Government as Judgment (O’Donovan, 1999)


April 1999
The democracies that emerged victorious from the Second World War tried to entrench human rights as a defense against the cruel politics of power. In so doing, however, they created a major problem of self-understanding, a cleft running deep through the heart of democratic theory. Democracy and human rights are not identical things, so it is necessary to ask whether they can coexist. It seems that the answer depends on two contingent factors: how the democratic societies conduct themselves, and what rights human beings assert. You cannot champion “democracy and human rights” without quite quickly having to decide which takes precedence between them; and since either of those terms, and not just one of them, may from time to time be used as a cloak for self-interest and tyranny, there is no universally correct answer. That is the underlying problem of coherence in contemporary Western ideology.

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