Democracy and Values:

which strategy in a pluralist society?



Value: Real or Constituent?

Because of its universal range, the value which man represents requires the protection of a plurality of political institutions and legal instruments- Their value will increase in proportion to their ability to honour human rights in specific contexts.

Unfortunately, it has to be recognised that the values expressed in the Declaration of 1948 are increasingly under attack, even within the UN. The plurality that we have just mentioned does not exist anymore. This legitimate plurality tends increasingly to be eclipsed by a pluralism which affects the understanding of the universality of man's value and rights. This pluralism represents the diversity of ways in which the value of man himself is understood and no longer relates to the plurality of the institutions designed to safeguard it. The idea of an objective, recognised value of man, prior to any declaration or ratification, has been deferred. A human being is no longer an objective value, a real value. He is, rather, a value constituted by voluntary subjects, who take it upon themselves to ascribe value to an individual and allocate rights therefrom. Thus, given the essential link between democracy and human rights, the future of democracy is itself in danger. We shall demonstrate how this new perception of the value of man is expressed, firstly at a theoretical, and then at an institutional, level.

A Purely 'Consensual Concept' of Human Rights 

The concept of value currently prevalent at the heart of the United Nations is decidedly empirical. Values have become the expression of the frequency of choice. This then decides how positive law should be ratified. Human rights are therefore the necessarily provisional outcome of an ongoing process, the conclusions of which, reached by consensus, have an imperative force. They determine the practical rights of man. Those who break the consensus, the dissidents, are those who persist in declaring that man is valuable in himself, that he has an intrinsic value, that he is an objective value, a real value. 

The purely 'consensual' concept of value and human rights is further characterised by its scepticism and agnosticism. This is accompanied by an abandonment of traditional anthropocentrism. Ultimately, man is no more than a fragment of Nature, which itself also has rights, 'natural' rights. Man must be prepared to be sacrificed, if necessary, to the needs and demands of the ecosystem. 


Short-circuited States 

The reappraisal taking place within the UN of values set forth in the 1948 Declaration is equally apparent both at a practical and at an institutional level. 

The consensus reached in international assemblies is invoked to pressurise nations into signing accords and conventions dealing with the 'new values' and the 'new human rights' reached by consensus. Thereby human rights are defined in a voluntarist fashion by positive legal texts - positive law thus coincides with natural law. 

Given that this is the case, one should not be surprised to observe that the insidious undermining of the value of man has culminated in a project for the substantial transformation of the UN. According to the San Francisco Charter and the Universal Declaration, the UN was established as an assembly of sovereign states. However, since 1990 the transformation of the UN into a system of world government has become ever more apparent. 

Now, when the UN purports to be a constituent authority on values and a source of corresponding 'new rights', when it whittles away national sovereignty, when it attempts to stifle divergence, it is engaged in establishing an 'International' dreamed of by others in the past but now implemented by the UN in actual fact. 

It should therefore be observed that in so far as it ceases to be the guardian of democratic values, the UN today is involved in the re-establishment of a perverse concept of human rights, similar in character to that which the former UN - that of 1945 or 1948 - had sought to eliminate forever. 

This is what happens when the abuses of liberalism form a negative conjunction with the abuses of socialism. In truth, Hobbes himself warned us about this: the frenzied exaltation of individual liberty leads sooner or later to the creation of the Leviathan. 




Back to Realism 

The cohesion of a society, of every society, requires all the members of that society to recognise certain values. In a society where each individual arrogates to himself or herself the right to define these values according to his or her taste, 'pluralism' can only be temporary. The strongest impose their law on others and democracy becomes impossible. 

The great Declarations of rights all share the same common trait - they are intended to make all the members of civil society participate in the smooth running of the political community. In short, they have encouraged democracy. The Declaration of 1948 is obviously integral to this dynamic. A new impulse to this concept of the value of man in his entirety is now urgently needed. When, in a society, law and life as well as physical and psychological integrity are suspended as a result of consensus, the way is open for a regression to barbarism. Recent history confirms this: where perverse laws accord parents the 'right' to dispose of the lives of their children, laws no less perverse will soon arise giving children the 'right' to promote the death of their parents. No democracy worthy of its name can flourish in a situation where such laws exist. We shall confine ourselves here to a brief outline of how the intrinsic value of man can be promoted, with respect to human capital, human sociability, political participation, justice, and the place of man in nature.

An examination of human capital should revolve around two axes. Firstly, the very idea of human capital should be freed from the utilitarian connotations which all too frequently impoverish it. It is necessary to rise above this limited approach and reverse the economistic perspective, all the more given that work is at one and the same time both a right and a duty.

The promotion of human capital implies, furthermore, that all men have access to two spheres of values which are superior to the sphere of utilitarian values: the sphere of truth and the sphere of moral good. The inability, for most of the world population, today, to access knowledge, brings out the new face of apartheid. In addition, as Amartya Sen has shown, free access to information and the dissemination of knowledge create the conditions for achieving political development and democracy.

Contemporary thought on the moral value of justice should therefore not be restricted to reflections on the distribution of wealth. The question of subsidiarity as understood today should be regarded as primary. No man is a man too many on this earth. Each person has an irreplaceable contribution to make to the happiness of all. 

Let us now turn our attention to the case of the family. This is a concrete value where the human being is welcomed with his or her differences, and where human sociability is realised in an exemplary fashion. It should therefore not be regarded purely as a means to economic prosperity. As we have already shown with respect to human capital, a purely utilitarian or reductive vision of the family must be rejected in order fully to perceive what constitutes its incomparable value in forming the supreme value which is man. 

Political Democracy 

Political society is a concrete reality in which value is assessed in terms of means. Here also utilitarianism can only increase divisions - causing people to desire that which others desire, utilitarianism generates violence. In order to live together, men need truth, a truth which does not succumb to whims, to opinion, or to opportunity. When a society ceases to concern itself with the value which is truth, it becomes susceptible to ideological decoys and violence.


Law: Towards 'Common Law'  

Misunderstandings concerning plurality and pluralism are increased by the two great legal traditions which exist on a world scale. We are currently witnessing the confrontation of these two concepts of law. The tradition of Common Law, strongly entrenched throughout the former British Empire, is undoubtedly more receptive than the Latin tradition to the idea of consensus as a preferential source of law. The Anglo-Saxon area thereby provides favourable terrain for the acceptance of an erratic conception of human rights. 

This is where serious confusion takes root. In the name of consensus, the attempt is made to impose legal instruments which render redundant the references to meta-legal values honoured by the Latin tradition and expressed in the great declarations of rights. This leads to a stance which the theoreticians and exponents of Common Law have generally hesitated to adopt, but which Hobbes addressed without hesitation in affirming that natural law and positive law ultimately have the same content and the same extension, and that they are no less than the expression of the sovereign will of Leviathan. 


Under the Sign of the Cross 

Faced by the challenges which we have analysed, the Church appears more and more isolated. Today, she is probably the only institution to defend in an integral and unconditional way the intangible value of every human being, his right to fife, to family, health, knowledge, property, liberty and association. To the extent that she promotes these values, she promotes the conditions for the existence of democracy.

If the Church plays such an important role in defending man, it is because man's value is rooted not only in his condition as a rational and free creature, but still more so in its adoption in Jesus. This condition of man paradoxically implies ignorance and creativity. Ignorance, because the Gospel is silent on the political programmes to be adopted for the promotion of human rights, democracy, the most just laws, etc. Again ignorance in relation to economic measures which favour development and economic participation for the well-being of all. And creativity because neither the world nor society have been given by God to man as finished products, in which it is necessary only to stand back and wait. The honour for man is in having been associated by God to the genesis of history and, to a large degree, to have been entrusted with responsibility for it. 


La 'Docta Ignorantia'  

This is why the plurality of political, legal, economic and other options is essential to Christianity. It is not only a question here of a right to difference, but of a duty to be different. However, the aim will everywhere be the same: ultimately it will be a matter of promoting the value of man. But this shared objective will be upheld differently according to circumstances and according to conditions of life.

The Church must therefore today embrace a new form of poverty. She must humbly practise the docta ignorantia. She must deny herself the clerical pretension to dictate, in the name of the Gospel, programmes of political or economic action for which she has neither the authority nor the competence. She must not allow herself to use the Gospel as an ideological reference which legitimates any kind of programme of action whatsoever. But at the same time the Church must show that, since the act of faith is rational, the forms of behaviour inspired by it and expressing it must also be rational. This is precisely the reason why faith stimulates the freedom to discuss the necessary plurality of concrete options and, at the same time, manifests the convergence of this plurality of options. This represents one of the essential aspects of religious freedom. It is thus a duty of the Church to denounce the agnostic pluralism which endangers the shared, and in truth unique, objective which must be attained by convergent paths. 


Addressing Secular Theocracies  

The current debate on values and democracy is therefore revealed in all its depth. It bean not only on questions of anthropology or moral philosophy, on general theories of law or political philosophy. This debate is fundamentally of a religions nature. The Church is confronted by a secular theocracy before which she cannot remain silent. The world today has a right to expect of the Church that she causes the splendour of the Cross to shine with a particular glory. Like the Cross, the Church must appear as a sign of division. Christians should not advocate a 'unity', or 'universality', which would be dependent on the subjective wishes of certain individuals or the dictates of a certain power which aspires to hegemony. 


To its honour, our Academy is bound to involve itself in this immense debate and to bear with it the flame of hope, which, alone, can give credibility to its witness. 


Pontificiae Academiae Scientiarum Socialum Acta

Democracy - Reality and Responsability

The proceedings of the Sixth Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences

23-26 February 2000

Vatican City 2001


To download the text, clik here: Democracy and values: which strategy in a pluralist society? (pdf file).