The most important characteristics of human rights are enumerated in a clear and concise discussion that analyzes the problem of making human rights real, and not just hypothetical, worldwide. Building on definitions of human rights used by the United Nations and other international bodies, and without being sidetracked by nettlesome discussions of specific troubling cases of rights abuses, the author describes the main characteristics of the system of human rights. He focuses ...
The most important characteristics of human rights are enumerated in a clear and concise discussion that analyzes the problem of making human rights real, and not just hypothetical, worldwide.
Building on definitions of human rights used by the United Nations and other international bodies, and without being sidetracked by nettlesome discussions of specific troubling cases of rights abuses, the author describes the main characteristics of the system of human rights. He focuses on universality, interdependence, differences between types of rights, absolute or limited rights, the subjects of rights (individuals or groups), and the links between rights and the judicial system and between rights and democracy.
He then discusses some of the instruments we can use to promote respect for human rights, the means by which we might make these rights real for a greater portion of humanity. Along the way, he analyzes some of the related controversies regarding sovereignty versus international intervention, globalization, and questions of cultural imperialism as they bear upon human rights. When do we have a right to impose rights - or to defend ourselves from intervention?
This systematic discussion presents a complex and difficult topic in an understandable framework accessible to the general public, and will stand as a useful foundation for readings of more specialized scientific, legal and philosophical works. Where most human rights books for the nonspecialist focus on specific instances of rights abuses, this work provides a more general approach focused on the logic in the system of human rights.
Filip Spagnoli obtained his PhD at the University of Brussels. He has written numerous OpEd articles in leading Belgian newspapers, specialized articles in philosophical periodicals, and two books, 2003: Homo Democraticus, On the Universal Desirability but the Not So Universal Possibility of Democracy and Human Rights, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2003; and Democratic imperialism, A Practical Guide, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2004.
Currently employed by the research and statistics directorate of the Belgian Central Bank, Spagnoli is a regular guest speaker at conferences and universities and is a participant in European Commission study visits to Eastern European countries with the aim of delivering statistical expertise and helping these countries to achieve membership of the European Union.
First, let's consider the status of the narrative contained in this book and more in general the relationship between truth and politics. The thoughts on human rights and democracy that I will present here are mere proposals and attempts. I do not pretend to proclaim the truth about rights and democracy. If there is any truth in the world at all, it is probably not in the domain of politics, morality and values. It is likely that all we can say about such subjects is mere opinion. However, even if we cannot prove anything or be certain about anything in politics, this does not mean that all opinions are equally valid. There can be good and bad opinions because opinions are based on arguments and reasons, and arguments and reasons can be strong or weak or completely lacking. If all opinions were of the same quality then no one would ever try to convince anyone of anything.
Opinions are, by nature, non-despotic: they cannot be forced on you. The truth can. No one can escape the truth. The laws of physics for example have a despotic character. You have to accept them. Opinions can be accepted or rejected, depending on the force of the arguments for or against, on your personal disposition, your intellectual powers of understanding, etc. Another characteristic of opinions is that they are part of a contradictory world of different opinions. An opinion exists only as long as its contrary also exists. If the latter ceases to exist, then the former becomes what we may call some form of truth, at least to the extent that we may give this label to an opinion that is the object of a worldwide consensus.
Truth implies consensus. Who dares to resist the truth? Only a fool or a moron. Trutheliminates debate because no one contradicts the truth. As long as someone who is neither a fool nor a moron contradicts the truth and gives good reasons for doing so, we have not yet attained the level of truth and remain in the world of opinion. This world is one of plurality and contradiction; the world of truth is one of uniformity. Only when everyone is convinced and no good reasons or arguments against are left can we claim to have identified something like the truth. Even when some opinions are predominant, they remain mere opinions as long as good counter arguments are available, or, in other words, as long as contradictory opinions based on good arguments - and not mere prejudices - are available.
Like everyone who expresses an opinion, I also would like to see my opinions, expressed in this book, elevated to the status of truth. But that depends on many things: the force of my arguments, the disposition of my readers, etc. It is not a result that I can determine or even predict. If I would force this elevation - on the condition that I would have the power to do so - then I would not be acting democratically and I would therefore be incoherent. Democratic politics does not take place in the world of truth or the world of uniformity and despotism. Opinions are the fabric of democracy. Democracy is the game of different and contradictory opinions, some of which become temporarily predominant because they are backed by the better arguments or the arguments that can convince a majority, on the condition that we speak about a perfect democracy unhindered by manipulation. The predominant opinions then inform government policy, but non-predominant ones continue to exist and continue to make their case in an effort to become predominant themselves. If these other opinions no longer exist, then it is not opinion but what has become accepted as truth that informs government policy. This can and does happen, even in the case of perfectly democratic governments. But it is not typical of a democracy and is not its essence. One can even say that the job of a democracy is finished when it happens.
For example, that it is good policy to control inflation is no longer an opinion. There are no longer good arguments for the opposite policy and everyone is convinced that it is a good policy. Hence, there is no democratic debate for or against the fight against inflation. The policies of all governments, including democracies, are inspired by this truth, but this has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy can only enter the stage when different actors present different and contradictory opinions, for example opinions regarding abortion. There is intense debate about this subject. The predominance and hence also government policy shifts from one side to the other.
But what we see in the example of abortion and in many other controversies is that democracy does not only stop when an opinion is elevated to the level of truth. It also stops when contradictory opinions continue to exist but are no longer argued. Proponents and opponents of abortion have practically stopped giving reasons and arguments. They just throw citations from the Bible or general and vague claims of rights at one another. In fact, their opinions have not been elevated to the level of truth but have rather descended to the level of prejudices or "feelings" or beliefs. Democracy requires opinions, nothing more and nothing less. Opinions are based on arguments and reasons, not on evidence, proof, certainty, prejudices, feelings or beliefs. Democracy only has a function when there can be debate and there can only be debate when there are opinions, not when there is more or less, not when everything is either truth or belief. Of course, beliefs should not be excluded from democratic politics, just as truth should not be excluded. Beliefs can be a powerful force behind debates. They can inspire thinking and discussion, but they will never be the essence of democracy. If there is nothing more than beliefs, then there is no democracy.
So truth can enter democracy - democratic governments would be literally stupid not to allow this - but it will never be its essence. When truth becomes the essence of politics, democracy dies. This can happen when people forget that what they believe is an opinion rather than the truth. They are unable or unwilling to see that other, contradictory opinions based on good arguments continue to exist, and try to transform politics from a space of discussion into a machine for the application of the truth, of their truth. Other opinions are suppressed because they are not recognized as valid opinions based on arguments. Instead, they are, quite logically, deemed to be mistakes or errors, or even lies, because they contradict the beliefs of those who believe to possess the truth. And who would not admit action against errors or lies?
This unwarranted renaming of opinions into truths, and the subsequent actions against opinions that are not in fact errors or lies but are real opinions based on sound arguments, destroys debate and democracy. Politics becomes a tool to transform reality, to shape the world according to some theory or utopia considered to be the true teaching. This is the mindset we find in Fascism or adherents of other ideologies who are convinced that they possess the truth and are unable or unwilling to recognize the views of others as valid opinions based on sound arguments. Everything outside of their worldview is "false" and "needs to be corrected" (take also the infamous re-education camps of communism) or even destroyed if correction is not possible. Politics takes on the characteristics of truth: uniformity and despotism.
If you see yourself as the bearer of truth rather than one who holds a particularly well-argued opinion, then you feel that you have to suppress other views. You are morally obliged to act against mistakes and lies. Allowing someone to lie or to live a life of mistakes is immoral. Such a person is not someone who happens to hold another opinion based on arguments that, according to you, are less successful, and whose opinions have to be respected. Rather, he or she must be stupid or even of bad faith, and must be re-educated in order to access the truth. Democratic argumentation and discussion will not help in these cases because argumentation requires a target that is sensitive to good arguments and hence not stupid, and is of good faith. And in any case, truth does not need arguments. It is self evident and, if not, merely requires explanation. But explanation does not help either when the target is stupid or of bad faith. Force is then the only means left. This is the fatal logic that drives people who believe themselves to be the holders of truth away from democracy and into tyranny.
A writer or philosopher is often one of those persons who believe themselves to be holding the truth. He or she is therefore also tempted into this logic and may want to determine social life and shape it in the form of his or her theories. Democratic politics and the struggle between contradictory opinions are then replaced by a uniform world reflecting a theory that pretends to be the truth rather than one opinion among many. Political life is determined by one of its actors and is no longer the struggle between actors. Even a philosopher of democracy can be tempted by this logic. No matter how democratic his or her philosophy, it will become corrupted when it is seen as the truth rather than one opinion among others. This philosophy has to be imposed when it is seen as the truth, because one cannot accept mistakes or lies. Only if it is seen as one opinion among others, even an opinion based on amazingly good arguments, and only if it is introduced into democratic debate rather than imposed as the truth, can it remain internally coherent. The democratic philosopher has to propose instead of impose, and then has to see what happens with the theory in the public debate. If the arguments are really sound, then people may accept them and the theory can become the accepted truth. If not, the philosopher has to try again. Truth in politics can be recognized as a result of debate but the debate should never be skipped, and the truth can never emerge as a result of individual efforts.
If people believe that they hold the truth and are unable to recognize that other people's beliefs may (also) be based on sound arguments, then they enter into a dangerous logic of mistakes, lies, suppression, imposition, and re-education. However, this does not mean that democratic politics cannot or should not be based on strong beliefs. Participants must believe that their opinions are valid and that they have good reasons for believing in these opinions, and they can act according to these opinions. Democratic action can be inspired by theory - and even should be, if it wants to be intelligent and something more than pure activism. But it should never forget that others may be inspired differently and have sound reasons to follow other opinions. Action inspired by theory has to take place within the democratic game of competing opinions and should not replace this game by the effort to impose something that is mistaken for the truth and that is in fact merely one opinion in a setting of many competing opinions.
Political theory can inspire political action. Democracy is therefore more than pure activism. But theory is also formed by democratic political action. The meaning of concepts like democracy, justice, liberty, etc. is framed by political debate and discussion, and not solely by the individual thinking of philosophers. But this framing is provisional because debates never end and new arguments in favor of some opinion can always emerge or old arguments can acquire more power.
So, no matter how vigilant we should be about the separation of truth and politics, we should not exaggerate and completely separate theory and action. On the one hand, if we introduce truth into politics, then we run the risk of entering into a logic of mistakes, lies and suppression and we replace the political struggle between opinions by a world in which action is completely determined by some theory about what is true and what is not. Action becomes completely subordinated to theory. On the other hand, theory should be allowed to inspire action because otherwise action is dumb. But this inspiration should be one among many contradictory kinds of inspiration, and should be conscious of the fact that it is an opinion rather than the truth, no matter how good the reasons are in favor of this opinion.
Theory should be allowed to inspire action, but it should also be allowed to result from action. Democratic political participation and discussion generate theory and are not simply the application of a theory already given before the action starts. Moreover, the theory generated by politics has some advantages compared to individually generated theories. Democratic discussion allows the appearance of different arguments, which improves the quality of thinking. Many brains put together are smarter than one. Theory is not in some way "higher" than or superior to action, because it results from action. Neither is action more important than words, because no wise action without wise words. Clear thinking makes actions more efficient, makes it easier to convince opponents, etc. Those who think can assist those who act, although they should never determine actions completely and forget how much they depend on action.
So, in a way, politics does not start but ends with theory.
[P]olitics is not the application of Truth to the problem of human relations but the application of human relations to the problem of truth. . . . Truth in politics seems, as William James said of truth in general, to be something which is "made in the course of experience" rather than something discovered or disclosed and then acted upon. . . . [T]ruth [is] . . . a product of certain modes of common living rather than the foundation of common life.
Except then for those "truths" that are the foundation of common life and deliberation, namely human rights. These rights are in a sense not the product of common life but its beginning. This does not mean that they are beyond debate or that they do not have to compete in the market place of ideas. They are indeed actively contested and people have to make the case for them. However, one cannot fail to notice the inconsistency of those rejecting human rights: their rejection takes place in the public space created by human rights. It is difficult to reject human rights without using them.
This meta-status of human rights, or the recognition of the way in which they create common life and political deliberation rather than resulting from it, is apparent from the fact that they are not protected by normal laws but by national constitutions. The people in a democracy, via their legislators, cannot easily repeal the laws protecting human rights. These laws precede and guarantee politics and are therefore independent of politics; they are untouchable. Popular sovereignty is limited. Politics is insulated against the absolute, but at the same time it is protected by another kind of absolute. The principles that make democratic politics possible acquire a kind of absolute value, without ascending to the realm of truth because human rights are contested, even though it seems logically difficult to contest the institutions necessary for the protection of contestability. That would amount to contesting contestability.
Too much relativism is just as dangerous for politics as too much certainty. If there is too much certainty, then debate and plurality disappear, but if there is too little certainty - e.g. no certainty as to the value of the right of free speech - then debate will also disappear because the institutions that protect it will disappear. Either we will be destroyed by fanatics with their own certainty because we will lack the conviction to defend ourselves and our values, or we will lose interest in our values. People who are only interested in their own subjective opinions and desires and who disregard inter-subjectivity are just as dangerous to democracy and human rights as people who force their so-called objective opinions on others.