Crisis of Rationality in European Democracy

Interview With Janne Haaland Matlary

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OSLO, Norway, OCT. 13, 2005 ( The most intolerant people think themselves tolerant, but their tolerance really only extends to things they embrace, says a political scientist in a new book on ethics, politics and rights.

Janne Haaland Matlary, a former Foreign Minister of Norway, shared some ideas with ZENIT about her forthcoming book, «When Might Becomes Human Right.»

Matlary, 48, is now a professor of political science at the University of Oslo, a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and a consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Q: What exactly sparked your interest in this topic and motivated you to write this book? How did Cardinal Ratzinger shape your interests and research?

Matlary: I have always been interested in the relationship between ethics and politics, and coming from a political culture with a strongly positivistic view of law and politics, I have tried to introduce the natural law tradition here in the Nordic states.

Cardinal Ratzinger is the foremost thinker on this issue in Europe, and I made his acquaintance through my interest in this.

In fact, he was going to preface also this book — he wrote the introduction to my conversion story, «Una Scelta d’Amore» — and he has advised me on the current book with helpful references to the literature, etc. But then, he was elected Pope and has responsibility for the whole world, a job which naturally does not include writing book introductions.

Q: We are educated to respect the rights of every person. What is it about the discussion of «human rights» that concerns you?

Matlary: It is exactly the relativism that undermines human rights. In Norway, a doctor now argues that it is against human rights that children have homework since they should not work after school hours. NGOs advocate «human rights» for animals, etc.

Human rights have become the secular, global ideology, and this is good. But when they can be manipulated endlessly, we face a tremendous problem. In fact, the Ratzinger discussion about the «tyranny of relativism» has never been more topical.

Q: You make the point that political activity used to be the most important and noble human activity because it concerns the good of the whole human society. How have we strayed from this understanding of the political realm, and do you think it is possible that we would return to this ideal?

Matlary: It is always possible to return to the correct meaning of politics, but it is also true that there are very few signs of this today. It requires statesmanship to do this, and formation in this field.

Today the ideal of the «summum bonum» is rarely upheld, but the ideal of increasing one’s power for selfish reasons is often seen. This issue is the topic of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences session in November, where I will discuss this further.

Q: How do you see a sound anthropology as the key to modern man, and where can we go to understand the human person for who he is?

Matlary: The tradition comes from Plato and Aristotle through St. Thomas and modern personalism.

The whole European tradition is one that emphasizes virtues and vices as constitutive of human nature. Even Machiavelli does this; he notes that political morality and private morality do not coincide, but he upholds the ideals of the virtuous man.

Today the hegemonical position in the West is that the question of human nature makes no sense, because it is based on an untenable notion about ontology and epistemology, that is, that something exists objectively.

Q: When we speak about political systems such as democracy, isn’t it just a means of organizing the society, a method or government, or is there something deeper in its foundation?

Matlary: It is primarily just a procedure, but it presupposes certain values that are objectively present: equality before the law, an objective basis for the law, separation of powers, tolerance of wildly opposing opinions, etc.

In short, it presupposes a real «Rechtsstaat,» and that in turn means that the basic rights, which the German calls «Grundrechte» and which today are human rights, are objectively defined.

Q: In a confused and atheistic society, is it possible to even begin to define a set of universal human rights? Is this common human nature knowable by human reason?

Matlary: My point is that the alternative undermines the very democracy that human rights is serving, that is, that total subjectivism in defining human rights leads to «might makes right.»

Is it possible to define human rights objectively? I am pessimistic. Maybe the extreme consequences of the present development must be felt first; and then a pendulum must swing back.

My book simply analyses this dilemma, contrasting the present development with a natural law based understanding of human rights.

Q: Can you say something more on the European paradox, the difference between the rights promulgated by these countries abroad, and those enforced at home? Does it seem that they are inventing an ever greater number of rights, and to what end?

Matlary: Today human rights are defined in political processes of the mighty, and much of this definition is good. There are standard definitions for major political rights that we all stand for.

But when it comes to family, reproductive rights, etc., this becomes highly contested, and we impose the definitions that carry public opinion — or not even that — on the rest of the world.

Q: Could you comment on the concepts of «political correctness» and «tolerance»?

Matlary: «Political correctness» means the current trends that dominate in media and public opinion, which are very often quite repressive. It is costly to dissent from political correctness, and that cost is marginalization and often vilification.

Tolerance implies that one knows what one stands for, and thus, what one does not stand for and therefore should be tolerant of. To be tolerant of what one dislikes is the point here — the essence of Voltaire’s dictum that «I disagree totally with what you stand for, but I will die for your right to stand for it.»

Today we see that the most intolerant people and groups think themselves tolerant, but their tolerance really only extends to things they embrace.

Q: Where do you see the «human rights» trend heading now?

Matlary: It will just grow; it is already the secular bible of politics. I applaud this, as true human rights are really liberating for all people, but as I said, I warn against the accompanying relativism.

Human rights logically presuppose that they can be defined and thus upheld against majority views and political power.

Q: What can ordinary Catholics do in an effort to uphold an objective understanding of the rights and nature of the human person?

Matlary: Be active in public life: press, schools, politics. This is a duty for all citizens, and it is a duty of Catholic social doctrine.

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