The death of ethics

Over the last few years many thoughtful discussions have taken place on the tragedy of the death of truth. Of course, those discussions do normally not involve the peddlers of untruth, even when they advance crazy stuff like the concept of alternative facts. Cleverly, perhaps, populists will allow liberals to get angry about the selling of untruth as a respectable position, but as a matter of demagogic principle populists only discuss what they want to discuss and a debate about the soundness of something like alternative facts is certainly not it. They know that without a counterpart for the liberals the discussions will soon die out. Instead, notorious liars turn the table on truth seekers by attacking the truth as fake news. They exploit the relativity of truth they themselves have invented to make obvious truths relative. All part of Demagogy 101.

The relativity and death of truth are associated with another phenomenon much less discussed, but even more serious, and that is the death of ethics. We have forgotten, or are been led to forget, that there are things that are right and need no further explanation. A statement like ‘it is wrong to let human beings drown in the Mediterranean when it can be avoided’ requires no further justification. If you need justification for not justifying such a statement you can, of course, look to Kant and his categorical imperative, but why bother: it is obvious. Defenders of obvious ethical stances cannot help themselves providing further justification, however, despite it being entirely unnecessary. In itself this is not a problem, except that by making an obvious ethical stance contingent they make what is obviously right vulnerable. When liberals start to argue that any problem associated with rescue of the drowning is resolvable, they have opened the door to the populist. That sort of discussion is their chosen playing field. Liberals will immediately be met with immoral provocations like ‘we have to let them drown because it is a deterrent’   – and they do not see that they have made this sort of view part of the mix entirely unnecessarily. What it worse, they have ended up becoming the mid-wives of a position that is now official policy, see the criminalisation of the rescue efforts of SOS Mediterranée, for example.

That there are obvious ethical positions that require no justification does not mean that people of good will should become blinkered or unquestioning, of course. But it does mean that people of good will must be far more conscious of what can and should be debated and what not. Liberals should learn just one lesson from the populists – and that is how to define the playing field. To date, only two voices on the left have shown any ability in this respect and that is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the shining example, and Bernie Sanders. The tragedy of the immigration policy of Angela Merkel, so obviously right, was that it did not have voices like those of Alexandria and Bernie to defend it. Instead liberals resorted to their favourite game of finding faults with their own.

What is needed most of all, however, is a revival of ethics in general. We are being sucked into a news cycle where only provocation and politics matter, and in the process we are starting to forget what is obviously right and the search for the more complicated right. The word ‘moral’ has been discredited and identified with ‘repressive’, often of a sexual kind. That is a distortion, of course. ‘Moral’ in its true sense is about repression of evil and a search for what is good! We may sometimes disagree on what is good, and that is alright. The worst thing is if we just do not care, and that, tragically, is our current trajectory!


Capital in any century


At a recent lunch I discussed with a friend the perennial issue of populism and how difficult it is for the liberal elite to colport truer statements without oversimplifying. I mentioned as an example of such oversimplification an incident in the seventies at my high school when an in-crowd hippie told a large meeting how unjust it was that a normal worker would earn less than hundred thousand kroners when Denmark’s richest man would earn hundreds of millions.

My friend immediately said: don’t give me the trickle-down story now. And he was right, of course. Trickle-down is another oversimplification, partly because it does not distinguish between unequal consumption and unequal capital ownership.

Inequality is a moral and economic outrage. The moral aspect requires no explanation, but it is important to understand the economics in this respect. And it is important not to oversimplify.

What disturbs us the most is not necessarily that capital ownership is so unequally distributed. Our concern is mostly about the inequality in living conditions, the inequality in consumption. This inequality in consumption makes little sense from an economics perspective, since a healthy economy requires prosperous consumers. The current expanding global economy is largely driven by exporting to underserved markets, which is fine since this helps inter-regional equality. However, in the long run export markets will start to saturate, and start to be more self-sufficient, and the lessons of the Industrial Revolution is that that is when the purchasing power of the domestic consumer will start to become critical. Marx and Engels explained very clearly that the bourgeoisie ultimately requires a better paid proletariat in order to hang on to its wealth. Social democracy was the handmaiden to a blinkered capitalist class.

Capital that does not go into consumption must be invested. When we question unequal capital ownership we are implicitly also questioning whether the capital owners that be are the best to allocate capital. And this is an exceedingly pertinent question, and one that should be explicit, not just implicit. With a very high percentage of capital ownership concentrated in very few hands we are approximating the planned economy paradigm. The difference to Marxism is only that those who in our society are allocating capital are not politically chosen, but, in the best case, chosen by entrepreneurship, in the worst case by inheritance, and in many cases by the ability to climb a corporate ladder not dissimilar to that of a government bureaucracy. John Kenneth Galbraith explained fifty years ago how large corporations in the Industrial State exercise a planned economy function. That fundamental truth has only been exacerbated nowadays by capital ownership residing in so few hands.

Capitalists are genetically aligned with Adam Smith. Yet, the vision of Adam Smith was not an economy planned by the few and the quasi-monopolists. Adam Smith imagined a vibrant society of mainly middle class entrepreneurs. Ironically, if we want to pursue the Adam Smith ideas we must thus break the stranglehold on capital by the few. Adam Smith would have voted for a much higher degree of capital equality! But also, in a democracy we must believe that capital allocation should harness the wisdom of the population at large. Yet for that to happen capital ownership must be far more broadly distributed!

Evolving Human Rights

Many see the human rights defined in the Declaration of Human Rights, the two UN human rights covenants and the European Convention of Human Rights as absolute. They may accept that the relatively broad norms are filled more expansively as time passes, but they reject, correctly, that human rights are culturally or geographically contingent. The individual heads of right are sacrosanct.

Now, it is pragmatic and good that the specifics of a human right can evolve though interpretation of the individual heads of right; that the prohibition of discrimination can be re-interpreted to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, for instance. This is in line with all reasonable approaches to interpretation of domestic constitutional instruments. The rights set forth in the Magna Carta have changed radically over the last 800 years, yet four provisions remain on the statute books in England, notably the habeas corpus clauses. The proud product of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, is understood as the mother of all later human rights treaties, and, indeed, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic has bestowed constitutional authority on the declaration. In the 230 years since its adoption the interpretation has changed very significantly, however. The Declaration was largely co-created with the Constitution of the United States, and despite all protestation of so-called originalists, of course, the interpretation of the US Constitution has also moved dramatically with the times. Even newer instruments such as the human rights covenants or the European convention are in a constant process of refinement and evolution. That is the way it should be.

What is concerning is that new heads of right do not arise as society changes. And it is equally concerning that we do not define more stringent or more demanding rights as our societies grow wealthier and wealthier.

Given that no universal adherence to the rights defined in the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen has been achieved of the last 230 years and that the newer social, economic and cultural rights are woefully disregarded in many, many states, it is perhaps understandable that there is little appetite for defining new heads of right, and that we leave expansion to be done by interpretation of current instruments or by treaties that are essentially interpretative of existing rights. It may also be understandable that we have not embarked on the creation of more ambitious regional human rights, because this could appear to relativise what we consider absolute rights, and hence undermine them.

Yet, these reluctances are in the final analysis wrong. If we do not define new heads of right after 60 years without more than piecemeal evolution of social, economic and cultural rights and 230 years of fight for civil and political right we are signalling that our societies are stagnant and hidebound. When we disregard an existing fundamental right like that of asylum in order to protect our comfort we are sowing the wind and will reap the whirlwind. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you!

The concern that we relativise basic human rights if wealthy regions develop more demanding human rights is ill conceived, because it is a process of adding. So the basic human rights remain absolute whereas the add-ons are relative to wealth. As the global community becomes wealthier relative rights might transform into basic ones, but while awaiting that, these new rights become a beacon for even the less wealthy nations to ultimate achieve. These new rights become path finders and inspiration where they cannot be fully respected yet.

So what to do in concrete?

One of the structural flaws in current human rights that should be cured is that human rights are understood to be state centred. The entity addressed by human rights is the state, and the obligations are obligations on the state to enable the rights for its citizens or within its territory. This is one of the terrible legacies of the Peace of Westphalia. As Steven Krasner has pointed out, human rights are an imposition from outside on domestic rulers. However, obligations remain with the domestic rulers. No solidarity considerations between rulers are contemplated, let alone obligations on citizens towards fellow citizens. This means that there is no obligation on an able state to come to the aid of a disaster-struck neighbour. This is entirely illogical and a debate on this obvious point has sadly been overtaken by the many reflections on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) (admittedly a new head of right of sorts). In practical terms it is likely that a responsibility to help is more important than a responsibility to protect in terms of the number of victims at risk. Of course, one does not exclude the other, but it would be salutary, and perhaps less controversial, if a responsibility to help would be put on the front burner.

If that would be the case, the corollary would also have to be discussed, namely the duty of disaster-stricken states to allow help, both from other governments and NGOs. A government that is overwhelmed by a disaster has no valid reason to deny its citizens help from outside, if such would be forthcoming. In fact, it should be an international crime to refuse genuine and needed help from other states or NGOs, despite all the definitional work required on what ‘genuine’ and ‘needed’ means.

There is so much that should be pushed as new human rights. Surely, a most fundamental right for every individual is to live on an intact planet. Hence freedom from climate change is a must – and one of the rights that must be tackled collectively by states, as the Kyoto Protocol sought to do. Yet, even if it is a collective task, the consequence is that there are obligations on each state to undertake all necessary measures within its borders to limit the emission of greenhouse gases. Addressing the avoidance of climate change as a human right would alter the nature of the political discourse.

It is also a mistake to believe that only states or collectivities thereof are at the receiving end of human rights obligations. The good neighbour obligation that should sit with a state adjacent to a state living through a disaster should also attach at the level of individuals. Many states do not make it an obligation of individuals to help other individuals in distress, even if they could. Thus it might not be an obligation, or a crime, to pass a fellow human being dying from thirst with a 2-liter bottle of potable water. This is absurd. Surely the thirsty has a human right to be helped and surely the possessor of the 2-liter bottle must be under a human rights obligation to help. If you open the box of citizen-to-citizen rights, quite a number of new rights will pop out, such as rights of employees vis-à-vis employers.

The obsession with the relationship between state and its citizens has also meant that collectivities of citizens enjoy limited protection. There are rights of association and the like, for sure, but NGOs are not accorded specific rights within states despite the fundamental role they play in our societies. A charter of rights of NGOs would be a very welcome innovation.

Inequality is a scourge of our times and could also be regulated through new heads of right. For instance, inequality is much less pronounced in Germany and the Nordic countries than in Anglo-Saxony, despite the great overall wealth of all these countries. One reason is surely the role of union representation on company boards in Germany and the Nordic countries. This is obviously not a panacea, but it should clearly be a human right to have worker representation on the boards of companies of a certain size.

In terms of regional human rights, in a rich region like Europe it is hardly understandable that there are no human rights specifically addressing the plight of the youth. The right to education is not enough. Unpaid internships are modern slavery. Yet, internships are indispensable for the young in many professional fields. Why is there not a human right to be paid for honest work? Such a human right must not stand in the way of volunteer work, but it is not impossible to distinguish between interns and volunteers. Yet, in the final analysis, why tinker? Should there not be right for the young in Europe to be offered a job in their chosen profession for at least 2 years after their professional qualification? Europe can certainly afford that, and would in any event be richly repaid.

Further along that line of thought, should there not also be a right to have a youth representative on company boards, similar to the suggested general right to have worker representation? And radically, should governments not be obliged to have a ministry dedicated to the concerns of the young, rather than always make that representation toothless by joining it with sports and culture?

Finally, human rights do not occupy themselves with the rights of succeeding generations. They should! The rights of succeeding generations are not only to have a liveable Earth, free of major pollution, passed down, but also to take over a society which did not already mortgage its economic future. In private law we are not in doubt that a child cannot be forced to take over the debts of its parents. Should there not be a human right for succeeding generations to take over communities free of major debt?

Your duty to be happy!

A friend came to my office looking miserable. I asked him whether anything was wrong. No, nothing, he answered, but ‘he was not obliged to be happy’. What a terribly wrong answer that was.

You have an ethical obligation to be happy unless you have specific reasons not to be.

Life is a present of immense value, and that is true whether you are religious or not. You are the product of millions of years of evolution. You are an instrument of incredible complexity, allowing you to feel, to think, to see, to smell, to cry and to swear. To be happy or unhappy.

The instrument you are is also a result of amazing luck. That you became exactly you was improbable in the extreme. That exactly your spermatozoid met your egg and became you was more than unlikely. And this luck you have had ever since the start of life. If your mother had not become your mother you would not have become you. If her mother had not become her mother, she would not have become your mother and you would not have become you. And so on, all the way back to the beginning of time. Winning El Gordo is far likelier than you becoming exactly you. You may, ungratefully, argue, ah, but I would have liked to be handsomer, thinner, a genius. But the point is, of course, that then you would not have been you. You would have been someone else, not an improved version of yourself. So you better accept yourself. And you better accept your loved ones as they are, because  otherwise they would have been somebody else as well. You might have loved them also, but they would not have been the ones you love now. All of which does not go to say that you should not try to improve yourself, but you should be happy that you are you. And, of course, as Oscar Wilde said, everybody else is already taken.

Kierkegaard proposed that you can lead an aesthetic, ethical or religious life. But I am convinced that whatever of these lives you lead you are under an obligation to be happy. You have been given the most precious of gifts. Do you have proper cause not to appreciate it?

The Proletarisation of the Middle Class

There is a tug-of-war going on between the proletarisation of the middle class and the middle-classisation of the proletariat. Proletarisation, favoured by the 0.1 percent, is winning.

The dream of social democracy and unions was historically to lift the proletariat into middle class status – to eliminate the underclass reality. The results were for a long time spectacular. Germany, the unsung hero of social progress, is a society where the factory worker proudly enjoys solid middle class privileges; and where the factory worker’s daughters and sons possess social mobility like any other member of the middle class. Even the pariah of modern society, the immigrant, will at the latest in the second generation be a candidate member of the German middle class.

This proud model is under threat, less in Germany, it is true, than in many other countries where it is less deeply embedded. It is under threat not because there is an attempt to re-establish the distinction between proletariat and middle class. The threat is the attempt to hollow out living conditions of the middle class to such an extent that proletarisation is the effect. What we have seen over the last more than thirty years is that living conditions of the traditional middle class, middle management in industry and government, have eroded, as have those of the factory worker, its newest member. The much-discussed equality gap.

The proletarisation disease has been highly contagious. Under the banner of ‘small government’, a mainstay of the middle class, the civil service, has been decimated and its social position and privileges cut. Unrestrained market mechanisms have turned the social mobility tool of ‘good education for everyone’ on its head. The pool of contenders for middle management jobs has swelled and employers have promptly seized on this to put pressure on salaries and relative wealth. Automation and rationalisation have meant that manual labour has become less valuable and that the uplift of the proletariat was reversed. The curse of oversupply has applied equally to worker and middle manager, and has had the same result. Demonstrating the validity of part of classical Marxist economics, the 0.1 percent has continued to benefit only because new markets opened up in the emerging world. However, the 0.1 percent has forgotten the other truth of Marxist orthodoxy, namely that capitalists need a wealthy domestic population for strong, continued consumption of their products. The equality gap means that the global economy will encounter saturation effects at some point, even if it is true that the squeeze on salaries in developed countries makes products more affordable in developing countries and thus enhances inter-regional equality. However, the excessive wealth of the 0.1 percent penalises the populations of developing and developed economies equally.

There is, however, also a mortal danger in the proletarisation of the middle calls. Democracy is, in the final analysis, a middle class instrument. With the wilting of the middle class, democracy as we know it is at risk. The middle class votes its values. Those values used to be middle-of-the-road; used to be tolerant Enlightenment values; used to care about facts and decency, used to be unadventurous in international relations. These were values predicated upon comfortable living conditions and recognised social standing. When we allow the middle class status to erode, we allow democracy as a common sense institution to erode. When middle class values recede the field is open for extremism and demagoguery! Look around you for evidence!

The Working Class Is No More

The working class, as a class, has largely disappeared. May 1st has become a commemoration, not a day for true political manifestation.

The worker still exists, of course, but not as part of a culturally defined class. Exceptions are England, and, perhaps, France. But mostly the days of workers’ clubs, workers’ evening classes, and worker as a class identity are long gone. The inadvertent genius of populist movements from early on and until today is that they address the concerns of workers as individuals, not as a class. And as concerns are shared across class boundaries the net of populist movements becomes much bigger. Most social democratic parties still believe in class interests, and that class interests are best addressed in class terms. Of course, they are becoming a dying breed when few identify as part of the working ‘class’ rather than as a worker. Witness the slow and tragic death of unions in most countries.

So, on May Day let us shed a nostalgic tear for the bygone working class. And let us raise our glasses to moderate and progressive politicians who understand that workers’ interests must be addressed empathically on the specifics, not on a class basis. The working class as a cultural phenomenon is gone!



See also: The Bane of Rapacious Elites

                  The Bells of Trieste

Hawking and the seven

We mourn the passing of Stephen Hawking, the pre-eminent explorer of the biggest mysteries. A physicist with a philosopher’s mind.

But also a human being whose brilliance was wrought from terrifying adversity. The brightest of minds housed in a body that conspired to deny him his talent.

What we admire is how steely determination denied defeat, and how wonderful imagination soared perhaps even higher, because the only movement Hawking was allowed was that of the mind. Hawking touched points never touched by any human before.

Hawking was no saint, of course, and did not pretend to be. But also in this domain he mastered transformation, because he transformed his own humanity into true humanism.

You may ask what the sadness we feel by Stephen Hawking’s death has to do with seven. It has something to do with humanism and the preconditions for humanism.

Seven is the number of migrants drowning every day in the Mediterranean since the start of 2018. Those human beings we do not mourn like we mourn the death of Stephen Hawking. We do not mourn them despite all the adversity they faced and their terrible defeat. The reason is simple. The reason is that we do not have their life stories in front of us in the same fashion as we do for Hawking. It is very hard to empathise in abstract. Yet, also here Hawking has a lesson to teach us.

J.K. Rowling in her brilliant commencement address at Harvard in 2008 has explained to us that one of the most important features of imagination is the ability it confers upon us to be able to emphasise. Imagination allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of others. That is why the loss of Stephen Hawking is so painful – we can feel the loss of a unique individual. But Hawking himself could turn his imagination on to the most abstract concepts and live them. And he could get non-scientists to live the concepts as well, an ability he shared with Albert Einstein.

But Hawking was not only about the cosmos – he also turned his imagination to the human condition. Hence his humanism. We can create no finer epitaph for Stephen Hawking, his brilliance, imagination, suffering and humanity, than using our imagination not only to understand our world, but to empathise with the seven migrants that drown every day. To imagine their stories, their tragedies, and dream solutions that will stop the dying!