‘The Re-Enchantment of the World’ as Social Theory and Critique

Introduction

‘The re-enchantment of the world’ emerged as a concept in the 1980s in the work of Maurice Berman, in a work on the philosophy and psychology of science of that name, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians. Ironically, until now it has not featured much within the social sciences; ironically, that is, because the expression was a challenge to the sociologist Max Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from the poet Schiller, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other.

We may ponder the extent to which Weber’s characterisation of his own day has, in fact, become more pronounced over the intervening century, with the rise of consumerism, digital technologies, managerialism, big data and the threats to the environment. The aim in this essay is to begin a discussion about the sociological dimensions of re-enchantment as a critique and alternative to the disenchanted state of modernity. This is not a call for a return to a prescientific, magical or mythical view of the natural and social worlds. Rather, it attempts to undergird theoretically the idea that progress is only measured by advances in the empowerment of the individual, spiritually and materially, against those forces that attempt to block or suppress it. It begins with an exposition and critique of the theory of orthogenesis proposed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890-1955). Teilhard was not a sociologist, but a Jesuit priest and anthropologist. Nevertheless, his fusion of the religious and scientific insights gained through his life experience is a good point of departure for grappling with the idea of re-enchantment.

This essay explores and critiques another theme fundamental to the Western outlook and literary canon, which is the transformative moment in human history. This is biblical in origin, in the narrative of a divine providence, from the myth of the expulsion from Eden to the final judgement of the world. However, this narrative also finds expression in secular eschatologies, such as the Marxist conviction in the appearance of (or return to) a perfect communist society, driven by inherent contradictions in the economic structures and relationships in every hitherto existing form of society, or those social philosophies inspired by Hegel, such as that of Fukuyama, who believe that an ‘End of History’ will be achieved when the social form matches closely that in which the restless desires of humanity can be achieved. Teilhard himself foresaw such a moment, in which the material and divine will be fused, which he referred to as the ‘Omega Point’. I will contrast these perspectives with another, that of the evolution of both nature and society as stochastic, that is, open and random.

I have chosen to focus on these two thinkers – Teilhard de Chardin and Fukuyama – for another reason. Teilhard represents what could be called the enchanted view of the world, one of nature suffused by divinity, one of predestination and essential goodness. However, Teilhard’s vision was marred by his political naivety and his inability within his thought of dealing with the reality of human evil, a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Fukuyama, if anything, presents the completely opposite view: a disenchanted world in which the culmination of historical progress is a disinterested political state, which facilitates its citizens to pursue their individual means to alleviate their ennui. Fukuyama was heavily influenced by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève, who saw in the establishment of the European Union, that epitome of a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, a political terminus, and so renounced philosophy to join its ranks. In addition, a discussion of re-enchantment would be incomplete without a consideration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas constitute an important precursor. Therefore, finally, I will examine four tenets of his doctrine of the will-to-power, a critique of whose principal motifs will help characterise the scope of re-enchantment.

Differentiation and Integration in Nature and Society

Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments he asserted the agency of two types of energy, which he termed radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order

Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add two caveats to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life and the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.

However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to the second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.

Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. However, differentiation and integration should be seen as analytical categories, not as predictive ones.

Freedom and Belonging as Interdependent Values

Shortly after communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were tumbling, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama produced a seminal essay entitled ‘The End of History’ in which he declared that the cold war had been won and the victor was liberal democracy. This seemed prescient at the time as dictatorships of the left continued to fall and to transform into at least nominal democracies. This declaration was in essence an update of a thesis advanced by Hegel that the liberal state of Prussia represented the terminus of historical development. Over the next decade, developments were to prove that Fukuyama’s assertions were just as premature as Hegel’s had been, with the rise of political Islam, a newly assertive Russia and the persistence in China of a one-party communist state, despite its growing affluence.

Despite these predictive failures, there is a core of powerful reasoning behind this school of thought. Hegel saw the liberal state of Prussia as resolving the inherent dialectical struggle between the spirit and the material. Perhaps more pertinently, Fukuyama saw in liberal democracy the system in which the eternal struggle for freedom and recognition could be realised most fully. Quite rightly, he saw that human historical destiny is driven by fundamental values that define our human nature, and that any system that thwarts these desires is bound to fail.

Fukuyama asserted that in fact liberal democratic societies manifested the necessary conditions for the realisation of freedom and recognition and that while history, as the unfolding of human events, would continue, ‘History’ as the struggle for a just and equitable society was basically over. This did not mean that he saw liberal democracy as a perfectly good society in which everyone achieved happiness. On the contrary, he saw it as a spiritual wilderness in which we are all responsible for instituting the activities which contribute meaning to our otherwise meaningless lives. While some criticise Fukuyama for being overly optimistic about the prospect for the triumph of liberal and democratic values, I find his view of the destiny of humanity to be deeply pessimistic. Although I accept the premise that social evolution is driven by deep-seated values, I believe that Fukuyama identified the wrong values, and that contributed to his vision of the end of history as disenchanted.

The ideal of freedom has been central to almost all discourses on the nature of our social being, but particularly those that have championed individualism. This has, of course, been primarily a discourse that has occurred in the tradition of Western thought, stretching from the ancient Greeks, through Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and Luther, the Enlightenment philosophers to the modernists and post-modernists of our contemporary world. Yet even in those cultures that have not traditionally emphasised freedom, the desire for freedom and the yearning to express individuality and to break out of oppressive social constraints or hidebound customs lies dormant or quietly seethes below the surface. Therefore, freedom is arguably more than just a western idea, but a universal value for all cultures and a prime differentia from all other mammals.

But Fukuyama, like others in the rationalist and individualist tradition, committed the error of ignoring the other prime value of humanity, which is the need to belong. Belonging is something that we share with animals, because we are also animals, in our origins and in our instincts. Belonging, to return to the socio-political motifs explored earlier, is the most fundamental way in which the integrating factor manifests itself in human society. Unlike animals, though, our sense of belonging is not limited to an immediate family or troupe, but ranges over a far more extended span of groupings, including imaginary, abstract and mythic associations and constructs, such as organisations, nations, religions and concepts such as humanity.

Human belonging, therefore, is not primarily instinctual – even if it is instinctual in origin and basis – but deontological. That is to say, the forms of life to which we belong are structured by laws, rules, traditions, customs and beliefs, which are ultimately the expression of shared values; values to which we ascribe through willing association. This is as true for those forms of life which we may consider to be instinctive, such as family and tribe, as it is for the more abstract forms. Belonging, therefore, partakes of the freedom which we have already asserted to be a principal value; there is no belonging where this belonging is not fundamentally voluntary. I say ‘fundamentally’ because we are not normally in the habit of reminding ourselves of this on a moment by moment basis, bound as we are by other considerations of belonging, such as love and friendship, respect, duty, dependence, and so on. But any association (between adults, who are morally autonomous) which is not at its basis voluntary, is a form of servitude.

A moment’s reflection will suggest that this relationship between freedom and belonging is not one way. As our spirituality emerges from and matures based on our animal instincts, so freedom, as the basic expression of our spirituality, is given shape and density through our forms of belonging. Freedom without belonging, to the extent that it could exist, would be an evanescent quality, for the nature of our freedom is that we willingly sacrifice a degree of our moral autonomy as free beings for belonging, so that our freedom can find expression in forms of belonging, which might include such transcendent forms as belonging to a loved one, a deity or a country, and will almost certainly include such mundane forms as a profession and leisure pursuits.

Progress and Empowerment

Progress is an idea that comes in and goes out of fashion. It defined the Victorian era, both in terms of technological advance and in social welfare. For much of the past fifty years it is a term that has been associated with the Left, particularly in the areas of social justice. Still the question remains whether there is such a thing as progress, or is there simply change, as one set of ideas, concerns, technologies and problems gives rise to another. That would be compatible with the idea of social evolution, like biological evolution, being open, random and purposeless, in contradistinction to the ideas considered earlier – those of Teilhard and Fukuyama – who see an underlying teleology in human affairs.

Progress is a creed adopted by optimists and by optimistic ages, whereas one would probably characterise our times as pessimistic, despite the huge advances in technology. This pessimism is perhaps a manifestation of the ‘revenge effect’, whereby every advance seems only to create new problems; indeed, much of our pessimism arises precisely because of advances in technology and their arguably deleterious effects: on our health or safety, on our environment, or on our social being. There is a view, championed, for example, by James Lovelock, the proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, that as an evolved species we are constrained by the self-regulating system of the biosphere of which we are a part, and that being out of kilter with nature will only hasten our own demise or, certainly, diminution. In such a view, all our pretence to progress amounts to nothing; we in the developed world have not advanced in evolutionary terms beyond the tribes of the Amazon.

Failing a catastrophic failure of human civilisation, in which case Lovelock’s hypothesis would be vindicated in a world which would no longer comprehend it, I propose a more optimistic view, based on a phenomenological account of the reality of the accomplishments of the human spirit in science, art, religion, politics, economics and technology, one in which our experience of progress can at least be put to the test, rather than simply dismissed. That test would be the extent to which change actually empowers us as individuals. I see this as the single vector by which progress can be judged to have occurred or not. Looking at the scope of historical development, societies emerged in which the role of the individual came to play a greater role and in which, from an objective viewpoint, individuals became more equal and thus more empowered. Clearly, this remains an unfinished task, not only on a global level, but even within developed societies. In fact, I believe this will forever remain unfinished, as it is intrinsically impossible for human beings to be equal by any measure that we care to apply. However, inequalities and the conditions for disempowerment continually arise as society changes, whether that be in life chances, longevity, suffrage, wealth and poverty, health, education and skills, social status and wellbeing that need to be challenged at the individual and the societal levels.

Re-enchantment at this societal level can be understood as the recovery of the heroic and mythic views of human nature, from literature and religion, for example, and their reinterpretation into modernity. However, rather than a Nietzschean interpretation of mythic heroism as the will to power based upon pure physicality and warrior virtues, re-enchantment constitutes a counterpoint in terms of human spirituality and individual empowerment. It is explicitly an anti-Nietzschean stance.

Re-enchantment as an anti-Nietzschean programme

Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to pin down, as his most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which developed some of his earlier themes, and presaged some of his later ones, was written in dramatic aphorisms, which are open to multiple interpretations. There is no denying Nietzsche’s influence on the twentieth century, as different aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. The four ideas to be considered are the Übermensch, the transvaluation of values, the death of God, and the eternal recurrence. Briefly, each will be contrasted with what I understand the implications of re-enchantment to be.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. The middle classes are always a target for elitist figures, despite embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, and the mentality of the Übermensch has undoubtedly seeped into the attitude of the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. Re-enchantment, by contrast, is the empowering of Everyman, the individuals who inhabit real societies, through addressing the symptoms and causes of disempowerment as they occur under existing conditions.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche called for a transvaluation of all values, particularly those derived from Christianity, such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness. It was not that he necessarily saw these values as wrong in themselves, but that he perceived European civilisation as weakening through the predominance of these values, and a belief in the afterlife, and in danger of sliding into nihilism. Christianity was effectively emasculating the will to power of the populace. The anti-Christian rhetoric of Nietzsche has been effectively transmitted into today’s western liberal societies, particularly through postmodern thought, which has come to dominate leftist academia and politics. This ignores the significant cultural inheritance of Christian beliefs and history to the development of the ideas of freedom and belonging, referred to earlier, along with the contributions of humanism, which belong to Everyman, not exclusively to the West. Through undermining the foundations of belief in freedom and authentic belonging, the modern Nietzscheans are disempowering Everyman, in preparation for becoming a vassal of the elites and the state.

As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, spoke of the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. Ironically, though, Nietzsche invoked the pantheon of ancient deities in the mythical Übermensch in an attempt to re-enchant the world. This is also notable in the existential philosophy of Heidegger, a disciple of Nietzsche, who in his late works came to deify the concept of Being. It is in the nature of Everyman, as a spiritual being, that we seek the transcendent, whether that be in the religion of our civilisation and forefathers, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure. Seeking transcendence is not only an expression of our freedom but also our desire to belong to the community of our peers.

Nietzsche despised the Christian morality founded on the idea of sin, the apologia for life as lived and the abasement of the self before God, as a fatal weakness. His riposte was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, would it be possible to live without a single regret? Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life in a conventional sense, but a Dionysian existence of indulgence, and one without shame. There are several things to say about this. First, there is an implicit fatalism in the idea of eternal recurrence, which hearkens back to pre-Christian paganism, although if my interpretation is correct it was probably postulated as an ironic rhetorical device. Secondly, it advocates a form of life entirely without thought of the consequences of one’s choices on others, except inasmuch as the other is the object of the will to power. Thirdly, the recognition of fault, apology and remorse, punishment, mercy and forgiveness are among the intricate processes that have evolved in all human societies to mend breaches in the state of belonging.

By contrast, re-enchantment posits an eternal resistance to the forces of disenchantment in a world which is constantly changing in a manner beyond anybody’s control. Specifically, it is a state of permanent resistance to the forces of disenchantment that are embedded in those institutional structures which suppress human freedom and interpose ersatz forms of association in place of authentic belonging. However, resistance is a subtle stance, in which benefits and risks have to be carefully considered, as do the consequences for oneself and the greater whole. There are selfish rebellions that seek to assuage an immediate discomfort or satisfy a pressing desire, but do not result in long-term benefit to the individual and may add to the bureaucratic burden borne by others if pursued in law. There are revolutions in the name of the liberation of the people, which strip all freedoms from the people and deliver them into penury and totalitarian nightmare. It is impossible to know the exact outcome of our actions, and this should be the first principle of resistance.

Not all institutions are disenchanted, and our resistance may take the form of testing a moral community before immersing ourselves within it. In other cases, we may seek to empower ourselves by evading the reach of certain oppressive powers. In yet other cases, we may seek to challenge those powers by agitating for fundamental change in vested interests, seeking to empower larger swathes of society. In all cases, though, it is the empowerment of the individual in the balance of freedom and belonging which is sought; this should be the second principle of resistance.

Conclusion

The re-enchantment of the world is rooted in a cultural hermeneutics: the reinterpretation of the enchanted myths of origins and heroic figures of the distant or the recent past, for clues to the transcendental meaning and purpose of our lives and the disenchanted state in which we often find ourselves. By way of a detour through a critique of evolutionary determinism (natural and historical) and the Nietzschean will-to-power it has also taken on social theoretical dimensions.

Accepting the view of social evolution as open and random and that, therefore, there is no finality and no determined course, nevertheless it is possible to assert that there is a definite telos to human societies, which is that they should be structured in such a way as to facilitate the empowerment of the individual in an incremental sense. Re-enchantment is not a terminal event in human history, except inasmuch as all desirable outcomes are declarative, if not historical, termini; nor is it, in any real sense, a process, for that also implies an inevitability and a course. Rather, it is a state of perpetual resistance to historically sedimented or newly emerging forces of disenchantment, which prohibit or threaten the individual expression of freedom and the free experience of belonging. The position of women and minorities in various societies is an example with a long history; the societal dangers posed by digital technologies is one that we are beginning to be aware of.

The re-enchantment of the world clearly has sociological and political dimensions, as a critique of, and policy for reform of, social institutions, respectively. In highlighting the central role of the empowered individual, it also has a moral dimension, a duty that falls on every person to resist, in however large or small a measure, the obtrusion of the disenchanted world upon our lives.

 

Further Reading

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Francis Fukuyama (1996). The End of history and the Last Man. New York: the Free Press.

Richard Jenkins (2000), Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32]. http://maxweberstudies.org/kcfinder/upload/files/MWSJournal/1.1pdfs/1.1%2011-32.pdf

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by  Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961). The Phenomenon of Man. London: Harper & Row, Publishers.

In Defence of the Open Society against its Enemies

No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude (Karl Popper)

It is just over 70 years since the publication in 1945 of Karl Popper’s most widely known and influential book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Written during the war years while in exile from Austria, Popper considered it to be his contribution to the war effort, as it sought to expose the faulty philosophical foundations of totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism. Popper identified, in particular, the tendency to historical prediction or ‘historicism’ that proclaimed the inevitability of the social forms advocated by these ideologies according to supposedly scientific laws of historical development. Thus his criticism can be considered an extension to political philosophy of his earlier and more important work on epistemology, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (published in German in 1934), that is, a critique of the epistemological foundations of these ideologies, and indeed of all ideology. The open society, exemplified by liberal democracies, Popper considered the only form of government able to effect political change without bloodshed and to undergo evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) development through piecemeal change and problem-solving. Notwithstanding the debates within scientific and political philosophy having moved beyond Popper’s contemporaneous concerns, his central epistemological concept of falsifiability, with its entailment of transparency and truth-seeking, has particular relevance to this information age, but is a principle which is markedly absent from interactions within the present political, economic and social fields. Some commentators see in this the demise of liberal democracy. I believe that while open societies have vulnerabilities, they are both more robust than these commentators allow and need to be more strongly advocated than we seem willing to do at present.

To drop the anti-historicist baton for a moment, if history has any point, or purpose, it is the struggle for human freedom. While freedom can be variously defined, all freedoms reside in empowerment, whether that be political, economic or moral freedom. What is certain is that all people, everywhere, desire these freedoms, even if, in some cases, that appears to be the freedom to relinquish their freedom by merging into the collective, the rigid, the backward, the insular, the dysfunctional and of course the criminal. These are the enemies of the open society that must, paradoxically, be tolerated even as they are resisted, even those who utilise the freedom of open societies to proselytise their diatribes against freedom. This paradox nevertheless elevates open societies above all other, for they enable the conditions that – given enough time – expose false theories and beliefs, false promises, false policies and false lifestyles to scrutiny and the unremitting evidence of consequences. Freedom involves risk and risk-taking; open societies can seem chaotic, but it is the chaos of dynamic disequilibrium from which innovation and change emerge. However, to reaffirm the anti-historicist perspective, it would be wrong to assume, pace Fukuyama, that liberal democracies represent the end point of history; they embody, imperfectly, a principle of the growth of knowledge that has had precursors in history that were prematurely extinguished, but appeared fully-fledged in Europe in the eighteenth century: that is the scientific method.

The scientific method is not exclusively about the accumulation of scientific knowledge in a narrow sense that is the specific concern of scientists; it is rather a generalised account of how we learn, which is given specificity in the scientific context. Knowledge as such is the interaction between ideas, in the form of theories, beliefs or opinions, and information, in the form of facts and data about the external world that constitute evidence. This much was practiced by Aristotle and the Arab scholars of the golden era of Islamic civilisation, but it was Francis Bacon who systematised it as a method and laid the groundwork for modern experimental procedures. After Bacon the general assumption was that gathering sufficient data was the basis for sound theorising. Popper however pointed out the logical error in such an inductive approach, in that no number of confirmatory examples was sufficient to verify a theory, but a single counter-example was sufficient to falsify it. Instead, he insisted bold imaginative conjectures should be subject to repeated attempts at falsification. This raised the epistemological threshold considerably for the acceptance of theory, to such an extent that practicing scientists, like the rest of us, largely ignore these strictures in the pursuit of knowledge, and accept the balance of probabilities. Popper’s deductive theory is more like a theory of truth; truth which, according to philosophers like Kuhn, can never be realised, but only approximated more closely. Nevertheless, it remains as a reminder of the standard to which, logically, we should subject our beliefs, opinions and theories.

There are numerous implications of the theory of knowledge for the open society. First, we should be free and educated sufficiently to think boldly and imaginatively about any subject. Secondly, individuals should be free to express any opinion and respect no orthodoxy in the pursuit of truth. Thirdly, beliefs, opinions and theories of whatever kind, whether philosophical, religious, moral or scientific, should be considered tentative, however plausible or implausible, until there is confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence. Fourthly, while persuasion is a legitimate means of transmission of ideas, coercion never is. Fifth, there should be some presumption of respect for people as individuals as free and rational, though not necessarily for their beliefs. Sixth, society as a whole, and at regional and local levels, should be attempting to manage conflict and be committed to finding solutions to problems. Seventh, there should be transparency and the free flow of information. Eighth, there should be a universal commitment to the recognition of and correction of error. Ninth, open societies should empower their citizens, economically, socially and politically, that they can participate fully in the life and development of their society. Tenth, we as individuals should be committed to the improvement of our lives and our societies. These seem the most obvious corollaries.

Modern liberal democracies are not paragons of the open society; it remains something of an ideal. They are rather experiments, each of which have particular virtues and are grappling with particular vices. Yet they embody enough of the principles to be far preferable to any other social form. This alone explains why millions of people are on the move to escape persecution, war and poverty, or the grinding weight of custom and inequality, and make their way to developed countries. This creates problems for open societies, but by their nature they are solution-generating and self-correcting. It is, of course, on this basis impossible to determine what the solution to any particular problem, for example mass immigration, should be. In the short term I suspect there will be a number of solutions, some more viable than others, and hopefully we will learn from the best and improve our strategies. In the long term, the only solution is to transform all societies into open societies. This, though, can only be accomplished on the basis of the principles outlined in the paragraph above, not through military conquest. We have sufficient problems of our own to address. This naturally gives space to the enemies of the open society, the ideological opponents of freedom, to attack the very idea. They cannot do this, of course, resorting to the principles and strategies outlined above, but rather by misinformation and coercion, and, more subtly, by undermining belief in freedom (and its attendant responsibilities) and restricting opportunities for free speech.

Reason justifies open societies as the only desirable future for mankind and reason is their guiding operative principle. Passionate concern, dogmatism and pessimism are inimical to, and are inevitably generated by ideological opposition to, open societies. Nevertheless, attacks on reason come from some surprising places. Universities, which once were bastions of academic freedom, now incubate extremism on one hand, but on the other, under the influence of anti-rationalist postmodern philosophy, forestall the expression of unpopular or challenging opinions by ‘no-platforming’ certain speakers lest some people feel ‘unsafe’ or ‘uncomfortable’, though more probably lest they be disturbed from their dogmatic slumbers.  The law is another area where decisions taken on purely legalistic technicalities can have far-reaching and chilling consequences for transparency. A law being considered at the moment would effectively end the free press in the UK, at least their ability to investigate potential scandal and corruption, by creating a no-penalty right to sue a newspaper if someone considers their privacy to have been invaded. Welfare is another system that seriously endangers individual empowerment and initiative. Compassion, which is a human virtue, experienced by the strong for the weak, can become a vice when it is institutionalised and merely perpetuates that order of power rather than ending it. Low educational ability, despite universal education, much of it free, is strongly indicative of poor life chances in employment, physical and material well-being, prospects for marriage and social status. In many developed countries we are too tolerant of poor educational outcomes and economically supportive of their attendant lifestyles and the subcultures that perpetuate them.

The aggregate enemy of the open society is collectivism and group-think. The foundation of open societies and our freedom is individualism. If for the moment we strip away all the cultural accretions, we are all fundamentally the same in sharing a human nature, as opposed to an animal nature. The frequent assertion that we are ‘nothing but’ animals, specifically mammals, results in a peculiar type of contradiction: the application of reason to cloak its own phenomenology. For reason is what defines us as human and not as animal. There is a qualitative difference; however much we see a spectrum of intelligence in the animal kingdom, there is, as Marxists would say, a tipping point at which the quantitative becomes the qualitative. Therefore, when talking of individualism, this is not to focus on the individual physical body, which is an adaptive form created by the forces of genetic mapping and environmental pressures, but the mind which is embodied. Reason finds the value of the individual in the unique individual mind and this is the foundation of freedom and equality, which are fundamental to the open society. Cultures and sub-cultures that exhibit the trait of differential evaluation of human worth, whether that is as someone to be controlled, as a possession, as a means to economic or social advance, or a sexualised object, exist still within the sphere of slavery and need to be transformed.

For some, individualism has a bad name. It is associated with selfishness and hedonism, as a denial of spirituality, altruism and collective duty, whether to the family, an institution or the nation. The first thing to say is that these arguments have been used throughout history by powerful individuals and elites to crush the aspirations of people everywhere, and they are also advanced by the ideological enemies of the open society. The second point is that, from a rational perspective, selfishness and hedonism are intrinsically inimical to individual flourishing which is both a pillar of, and a desirable outcome of, the open society. Laziness, greed, addiction, irresponsibility – the besetting sins of all societies – are harmful to the individual and to society, and a rational society should be doing all it can to curtail them. Selfishness, though, should not be confused with self-interest. Our life-long project should be the improvement of our selves. It is the nature of this self, though, that it is of interest, not just to us, individually, but to society as a whole. Society is not more than the sum of its parts, or at least only to the extent that it is an emergent property of social interactions. Therefore, society in the abstract has a vested interest in the flourishing of the individual, which means that as individuals we also have an interest in the advancement of others. This is different to the perspective accepted and encouraged in our present economic culture here in the West, which is implicitly a zero-sum game based on the Darwinian-Spencerian idea of the survival of the fittest, which in reality optimises outcomes for neither the individual nor the society.

Therefore the individualism which is suited to an open society has a transcendent quality, in that the self is continuously engaged in a project to extend its abilities. That transcendence can be counted on at least five major fronts: physical, intellectual, professional, emotional and social, which emerge from aspects of our evolved human nature: survival instinct, sexuality, sociality and spirituality. Each of the fronts  necessitates development centred around a cluster of values, for example – and this is merely a limited selection – ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ for the physical, ‘knowledge’ and ‘reason’ for the intellectual, ‘reliability’ and ‘expertise’ for the professional, ‘resilience’ and ‘warmth’ for the emotional and ‘companionship’ and ‘generosity’ for the social. These fronts are not isolated or competing aspects of the individual, even if in the past they may have been seen as such; they are complementary and collectively reinforcing. As our knowledge grows we are beginning to see a more rounded and more extensive picture of human possibilities. No one ultimately need be excluded from this vision. We already see, through events like the Paralympics, the range of possibilities that are opening up even for the disabled. New technologies promise the eventual elimination or circumvention of blindness and paralysis and the emancipation of their sufferers.

Open societies are not perfect, nor will they ever be; they are imperfect by definition. The difference to other social forms is that this fact is universally acknowledged, and this acceptance sets the stage for a programme of continuous improvement through problem-solving. The defence of open societies is ultimately the defence of a process, not a thing. Some people find this threatening, as they would like to retreat to a closed, unchanging world of certainty. Most of us at some time, if the truth be told, feel like this, but the enemies of the open society experience this as perpetual existential crisis. They should be tolerated but kept on the fringes. The growth of knowledge has enabled us to survive so far in a hostile environment and has succeeded in making human lives better, freer and happier. That is definitely something worth defending.

The Intransigence of the Absurd: the Discourses of Racial and Sexual Identity in ‘Identity Politics’

There has long been popular and scientific fascination with feral children, reared and cared for by animals and with no contact with human society, that behave like the species that they live among and, we assume, identify themselves as. Such behaviour is not limited to humans; there are many examples, particularly of domesticated animals, that are adopted by another species that come to assume some of the characteristics of that species. This suggests that what we call identity is a universal of higher intelligence and that it is fairly plastic.

Humans, though, as is often the case, test this theory to destruction. An American woman, Rachel Dolezal, was recently denounced for identifying herself as black and living as a black woman, when her parents were both white, yet men who declare themselves to be women, dress as women and even undergo gender reassignment surgery are increasingly celebrated and accepted on their own terms, such as the much-publicised Caitlyn Jenner. Those who do not react viscerally to this conjunction and implied equivalence may be as puzzled as I am; but even those who do should reflect why these two cases should be considered so different.

Something I read a few years ago struck me then – as it still does – as so outrageous that I struggle to convince myself that it was not an imagined memory rather than an actual one. It was a brief article in some sort of educational magazine, a serious article, not a spoof to the best of my knowledge. It stated, as proof of commitment to the principle of inclusivity, that a particular school was being kept open at night because one of the students, a girl – let us call her Samantha – was a vampire, and could only work at night. Putting to one side the issues of the veracity of memory, journalistic objectivity and the wisdom of local education authorities (their respective dysfunctions are legendary), the central issue is not whether Samantha was a vampire, because clearly she was not, but why some assertions have assumed the power of fact, when the only fact is the fact of assertion.

Throughout history people have always sought to establish and assert their identity, but this process is complex and its focus has shifted over historical time among the kaleidoscope of possible markers such as region, religion, wealth and education. However, the fundamentals of identity are always the same: a playing out of our twin desires for individual freedom, particularly that of expressing our individual difference, and belonging, in which we find and sustain our similarity with others. This process can occur at several levels, as part of our individuality derives from belonging to a hierarchy of in-groups, such as our specific family, neighbourhood, city, region and country, in distinction to a series of out-groups characterised by otherness. Importantly, the precise definition of the other – as outcast, rebel, stranger, outlaw, scapegoat or victim – has a role in our self-definition as not-other.

On the other hand, sometimes our individuality is itself a form of self-imposed otherness, where we alienate ourselves from the mass to which we implicitly belong, in an act of self-exclusion that arouses, at the best, a sneaking reflexive admiration for the outsider saviour – oneself – or, at the worst, self-pity for the identification of oneself as victim. Paradoxically, this self identification can become the basis for delusional group identity, in which there is a curious but toxic admixture of feelings of inferiority and superiority.

On one level it is strange that race is such a sensitive issue. After all, the boundaries of race are rather fluid, and science has never managed to establish a consistent or agreed definition. There are genetically homogenous groups such as Icelanders, Ashkenazi Jews and Japanese, but this is due to geographic and cultural isolation, and these pools do not correspond to what we normally call race, but the more limited concept of ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are actually complex cultural artefacts, and this is no more so than when we talk about the labels ‘black’ and ‘white’. From an evolutionary perspective the terms are nonsense; the only people who perhaps have the right to a generic and widespread genetic distinction are aboriginal Africans, but not because they are black in colour – the !Kung bushmen of Namibia, for example, have a reddish skin – but because they do not have the 1-4% of Neanderthal genes that the rest of mankind has inherited from prehistoric interbreeding between the two  human species. Mixing of peoples in the West, particularly in the Americas, means that genetic makeup and skin colour is on a spectrum of continuous variation; a surprising number of white Americans have some black ancestry.

Nonetheless, we can discern that the problematic nature of race does not reside in biology but in history, and that what we call black culture is really a shared history, a history that includes slavery, prejudice, apartheid, persecution, ridicule, drudgery and social deprivation, but also the enormous personal, communal and political forces that have forged great social and cultural gains from such a disadvantageous position. What we see, in fact, is a historically subjugated part of a heterogeneous population seeking common cause to overturn past injustices, rather than a distinct and homogenous entity. But in identity politics the narrative has assumed the status of a categorical assertion, wherein being ‘black’ is recognised as a necessary and sufficient condition for identifying oneself as part of a wronged community, which has become, perversely if understandably, a badge of honour. In its most radical form it assumes that dangerous polarisation of simultaneous inferiority and superiority referred to above, in which the mantle of the suffering victim and outsider can symbolically be asserted, not on the basis of experience necessarily (although many young black men can testify to being the subject of police harassment, known as ‘arrested for being black’), but simply on the basis of the colour of one’s skin. This was Rachel Dolezal’s perceived moral transgression: she assumed a badge of honour to which she was not entitled.

Interestingly, the older generation of radical feminists, such as Germaine Greer, apply much the same criterion of exception to transsexual women, as pretend women who have no right to assume the innate moral superiority of real women achieved through resistance to male domination. Now they find themselves sidelined and – in a recent neologism – ‘no-platformed’ by the younger generation of activists. This disparity in the reception of the trans-racial and the transsexual is hard to explain on the surface. It may be partly due to the great strides that have been made in women’s equality in the last generation, which have defanged the political radicalism of the earlier feminism, whereas racial equality lags behind, but I do not find this a persuasive answer.

I believe that underlying  this phenomenon is something that we could call the intransigence of the absurd, that is the assertion of something for which there is no scientific evidence, but which must be uncompromisingly defended by rhetoric and the layering of myth, most forcefully, naturally, by those who seek political leverage. A prototypical example of this is the assumed historical destiny and moral superiority of nationhood by nationalists of all stripes. The notion of race is one such absurdity, including that of being ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘Asian’, which must be vociferously perpetuated by all those seeking to take advantage of individuals who need to ground their tenuous sense of self by ascribing identity or otherness to individuals who bear a passing similarity or difference to themselves, a notion, moreover that must then be imposed on those who wish to make no such distinctions.

The reception of transsexuals into the community of women is based on a different narrative logic. The status of male and female sexual identity is so firmly established in biological reality, that a man believing himself to be a woman (or vice-versa) and acting the part is a patent absurdity recognised as such by everyone. Therefore, the deception has a theatricality that is acknowledged on all sides, as it has been throughout history in many different cultures. There is a twist to this, however. There is no political leverage in mere acceptance of this theatre; therefore, human sexual differentiation has been mythologised in the notion of gender, a radicalised state of indifferance and a socio-political chimera that fuses two notions of moral transgression: that of non-acceptance of the myth; and that of the traditional boundaries of the sexes, which must be preserved in order to be wilfully flouted.

The exact sociological function of race and gender finally diverge. Race is about belonging and exclusion, while gender has become about inclusion and freedom, specifically the freedom to define one’s sexual identity. Both notions are part of the narrative of how we establish social identity in a complex world, and should be tolerated on that understanding. However, we should never lose sight of their fundamental absurdity in inverting reality. That absurdity correlates strongly with an intransigent defence of the absurd; having abandoned evidence, it is not too great a step to abandon reason, openness and a willingness to entertain alternative viewpoints.

Asserting identity should be – as the word implies – about seeking universality above all, as a basis for accepting diversity. Identity politics does precisely the opposite. By repeatedly invoking historical injustices and incubating the fragmentation of human experience to create new forms of victimhood, it promotes belligerence as the essence of the shared social space, inclusion as a tool of exclusion, and the eternal past as the future.

(Note: the term ‘indifferance’, a play on Derrida’s concept of ‘differance’, denotes the prescribed ignoring of difference, distinction or differentiation, leading to moral indifference, rather than toleration, which recognises both difference and moral boundaries.)

 

Human rights: ‘nonsense on stilts’ or an axiom of human community

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Depending on one’s perspective the origins of human rights can be traced back to Cyrus the Great, Magna Carta or to Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Like all important social concepts it has been implicit in human institutions before being given greater philosophical clarity. Whatever its origins, there can be little doubt that the twentieth century was a high watermark in the development of human rights and their embodiment in political and legal institutions through the UN Declaration of Human Rights at the end of the Second World War, as both a statement of modern democratic civilised values, and a measure by which to evaluate one’s own nation’s progress and, perhaps more commonly, to criticise other cultures or regimes that did not meet its standards.

By contrast, while the twenty-first century has witnessed an acceleration of human rights legislation in the West, and Europe in particular, the status of human rights as a mark of civilised culture is increasingly threatened. This has happened externally through the rise of China as a world economic and political power that does not adhere to the ideology of human rights, nor observe them in practice, certainly not the rights of free speech and expression of dissident views. The rise of political Islam and its rejection of democracy and Western legal systems in favour of its frequently extreme interpretations of Sharia, has also dented the idea of human rights as a human universal given. Sometimes, even the West’s own stance on human rights has been compromised, for example by the acceptance of torture in the ‘War on Terror’ and by attitudes towards the present influx of migrants arriving from Africa and the Middle East.

Some would consider the greatest damage, though, is that which has been seemingly self-inflicted by an almost endless stream of legal judgements that are said to offend common sense, standards of decency, conscience and national sovereignty, and which threaten to bring the very notion of human rights into disrepute. The recent report by a UN working group on arbitrary detention, which asserts that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been unlawfully detained was met, certainly within the establishments in Britain and Sweden, with incredulity, a feeling widely shared by the press and most of the public; after all, how could someone who had voluntarily taken refuge in the embassy of a third country with which neither the UK nor Sweden has an extradition treaty, be considered to be ‘detained’ in any meaningful sense of the word. Examples like this have, over the past few years, tarnished the image of human rights among the general public, though this has not precipitated as much serious analysis of rights as their widespread permeation into our institutions and discourses deserves.

The critique of rights is not peculiarly recent, however. From the inception of its use in the modern sense, probably with Locke’s ‘Vindication of the Rights of Man’, the status of the whole idea of universal rights has been questioned. Bentham famously excoriated what were then referred to as natural rights as ‘nonsense on stilts’. Bentham was not objecting to the idea of ‘securities against misrule’, something that had been established in thinking on rights since the signing of the Magna Carta; what he objected to was the idea that rights have a foundation in human nature (Schofield, 2003). It was this latter idea, advanced by some of the thinkers and ideologues behind the American and French revolutions and that was destabilising governments across Europe, that Bentham and others in the Empiricist tradition decried (Smith, 2012).

The contemporary English philosopher Roger Scruton, in a recent lecture on natural rights (Scruton, 2011) has undertaken an analysis of the various components of the human rights issue, which is exemplary in its clarity and exposition of the various distortions and consequences to which it has given rise in the law courts. He follows, though not necessarily in the same language, the tripartite division of rights introduced by the Czech jurist Karel Vasak (1979) into three ‘generations’: first-generation, ‘civil-political’ rights; second-generation, ‘socio-economic’ rights; and third-generation, ‘collective-developmental’ rights of peoples and groups. For Scruton and others following in the Benthamite tradition only the first of these, civil-political rights, has any validity. Scruton offers a plausible definition of rights as having ‘the function of enabling people to claim a sphere of personal sovereignty: a sphere in which their choice is law’ (2011, para 33). These spheres ‘define the boundaries behind which people can retreat and which cannot be crossed without transgression’ (ibid). It is the compromises between free and sovereign individuals that constitute the ‘cement of society’ and it is this sovereignty that needs to be protected against incursions of the state. The only valid understanding of human rights, therefore, is as ‘instruments which safeguard sovereignty’ (ibid, para 35).

Scruton puts forward three objections to socio-economic and collective-developmental rights: 1) they create a sense of obligation, to respect the right, where no relationship, no reciprocity and, therefore, no obligation exists; 2) they result in the enlargement of the state to provide the economic and social benefits to which people are thereby entitled, in the absence of a specified entity or person upon whom this obligation falls; 3) legal judgements based on rights result in a zero-sum game rather than a reasonable compromise, thus loosening the ‘cement of society’. He also notes that, despite the increasing frequency of such judgements, the term ‘human rights’ is used indiscriminately and unreflectively in most cases.

Though I cannot fault the logic of Scruton’s argument, I think the premises upon which it is based are debatable, as are some of the assumptions that lie behind it. First, he does not offer a definition of human rights as such, but at best a definition of their function. Secondly, he argues on the basis of individualism, which is an ideological stance not shared across all cultures, nor indeed wholly shared within the Western academic tradition. As such, the approach of Scruton and others of a similar philosophical outlook is predisposed to find that human rights in themselves are meaningless and nonsense outside of protection of the individual and their privacy from the encroachments of the state. I propose to start from the assumption that in asserting a right of whatever nature or ‘generation’ a person is doing something that is meaningful to them and explore what that meaning is.

There can be little doubt that when a person claims a right they are asserting something about their own identity and also their worth as seen through others’ eyes. Anthropologically speaking, while humans have individuality in their physical being and in their experience of the world, we are also clearly throughout our lives, from birth to death, social beings. If we do not live in human society, relating to others, we are clearly diminished in our humanity. At the same time throughout our lives, in different ways at different times in our development through the life course, we negotiate space for our individuality to flourish. Therefore, in our full humanity both freedom and belonging are essential aspects of what we are and, I suspect, of what the discourse of human rights sets out to achieve. While I have great respect for the British empiricist tradition out of which philosophers like Scruton argue, I believe that their overemphasis on freedom, while clearly important, ultimately leads to a distorted view of human actuality and potentiality.

Rights, of course, have no ontological reality outside of human discourse, but within human society – as opposed to the state of nature – the discourse of rights is, stripped down, one of power: the power to negotiate with power a compromise between freedom and belonging; freedom from the intrusive or abusive power of a collective other, such as a state, a religion, institution or mob, but also to establish an acceptance of belonging, even against the sometime exclusionary force of the other. I think that one of the errors of the individualist position is to assume that there are legitimate and illegitimate forms of power and that the claims of the individual based on religious conviction, conscience, intuition or revelation – or even reason for that matter – take precedence over that of the collective, such as the community or the state. But I find such a view lacking justification. All power is ultimately arbitrary (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977); no state, institution, social group or individual have ultimate legitimacy, but all have differential power, and while the state may have a virtual monopoly of physical violence, useful in waging war and keeping order, the discourse of rights is a coercive weapon in addressing the balance of power in an attempt to establish the optimal balance between freedom and belonging.

I agree with Scruton’s point that asserting a right, rather than entailing a set of responsibilities – which obviously he, amongst many others, feels would be fair and just – imposes a duty on others, with whom one does not necessary have any relationship, to respect the right. But I would argue that this is just the point of a right; it forces the recognition of a relationship in which there is acceptance of both a degree of belonging and a degree of freedom. Society is an interlocking complex of such obligations, to the extent that they tend towards de facto reciprocity, despite there being no logical entailment for such. For example, the rights to free association and free speech for citizens creates a duty for a government to uphold those rights, against those who would deny them to others with whom they disagree, even if, under provocation, that be the government (or branch of) itself. Conversely, the government asserts the right to collect taxes and the citizenry therefore has a duty to pay them, notwithstanding the fact that taxes are probably the last remnant of the state’s exercise of arbitrary power. Both these rights bind through obligation, but the rights themselves are two mere facts between which there is no causal or other relationship. One could argue, though, that it is the sum of such brute facts that hold societies together. Such a view, it seems to me, is not that different from those empiricists who advocate the self-regulation of the commons through ties of obligation (Ridley, 1996).

For this reason, I do not accept the objection of Scruton and others to the role of the state as a matter of principle, though I accept many of the criticisms of states’ practices around the world, including those of democratic states. Modern life would be impossible without the existence of a well-developed state, which marshals capabilities and resources beyond the capacities of individuals and organisations. This seems to me aptly demonstrated by attempts to diminish the role of the state, which not only reduce its effectiveness, but also, paradoxically, result in an extension of its powers in certain areas. I think this prejudice arises from two sources: one is the idyll of the past, the belief that somehow things were better in ages gone by when the state was smaller and less powerful, an idyll to which we all succumb at some time or other, although a study of history should soon disabuse us of that idea; the other is the belief that there are both legitimate and illegitimate forms of power, whereas all power is arbitrary. The discourse of rights is one that seeks to redress imbalances in power, and one which is likely to continue indefinitely.

The problem lies, ultimately I believe, in a diminished idea of the individual and of individualism, a type of individualism defined in opposition to the collective, where the collective is antagonistic to the individual and the individual’s interests. In reality, the individual and the collective are interdependent, and the type of freedoms and independence we pursue today can only be guaranteed by a powerful state. At the same time demands made upon the state throughout history have reshaped the state, and continue to do so. The fact that many of our demands are incompatible with each other virtually ensures the expansion of the state, as Scruton asserts; but, for example, claims for – and responses to – more autonomy for cities and regions, suggest that states are capable of adaptability as well as continuity. Rather than the diminution of the state, I suggest that what we require is it becoming more benevolent, and to that extent more distant and less visible, with power residing more locally and individually and more equitably distributed. But this absolutely requires an interlocking complex of rights and duties, even if they are sometimes incompatible.

Twiss (1998), in fact, argues that the three generations of rights are not just compatible, but reinforce each other, and that the privileging of one, over time, jeopardises the entire social fabric that accommodates it. The reaction to some of the recent court decisions, of the sort that Scruton among others refer to, shows that there is an awareness, to which governments are not entirely immune, that when rights become unbalanced this threatens the social fabric. There is even growing disquiet among some leading gay rights campaigners that some court decisions that have favoured gay customers refused services by those who claim to be acting out of conscience may have resulted in an injustice (Phillips, 2016). Concerning the Assange case, my first reaction was disbelief. But looked at from a more dispassionate distance, one begins to see that there may be some validity to the perspective of the panel. Regarding the panel’s report, a UK government official made the point that Britain does not accept the principle of diplomatic asylum (Bowcott and Crouch, 2016). I am in no position to assess the validity of this principle, except to note that the fact that the UK government does not accept it does not of itself invalidate it as a potential principle of justice in the complex world of interactions between states.

Both individuality and sociality are hard-wired into our nature and, therefore, the aspiration for both freedom and belonging. Different societies, peoples and national cultures at different times favour one over the other and this drives forward social evolution. There is no doubt that belonging forces obligations on us that can become burdensome and that we need sometimes to retreat into the privacy of the individual ‘sphere of sovereignty’; and indeed such a place is constantly on the agenda of the human rights discourse. But, equally, so is our inborn sociality and our obligations to others, particularly the alienated, excluded and persecuted, and the acceptance of this burden – whether willingly or not – is a mark of our humanity. In the end we must weigh this against the genuine inconvenience placed upon us and sometimes fabricated outrage inspired in us when these obligations are given legal bite.

References

Owen Bowcott and David Crouch (2016), UN panel calls on UK and Sweden to end Julian Assange’s ‘deprivation of liberty’, The Guardian (online, 5th February 2016, para 9) available at: The Guardian

Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (1977). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage.

Melanie Phillips (2016), Gay activists want to have their cake and eat it, The Times (online, February 5th 2016), available at: The Times

Matt Ridley (1996). The Origins of Virtue. London: Penguin.

Philip Schofield (2003), Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Nonsense upon Stilts’, Utilitas, Volume 15, Issue 01 (March 2003), pp 1-26.

Roger Scruton (2011), Nonsense on Stilts (Prepared for a Conference on Human Rights, Lincoln’s Inn, London, 2011), available at: Morec.com

George H. Smith (2012), Jeremy Bentham’s Attack on Natural Rights, Libertarianism (online, June 26, 2012, para 7), available at: libertarianism.org

Sumner B. Twiss (1998), Moral Grounds and Plural Cultures: Interpreting Human Rights in the International Community, The Journal of Religious Ethics, volume 26 (2), pp 271-282.

Karel Vasak (1979), Pour le troisième génération de droits de l’homme: les droits de solidarité [For the Third Generation of Human Rights: the Rights of Solidarity (Inaugural lecture to the tenth study session of the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg)], Revue de Droits de l’Homme, 1979, 3.

We are subject only to the rule of law

I had not thought much, until recently, about how meaningful it is to live under the rule of law, although this is a pillar of our democracy. Even in the world today it is unusual to live under the rule of law. All countries, barring failed states, have laws, but many legal systems exist to cement the status of a ruling class, ethnic group or political party, not to protect the interests of the nation as a whole. In China, for example, the common law is inefficiently and inequitably applied to ordinary people, but not the ruling elites. That is why until recently corruption was rife among the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Now under Xi the corrupt are being jailed, but also critics of the government. This is not the rule of law; this is the exercise of arbitrary power to consolidate political position. Such has been and remains the experience of most of mankind throughout history.

Under the rule of law, no person, class or party is above the law. In the UK we are not ruled by the monarch, the Church of England, Parliament, the military, the judiciary, the Tory or Labour parties, the rich or the aristocracy. We, and all the above, live under the rule of law. The proof of this is the very cynicism with which we regard all forms of power, as we are fed a daily diet of the misdeeds of the rich, powerful, influential and famous. For, gloriously, we have a genuinely free press; and I mean a free press constituted under the law, not the mob rule of social media; as we have seen in countless countries, where the ‘citizen press’ has been hailed as the harbinger of greater openness, no sooner does it expose the naked corruption of the ruling elites than it is ruthlessly suppressed. Only where the rule of law, and with it the freedom of the press, does not apply is there unbridled and uncritical admiration of the great and the good, as it is constituted essentially of fear and ignorance.

These thoughts were sharpened recently by comments made by some radical Muslims that participation in democracy is un-Islamic and the only law that should be obeyed is the law of Islam. They are only the most recent and egregious of a long list of democracy-deniers that has included fascists, communists, Trotskyites, anarchists, and an assortment of religious extremists who believe that they, and only they, have insight into a truth that is so self-evident that this places them beyond the considerations of abiding by the law, and frees them to act in ways to achieve their political goals only limited by the extent of their imaginations. For, make no mistake, these people only want one thing: to accrue political power over others. Let me repeat that, for it is something that is frequently overlooked in the rhetoric of religious doctrine or political philosophy: the intention of those who denigrate democracy and the rule of law is to exercise absolute power over their fellow citizens by violent means.

This should remind us why the rule of law is so important and needs to be vigorously proclaimed. Firstly, it protects our fundamental freedoms and rights to safety and security, not only to protection from criminal activity but also unwarranted intrusions of the state: our freedom to conduct business, to associate, to express our views, to make contracts that are binding, to enjoy ourselves through leisure pursuits, to have our marriages and family life recognised. Secondly, it imposes limits on what we can legitimately do, which keeps us within the norms of socially acceptable behaviour and within that to tolerate the many differences amongst us, be they differences of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, political creed, sexuality, lifestyle or simply character. The rule of law is the manifestation of the will of a people to live in a free and tolerant society.

The law also sets out a minimum standard of life and responsibilities as a citizen of the society. No one, and no religion or political creed has the right to challenge this, because the law is fundamentally the settled will of the people, manifested through their representatives, about the type of society they wish to live in. For example, I might feel uncomfortable about the idea of gay marriage because of personal inclination, religious conviction or because I feel it fundamentally alters the meanings we have traditionally attached to the concept of marriage in our culture; however, through the constitutional process, this is now recognised in law. Increasingly, discriminatory practices based on personal preferences are illegal and it cannot be denied that this makes our society fairer. Democracy, after all, is not the dictatorship of the majority. But while personal conviction can never justify breaking the law, there is nothing to prevent us living beyond the minimum requirements of the law, whether that be acts of piety, charity, love, compassion, forgiveness, volunteerism, enterprise, invention or inspiration. The law requires none of these, nor does it forbid any.

There are, of course, laws that are bad and need to be challenged and there is a fine distinction between the need to uphold the rule of law and challenging unjust laws, and this frequently involves a considerable degree of self-sacrifice, whether voluntarily chosen or imposed. An oft-cited example is Martin Luther King who broke the segregation laws of Alabama in the 1960s and went to prison as a result. Rather than expressing resentment King accepted that it was right that he was jailed, because he had broken the law, even though it was an unjust law. The moral philosopher Lawrence Kohlberg held this up as an example of the highest order of ethical perception. In a modest way we have seen an example of this in recent days of the quiet dignity of a released inmate of Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer, seeking no revenge, but only to reintegrate into British life and campaign on behalf of the remaining inmates, despite 14 years of imprisonment and torture in a place where the rule of law and natural justice was suspended, a situation with which the British state possibly connived.

What Freedom Means

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, there has been the inevitable agonising over issues of freedom, free speech, tolerance and respect for others’ faiths and sensitivities. These are complex issues; if it were otherwise there would be a rapid consensus – in the West at least – on what the optimal solutions were. It seems timely, therefore, for a reconsideration of the idea of freedom, of what is meant by freedom and of questions around the nature of freedom, such as what its limits are – if, indeed, there are any limits.

Evidence from recent neurological research suggests that ideas of freedom and free will are a myth and that even complex life such as human life is simply a response to a set of impulses. While such research is interesting and adds to our understanding of our own nature – and may even be true in some sense – it ignores the fact that human societies and cultures are narratively constructed, and the narrative of freedom is one of their most fundamental constructs. Within this narrative the reductive idea of determinism is contradictory, for a cluster of interdependent deontologies around freedom – willed action, responsibility, consequences, moral choice, truth and justice – are the foundation of what we choose to call civilisation. That being the case, the assertion of freedom is the act of a being whose essential nature is spiritual: freedom is what defines us as spiritual and demarks us from the animal kingdom. What I have to say is therefore not limited to Western culture.

In discussions about freedom a distinction is frequently made between two types of freedom. One is characterised as freedom from various forms of suffering, such as pain, poverty, hunger, incarceration and other forms of social control, and sometimes referred to as ‘liberation’ or ‘negative freedom’. But clearly, while this freedom plays an important ongoing role in social and cultural development, as it has throughout history, it begs the question, which frequently raises acute real-world dilemmas, of what the resultant freedom is for. The answer given is typically that this freedom is the freedom to make choices, and it is an axiom of this sort that underlies the liberal ideal in Western democracies.

Nevertheless, this pairing of negative and positive concepts of freedom is wrong. There is in fact only a single undivided freedom and its basis is the experience of being empowered. Making choices on the basis of political suffrage, a liberal social environment or wealth is an experience of empowerment. The historical struggles for emancipation are about redressing the balance of power and sharing it more equitably in society. This has been a step-wise process, with the creation of space for small freedoms creating an appetite for greater freedoms and allowing the evolution of the idea of liberty itself. It follows then that the proper exercise of freedom is maximising empowerment at both the social and individual level.

Empowerment is not monolithic, though, and not necessarily political. The social dimensions of the distribution of power include, for example, access to education, to health services and to culture. That means at the social level creating the opportunities for individuals to empower themselves (which also includes countering internal and external threats to that ability), and at the individual level taking advantage of those opportunities. At one end of the scale that means striving not to be a burden on society; at the other it means being a real contributor to humanity in terms of one’s abilities, ideas and accomplishments in the realm of economy, society, culture and spirituality.

People often talk about balancing freedom and responsibility, as if it were clear what they meant by this. If the meaning is not clear, the message is: do as I will. Responsibility becomes a synonym for obedience or submission. But responsibility is freedom. Freedom and responsibility are like light and shadow. There is no bi-conditional. It simply means that choices have consequences. What else could it mean? Much talk about responsibility is the cant of the nascent oppressor or the bleat of the timid. Obedience and submission are an abnegation of freedom and a return to an animalistic and immature state: freedom from freedom. To will that for oneself, under duress, is, at best, pragmatism; to will it to others is to engender enslavement; to impose it on a people is tyranny.

There are limits to freedom, but they are implicit in the logic of freedom. Freedom cannot be self-undermining. To freely will is to will that willing – not that which is willed – to all those who share our society. To do so creates the empathetic ground of freedom and free association. Anything else is to will to disempower and is an act on the pathway to terror.

In a free society should we respect individuals merely for being or belonging? Being and belonging are the attributes of inert nature and animals, respectively. The attribute of humans as spiritual beings is their freedom and what we respect are people’s accomplishments on the basis of that freedom. There was one crime in Paris, and that was murder. If there was one failure in the aftermath of this atrocity, it was the failure to explain and to uphold the true nature of freedom.

FURTHER READING