donderdag 31 maart 2016

Values as natural phenomena

In general, the columns by Jan Kuitenbrouwer appeal to me because of his wit and the quality of his considerations. But this time I could not follow him.

Kuitenbrouwer has his fill of ‘European values’. There is a lot about them lately, he says, but the question is whether they exist, at least as significant phenomenon. “One of the reasons that you hear the word ‘value’ so often nowadays, is because it lends itself as a euphemism for ‘norm’”. Values are thin and without obligation, contrary to norms, because one must respect and maintain them, even as a politician. That is tricky, “so we rather talk about values, a natural phenomenon on which we have no influence”, according to Kuitenbrouwer.

I got caught on the word ‘natural phenomenon’, as a category in which he puts ‘values’. My first objection is that, as far as values are considered as natural phenomenon (ie: as universally given, applicable to everyone and everything), they are directly problematic. This applies for example to the value of ‘human rights’. The naturally attributed content  would be the following: of every human being, anywhere in the world, human rights must be guaranteed. The value of human rights, anywhere in the world, would then be my concern here and now. The boundlessness of that thought is problematic: it  immediately turns it into a slogan. So, insofar as you consider your values as a natural phenomena, they become meaningless. Maybe that’s what Kuitenbrouwer wanted to say.

But, and this is my second objection, the assertion that values would be a natural phenomenon (that is: universally true), is false for a number of values. The values of freedom, democracy and rule of law as mentioned by Kuitenbrouwer are certainly not natural in the sense that any thoughtful person would take them for granted. In China, for example, they often question them and Erdogan once declared: “For us [Islamists] democracy is like a streetcar. We ride until we are where we should be and then we jump off”. This implies that values can not be seen as natural phenomena, but are rather tied to (national) communities who have decided that within the limits of their territory those values hold, or not, or for a while.

So, people dó have large influence on that. In fact, those values exist only insofar as they are embraced by specific communities and not otherwise. And Kuitenbrouwer is right, values get actualized only when they are acted upon, just to embrace them is not enough. Well, sometimes that’s the case indeed, see Merkel and refugees; sometimes it is not, see Merkel and her haggling with Erdogan. This suggests for me an acceptable gap in the relationship between values and norms.

Anyway, you obviously need a limited validity range if you do not want values to function as empty and meaningless as Kuitenbrouwer suggests they do. That could imply that Europe will regard upholding human rights outside Europe less as its task. To gain relevance.

Also see Borders and Where do universal values bring us?