The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Start from common humanity

The basic political principle is that we all share our humanity.  Compassion starts from imaging ourselves in other people’s skin, in feeling that pain and indignities to them, are injuries to our common humanity.  An injury, an injustice, to one of us, is an injury and injustice to all of us.  In this sense, we acknowledge differences, such as gender, skin color, age, health, and our individual experience, and we take them in to account, but we do not let them obscure our common humanity.

When you think this way, when you feel this way, right action, right law, becomes much more clear.

The author Lois McMaster Bujold once had one of her characters asked if she loved someone.  Her reply was, “when he is cut, I bleed.”

Injustice to any of us, hurts us all.  I could explain the connections in technocratic terms, I could talk about how loss of liberty for one is eventually loss of liberty for all, how inequality hurts even those at the top, but at the end it is as simple as injustice to one, is injustice to all.


On Islam, Religion and Love


People can believe pretty much anything


  1. help! i don’t like bursting in on anything, but i’m having the devil of a time trying to get a pittance to arthur silber. i tried registering on your site, and it told me i’d been registered, but i received no password from the site. also, the paypal button on arthur’s site won’t work. i admit i’m a 63 year-old nincompoop-nanny… is there anything i can do to sort this out? thank you for any assistance you could provide. terry innuso

  2. Ian Welsh


    for Arthur, are you getting “sorry – your last action could not be completed”?

    Arthur’s email is arthur4801(at)yahoodotcom

    It would be best to email him to wort it out. As for my site, you don’t need to be registered to comment, so don’t worry about it.

  3. rumor

    I agree, of course, and this lines up with what you wrote somewhat earlier, that good policy is very simply about doing the right thing. It’s funny, but the one place I do see this kind of ‘common humanity’ and ‘an injury to them is an injury to me’ is in the public response to criminal matters, where cries for ever-harsher punishment, really thinly veiled desires for vengeance. What do you think about that phenomenon, Ian?

  4. rumor

    Also, good lord, apologies for my half-finished sentences.

  5. Ian Welsh

    I do not believe in punishment, I believe in correction and harm prevention to a reasonable degree (I rarely believe in locking someone up forever.) Harsher penalties, and especially cruelty in prison, leads to higher recidivism rates. This is not a theory, it is well proven by cross-country and cross time experience.

    It is easy to feel common humanity with victims, and it is good to do so. But the perpetrators are also human and should be treated with dignity. That doesn’t mean not locking them up, but it does mean rehabilitating when possible and treating them humanely, no matter what.

    As for victims of crime, while it’s good to feel compassion for them, Stalin’s comment that a single death is a tragedy, and a million deaths are a statistic” is important to remember. Those who are massively outraged over one crime, but ignore systematic injustice which harms far more people are misguided. Likewise, outsiders are as human as insiders. Iraqis bleed red just like Americans. Blacks like whites. No one’s pain or sorrow is not worth compassion.

  6. Alcuin

    Once upon a time, in a far, far away land, an injury to one was an injury to all. Why do we have to learn this lesson over and over and over?

  7. someofparts

    Humans can shape ourselves to an extent that our more wholesomely instinct-bound fellow creatures cannot – for good or ill. When I ask myself why we keep losing sight of Eden, I think about the work Margaret Mead did looking at the way differences in childcare practices from tribe to tribe resulted in different personalities, from very aggressive to very peaceful. Maybe it’s just the female in me homing back in on the importance of what happens to each of us when we are small. But if I were looking for a point from which to begin unraveling the problem of human aggression/inhumanity, that’s where I’d start.

  8. I recognize that quote, I thought it was quite well expressed both within the context of the novel and in the larger sense in simply explaining what love is. Another definition of love I read went something like this: Love is that state where the other person’s happiness is essential to/for your own”. One of the most horrifying things about our current governing party is the degree of lack of compassion that runs through it from the top down, even to their own let alone to those not of their own tribe. When you stop acknowledging the humanity of others, especially those you may disagree with/oppose you start down a very dangerous path in my view. It is this mindset that I see at the root of so much of the harm humans do to one another throughout history, yes you can point to larger macro level elements/aspects, but for me it seems when you go back to root causes it tends to come down to the lack of compassion/understanding of the pain/suffering of others for whatever reason (although too often that reason is directly connected to those lacking the compassion to begin with).

    As you said injustice to one of us harms all of us, like you I find this a blatantly obvious truth/reality, it is one of the main reasons I was always such a process oriented person with politics, because making sure everyone was playing by the same rules and following the rule of law which is our only ability to actually practice justice instead of naked might/power making right is an important means for justice to exist. It may be boring and tedious to many, but there you go. The rule of law being evenly applied to all fairly and evenly is to my mind an essential for justice to have any hope of existing, now one can argue about what laws are needed and such, but anyone unwilling or unable to accept that basic precept to me is inherently dangerous to true justice surviving, let alone thriving.

    Sorry if this seems a bit disjointed, its been a long day and I am really feeling it, but I could not resist a quote from one of my favourite authors and series, especially not when it was used to such good effect on something else I hold in high regard.

  9. Carol Newquist

    The rule of law being evenly applied to all fairly and evenly is to my mind an essential for justice to have any hope of existing, now one can argue about what laws are needed and such, but anyone unwilling or unable to accept that basic precept to me is inherently dangerous to true justice surviving, let alone thriving.

    I guess I’m dangerous to true justice then, because I no longer believe in the centralization and concentration of anything, including the vaunted “Rule of Law.” The “Rule of Law” is what’s keeping us all prisoners. In a hierarchical system, which of course civilization is on its face, the “Rule of Law” will always be fomented and enforced to concentrate and perpetuate the power of the few at the top of the pyramid. It is, quite literally, our chains. It’s time to put the sleazy lawyers (redundant, I know) out of business. A truly organically humane society has no need for such manipulative artifice. In fact, the concept and notion of “Rule of Law” is anathema to such a society. But hey, keep trying to reform, and Sisyphus will keep pushing that stone up the hill.

  10. Carol Newquist

    These Chinese factory workers understand what I’m saying. Not in an intellectual way, but in a viscerally primal way; an organic way. Chip hides behind the “Rule of Law.” The “Rule of Law” has allowed Chip to take advantage of vulnerable people and has enabled his lavish lifestyle at their back-breaking expense. Fuck the “Rule of Law.” Where do you so-called moral people here stand on this? With the factory workers, or with poor Chip? I’m betting with Chip since all of you are a product of Descartes and St. Thomas Aquinas. Or perhaps you think there is some middle ground, which of course, there’s not. There may be a third way, or a fourth way or more, but there is no middle ground. Until you can rid your mind and body of those two poisons (Descartes’ and St Thomas Aquinas’ bullshit), you will always be your own warden and executioner.

    American executive Charles “Chip” Starnes, the co-founder of Coral Springs, Florida-headquartered Speciality Medical Devices, has been held hostage by Chinese workers at a Beijing factory since last Friday over worker demands for severance packages.

  11. I would suggest that the “rule of law” is what separates us from chaos. What is “keeping us all prisoners” is the unfair and unequal application of the rule of law, exempting the rich and powerful from the law, and applying it with a heavy and punitive hand to those who cannot avail themselves of its beneficial aspects.

  12. Eric Finley

    Carol – It could readily be argued that the rule of law, and its becoming normative in our civilization, is nonetheless what gets us close enough to civilized that we can hold this discussion at all. That the Magna Carta and its various intellectual descendants have made us freer by shackling – to whatever extent – the elites and forcing them to increasingly awkward circumlocutions and abstractions to abuse their power. Often these methods involve subverting the law; that doesn’t condemn the underlying concept.

    I don’t recall the source, but this quote has stayed with me in context of such remarks: “Historically speaking, any day when your house has not been burned to the ground by Hussars is a good day.”

    We may, someday, be capable of managing this without centralization of any kind… but in my opinion we are not yet morally mature enough, and lack the decentralized capability to establish consensus within a meaningful timeframe (though see this TED talk by Clay Shirky for how we might manage the latter, eventually), to do without.

    Neither party in the link you provided seems to be particularly in tune with the substance of Ian’s post; please don’t put words in others’ mouths or ascribe opinions to them they have not expressed.

  13. John Puma

    Our society, in its choice of economic system, (and allowing it to merge with, if not supersede, the governmental system) has determined what aspect of humanity we share.

    But, instead of basing itself on the positive human characteristic of compassion, the basis is the negative, destructive, now worshipped, characteristic of greed.

    As our cuddly system evolves into frank predation (e.g. illegal foreclosure, destroyed unions, 30 years of dropping wages) the resultant massive income/wealth gap allows the fewer and fewer wealthy to control,
    preempt and pervert the once (potentially) meaningful “rule of law.”

  14. Carol Newquist

    John, not sure if you’ve ever read C. Wright Mills The Power Elite published in 1956, but it’s very telling. As of the date of that pertinent and prescient publication, Mills asserted the U.S., institutionally, was well into the fifth epoch. I would dare say it is well into the sixth since the start of the new millennium and 9/11. An interesting exercise would be to explain and analyze this latest epoch applying Mills sentiment.

    EXCEPT for the unsuccessful Civil War, changes in the power system of the United States have not involved important challenges to its basic legitimations. Even when they have been decisive enough to be called ‘revolutions,’ they have not involved the ‘resort to the guns of a cruiser, the dispersal of an elected assembly by bayonets, or the mechanisms of a police state.’ [1] Nor have they involved, in any decisive way, any ideological struggle to control masses. Changes in the American structure of power have generally come about by institutional shifts in the relative positions of the political, the economic, and the military orders. From this point of view, and broadly speaking, the American power elite has gone through four epochs, and is now well into a fifth.

  15. Ian

    The difference between law and justice is important and something this blog has written on rather a lot. Process fairness is not just if the laws are not just, and laws which are not just deserve no respect.

  16. jessica

    One lesson that will be rubbed in our faces until we really get it is that it is impossible to have intense concentrations of economic power side by side with democratic governance. Intense concentrations of economic power function like black holes, warping space-time and not letting even light escape.

    “The basic political principle is that we all share our humanity.”
    We are going to have to find ways to generate a powerful sense of common humanity that do not depend on uniformity (rigid cultural constraints, working together in mass situations such as pre-automation factories, religious or ethnic or “racial” identification). Doing so will be new. Although some political systems have spoken of our common humanity, none _yet_ have actually acted on that.
    However, there was a solidarity created by the sense of being part of a common subset of humanity (Americans, Christian white people, Japanese, Muslims, “The People” or whatever else your tribe called itself, etc.) Right now, we have lost much of that earlier us-vs-them solidarity of a being part of the same subset of humanity, but have not yet truly generated a universal solidarity. (Many individuals now do have that sense, but nowhere is that sense strong enough to lead the political system.) So are in a kind of solidarity valley, a phase of social evolution with particularly low levels of solidarity. This lack is not making things any easier these days.

  17. “Remember your humanity and forget all the rest” — joe rotblat

    Prison experiment in Norway

  18. dan henry

    Very interesting link, Erich. Thank you.

  19. John Puma

    Carol, I have not read “The Power Elite.” I has been “on the list” for some time. (I ordered a copy between the previous two sentences.)

    I’d suggest J. William Fulbright’s, “The Arrogance of Power” (1966).

  20. Tim

    “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” – John Donne – Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII.

  21. David Kowalski

    Dickens wrote “the law is a a**”, true of bad law in any time. And certainly true when money power has the influence that it did in early 19th century England or current North America.

    In the recent past, humans have corrected bad laws but only at great cost when the suffering was overwhelming. Newtonian physics certainly applies to bad laws and bad societies. They tend to maintain themselves or get worse unless energy is applied to change them. Good laws seem less inclined to self maintain because of the power of greed and the powerful.

  22. catlady

    Recognize that the other person is you.

    Aquarian sutra, Yogi Bhajan

  23. Carol Newquist:

    Yes, I guess you are from where I sit. For all the problems and issues one can have with the idea of the rule of law, it is, as others in this thread already noted, also the only reason we have developed far enough as societies to even have these discussions in the first place. I am a big believer in the rule of law, so long as the law is applied to all equally, evenly, and fairly, and not as a tool to bludgeon those with less power by the more powerful. The idea of the rule of law is to replace the rule of might make right, that being said of course those with power are going to want to try and game things to their advantage, that is human nature, which is why one not only needs to make/write good law one must also make sure it is applied to all evenly if one is to have any real hope for justice to exist, or perhaps I should more properly say sustained justice, for other ways allow for flashes of justice, but to have it as a sustained existence requires the existence of equality under/of the rule of law as a necessary framework element for it to inhabit.

    I agree that the rule of law alone is not justice, it takes more than that for true justice to exist. However, I do believe from all I have ever seen, read, learned and experienced in my life that for it to be a sustained reality in human societies it requires the framework of the rule of law, with sensible laws written for the benefit of human beings applied equally and fairly to all regardless of station in life. I also believe that those unable to see this really do threaten the chances for sustained justice to exist, after all one can with the best of intentions and meaning still do incredible harm, this is also a sad reality of human existence/nature. Do I think we are currently at that place I would call a just society? No, but I do think we are trying to get there (as with everything else there are ebbs and flows, but overall, I see in human history more gaining than losing when it comes to this concept) and the tools to make it more likely to happen have been developed, not least of which is the information technology tools of the modern media world ( from radio through to the internet, making what was far and distant in the mind even when it was the next town over let alone the next country/continent over become real to the average person and making out of sight out of mind far more difficult to either happen naturally or be fostered by those with power not wishing to lose it via change), which when combined with the clear transformation of the very nature of power that the information age brings to the industrial age old power structures it is replacing.

    The rule of law is one of the most important tools humanity has developed for creating a reality where one’s worth is not simply defined by one’s birth, station in life, or wealth/power accumulated in life. Like all tools though it is inherently neutral, it is how it is used that defined its morality, and the inherent problem with powerful tools is that they can as easily do powerful harm as powerful good, and how each is defined is inherently a subjective definition. Which is another reason for the need for the rule of law to be applied equally without exception, because only when those with power must accept that they are as bound to societal standards/rules/protocols as those without any power will justice, sustained justice, have any chance at existing in human affairs, or so it seems to me.

    Sorry folks, this is another end of a long day for me, I hope though it is a little less disjointed than my first comment.

  24. M.

    Hi Ian. Sorry to make an off-topic comment, but it seems that comments are closed on your Stirling Newberry post. If you know, how is Stirling doing, physically, emotionally, and otherwise? I have been really worried about him, but not sure whom to ask.

  25. Hmm. I’d argue that to the elite we’re a mass of undifferentiated protoplasm (“flesh,” as the Christians have it; “human resources,” in MBA-speak) to be filtered through various systems of rental extraction. That is what “common humanity” means to them.

    * * *

    And it would be good to have more news of Stirling.

  26. Ian Welsh


    He’s doing FAR better. I talked to Stirling a couple days ago and he was coherent, I could make out what he was saying, he knew his situation, and was determined to make a comeback. His prognosis has improved significantly. It’ll still be a hard slog, but he’s definitely Stirling.

  27. Carol Newquist

    I am a big believer in the rule of law, so long as the law is applied to all equally, evenly, and fairly, and not as a tool to bludgeon those with less power by the more powerful.

    The bolded is the key. Call me when “so long as” has been established. The number of laws that should apply universally as so-called “rule of law” would be few; a mere handful, if that. Any laws above and beyond that will be crafted and used per the latter part of your statement italicized above. And please, don’t insult me by saying we owe our conversation to the rule of law as though we should be grateful for our chains. Yes, we owe this conversation to the rule of law, but not in the sense you imply. We owe it to the fact that if the rule of law didn’t exist, we would be immersed a thing called life, rather than arguing in the abstract about a thing called life. The rule of law has thickened the veil, the wall, the separation between living and thinking about living.

  28. Ian, glad to hear some positive news about your friend.

    “Carol,” I like your characterization of the rule of law being as a veil, a layer, between we and life.

    Scotian, you have articulated well the ideal behind the rule of law, and Carol Newquist’s riposte is clearly an expression of the tension between the ideal and the manifest.

    A simple example are the nation’s collapsing marijuana laws – I was sensitive to the scourge of selective enforcement when I, as a young white high-schooler, encountered many officers who sometimes mocked and intimidated me when they spotted me smoking a joint (I was a bit of an in-your-face rebel smoker,) and wouldn’t bother to proceed to arrest but rather merely enjoyed the spectacle of me eating the roach. I knew that my duskier brethren enjoyed no such indulgence, and it outraged me even then.

    Counter to Carol’s remark, it is nonetheless necessary to establish the rule of law when populations exceed that magical tribal number variously expressed as between 150-250 persons – when we can’t possible “know” all of the people we transact with. But then, such expanded populations are something that we are not evolved to cope with, and so it goes back to the tension between what is natural and what is ideally constructed in order to make it work. Sorta work… and that gets back to Newquist’s objection. Our high-minded intellectual abstractions that we lay upon society in order to adapt ourselves to something to which are decidedly not adapted to are forever tinged with the failure to manifest properly, because we are decidedly unadaptable to our own – as opposed to Nature’s – artificial environments. This includes that other “necessary evil,” democracy itself. Evolution doesn’t occur in generational time, to the ultimate chagrin of all of the fantasies of the technophiles and the “singularity” fans.

  29. OldSkeptic

    A proper ethical approach starts from simple intelligent self interest.

    “I don’t want to be beaten, tortured, impoverished, etc” , there I prefer a societal system that does not allow that, ever.

    Too many people who do support bad treatment for others are making a dangerous assumption that they won’t be subsequently badly treated.

    Or in other words, they are betting that because they ‘feel’ they are in a privileged /protected part of society then they are exempt from such treatment and can engage in some schadenfreude watching others suffer.

    Of course they may not actually be protected from this, and also of course, things change. The gap between being privileged /protected to being a victim is often very small.

    One reverse schadenfreude is watching those, previously protected/privileged, getting their heads kicked in, often by the same forces that they previously supported … and boy do they bleat when it happens to them.

    These are illogical (and risky) attitudes. I start from a very simple basis:

    (1) I don’t want to be picked up for no reason, tortured and killed/thrown into a hole in the ground.
    (2) Therefore it is my own best interests than no one is allowed to do that , ever.

    It is logic like this that is the basis of ethics.

    As for morality, some of the most unethical people I have ever met were, considered by many, as very moral.

    Morality is a fleeting, changing, emotional thing (plus there is a lot of lying involved). What is moral today is immoral tomorrow and so on.

    Taking the obvious example, once (in western nations) it was immoral to torture (to the point of executing people who did it), now it is SOP.

    One of the total collapses in ‘morality’, that was seldom commented on, was how quickly a worldwide torture network sprung up after 9/11 and all sorts of ‘moral countries (as they repeatedly shout about) countries jumped onto the torture bandwagon so fast it wasn’t funny. Obviously the US, but the UK, France, Poland, etc, etc, etc.

    Note that quite a few of those (so may in fact) involved repeatedly state that they are ‘moral Christian/Catholic/Moslem/etc’ countries.

    Therefore, you as an individual, cannot trust societal (or individual) morality.

    What you can trust (provided it is taught and people are indoctrinated into it) is enlightened ethical behaviour.

    I use the term ‘indoctrinated’ deliberately as humans, sadly, are endlessly capable of doing/supporting/agreeing with behaviours that are in their own worst personal interests if they have an irrational emotional attachment to those actions (plus schadenfreude is so much fun).

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