Global Affairs and Six Human Values

By Michael Storper, Director of Global Public Affairs at UCLA Luskin; Professor of Urban Planning

processes - the fall of new amsterdam

I want to use my first blog post to comment on the obvious: there are many conflicts in this world. Global public affairs involve conflicts of interests (it might be in my interest to invade you, but not yours to be invaded). GPA also involves differences in how to deal with conflicts of interest (negotiate or make war?). But the global also involves differences about the ultimate goal, such as what kind of world we ultimately want to live in. This underlies the values in whose name we are willing to make sacrifices and how we define ourselves, individually and collectively.   It is increasingly clear that we do not live in a world of homogeneous values – not across the street, across the country, or across the border.

So I’ve been thinking about how to characterize my values. They are linked to my personal identity, but more importantly, they are tests that I apply to debates over policies. They help me determine whether I support this-or-that kind of action by my political leaders.

The terms that describe my six most important values are:   Liberal, social, democratic, republican, secular, and humanist.

I mean Liberal not in the American sense of the word, but in the normal usage as, in favor of a society that wishes to accord to the individual the most liberty that is compatible with an organized society and that believes that individual freedom, desire, initiative and development are key to human happiness. A Liberal society has internal differences that stem from human diversity and the freedom to be oneself. It must be organized to allow and even encourage peaceful and respectful combination and sometimes, confrontation, of these energy-giving differences.

I am social in that I inherit from the social solidarity tradition in Europe the notion that no system is perfect, and that people have good and bad luck in this life, and that no system of changes – economic, technological, global – are fair to every individual.  So a society that wants to keep moving forward also needs to guarantee certain basic rights, not just to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but to basic dignity and sustenance. So I am a social Liberal, not a libertarian Liberal.

I completely buy Aristotle’s argument that democracy is better than aristocracy, timocracy, plutocracy and a bunch of other “cracies.”   Aristotle told us that people should be listened to. In the 18th century Enlightenment, we built on this to start a long voyage of defining who is the demos, from white propertied males to many other humans, and we’re still not all the way there in all parts of this globe. Most existing democracies today are also woefully flawed in their ability to translate the will of the people into public policy. But the goal is still the right one, so I am a democratic, social Liberal.

Way back, Aristotle and Plato struggled with how to synthesize what the people (the demos) want into some kind of unified Republic. Even in a system that gives voice to the people, sometimes the majority can be nasty, intolerant or short-sighted. Plato had a rather aristocratic solution to that problem: of wise men or philosopher-kings. I cannot endorse his solution, because it is not democratic, but aristocratic. Aristotle had a different, mechanical solution of “golden means,” and Rousseau had a similar notion of the “general will.” Both are simplistic. Other thinkers, from Montesquieu through Madison to Amartya Sen tell us instead to concentrate on the design of the Republic’s institutions. Institutions need to keep the worst tendencies of mass rule in check, but also to bring our Liberal messiness together into a common direction. The basic way they do this is by having many levels and checks-and-balances. All existing Republics are currently facing a challenge of renewing their institutional design to meet these two goals, and we are far from where we would like to be. But still, I am a republican, democratic, social Liberal.

These four values coalesce into and are supplemented by humanism. This term is often used to express a kind of warm-hearted “be nice” attitude. But it means something more profound. It refers to a society in which there is no divine or natural law, but in which humanly-constructed rules are those that take precedence over any notions of divinity or nature. Nature certainly forms us and constrains us, but we are intelligent enough to get around nature or at least shape it quite a lot. There is then a responsibility for doing this, and it is humanism. Humanism means that we understand our power, and that we accept responsibility for what we do with it. Therefore, any serious republican, democratic, social Liberal also must be an engaged and responsible Humanist.

Finally, one can only fully live out these other values in a secular public space. This is not the place to take on the question of faith. Organized religions may under certain circumstances be compatible with social, democratic and republican principles. Most of them will have a somewhat harder time with full-on Liberalism. And then they must necessarily have limitations on their humanism, if they take divine law seriously. So there are many ways in which people of faith can and do contribute to my values; but the public sphere is one in which their law has to be subsidiary to modern Liberalism and to the humanist concept of public shared responsibility. A liberal and secular society is wedded to expanding human rights and responsibilities and to an over-arching cosmopolitanism.   So I am a secular, humanistic, republican, democratic, social Liberal.

These are six good tests to apply to our analyses, allegiances and potential solutions.   They are prevalent in different proportions among groups and between countries. In practice, each issue challenges us where to put the cursor between these values. They need to check each other’s potential excesses. For the first four, there can be such a thing as too much or too little liberalism, democracy, republicanism, and socialism. When this happens, we are no longer sufficiently secular or humanistic.   Then we are in trouble.

When there is a specific issue that puzzles me, I try to test different approaches and solutions this way. And the nice thing about these general principles is that there are many practical ways to achieve them; they don’t require a certain specific policy or political system. Thus, these six values offer us a pragmatic framework. They also offer us a moral compass, helping us not to get off track, preventing us from slowly losing our bearings in a bewilderingly complex world.

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