tious par­venus. But “rights”, as moral imper­a­tives, in the sense pro­posed by some ear­li­er thinkers, were dis­missed as fig­ments of the imag­i­na­tion. The inequal­i­ty of human beings was tak­en as self-evi­dent. There was no ques­tion, in their minds, that a soci­ety was a col­lec­tive organ­ism, whose sur­vival was more impor­tant than the life or lib­er­ty of any indi­vid­ual. Indi­vid­ual human beings were seen as, in the end, dis­pos­able com­po­nents. Rulers ruled over the ruled. The idea that peo­ple should be rul­ing them­selves, as moral equals, was dis­missed as a utopi­an piety, a prim­i­tive stage in his­to­ry, or self-evi­dent­ly impos­si­ble. The idea that inalien­able rights might con­strain the exer­cise of col­lec­tive pow­er over the indi­vid­ual was left out of the dis­cus­sion entirely.

Vari­ants and descen­dants of this view dom­i­nate the intel­lec­tu­al life of the coun­tries that today hold demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions, but they are not, as often claimed, the philo­soph­i­cal basis of demo­c­ra­t­ic thought. At best, they are con­fused attempts to jam some sort of demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tice into the tra­di­tion­al frame­work of soci­eties based on col­lec­tivism, rank, and caste. At worst, they envi­sion demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions as an eti­quette, by which an aris­toc­ra­cy pre­serves its pow­er more effec­tive­ly with charm than with threats.

The evo­lu­tion of demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions in the Unit­ed King­dom, with its high­ly vis­i­ble class divi­sions, was the tem­plate for this idea of democ­ra­cy as a tool for defus­ing unrest. The atti­tudes which evolved there where wide­ly imi­tat­ed by rul­ing elites in oth­er coun­tries. Those who saw the sur­vival of the State as the mea­sure of all things point­ed to the suc­cess­ful use of demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions to ensure that sur­vival. They con­clud­ed that it was more effec­tive, in the long run, to man­age peo­ple with tem­per­ance than to open­ly bul­ly them. But this tem­per­ance remains, in the minds of most elite thinkers, an expe­di­ent pol­i­cy in the ser­vice of the State, not a recog­ni­tion of nat­ur­al rights. The State is not seen as a struc­ture with which to defend the dig­ni­ty and rights of indi­vid­ual human beings. Instead, in this “lib­er­al” tra­di­tion, human beings are seen as use­ful ani­mals, which must be prop­er­ly man­aged for the preser­va­tion of the State.

In North Amer­i­ca, where class lines were nev­er clear­ly drawn, social roles were vague, and the polit­i­cal elite drew its mem­ber­ship from var­ied ori­gins, demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions evolved with much less fear of “the mob”. Instead, democ­ra­cy was seen there as a process for work­ing out nec­es­sary com­pro­mis­es between con­fed­er­at­ed regions, cul­tur­al groups, and clus­ters of eco­nom­ic inter­ests. Some pub­lic dis­cus­sions hinged on the notion that the State exists for the pur­pose of pro­tect­ing the rights of peo­ple, but more of them relied on the idea that peo­ple exist to serve the State. The incon­sis­ten­cy of these clash­ing premis­es is rarely point­ed out. Pub­lic debates jump from one view­point to the oth­er, even­tu­al­ly resolv­ing them­selves ran­dom­ly. The ten­den­cy is for the sub­tler idea of the pri­ma­cy of the indi­vid­ual to lose out to the amoral con­cept of the pri­ma­cy of the State. Peo­ple in Cana­da and the Unit­ed States still have great dif­fi­cul­ty visu­al­iz­ing democ­ra­cy as a process of peo­ple gov­ern­ing them­selves, and still see their elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives as being their boss­es — not a hered­i­tary or class-based rul­ing elite, to be sure, but still a bunch of peo­ple who out­rank them, and make deci­sions for them. Nev­er­the­less, a vague idea of pre­serv­ing per­son­al lib­er­ty floats around in the back­ground. It’s not expressed in any rig­or­ous the­o­ry, but mere­ly felt as an emo­tion­al theme. When peo­ple feel that gov­ern­ment is get­ting a bit too pushy, that their sense of pro­pri­ety is being stressed, they grow uneasy. Politi­cians, ever sen­si­tive to the pub­lic mood, pull back from exces­sive­ly arro­gant poli­cies. To a demo­c­ra­t­ic the­o­rist, these are small vic­to­ries in the bat­tle to defend rights, but to the pop­u­la­tion at large, they are mere­ly the preser­va­tion of com­fort­able custom.

Mod­ern demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tice devel­oped from a series of con­flicts and com­pro­mis­es between rul­ing elites and tru­cu­lent pop­u­la­tions, with only oblique and acci­den­tal influ­ences from sys­tem­at­ic demo­c­ra­t­ic the­o­ry. This is not to say that the accom­plish­ments of these democ­ra­cies are neg­li­gi­ble. Far from it. A per­son does not have to be an expert in med­i­cine and biol­o­gy to be healthy. They need only to have learned a healthy lifestyle. The lives of peo­ple in any coun­try with a his­to­ry of rea­son­ably demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions are pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent from those who live at the whim of strut­ting gen­er­als and marx­ist mob­sters. No sen­si­ble per­son would choose the lat­ter envi­ron­ment for their own chil­dren. Because they evolved main­ly by lucky breaks and unanalysed impuls­es, rather than by explic­it philo­soph­i­cal insights, does not mean that their prac­ti­cal suc­cess should be ignored. How­ev­er, it does make it dif­fi­cult for oth­ers to learn from them, and imi­tate their suc­cess. It’s rather like try­ing to lean how to ride a bicy­cle by lis­ten­ing to some­one describe him­self rid­ing a bicy­cle. You don’t know exact­ly what it is that you are sup­posed to ask, and they can’t explain what they are doing. The rather poor out­come from attempts to “export” democ­ra­cy from suc­cess­ful exam­ples to new ground demon­strates this weak­ness. Nei­ther the exporter nor the importer have a clear enough under­stand­ing of the “prod­uct” for it to be suc­cess­ful­ly dupli­cat­ed. Instead, what ends up being export­ed is noth­ing more than a clus­ter of emp­ty forms and arbi­trary cus­toms. With­out the under­ly­ing eth­i­cal com­po­nent, these forms and cus­toms are useless.

Every­one who goes through the sys­tem of edu­ca­tion in the coun­tries that are called “democ­ra­cies” is taught ear­ly in the game that “nat­ur­al rights” are a quaint con­cept pro­pound­ed by wig-wear­ing philoso­phers in the 18th cen­tu­ry, but irrel­e­vant to mod­ern polit­i­cal thought. At the same time, the word “right” is used in the broad sense of any desired spe­cif­ic objec­tive (“a child should have a right to have his own room”). To add to the con­fu­sion, peo­ple in these rel­a­tive­ly priv­i­leged coun­tries are reg­u­lar­ly exposed to the des­per­ate pleas of the oppressed and abused in non-demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­tries. The vic­tims of such oppres­sion have no choice but to appeal to a con­cept of uni­ver­sal moral­i­ty, since they can hard­ly appeal to cus­tom, or to a sense of pro­pri­ety and nor­mal­cy that they have nev­er expe­ri­enced. They can’t look to Util­i­tar­i­an sophistries or moral rel­a­tivism for any hope. The lan­guage of Rights ― rights which are uni­ver­sal and inalien­able ― is the only log­i­cal lan­guage for them to employ. From this kind of cri­sis, the word-pair “human rights” has entered the lan­guage. How­ev­er, it has nev­er quite pen­e­trat­ed the con­science of our intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty that “human rights” means noth­ing if it does not mean “nat­ur­al rights”. The same pro­fes­sor, jour­nal­ist, or social sci­en­tist who pro­claims an enthu­si­asm for “human rights” caus­es, will simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sub­scribe to a vague moral rel­a­tivism, mixed with a jum­ble of con­tra­dic­to­ry for­mu­las inher­it­ed from the Util­i­tar­i­ans, and assert that rights are an illu­sion. Their sense of jus­tice, formed sub­con­scious­ly from being raised in an envi­ron­ment of demo­c­ra­t­ic nor­mal­cy and a vague sense of per­son­al lib­er­ty, tells them that some­thing is being vio­lat­ed. They sense that some con­cept of moral­i­ty makes tor­ture, con­cen­tra­tion camps, and death squads objec­tive­ly wrong. But they have no philo­soph­i­cal tools to con­nect their sense of jus­tice to their view of the world.

My aim, in these med­i­ta­tions, is to make these tools avail­able, both to observers who live in safe and com­fort­able places, but more impor­tant­ly, to those on the fir­ing line… the peo­ple who have to strug­gle to be free.

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