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Prof. Martin van Hees: 'Catalogue of values must not become list of obvious obligations'

13 January 2009

Recently, Minister Ter Horst announced that the cabinet was working on a ‘catalogue of values’. The catalogue will describe what good citizenship is. Martin van Hees, professor of ethics and political theory at the University of Groningen, is sceptical. In his view, the cabinet must first produce some good arguments in favour of such a catalogue. ‘You have to do a thorough problem analysis, something that goes further than “ambulance personnel are being threatened”.’

In the Volkskrant interview where Ter Horst speaks about the catalogue of values, she gives a number of examples of ‘good citizenship’. For example, not swearing anonymously on the internet, or joining a political party. These are the wrong examples, in Van Hees’s opinion. ‘We’ve only got the interview to go on, of course, but I think it’s strange that she only gives examples of obligations and none of values.  Values are the starting points that we think are important. Safety is a good example. These values then lead to certain norms – rules of behaviour that say what is and is not permitted. When you are talking about obligations you’re actually talking about norms and not values. And that’s where the paradox is created – the government wants responsible citizens, and presents them with a list of obligations.’


Incidentally, the emphasis on obligations can be explained, thinks Van Hees. Certain difficult choices have to be made in a catalogue of values. ‘Which values are important to us? Which are not? Do we choose privacy or security? Do we want a pluriform society or more uniformity? These are far-reaching choices that will lead to political fireworks.’ This is why he thinks that there is a great chance that the catalogue will become no more than a list of obvious obligations.

Rights and obligations

The cabinet wants to launch the catalogue of values because although citizens seem to be well aware of their rights, they are not so aware of their obligations. Van Hees thinks that’s complete nonsense. ‘It’s by definition impossible for anyone to be aware of their rights and not of their obligations. The two are not independent of each other. For example, the right to vote automatically implies the obligation that no-one is allowed to prevent me from voting.’

Neutral government

Nevertheless, Van Hees is not automatically against a catalogue of values. ‘In principle I’m in favour of a neutral government. This means a government that does not decide for me what a good life is. In some instances exceptions can be made, however. For example, if neutrality meant that certain philosophies of life would be threatened by the behaviour of others – in that case non-interference by the government would automatically mean a choice for a certain philosophy of life.’ But, he thinks, if the government in those cases wants to abandon its neutrality, it must prove beyond doubt that the problems do in fact exist and that has not happened yet. ‘You have to do a thorough problem analysis, something that goes further than “ambulance personnel are being threatened”. You must be able to make clear what exactly is going wrong.’ Incidentally, we must then also beware that we do not allow ourselves to be too influenced by negative experiences. ‘We are usually only aware of norms and values if they are transgressed. I’m not saying that everything is perfect, but there are a lot of things that are going well.’

Rules of behaviour

But how can you ensure that the values in your catalogue of values are reinstated? The ideal that social change can be effected by government is returning in all its glory, thinks Van Hees, with all that that implies. ‘People are not going to automatically translate values, even those they are aware of, into rules of behaviour. It’s the same as people not thinking that the warnings on cigarette packets apply to them. The government is thus going to have to translate the values into concrete rules of behaviour itself. And that’s no easy matter. Take justice, for example. How can that value be expressed in rules of behaviour? There are many different ways.’ In addition, the subcultures also determine how a certain value should be translated. ‘The liveability value in a district with lots of students will lead to completely different rules of behaviour than in one where no students live.’

1950s mores

Opponents think that the mores of the 1950s permeate the catalogue of values. ‘You could refer to it as patronizing but I don’t think that’s a very strong criticism. If there are good reasons, there’s not much wrong with patronizing. I do it to my children sometimes. The real problem is that it’s not yet clear what the reasons are.’ However, Van Hees thinks that the government has to try to translate the values into rights and not into obligations. ‘For example, Ter Horst mentioned the idea of making money available to citizens to smarten up their district, with an eye to liveability. I think that’s a great idea.’

Curriculum vitae

Martin van Hees is professor of Ethics and Political Theory. He studied Philosophy and Political Science in Rotterdam, then worked in Nijmegen and Enschede and has been a member of the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen since 1998. This year he will be rounding off an extensive NWO-VICI research programme – ‘Modelling Freedom’. This research concentrates on normative questions concerning the foundations of ethical and political liberalism. Of particular interest is the analysis of the concept of freedom and the defence and foundation of individual rights.


Prof. M.V.B.P.M. van Hees

Last modified:30 November 2017 4.53 p.m.
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