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July 9, 2009

David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, and Iran

I caught myself wondering what David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher and mitigated skeptic, would make of the Iranian government and the politics it seems to engender. This may be an unhelpful idea and certainly Iran is a bit of a mystery in many respects. All of this is speculative but it might be interesting to explore. How might Hume have gone about examining the constitutional and political life of Iran?

It is hard to be certain where Hume would have started but it is clear that he would not have started on any a priori basis.

There are certain features of the Iranian Government that Hume would have easily taken notice of. It is a mixed form of government with authoritarian and democratic elements. It is also a theocracy and this would have immediately caused Hume to be suspicious. Such a mixed constitution would suggest to Hume, in line with the analysis he made of 18th century constitutions, the possibility of conflict of interest amongst the supporters of the various elements. He would have started with experience and the most striking experience, an experience in which demonstrations were quickly and readily encountered with violence, is a possible starting point. He would note the passions that were involved on both sides and would wonder at how these came to be unleashed and what forces or means would be available to reconcile them (as a liberal-minded person he would be interested in promoting harmony) in order to restore stability.

To say that the Islamic Republic does not lie and therefore the criticisms that the elections were invalid because of cheating were not justified is to appeal to authority (in this case the alleged moral authority of the Islamic Republic). It has also the potential of reasoning in a circle. The empiricists answer would have been to undertake an empirical investigation of the facts concerning the way in which the election was run, supervised and the results recorded. The Supreme Leader's statement was consistent with his belief but not with the belief of countless others who felt that there was an element of fraud in the election outcome. The very construction of the decision and the terms in which it was communicated (an unexamined faith in the state) substituted an act of faith for an act of reflection or of investigation. This is itself would be enough to generate instability given the number of protesters involved. If the role of the Supreme Leader and the associated Council is really that of a kind of constitutional court or something of that order then the normal order/rules of such a body is that evidence is expected to come before any final decision. Hume would wish to know the rules that constrain actions at this level. The appeal to authority also implied that those involved in protesting were essentially disloyal to an ideal.

Hume would have also looked at the composition of political parties or sects/factions (depending on how he may have adapted 18th century terminology). Hume, in looking at factions in his day divided them into factions "from interest, from principle and from affection". It is clear that the interest of North Tehran differ from those of Ahmadinejad's supporters (poorer people from other parts of the city and country). Interests for Hume are significant, understandable and can be objectively demonstrated. In this there may be the possibility of trade-off between interests. It is in the interests of both the rich and poor in Iran that Iran be stable and prosperous. But there has to be a means by which the trade-offs can be articulated. However support for Ahmadinejad from the poor may also mean that the "affection" principle also applies.

Those factions that stem from principle are more difficult because they cannot readily accommodate any other point of view or easily find a basis in compromise. Iran's governmental structure has strong theocratic and non-negotiable political elements. Hume would suggest that such theocratic minds would be "impatient of opposition" even with respect to minor matters of opinion. There would be, in such circumstances, a general tendency to repression. Challenging the results of an election process in the context of different interests and a well-defined party of principle is likely to result in rigidity and rejection. Hume would not have been surprised on the basis of past experience. For Hume bad constitutions insisted upon when times, circumstances or "manners" change, give rise to ongoing instability as the Roman constitution did towards the end of the Roman Republic.

Where clergy are involved in government, at whatever level, then they can, according to Hume, also become parties of interest. Hume might wonder whether the conflict between the moral authority of the given religion and the actual political practices would rupture or reinforce such associations. Rupturing may be starting to happen in Iran. Hume would probably wish to identify the interests and hence the self-interests of the clergy within the existing government system. His general view of religion was that it itself would engender misguided ideas and hence misjudged and authoritarian political actions. On that basis alone he would hope for their removal. Tranquility, imposed by suppression, for Hume would not mean the elimination of various interests, merely their transformation into something "more real and more pernicious". Suppressing demands for greater democracy will simply prolong the instability. Blaming foreigners, an act which most Iranians must regard as ludicrous, and as evidence of the state's capacity to lie, side-steps the moral issues. Given the authoritarian response (no cheating by definition) the blame has to be allocated somewhere.