Why Not Abolish Ignorance?
A nice idea often makes for an unpleasant reality.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Ronald Reagan, died Thursday. This piece by Kirkpatrick appeared in the July 9, 1982, issue of National Review, and was adapted from a speech she gave to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

I would like to say a word by way of preface about my own relationship with the subject of human rights and foreign policy. Somewhat to my surprise, after the article of mine [“Dictatorships and Doable Standards”] that appeared in Commentary in November 1979 — the article the President read — I began to find myself described as a critic of Carter’s human-rights policy and even as a leading critic of Carter’s human-rights policy. The surprise to me was that I didn’t know that I had written an article about human-rights policy at all. It had not been my intention. The words were never used in the article, and when I finished it I didn’t think it was about that. I still don’t, except that everybody else does — and that fact alone has led me to speculate a good deal about what it was that was going on here.

From my point of view I was describing in that article the failure of a policy to produce its expected goals. The goats, I thought, were moderation and democracy; and the results, I thought, were Khomeini and the Ortegas. The decisive instrument of the failure, I thought and still think, was a mistaken conception of how democracy comes into being, of how democracy is established and how it is preserved. And it was only after other people began to describe this as an article about human-rights policy that I began to do some serious reading about our human-rights policy and discovered that, indeed, human-rights policy had become for the Carter Administration — and I guess in the minds of a great many other people — co-terminous with the promotion of democratic government and of all good things in the world. Once I really began to look into it I decided, yes, 1 was a critic of that human-rights policy — and I’ve been visibly a critic of it ever since.

In thinking about this, I began where I always begin when I try to think about a problem. It seems to me always necessary to know what we are talking about. How can we discuss human rights unless we know what they are, and how can we relate them to human-rights policies unless we know what kinds of content a human-rights policy would have? It seemed to me as I thought about it all that there were four distinctions that were crucial to thinking about human rights and human-rights policy which frequently get lost sight of in our time.

The first distinction is the distinction between ideas and institutions. The second distinction is one between rights and goals. The third distinction is one between intentions and consequences. And the fourth distinction, finally, is the distinction between private and public morality.

We look first at the distinction between ideas and institutions. It seems to me that it is terribly important to bear in mind at all times that the idea of a right is very easy to conceive; and we can claim any right that we can think of. One of the characteristics of ideas, of words, is that they are highly susceptible to change. We can drop one set of ideas, or one set of rights we claim, and we can emphasize other ideas. And we can do it more or less at our will for the moment. We are in charge when we talk about ideas. Those of us who are specialists in the manipulation of ideas are in charge.

Institutions, on the other hand involve millions of other real, honest-to-God, living, flesh-and-blood people. Institutions involve the subjectivities of other people; furthermore, they rest on the expectations of other people. They are shaped by the experience of other people. They are made up of habits and internalized values and beliefs, and, from time to time, of course, they rest also on coercion. These internalized expectations become inextricably bound up with the identity of the people who hold the expectations; they are reinforced with habit, and are extremely resistant to change. This is, by the way, one of the reasons that revolutionaries are frequently prepared to write off a generation when they seek genuine change: they know that the internalized expectations of the existing generation will prove so resistant to change that they will never really be able to achieve a new set of identifications and a new set of expectations such as would be necessary to consummate the revolution.

Rights, then, are easy to claim and extremely difficult to translate into reality. Edmund Burke, of course, spoke precisely and frequently to the distinction that I am talking about — the distinction between ideas and institutions. He said on one occasion of the French Revolution, “I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the liberty of France until I was informed as to how it has been combined with government, with public force, with discipline. with obedience of armies, with the collection and the effectiveness of a well distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with solidity and property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these are good things, too. Without them liberty is of no benefit whilst it lasts and is not likely long to continue.” That is, he said he would not congratulate the French on their revolution until he knew that the idea of liberty had been translated into the reality of the daily institutional lives of the people.

Robert Owen proposed once — he was both rationalist and Utopian, a man with marvelously good intentions — that there should be organized a world convention to emancipate the human race from ignorance, poverty, division, sin, and misery. I think we’ve got one of those world conventions, by the way, over where I live. But, in our time, no one would propose a world convention. Or if we had a world convention, it would propose a declaration, you know, a universal declaration of rights; and we would say that people had a right to be free of ignorance and poverty, division and sin and misery. And we would attempt then to hold other nations responsible, I think, for the disappearance of these ills. Applied to human rights and foreign policy, disregarding the distinction between ideas and institutions leads to an expectation that declarations of rights have existential status and that they constitute valid, practical programs of action.

The second distinction I want to emphasize is the distinction between rights and goals. In our time, as everybody here knows, rights proliferate at an absolutely extraordinary level with extraordinary speed. To the familiar old eighteenth century rights of life, liberty, security of persons and property have been added the right to nationality, the right to privacy, equal rights in marriage, the right to education, the right to culture, the right to leisure, the right to the full development of one’s personality and powers, the right to self-determination, self-government, the right to adequate standards of living. For every goal toward which human beings have worked there is, in our time, a right. Neither nature nor experience nor probability informs these lists of entitlements. The fact that they are without any possibility of realization, however — and they are — does not mean that they are without consequences. There are important consequences.

Treating goals as rights is grossly misleading about the way in which real goals are achieved in real life. Rights are vested in persons or, in our time, sometimes in groups. Goals are achieved by the effort of persons. The language of rights subtly vests the responsibility for achievement in some “other” some other person, some other group, some other entity. If the people of the world do not enjoy their full economic rights, it must be because someone — say for example the monopoly capitalists, say for example us, or the Zionists or Communists or male chauvinists or someone — is depriving them of their rightful due.

The third distinction is the distinction between intention and consequence. In political philosophy, as in ethics, there are theories that emphasize motives and there are theories that emphasize consequences. We talk about the ethics of motives and the ethics of consequences. Now preoccupation with motives is a very well-known characteristic of a particular kind of political actor whom in our time we call a political purist; and we also know that political purists have multiplied in our times, they have proliferated almost as rapidly as rights. The distinguishing characteristic of the political purist is his emphasis on internal criteria. Doing what one knows is right becomes for him more important than producing any given desirable result. In human rights and foreign policy the tendency to prefer an ethic of motives to an ethic of consequences leads to an overweening concern with the purity of our intentions as embodied in our policies. When the morality of the motive is more important, or viewed as more important, than the consequences, then we become, of course, less concerned about whether or not we have in fact created, let’s say, a new form of tyranny in a place like Iran, or contributed to the creation of it, than we are concerned with the morality of our own good intentions. The principal function of a human-rights policy which emphasizes motives rather than consequences, I have argued and I believe, is to make us feel good about ourselves. It feels good to feel good. One wonders about that as a function of foreign policy, however, or a goal of foreign policy.

The fourth distinction is the distinction between personal morality and political morality. Personal morality clearly derives from the characteristics of single individuals, and it depends on the cultivation of personal virtues like faith, hope, charity, discipline, and reliability. Political morality on the other hand depends not on the personal morality of individuals but on the juxtaposition and interrelation of parts of a society. This is a fact that is very well known in political philosophy and has been at least since the time of Plato, who very well understood that juxtaposition, defined in terms of the relationship of the parts of a society. It was just as clear to the Founding Fathers of this country. All the important political goods — democracy, due process, protection of rights to free speech, assembly — are, as the Founding Fathers understood, the consequence of a wisely structured constitution.

Aristotle was, of course, the first one to state this. The Founding Fathers did a marvelously creative job, though, of applying it and creating a government which would in fact ensure those rights which they cherished. It is very significant in this regard, by the way, that the Founding Fathers proposed to ensure those rights precisely by the arrangement of offices in the Constitution, not by the Bill of Rights. I think the real significance of the non-inclusion of the Bill of Rights is that they thought it was unnecessary; they were convinced, I think quite rightly, that they had provided protection of those rights in the arrangement of offices in the Constitution, that well-constructed Constitution to which they attached importance. Rights then, they believed and I believe, are embodied in institutions, not in rhetoric.

Where does this leave us about human rights and foreign policy, if you believe these distinctions are important and must be taken into account by a sound foreign policy with any chance of success? It seems to me, first of all, that it does not say anything to us about human rights not being an important goal or an important factor in our foreign policy. The end of a foreign policy should be to produce positive consequences for the potential beneficiary. Such a policy will, I think, take careful account of the concrete context of our actions. It will carefully calculate the means available and appropriate for achieving the desired end. It will take account of the interrelations between the means and the ends, remembering always that human society is as complex as human nature itself. I believe that we have had in our foreign policy enough of rationalism, and purism, enough of private virtue in public places. It is my hope that, in its approach to human rights and foreign policy, this Administration will take the cure of history.

The cure of history is nothing more or less than the cure of reality. And if we take the cure of history we will, I think, discover something about the very essence of freedom and the very essence of human rights. We will discover that the freedom of the American people is based not on the marvelous and inspiring slogans of a Thomas Paine but, in fact, on the careful web of restraints, of permission, of interests, of tradition woven by the Founding Fathers into the Constitution and explained in The Federalist Papers. And rooted, of course, in our concrete rights as Englishmen. Just similarly we will find, if we take the cure of history, that the freedoms of modern France consist of and are built not on the slogans of the French Revolution, stirring though these claims of rights may be, but on the very long, arduous struggles of the French people to give reality to those slogans — a reality that exists in the constitutional structure, in the conventions, in the institutions of French society and French politics.

Time, of course, will tell whether our more modest expectations will prove more productive of human freedom and well-being.