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Virtue or rights?
Constitutional law

By Sam Ghandchi
November 24, 2003
The Iranian
Socrates in his defense, addresses the ideological democratic state, that had accused him of believing in supernatural gods and corrupting the youth with such beliefs, in the following words:

Please do not be offended if I tell you the truth. No man on Earth who consciously opposes either you or any other organized democracy , and flatly prevents a great many wrongs and illegalities from taking place in the state to which he belongs, can possibly escape with his life. The true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even for a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone."  [Socrates' Defense (Apology), Collected Dialogues of Plato, Princeton University Press, P.17]

This is as if Socrates is speaking in the courts of Islamic Republic of Iran. But not the current IRI, rather the ideal IRI of reformists, namely an "Islamic Democracy".  He is tried and condemned to death in a court with the presence of a jury, in an ideological democracy, on charges of believing in supernatural, holding thoughts of other gods different from the gods sanctioned by the state, and encouraging the youth with such beliefs thru reasoning. He finally drinks the hemlock, and for centuries humanity has been in shock and bewildered about why things went wrong, and how this treacherous murder happened in a democracy.

What has been less noticed in Socrates' defense, is the fact that he does *not* speak of his *rights*, when addressing the jury, *contrary* to the way the political prisoners address similar courts in our times. He tries to convince them that his ideas are the expression of *good* and *virtues* and not the thoughts of his prosecutors in the court.

Even at the end, he says if his own sons grow up and "put money or anything else before goodness", he asks the same jury and judges to take their revenge and plaque his sons "for neglecting the important things and thinking that they are good for something when they are good for nothing." And he continues that if judges do that, "he shall have justice at their hand, both he himself and his children." [Ibid P.26].

It is as if Socrates, just like Bukharin in Stalin's court, deeply believed that the system in which he was being prosecuted, is the ideal just system, and this is why to the end, he does not want to escape from prison, because he considers the escape to be undermining the system which he considers to be just, although he thinks the functionaries of the system at the time, had distanced themselves form the just path of the regime, especially with regards to their judgment of him, and thus he does not escape although he can, and drinks the hemlock. 

The same way Bukharin, centuries later, at the Soviet gallows, with the outcry of long live communism, bids farewell to this world.  And today, Hashem Aghajari, although himself condemned to death for his views by an IRI court, does not reject the Ayatollah Khomeini's death fatwa against Salman Rushdie, even when their verdicts are similar to a disinterested eye. In Aghajari's mindset, he is representing virtue, whereas Rushdie represents vice, and Rushdie deserves to die for his views but not him,  because for Aghajari the *rights* of freedom of thought do not determine the path of the state, virtue does.

What Socrates, Bukharin, and Aghajari have in common, is the dominant concept of justice in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Societies back then viewed justice equivalent to *goodness* and *virtue*. To them, justice does not include *rights* such as freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and the like. John Rawls has shown this difference very well, in a his book "Lectures of Moral Philosophy".  He shows that philosophers of ancient times, such as Plato, in contrast to post-renaissance philosophers such as Hume and Kant, viewed justice and moral philosophy as issues of *virtue* and not *rights*. This is why the dialogues of Socrates is about *virtue* and *goodness*, whereas Hume and Kant discuss *rights*.

Rawls mentions that in ancient Greece religion had been civil, similar to what religious reformists and their supporters propose for Iran.  In fact, he mentions that religion of ancient Greece focused on civil rituals, and the critical philosophers were the ones concerned with *virtue* and *goodness* in their *reasoning*,  which they considered as the philosopher's search for justice. In Europe of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, religion had a complete doctrine for *virtues* and *goodness*, and finally modern philosophers used *reasoning* to define *rights* and did *not* use *virtue*, in order to arrive at justice and the modern state.

In fact Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati, although in different ways, were both searching for justice of the type of the ancients. Khomeini in his book "Velayate Faghih", calls for Plato's state of philosopher-kings, which in practice was ushered in with the position of *vali-e-faghih* (supreme religious authority) and the Assembly of Experts. The clergy took the role of guardians of virtues. And the IRI constitution was drafted on the basis of Islamic *virtues* and not human rights. Now if such a state was formed, even if it was civil and did not include the clergy, would the likes of Shariati and Aghajari, not be slaughtered by it, just like Socrates, if they remained as critics of the state?

A lot of people have been upset about my criticism of Shariati and I hope my explanations here clarify that this is not a personal issue. Perhaps if Khomeini had had been killed at the beginning of the revolution, today he would not have been as hated as he is, and some might have called for the return of Khomeini's ideology and not Shariati's. But I still would have made the same criticism of his views, as I have here, because of his error in placing virtue as the basis for the state and law. And in this modern world, this is the biggest retrogression, even if it is in a non-religious form, such as the state under communists. The great thinker Karl Popper showed this error from Plato's time to ours and I have written about it elsewhere.

The error of the model of justice in antiquity and the Middle Ages is that it places *virtue* as the basis of justice, and not *rights*.  And even their "philosopher-kings" cannot agree on the goodness and virtue of an idea or an individual.  This is why in the modern world, rights of people are separate from any ideology, and are recognized today as universal human rights. John Rawls, in his books "A Theory of Justice" and his new work "Justice as Fairness", has tried to define these rights, independent of liberal philosophy, as a logical template independent of any any religious or philosophical system.

Today, the attempts to write the future constitution of Iran has already started, and it is important that we do not make the same mistakes we made in 1979. We should not define *virtues* acceptable to the law, which the IRI constitution has done, but instead focus on the rights of citizens and how to best limit the power of the state and religious institutions, so that again we do not become victims of the regime we created >>> See here

Sam Ghandchi is publisher/editor of IranScope, an Iranian news and culture portal site.

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By Sam Ghandchi



Book of the day

Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy
By John Rawls

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