Society constantly changes. And with change arise risks and opportunities. How we respond is an expression of our values regarding individual and human rights, freedom, and liberty.
The expressions of these values arise from our conceptions of justice—what is right, what is wrong, our right, and our entitlements. But these deliberations have come neither cheaply nor easily. Much blood and sweat has been expended on defining, instilling, and defending what these values mean, with the English, American, and French revolutions being three struggles for the rights of man. In contrast, the Chinese and Cuban revolutions were about the rights of the collective.
The Second World War and the Cold War pitted competing ideologies and moralities against each other. Morality and ethics are more than mere philosophical constructs for debate and reflection—they represent the foundations for the types of societies we build, the character of the citizens who constitute society, and the principles we employ for our governance.
For us who value democracy as a framework, there is much uncertainty, division, and discord to be managed and directed. Democracy has been neither easy nor perfect; it is in many ways a paradox.
In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, examines how democracy empowers the majority to decide that a tyrant will rule —the paradox of democracy. Popper also identifies the paradox of freedom—total freedom leads to suppression of the weak by the strong—and the paradox of tolerance—unlimited tolerance leads to the disappearance of tolerance.1
Most of us pay little attention or even take the time to understand the foundations of a just society; we simply take democracy for granted without understanding what is really at stake. At its core, democracy is an admission of the perpetual presence of conflicting interests, which are unavoidable and certain to be present in any social collective.
We pay too little attention to these paradoxes. They are little understood, and misunderstanding in many ways has contributed to the erosion of the legitimacy of democracy and its institutions. Today, the most pressing threat to democracy is not from socialism or communism, but from democracy itself. There has been an erosion of a common basis for determining mutual expectations, of a shared conception of justice, and a common public understanding of what is just and unjust. This is something John Rawls, the renowned moral and political philosopher, stipulates is requisite in a well-ordered and effectively regulated society.2
But what exactly is a well-ordered and effectively regulated society? The general public simply no longer has the civic understanding of the role of democratic institutions nor understands their purpose and, therefore, is becoming increasingly reluctant to ascribe any legitimacy to these institutions. The present reactions to COVID-19-related regulations have highlighted the differences with which citizens ascribe legitimacy to the role of government.
The libertarian position posits that individual rights and freedoms reign supreme, and that each citizen can, do, say, act, and live as they choose with no acceptance for external intervention. This is the categorical belief in the supremacy of libertarian values—individual freedoms, freedom of speech, right to life and liberty, gun ownership, the right not to be told to wear a mask, or be compelled to take a vaccine.
Those who are not libertarian may perceive this as an irrational, uninformed, and anarchist perspective; the reality is quite different. Libertarians simply believe that individual rights trump the right of governments to dictate control. The extreme representation of individualism would reject the state altogether in the name of freedom. But even those who would be called anarchists are left with the problem of who should rule. This is not a new theme—Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and 1984 are just a few works that draw on the incredible possibilities of how the experiment of governance might evolve.
Libertarians are not anti-democratic; they believe in democratic principles, just very limited ones. Government should be minimal and stay out of citizens’ personal lives, beliefs, and practices; government is expected to intervene only in matters of contractual disputes. Libertarians don’t want any paternalistic or morality-related legislation, and they certainly don’t believe in taxation, especially as a tool for the redistribution of wealth. In fact, taxation for pure libertarians amounts to a form of slavery—a claim to a proportion of the proceeds of one’s labour.
Libertarians object that social justice focuses on the distribution of wealth and resources rather than individuals and their actions as just or unjust, and treats society rather than individuals as a moral agent that owes duties to its members. They believe society is treated as something that should be controlled by some agent discharging such duties, rather than being spontaneous, undirected order.3
These views of government and civil liberties may differ from those of people who don’t object to government, but libertarian views are not unjustified or wrong. In fact, libertarians and those on the left have happily coexisted with a notion of a social state as one offering mutual advantages, wherein the government creates an aggregate advantage for everyone, including libertarians. Thus, many apparent libertarians also want, expect, and impose the right to control others—they would deny those who prefer libertarian rights that may not accord with the views of the libertarian majority. Today, most libertarians would agree that they don’t want government to tell them what to do or not to do—and at the same time, they would have government legislate against abortion rights. This too is paradoxical.
Utilitarians, on the other hand, believe that the only form of justice that is good is that which maximizes the greatest good for the greatest numbers. Utilitarians would seek to redistribute wealth for the greatest good for the greatest numbers. For instance, they would tax the wealthy and extend incentives for the less fortunate. Sacrificing the one for the many, slaughtering the one to set an example for the many would be acceptable; this is a purist view. Sacrificing one life to save many is a theme played out in the movie Phenomenon in which John Travolta plays George Malley, a patient afflicted with a brain tumour that turns him into a genius. He is dying and the government wants to experiment on Malley—government officials attempt to coerce him to sacrifice his remaining days to experimentation that could benefit all humanity. Instead, Malley chooses to celebrate his few remaining days as he wants, to experience the magic of his own life to its fullest—this is the tension between utilitarianism and libertarianism.
In the 1949 movie The Fountainhead, Gary Cooper plays Howard Roark, an unconventional and arrogant architect who refuses to surrender his individualism to the norms of society, in a quintessential story about the struggle between libertarianism and utilitarianism. The protests today by anti-vaccine and anti-mask proponents are more than just a protest against vaccines or masks; whether they know it or not, it represents the tension between individual rights and the collective good, between libertarianism and utilitarianism. Roark would rather dynamite a housing complex because it was altered from his intended design than let others change it, even if it would serve a greater collective good. Many anti-vaxxers would rather risk themselves and their families than surrender to government control.
Yes, libertarians are entitled to their rights, but how far should they go?
One of the most extraordinary trials in German criminal history involved a self-confessed cannibal, Armin Meiwes, who admitted that he had advertised for a willing victim. A 43-year-old Berlin engineer, Bernd Brandes, responded to the advertisement on the internet, and consensually agreed to being murdered, chopped up, and eaten. Meiwes and Brandes videotaped their meeting, during which Brandes apparently made clear his consent. This was the ultimate test of the rights of two individuals to do as they freely choose. It was an informed and consensual agreement with the two exercising their libertarian rights to self-determination.
There are limits even to libertarianism, or rather, there are extremes. On the other hand, utilitarians too are entitled to their rights, but how far should they go?
Recall Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about a sweet and peaceful city with lovely parks and delightful music. Everyone in the city is genuinely happy, admiring their surroundings, and enjoying the magnificent farmers’ market. There are festivals with delicious beer and horse races; it’s an idyllic, magical place.
But there is a secret—in the basement of one of the buildings, there is a small broom-closet-sized room with a locked door and no windows. A small child is locked inside the room. The child looks about six, but is actually nearly ten: “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become an imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.”
Occasionally, the door opens and people look in. The child used to cry out, “Please let me out. I will be good!” But the people never answered and now the child just whimpers. The child is terribly thin, lives on a half-bowl of cornmeal a day and must sit in his or her own excrement. Le Guin writes: “Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children…depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” That is the utilitarian contract in Omelas. One child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy. If the child were let free or comforted, Omelas would be destroyed. Most people feel horrible for the child but walk on and return to enjoying their happiness.
History is replete with the tyranny of the majority over the minority—many of those stories are now being revisited in societies across the world, such as the internment of the Uighurs, and our own prisons and asylums.
Through the artistic expression of a movie, the lecture hall, or in a textbook, philosophy is very different from its practical expression. Dogged adherence to extreme views of any colour can only result in unrealistic expectations and partisanship. It results in lost opportunities, wasted energy spent on ideological warfare, loves lost, and lives wasted or damaged. The struggle is real and fuelled by popular media, word on the street, decisions in the courts, and political policies.
Justice must always reside in the middle, in a growing and evolving world.
Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most influential philosopher who spoke on justice, posits that we belong at once to two worlds. One is the world of sense, the other the intelligible world. Human beings can distinguish between “I want” and “I ought.”4 Democracy is not infallible—far from it—even with our free will, we can consent to tyranny. We can at times have too much freedom and at times too little of it.
There has been an erosion of a common basis for determining mutual expectations, of a shared conception of justice, and a common public understanding of what is just and unjust. But democracy gives us the best hope of a just struggle between opposing views. Deliberation of our differences will not come cheaply or easily. But there need not be a resort to alienation, violence, and conflict. Good and evil reside in our choices, as much as in our characters. We each have a choice—to hold fast to dogma on the one hand or to give way to tolerance, compassion, and reason on the other.
Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels.
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- Bastiaan Rijpkema, “Popper’s Paradox of Democracy,” Think 11, no. 32, 2012: 93–96.
- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
- Roderick T. Long, “Why Libertarians Should Be Social Justice Warriors,” in The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, Roger Bissell, Chris Sciabarra, and Edward W. Younkins, eds., 235–54, (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
- Emil L. Fackenheim, “Kant and Radical Evil,” University of Toronto Quarterly 23, no. 4, 1954: 339–353, muse.jhu.edu/article/560664.