No. 3 - October 2006

Sylvia Zeller, René Talbot and Frank Wilde


We would like to examine in which areas human rights and reason oppose each other, starting with a critique of the Enlightenment and the modern concept of reason. It is commonly accepted to view them as alligned, yet Adorno and Horkheimer refer to the "impossibility of providing a fundamental argument against murder by means of reason". It is equally impossible to find a fundamental argument against torture rooted only in reason, and Enlightenment rationalism itself has provided new, secular justifications for torture.

Foucault, at least with regard to the French concept of reason, argues, "torture is reason". The recent controversy surrounding the Daschner case1 poignantly demonstrated that there could be reasonable grounds for torture.

Are the arguments for a categorical ban on torture merely "more reasonable"? Or, is it necessary to restrict reason (on non-religious ground) in order to guarantee that human rights are inalienable?

This conflict becomes particularly apparent in the day-to-day practice of involuntary psychiatric treatment where, on the basis of reason, human rights are being completely disregarded.

At first, it is probably surprising to look at reason and human rights as opposites. On closer examination, however, it becomes more evident.

In Madness and Civilization - A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), the French philosopher Michel Foucault already hinted at a contradiction between human rights and reason. At the same time, the American psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz, implicitly exposed a similar incongruity in his work The Myth of Mental Illness. However, they are still lacking a detailed description of the contradiction and incongruity per se.

"The meaning of a word just is use" - argues Ludwig Wittgenstein - but most importantly, the use of a word is social practice and definitions emerge from so-called "forms of life." People's behaviour, actions and relationships are shaped by the use of language which in turn determines meaning, particularly if language is meant to justify monopolised means of force in order to act against a person's will.
How then is "reason" applied to language and social practice?

The word "reason" is a euphemism that masks an intrinsically brutal concept. It is a device of dominance and power - the classic ideological criticism made by various members of the Frankfurt School. By supporting this thesis it is also correct to assume that we intend to completely deconstruct the term "reason", not least because Foucault cleverly remarked that "reason is torture". Due to the considerable scale of this subject matter we will only be able to give a broad framework and to touch upon a few issues.

What do we mean when we talk about the contradictory nature between reason and human rights?
It is a rhetorical device, an exaggeration, which results in a dichotomy as a final consequence. It does not mean that reason and human rights are antagonistically opposed. But, focussing on the contradiction is paramount because when the "unreasonable" and the "irrational" insist on human rights and their indivisibility the inherent conflict comes to the fore.

As it stands, the conflict between reason and human rights is constantly resolved in favour of reason by stripping individuals of their rights through psychiatric coercion; that is, by treating patients - the "unreasonable and irrational" - against their will, by employing cruel means of physical restraint, involuntary penetration with syringes, injections of mind altering drugs, and even by administering electroconvulsive shock therapy.

Hence, we will not attempt to come up with a contentious definition of reason and its criteria, rather, vice versa, we will take a complementary approach and define it by looking at "unreasonableness". By definition, actions, feelings and thoughts that are being classified as mad, mentally ill or insane are considered to be unreasonable or not rational. Since a criminal violates the rights of others, his can be infringed upon too. Therefore,the force of the state imposes punishment in proportion to, but not greater than the crime committed. But in the case of those judged "unreasonable", no analygous concept of proportionality stops state coercion. The torture taboo, usually established in a civilised society, becomes invalid as soon as there is no guarantee of the physical inviolability of the "unreasonable" through psychiatric coercion and inhumane treatment in psychiatric prisons

This kind of cruel treatment is incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as outlined by the UN in 1948. The systematic distinction between reason and unreason, the rational and the irrational, make it possible to deprive a particular group of individuals of their human rights. This poses the question of how the "unreasonable/irrational" could actually have become a threat to reason?

Reason in the footsteps of the Inquisition
The programme of the Enlightenment is an attempt to attribute reason with divine powers. It is meant to play the role of the Supreme Judge and assigned to make universal decisions and answer final questions. Civil societies seize on the notion of reason to legitimate the takeover of power. As a consequence, the human being becomes a construction of reason, and to be reasonable and rational becomes the primary feature of being human. A new anthropology is established.

In On Revolution Hannah Arendt argues:
"To claim that 'irrational' and unpredictable drives and desires could be controlled by the 'rational' was of course crucial to the Enlightenment."

On the other hand, by advocating and demanding liberty, equality and fraternity the Enlightenment did lay the foundation for equal rights for all and therefore for human rights. This led to the contradiction between the validity of a universal right for all and the construction of the self as a rational being, and consequently to the restriction of some individuals and the exclusion of the "irrational" and "unreasonable". This very contradiction is the beginning of the Terror of Reason following in the footsteps of the Inquisition.

In the process, a hierarchy of experts and high achievers has superseded a hierarchy based on birth. The university becomes a leading authority and institution of power. Doctorates and professorships replace titles of nobility. An understanding of the world is increasingly dominated by natural science. The ostensibly objective approach and employment of causal chains and mathematic models allow the natural sciences to make predictions as well as re-interpret the past. The success of modern natural science and technology, for instance the discovery of electricity and its utilisation, led to increased productivity. On the other hand, success also led to a fallacy. This success misled society into ascribing scientific laws of causation to social, historical and personal processes. However, in reality, the promised lands of social utopia, so scientifically proven, would, more often than not, emerge as nightmares of reason.

Interestingly, natural science's claim to absolute objectivity and explanation was challenged during the early 20th century particularly in the field of physics. Consider for instance the precarious position of the observer in quantum physics, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Einstein's Relativity Theory, or, in the most prestigious of all disciplines, mathematics, Gödel's incompleteness theorems. This deconstruction from within the natural sciences, particularly the core disciplines of mathematics and physics fundamentally challenged and undermined any possibility of objectivity, a development that ran parallel to philosophical thought. Ludwig Wittgenstein contended that a hierarchical order of "language-games" was impossible, thus rejecting the notion of a universal idea or "grand theory". Yet, we ourselves observe the constant perpetuation of a mechanistic worldview. In medicine, biotechnology and brain sciences these issues are being deliberately ignored.

"Citizen Legislator! In view of the fact that until now the poor have aided you with the revolution and the drafting of a constitution it is time to let them reap the fruits of their labour.
Put on the agenda the provision of workshops where those willing to work can find the work they are lacking, whenever and wherever they wish; provide homes for the aged and the sick, where their brothers can attend to their needs; where the parasite and the idle get accustomed to labour and learn to feel ashamed of having lived on the efforts and fruits of the labour of others."
(From a 1793 manifesto by the inhabitants of the working-class area of Faubourg Saint-Antoine as quoted in Ulrich Enzensberger, Parasiten, p. 127)

It is obvious that already at the time of the French Revolution Enlightenment ideology was aimed at the exclusion and ostracism of so-called "parasites". The emphasis on biological explanations - "biologisation" - in relation to social conditions results in a re-education for the purpose of "standardising" all citizens. Marx's son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, strongly disagreed with this idea of a fully structured and rationally functioning society, a metaphorical ant colony. In his The Right To Be Lazy (1884) he argues against the rational concepts of productivity and work ethic. Following these beliefs it is about time we dumped concepts of reason in relation to economics: an economy understood as the production of goods, commodities, services and anything else tradeable which satisfies a range of different needs and desires.

Here we have two fundamentally different and opposing concepts:
a.) The Marxist tradition demands a rational/reasonable mode of production, which the Bolsheviks realised in the form of a planned economy.
b.) A market economy is interested in maximising profit whereby individual agents agree on the conditions and enter a contract of exchange. Personal need satisfaction, not reason, is the only driving force during the exchange.
But planned economies guided by reason can at best try to minimise the commanding tone of the decision makers. Paternalism remains an intrinsic aspect to this economic system and there is a simple explanation for this:
People can act differently, even contradictorily, but for the very same reasons. Equally, they can display the same behaviour but for very different reasons. This is the ontology of human freedom. Because there is no directive or prescriptive programme for human action and behaviour it is imperative to acknowledge unpredictability as the most basic principle of human behaviour and the development of need satisfaction. Consequently, the system that benefits speculation and rewards the speculators, whose prognoses are regularly confirmed, strictly and swiftly serves these unpredictable needs. The cultivation of speculation, of irrational human "hunches", becomes the norm, not reason.

In contrast - and not without Christian undertones - we have what we might term "sermons of reason" where projections, sympathy, and indeed, and ludicrously so, empathy, are meant to compensate for the logical disadvantages of rational rule, in the sense of " Do not do unto others that you would not wish upon yourself". Not only does it restrict one's own actions - and correspondingly, the Hippocratic oath only requires doctors not to cause harm - but also one's own maxim is meant to become the maxim for all.

In The Theology of Medicine (p.164) Thomas Szasz proposes an analysis of the consequences:
"As we saw earlier, justice may, in its most basic sense, be readily defined as the fulfilment of contracts or expectations. Contracts, moreover, consists of performances and counter performances -- that is, of overt acts. They thus differ from intentions, sentiments or states of mind - which are private experiences. Accordingly, justice is open to public inspection, scrutiny, and judgment, whereas love is closed to such examination and evaluation. Hence, the claim that one is acting justly is a plea for the support of the good opinion of others, whereas the claim that one is acting lovingly leaves no room for the judgment of others and its zeal brooks no opposition. In short, although love appeals to the ideal of consideration for the need of others, and justice appeals to the ideal of consideration for agreed-upon rules, in actual practice just actions afford more protection for the self-defined interests of others than do loving actions."

But how does this apply to human rights? The market economy achieves a higher degree of satisfaction for its participants. The market economy's subjects' scope of decision-making is qualitatively different because it is inherently self-determined. Not only is higher productivity achieved within a shorter period of time, but also the scope for more transfer payments for those unwilling or unable to enter the marketplace to exchange their labor for pay. But those payments must be made as a matter of human right.

Thus, the idle gain without much pain. Human rights can only be realised when forced labour is abolished. The right to laziness reallocates from a utopian realm and becomes an everyday occurrence and social achievement. And not just for the rich.
Therefore, human rights cannot be explained by means of reason. Human Rights have the value we bring to them.

As Mathias Beltz succinctly put it, "Freedom is when and where no explanation is needed."

This text was first broadcast in German on 11.05.2006 in Dissidentenfunk

1. In 2002, Frankfurt's deputy police chief, Wolfgang Daschner, threatened a kidapper with torture in order to extract from him the whereabouts of his victim, who it was hoped, if found in time, could be freed alive. Unknown to the police, however, the victim had already been killed. In 2004 Daschner was punished with a fine of 14,400 Euros. For more on the Daschner case, please see here - scroll down to "Ticking time bomb scenario".