I have traced a philosophical line of thought in my mind that “human rights” as commonly defined (and also “democracy”) may suffer a kind of disjunction between their “statutory” and “purposive” aspects (sorry for the breach of terminology, but I am trying to adapt what I learned on Law.Stack Exchange), where statutory law is what a law says is not allowed, but purposive interpretation is a judge’s discretion as to what the law was supposed to be about, as in the difference between that possession of marijuana is illegal, vs. why possession is a criminal offense. The latter can be used to reform the actual implementations of the laws, sometimes, at least. This may have been a factor in the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the U.S. of America, where a judge (in a Supreme Court hearing I heard) was heavily basing their points on what the purpose of certain rights or amendments really was, what its function was supposed to be.

I have been considering that “democracy” apparently literally means “people-rule”, and is therefore a very vague word, literally, open to lenient interpretations, as arguably any human society might exhibit, loosely, some type of “people-rule”. A monarchy features a person, the King or Queen, ruling, so this is an incident of a person ruling, in contrast to a civilization of people overrun by animals, or aliens.

Rhetorically, the “purposively” implied character of a “democracy” could be understood next to common rhetorical associations we hear, the semantic “prototypicality” of the word in culture and media -



  • fair
  • equality
  • vote
  • election
  • freedom
  • freedom of the press
  • freedom of speech
  • rule by the people, for the people
  • egalitarian
  • choice
  • representative

and so on. (A computer can also do this using NLP.)

I have begun to wonder, is the token “democracy” akin to what something believe something is, because it is what they are told, a presumed, latent supposition in discourse and cultural knowledge? How rigorously can it be defined? (Yes, I know there are metrics like the Freedom Index or whatever, but I’m not sure that digs deep enough into the debate).

If we allow our choice of word to take meaningful from what it contrasts with, I have been wondering if a better meaning for what “self-rule” is would be better served by the word “anarchy”, a system where people locally and continuously can re-update their decisions on what they want, in accordance with each other, from moment to moment.

Comparing and contrasting the two has made me consider that we do not really experience “democracy” very much in the loose way it is touted to be beneficial, and actual. One reason is we have very little opportunity for a benchmark of something else to compare it to, since we really only see a few types of governments and societies in the world (in my opinion), whereas I think political game theory or something could reveal a huge, mathematically rich cornucopia of possible “rule-based systems” or games by which people can try to manage each other and things, be they small or local or large.

Thus, we do not know what a “democracy” is because we have only ever known that word to mean “there are elections so at the end of the day you get what you choose.” The number of possible critiques against this are numerous, in my opinion. Walking down the street in daily life, how often do you feel that “the way things are” is an extension of your will, that you had in some small part or way a say in what things are being done, how the roads are being built, what plants you could smoke, how the buildings are and look like, etc.? How many local officials like police officers would you have chosen to serve that role in your community, had anybody asked you? How often do you feel anybody asked you for your opinion, on almost anything the government does?

Even if you vote, consider how a vote is not in itself a benchmark of any kind of personal “freedom” - what are you voting on? What are the choices? How often do you get to vote? Do you even like how the vote was conducted? And so on. Noam Chomsky once said “a democracy is more than just a cookie-cutter filling out a ballot, but would be a society in which people are actively involved, and participating in group decisions regularly.”

Just as I wonder how “democracy” may very well be - in the style of contemporary critical theory - a rhetorical illusion which actually upholds power, because it is used to make people believe they are free, when there are an inordinate number of things you are not allowed to do, like sleep in public places (sometimes - when some modern scientists tell us sleep is one of the cornerstones of human health), which people do not realize because they have no intuitive sense of what is a “normal” law except the laws they are already used to (imagine washing up on the shores of a foreign land where music is illegal or beer is outlawed but everyone has to dance at least 3 hours every day - )

I also wonder if “human rights” are similarly, not what they present themselves as. I can go into further detail if necessary. But I wonder if the key problem there are basic assertions about what a human is or ought to be, without that much theoretical development about why. Similarly, we have to wonder who made such rules, to begin with, and why we - humans - haven’t yet been consulted with.

Therefore, I invite answers regarding political philosophers who have expanded on these ideas: is “democracy” really even “democratic”, or would it be better substituted by a different term, and a more precise formulation and set of reasons of what “rules” there should be, amongst us all, and why?

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    Well, there are some definitional problems. For instance, some old-school Marxists might say that democracy and human rights are worthless because they are merely sop for the working classes to prevent them from taking control of the means of production, but then if one looks at what they actually want, their "dictatorship of the proletariat" aims to be democratic and their ideal Communist society aims to satisfy basic human rights. But then, the governments that have emerged from those movements have oftentimes practically not cared much for either democracy or human rights.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jun 29, 2023 at 15:27
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    I mean in many cases it is aptly prefaced by "representative" so the actual democracy either happens on the level of the representatives (that's where the direct participation and discussion happens) or referring to the democratic process in picking representatives.
    – haxor789
    Jun 30, 2023 at 13:37
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    You completely misunderstand the word 'demos' in democracy when you say that dictatorships are democracies because dictators are people. Please just look up the definition of δήμος.
    – user46726
    Jun 30, 2023 at 20:36
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    Marx and his followers opposed to liberal democracy and individual rights... they didn't however think that they were against human rights. Nov 22, 2023 at 20:56

4 Answers 4


Three critiques of human rights

Three main critiques from the left are:

  1. Some of these rights are embedded in a particular culture and putting one's own culture's idea of human rights over another person's culture's idea of fundamental principles is imperialist and colonialist.

This analysis rejects the notion that at least some human rights (e.g. freedom of religion), are actually "universal" even though it may accept that other human rights (e.g. the right to be free of torture without good cause) are universal.

  1. Some human rights presuppose economic conditions and circumstances that aren't universal.

For example, Islamic law punishes criminal-type conduct with corporal punishment or the death penalty (much as Western countries did before the mid- to late-1800s), while universal concepts of human rights treat the death penalty and most corporal punishment as universally wrong. But, if you have a society that doesn't have the economic capacity to incarcerate people who intentionally seriously harm others without justification for a long time, there may be no other practical solution.

Similarly, what is important in terms of treating men and women fairly with respect to each other (which is implicated by gender related human rights in Western drafted documents) may look different in a society when high death rates for children mean that women need to average six to eight children (which given natural miscarriage rates in even ideal circumstances mean something between nine to twelve pregnancies) per lifetime, and start having children immediately upon entering into a marriage-like relationship, for the society to avoid massive population losses, than it does in a modern Western society.

In other words, if societies where the vast majority of women aren't pregnant or nursing continuously for two decades or more experience far more deaths than births, the freedom of women to choose another path may not work, unless formulated very differently than these rights are today.

  1. There is debate over the extent to which affirmative economic guarantees should be human rights (e.g. the right to food, shelter, and medical care) or should include private conduct.

One conception of human rights is on limitations on the state, another is of what should be mandatory for the state to do, and a third conception also focused on the human rights implications of private conduct where the state isn't involved.

Critiques of democracy

Some on the left argue that democracy is just a means to an end.

A non-democratic system, like Hong Kong for most of its colonial era, might have better laws and more just governments, than democratic countries without the legal and economic infrastructure of a well-established democracy.

After all, nobody gets to personally decide what laws and leaders govern them anyway.

A democratic process is believed to produce good outcomes, but this is often demonstrably untrue. Democracies can produce leaders who make objectively or morally bad choices or may deprive people of their human rights. Also, sometimes unpopular decisions are necessary for a society to survive.

Democracy needs a certain political culture and a certain supply of people capable of operating it on a day-to-day basis to work. Where the preconditions for a successful democratic system aren't present, it may not make sense.

This is compounded by the fact that many manifestations of democracy are not all equally desirable. It has long been recognized in leftist political writing that while democracy has virtues, that a tyranny of the majority, which is democracy in its simplest form, isn't desirable either.


None of these criticisms necessarily has wide or universal acceptance in the left.

Usually the left favors human rights.

Even those who acknowledge these criticisms argue that they are less relevant as the world homogenizes in important ways.

The overall trend has been for the economic and constraining circumstances of people all over the world to grow more similar not less, as things like modern medicine have spread more widely. Indeed, there is an argument that affirmative human rights are necessary so that make circumstances denials of human rights make sense, don't happen.

Details From The Question

I wonder how “democracy” may very well be - in the style of contemporary critical theory - a rhetorical illusion which actually upholds power, because it is used to make people believe they are free, when there are an inordinate number of things you are not allowed to do,


I also wonder if “human rights” are similarly, not what they present themselves as.

The musings in the question are far afield of what all but the ivory tower extremes of political philosophy would even contemplate (e.g. the notion that a monarchy could be a democracy - words mean more than their Latin or Greek roots do).

The notion that anything that lets anyone exercise any sort of power is somehow fraudulent is likewise limited to extremes in the ivory tower than the kind of real-world activists who blow up buildings.

Nobody who actually participates in or practices non-violent politics believes this in the crass form suggested by the question.

The more mainstream formulation would be that democratic processes by governments that strive to protect human rights are a big part of what makes the exercise of power by people who have power in those political systems legitimate.

In the short run, legitimacy derives from holding power in fact, and having acquired it in a manner supported by tradition and widely held social norms. But those norms are sustained, in part, because the process is at least roughly designed to carry out the will of the people (i.e. because they are democratic), and is done in a way that protects essential individual prerogatives (i.e. because they respect human rights).

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    Might add in things such as the ability to lie or stretch the truth in regards to free speech and freedom of the press
    – Joe W
    Jun 29, 2023 at 19:23
  • Good answer. One thing I'd like to nitpick - Islamic law punishes criminal-type conduct with corporal punishment. That is a poor understanding of Islamic law. Yes, punishments under Islamic laws are extremely harsh and even medieval - your rape someone, you will be stoned to death, you rob, your hands will be cut etc. But, Islamic law is not just retributive justice and also encourages victims to show compassion and gives them the right to accept a lesser punishment for the criminal by negotiating a fair restitution or even completely forgive them. The US practices something similar (1/2)
    – sfxedit
    Jun 29, 2023 at 20:39
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    to this wherein punishments are very harsh, but the prosecution can still offer you "deals" with lesser punishment for confessing or cooperating with them. The major difference is that in Islamic law negotiations happen between the criminal and the victim, while in the US it is between the criminal and the state. The underlying logic of both systems are that harsher punishments act as deterrent and make the criminal more willing to negotiate, and in reality the harsh punishments are rare because most criminals do choose to negotiate. (2/2)
    – sfxedit
    Jun 29, 2023 at 20:48
  • @sfxedit This still falls within some variant of reasons 1 and 2. Many human rights declarations declare the the death penalty is per se a violation of human rights, for example. A leftist critique of those human rights declarations would assert that there are factors that make those violations tolerable in the context of how they are handled. I'm not offering a full treatise on Islamic law in criminal matters. I am merely pointing out the Islamic law is frequently described as violating human rights, and that there are some arguments from the leftist perspective to the contrary.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 29, 2023 at 22:23
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    One last, perhaps generic critique is that some interpretations of human rights are so broadly protective of conduct that they unjustly permit harm. For example, many countries outside the US limit the freedom of speech intended to incite hatred against a protected group, whereas the US does not. Jun 30, 2023 at 8:31

Well, it is kind of like you just said - one progressive critique is that there are many forms of democracy. The thing is that in modern times, we generally see modern Western democracy as the best form of democracy, but this might harm democracy and come under criticism. While there have been democracies around the world, not all of them are Western liberal democracies and there have been plenty of other forms of democracy in human history that can fit various cultures around the world like:

  • Constitutional monarchies with democratic republics like Ancient Carthage from 480 BC to 146 BC as described in the book Violence, Civil Strife and Revolution in the Classical City: 750-330 BC

  • Anarchodistributist republics like the Republic of Cospaia in Europe from 1440 to 1826

  • Democratic confederacies like the Haudenosaunee Native American nation from the 13th century to 1794

  • Democratic elective monarchies where the common people elect a monarch who has strict limits to their power like the Nri Kingdom that lasted from about 900 AD to 1911 AD

  • Oligarchic republics with popular representation for the common people like the Republic of Ancona made in 1000 AD from a group of Jews, Catholics, and Humanists that came together to form an independent nation that lasted till 1532 & produced advancements in navigation as well as various forms of art that united Roman art with Byzantine art.

  • Anarcho-mutualism, a form of social libertarian democracy based on individuals and groups would be exchanging products with one another based on mutually satisfactory contracts, property being owned based on usufructs where people only own property if they use it to provide goods/services or occupy it, and private banks are replaced by credit unions or mutual-savings banks. This is practiced by the community of FEJUVE.

Basically, modern 'democracy' treats it as if Western representative democracy is the only option for democracy with American political scientist Francis Fukuyama once declaring Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government in his book The End of History and the Last Man.



Therefore, I invite answers regarding political philosophers who have expanded on these ideas: ... and a more precise formulation and set of reasons of what “rules” there should be, amongst us all, and why?

See Plato's Republic.

Democracy vs Republic.

Although the terms have become conflated and synonymous mostly because democracies don't exist in the modern world. They have been replaced by Republics. Governments run by representatives elected by the people rather than the masses voting on each decision. Republics are organized to mandate consensus by diversified representatives with checks and balances across different branches of government, all occurring under an overarching set of laws or Constitution.

The Republic was designed by Plato after a democracy (Athens) executed his teacher (Socrates). Plato called this the tyranny of the majority and designed to Republic to solve this inherent weaknesses of Democracies. Protecting the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority.


There are about a billion academic books on democracy out there. I'd suggest you start with Robert Dahl's "On Democracy" and Hannah Arendt's "The Human Condition", but the sky's the limit.

However, please allow me to clear up some misconceptions. First, democracy isn't just 'people rule' as its etymology suggests. The term 'democracy' implies a system in which the power of making collective rules and decision rests (in whole or part) with the whole of the citizenry. Aristotle made a distinction between six types of governance, in three pairs:

  • Democracy, or rule by the masses
  • Polity, or rule by the mass of dedicated citizens
  • Oligarchy, or rule by the wealthy and powerful
  • Aristocray, or rule by entitled elites
  • Tyranny, or imposed rule by a single individual
  • Kingship, or accepted rule by a single individual

The first in each pair is considered a less virtuous form, which makes democracy Aristotles' least favorite type of governance. But in modern usage, people tend to use 'democracy' to mean what Aristotle called a polity, and 'demagoguery' to refer to what Aristotle called democracy. Millennia are not kind to language…

The modern term 'democracy' implies that the mass of citizens have a meaningful input and influence over the rules and decisions made for the community as a whole. Many states might call themselves 'democratic' without granting any such power to citizens, but that doesn't change the meaning of the term. It merely means those states are, you know… lying. Most modern democracies use a republican format, where the mass of citizens indirectly influences rules and decisions by electing representatives. That has its pros and cons, but still qualifies as democratic. Kingships, oligarchies, tyrannies, and aristocracies cannot be considered democratic except by a deep perversion of the concept, where the ruler(s) are the only ones considered 'citizens', and everyone else is merely a subject.

Human rights are an aspirational extension of this democratic concept. The principles of human rights assert that every human should have basic security and control over their own selves and lives; in short, that they should be able to influence the rules and decisions of their community to prevent oppressive force against themselves. It's a more difficult concept than democracy because it effectively suggests that everyone should have 'democratic-type' rights even in non-democratic regimes.

At any rate, the central ideal of democratic philosophy is that people should be able to choose, or at least influence, the laws, rules, and conditions under which they live. There is no perfect of exact form of democracy; instead, it's a system that minimizes oppression by decentering authority.

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