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First Meditation on Democracy [written Wednesday, July 25, 2007] REPUBLISHED


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https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elicit inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have another round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-posting them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Mostly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updating.


18-02-10 BLOG First Med pic 1

Har­mod­ius and Aris­to­geiton, the gay cou­ple whom the Athe­ni­ans regarded as the founders of their democracy

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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