Monthly Archives: January 2015

The state, human rights and the simultaneous realization of norms

human-rightsThe Guardian recently published an essay by the American legal scholar Eric Posner on the failure of human rights to live up to its utopic promise. Posner flails at the top-down approach the UN human rights system has propagated around the world, despite the ambiguities and contradictions that the complex of human rights laws are stricken with. He concludes his essay with a plea for a new approach, thus:

It is time to start over with an approach to promoting wellbeing in foreign countries that is empirical rather than ideological. Human rights advocates can learn a lot from the experiences of development economists – not only about the flaws of top-down, coercive styles of forcing people living in other countries to be free, but about how one can actually help those people if one really wants to. Wealthy countries can and should provide foreign aid to developing countries, but with the understanding that helping other countries is not the same as forcing them to adopt western institutions, modes of governance, dispute-resolution systems and rights. Helping other countries means giving them cash, technical assistance and credit where there is reason to believe that these forms of aid will raise the living standards of the poorest people. Resources currently used in fruitless efforts to compel foreign countries to comply with the byzantine, amorphous treaty regime would be better used in this way.

Those familiar with contemporary discussions of the role of international law in the promotion of democratic ideas will recognize many valid concerns in Posner’s essay. Indeed, democratic theory in international law — by extension includes human rights theory — has often drawn criticisms that it is fundamentally a Western, liberal democratic imposition. For example, the Finnish scholar Martii Koskenniemi rejects the universal claim of international law (specifically democratic theory) as rooted in a European tradition and should not and could not speak for humanity.

He warns that such a tradition of liberal democracy may yet end up as another hegemonic imposition on non-Western states, reminding us of his arguments in his book the Gentler Civilizer of Nations about the international lawyers of an earlier era who thought none of the contradictions that came with assigning to international law a civilizing task and at the same time using it as justification for colonialism:

As international lawyers, the only arguments open to us are those provided by our tradition: jus cogens, obligations erga omnes, and all the legal paraphernalia produced by treaties, customs, international institutions. They do not automatically express anything universal: indeed, more often than not they are used as instruments in hegemonic struggles. As soon as we lose sight of this, they turn into kitsch.

For Koskenniemi, there is nothing special about the modern state, or its democratic aspirations. Yet at the same time, he is not about to celebrate the indigenous that easily either. Indeed, Koskenniemi’s has remarked that : the state can either be used for good or bad. But towards the end of his book’s chapter on sovereignty and international law’s supposed civilizing mission, he says that while indeed it may often be suggested from history that “it is better to live in a political society whose administrators speak our language, share our rituals and know our ways of life,” he quickly adds that “there is no magic” about these relationships. Lest we forget, “communities that are closed to outsiders will rot from the inside.”

For me, this somehow stresses Dooyeweerd’s point first of all about the nature of the state as a differentiated public legal community.

Koskenniemi and all his kindred spirits are correct in locating ideas of democracy in the Western tradition. Dooyeweerd’s own account of the development of the theory of the state in its different stages draw from the Western, if largely European experience (with certain Dutch emphases).

A differentiated society, in Dooyeweerd’s systematic philosophy, could only arise from the disclosure of societal structural principles by human positivation. It is a process that is distinctive for its historical embedded-ness. A society could be closed, so that differentiation could not take place. (Koskenniemi seems to realize this as he remarks about the decline communities slide into if they remain in autarkic existence. For all his hesitations, Koskenniemi has implicitly cast his lot with the comfortable choice, that is, his own Western tradition, warts and all. )

We must not lose sight of Dooyeweerd’s argument from history and the directionality of positivations.

The development of a public legal community is so closely bound up with societal differentiation itself that we cannot measure the rest of the world’s pace against the Western experience (or let alone consider the tragic injustices that most of them have suffered in the era of colonization). Skillen had long ago noted that human rights “are tied in with the very meaning of justice and injustice in states and thus cannot be protected or enhanced in abstraction from actual state and interstate structures.”

In other words, if the very character of the sovereign state is part of the problem, every effort to advance human rights without changing the function and identity of states will lead to failure.

There then, is a certain realism to Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state: differentiation is an historical process that demands public commitment. At the same time we must also realize that Dooyeweerd’s theory of differentiation also shines through with a fundamental Christian conviction about the direction societal structures may take: differentiation by itself is not to be equated with development. An integral part of the state’s historical task of disclosure is what the kindred philosopher and economist Bob Goudzwaard has  long called the “simultaneous realization of norms,” following his mentor, Dr.  T.P. van der Kooy.

This means that the realization of one norm cannot be separated from the others. It also means that the realization of one norm is dependent on those of others. Economic development cannot be pursued for its own sake, independently of the others. The state will have to consider as well considerations of justice and mercy, for example. (For those interested, Goudzwaard discusses the need to simultaneously disclose economic norms with others in his first full-length work, a critique of the Western ideology of progress as embodied in Capitalism, here).

Perhaps, this is Dooyeweerd’s answer to Koskenniemi’s worries that international law is turning into kitsch, (by which he means an imperialistic and racist instrumentalism that looks at the Other as the savage, and the Western self as the epitome of human rights and civilization).

And this does not in any way let off the hook the formers of the cultural way of being from the historical task of building a public legal community. They can only hold it off at the risk of grave injustices to their own constituencies.

The normative view of the state is in fact a strong critique of the supposedly “civilizing” purpose of colonialism. The continuum between power and justice found in Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state suggests that much. No political project can disregard the requirements of justice without risking its adverse consequences. While power is foundational to the state – the monopoly of the sword – it simply cannot survive on that count alone. Power must reach, or anticipate, justice. Power must open up to, and be deepened by, justice.

*human rights themed image  taken from the oxfam website.

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Filed under Dooyeweerd, Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Law, Public Interest, reformational philosophy

Blasphemy, the “Christian state” and the Cross

After reading Douhat’s piece  in the New York Times on blasphemy,  I offer these further thoughts on #Charlie Hebdo in relation to blasphemy and its place in the Christian society:

1. A state inspired by Christian ideals will nevertheless allow room for blasphemy, for the right to offend, precisely as demonstration of God’s grace and Christian civility, of the conviction, to borrow from  Mouw and Griffioen, that while we await the eschaton, we live under an “open heaven” and cannot see what lies beyond the horizon. This calls then for a certain sense of humility and openness to critical dissent. This is the heart of the Cross as symbol, message, and historical reality.

2. A state founded on Christian principles will not criminally prosecute blasphemy. Such a state will have a good grasp of justice deepened by ethics; it will understand why the contemporary differentiation in society where various institutions have their respectively marked out spheres necessitates the separation of “religious offenses” from the jurisdiction of the state as a political institution.

3. This calls to mind Jim Skillen’s reworking of Bishop Newbiggin’s take on the Cross: Skillen, proceeding from Newbigin’s view of the cross, argues that Christians should be arguing that an open, non-totalitarian, religiously plural society cannot be grounded in intolerant secularism but is, in fact, grounded in God’s patience and mercy in upholding the creation.

4. What they need, according to him, is a strong and distinctive doctrine on which to anchor this robust view of political pluralism; they too, must realize that the fair treatment of all faiths –including the atheist faith – in the public arena should, as a matter of principle, be one aspect of a ”Christian society. “

5. This Protestant idea of “principled pluralism” (or also known by its older name as “sphere sovereignty”) holds that if the right thing for Christians to do in obedience to the truth of Christ’s cross and resurrection is to defend religious freedom in public, then they must not tolerate the power of political untruth that would deny religious freedom to non-Christians or to some other religious group.

6. For Skillen, this means pushing a normative political principle for a Christian society that is consistent with the gospel demand that Christians should make some room for untruth and not try to act as God at the final Judgment. “If the political principle consistent with this truth is that all citizens should be treated fairly and equitably in regard to their religious way of life, then the political principle of tolerance is a normative truth-consequence of the gospel.”

7. Of course, the truth of political fairness for all citizens excludes the untruth of political discrimination or persecution of one or another religious group. Thus, precisely in order to live and proclaim the truth of the gospel, Christians should be willing to lay down their lives even for religious enemies in order to defend the truth of equal public justice for those enemies.

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Filed under Art, Civility, Free Expression, Freedom of Religion, Libel, Principled Pluralism, reformational philosophy, Religion

In Solidarity with #Charlie Hebdo

Excerpts from our Mideo Cruz blasphemy case pleadings:

Art calls for a democratic solidarity even in the face of an intense confrontation of values and perspectives because ultimately, if art is to exist in a society that promotes democratic principles, it must sometimes be allowed to express even those thoughts and ideas that may not sit well with what the majority believes to be within the limits of acceptability.

Solidarity expects that a majority sure of their convictions should be able to take it in the chin when their cherished beliefs are put to question by a counter-cultural dynamic; it expects that in the face of intense questioning the majority, since they are sure of their convictions and are secure in their cherished doctrines, will be able to hold up on their own and offer a counter-argument in a dialogical manner that shows both grace and civility.

Of course, this kind of democratic commitment requires a basic appreciation for the variegated function of art in society. Such an appreciation should be able to distinguish between what is shown at a rundown affair in a seedy part of town operated by criminal types, and an exhibit– albeit controversial because of the questioning it subjects society’s conventions to – set up at a government-run museum or cultural center.

It should be able to restrain itself from acting against a contrary opinion in the way the Talibans of Afghanistan did towards the cultural treasures belonging to the Buddhist minority in their country, but which their fundamentalist Islamic traditions considered to be idolatrous and blasphemous towards Allah, simply because it recognizes that societies rise and fall on their citizens’ commitment to a civility able to grant being to the Other who proffers an alternative vision of life. Indeed, it is such a deep cultural and spiritual malaise where – despite the best efforts of our schools and universities to nurture and develop in their students such an appreciation for the place of art in public life – a passionately but hopelessly underdeveloped and constricted view of art predominates in society…..

Yet, if we are to have a state and a society that respects principled pluralism – we must be prepared to heed what Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg Tribunals, said in a landmark American case on compulsory courses in both private and public schools that infringed the rights of a minority religious group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses:

“We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”

The alternative to a state and a society founded on principled pluralism is a return to a Christendom where the Inquisition [insert here any other repressive system] was the order of the day for those who dared to cast a different vision of societal order: “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

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Spinoza, Charlie Hebdo and the Future of Religion in France?

charlie-hebdoIn light of the shocking and tragic events in Paris in the last few hours, a short essay by Jonathan Israeli from 8 years ago came to mind, on Baruch Spinoza’s secular tolerance on the question of freedom of thought versus the freedom of religion (as opposed to Locke’s more theological/religiously inspired idea of tolerance). According to Israel, Spinoza represents the heritage of the Radical Enlightenment, one that pushed religion to the fringes and restricted if not banished religion from public discourse.  In contrast, Locke was an heir to a more Protestant idea of toleration.  I believe France has been on Spinoza’s road for a long time now. It will go deeper into Spinoza’s territory after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Some relevant excerpts:

In his later work, the Tractatus Politicus (1677), Spinoza does more extensively deal with liberty of conscience and worship but in a way which again shows that his foundational tolerantisme toleration not grounded in theology – refuses to allow special privileges to the protection of faith and is chiefly intended to ground individual freedom of opinion, as well as of speech and writing. At the same time, Spinoza, again quite unlike Locke, always evinced a marked disinclination to encourage organised ecclesiastical structures to expand in influence, compete for followers, and assert their spiritual authority over individuals, as well as engage in politics. He begins by distinguishing carefully between toleration of worship, strictly speaking, which is one thing and empowering religious groups to organize and extend their authority just as they wish which he sees as something rather different. While readily granting that everyone must possess the freedom to express their beliefs no matter what faith they profess, or what they believe, Spinoza simultaneously urges the need for restrictions on the activities of churches. While dissenters should have the right to build as many houses of worship as they want and individuals may freely fulfil the duties of their faith as they understand it, Spinoza does not agree that this means that minority religions should have a free hand to acquire large and impressive ecclesiastical buildings or exercise sway over their members, as the Amsterdam Portuguese synagogue had once sought to dictate to him. Large and magnificent houses of worship should, he thinks, be monopolized by a publicly endorsed religion supervised by the state which in any well-ordered society needs to be a ˜very simple, universal faith , that is one which teaches ordinary folk that salvation comes through practicing ˜justice and charity. True religion in his terminology is a symbolic or concretely articulated universal philosophical religion. What is absolutely disastrous for any society, he argues, is allow religious leaders of whatever kind sufficient autonomy and prestige to be able to mobilize elements of popular opinion to play an active role in the political process and challenge the authority of the state and its institutions.

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Filed under Free Expression, Freedom of Religion, Principled Pluralism, Religion