Monday, August 21, 2006

Freedom and Human Dignity

In another very interesting post, Chris Blosser takes issue with Mark Shea's claim that neoconservatives subscribe to a kind of idolatry of democracy. Blosser quotes Irving Kristol at some length in rebuttal of Shea's idea, and one paragraph in particular stood out for me as especially thought-provoking:
There is, however, an older idea of democracy - one which was fairly common until the beginning of this century - for which the conception of the quality of public life is absolutely crucial. The idea starts from the proposition that democracy is a form of self-government, and that if you want it to be a meritorious policy, you have to care about what kind of people govern it. Indeed, it puts the matter more strongly and declares that if you want self-government, you are only entitled to it if that "self" is worthy of governing. There is no inherent right to self-government if it means that such government is vicious, mean, squalid, and debased. Only a dogmatist and a fanatic, an idolater of the democratic machinery, could approve of self-government under such conditions.
The idea that Kristol is opposing here is something that he characterizes as "the liberal idea of democracy par excellence", namely, the idea that majority rule as such is itself the central value in any morally acceptable polity. What he proposes in its place is the idea that self-governance is a value whose moral acceptability is a direct function of the value of the persons proposing to govern themselves.

In some ways I find this way of looking at things rather congenial--at least, it appeals very strongly to the Aristotelian in me. There does not seem to be any particularly compelling reason, for example, to defend a society (such as the one that Jim Tucker is always defending) that enslaves a significant proportion of its own population merely because the majority is willing to do so, and yet this is precisely what one commits oneself to if one regards majority rule as per se the central political principle in any morally acceptable polity. In fact, it is precisely the morally base nature of such a society that some regard as sufficient justification for interference in the local practices. Similaryly, even if Nazi Germany had not first attacked the Allied nations, there may have been sufficient moral justification for a military incursion grounded in the objective of liberating the groups who were being exterminated.

There is another side to this, however. When it is suggested that the moral acceptability of a polity is a function of the value of the persons constituting that polity, it immediately raises the question of how one is to evaluate the value of the persons in question. In the examples I cited--the ante-bellum South, Nazi Germany--it is tempting to confuse the value of the persons with the values expressed by the moral choices of the persons. It is morally wretched to choose to hold people in slavery or to externimate entire groups, but the persons who make such morally wretched choices are themselves as morally valuable as anyone else. One wishes that they weren't so craven, perhaps, but that is a separate matter. Without necessarily fully endorsing Socratic intellectualism I am nevertheless drawn to the idea that vicious behavior--even the criminally vicious behavior of the Nazis--is due principally to a kind of headstrong ignorance, the kind of invincible ignorance that one is sometimes required to constrain simply in order to protect oneself.

From a religious perspective it is this freedom to choose even the criminally vicious path that makes us imagines Dei, though obviously the Proper Good for humans is not the criminally vicious but the perfectly good. Independently of religion, it is the the principle of reason that makes morality possible in the first place and, hence, is the ultimate standard by which we must measure the value of the persons in a polity. Since the rational faculty is the same in everyone (though, obviously, that faculty is not developed to the same extent in everyone) we must treat everyone as equally valuable, whether or not we like their choices.

Anyone who looks at the matter in this way will have to take a slight exception to Kristol's claim that "if you want self-government, you are only entitled to it if that "self" is worthy of governing." It may depend upon what, precisely, he means by "self", but at least the way it is put here the claim is rather banal, since all "selves" are equal, regardless of the manner of life they choose to live. A person can choose a way of life that is objectively "vicious, mean, squalid, and debased" and still be as deserving as anyone else of treatment befitting his full human dignity. It may not be possible to treat him that way, since his own behavior may work against it (think of the difficulty of bringing self-rule to certain parts of the Middle East, for example), yet he is still deserving of such treatment. So instead of saying, with Kristol, that the vicious and base do not "deserve" self-government, I would say that the vicious and base make it very difficult for the rest of us to treat them as they deserve, and it is not all that clear that our obligation to treat them as they deserve should go very far beyond treating them in the way that they appear to desire, since to treat them as they deserve is always going to be reducible to treating them as free persons. This is further complicated by the fact that I noted in the posts on torture, that it is quite possible for folks to be mistaken about what they desire, if we equate what is desirable with what is objectively best for us in the long run. We may make one sort of decision with regard to the extermination of whole groups of people, or with regard to societies that hold slaves, while we make an entirely different sort of decision with regard to a society that is not self-ruling. In one we may choose to intervene, in the other not. Or we may choose to intervene not in the one but the other, or in both, or in neither. The decision to intervene, however, must always be grounded in a desire to treat the other as a fully free person, deserving of the same respect that I would ask for my own person.

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