Wednesday, 2 October 2019

On the Principles of Convivial Governance

This is the second in a set of four essays outlining my system of minimal governance, which I call convivial governance. Today, I’ll discuss the four fundamental principles, on which it is based: Equality (moral equality), Justice (common sense justice), Rights and Freedom. And I’ll introduce what I call the Convivial Code. That is, the core list of ethical principles, which constitute the rules of convivial conduct.

I’ll also describe the “agreement to vary,” which allows societies and individuals, by mutual agreement, to add to or to deviate from the Convivial Code in their dealings with each other. And I’ll ask: From where will convivial governance, and the Convivial Code which represents its ethical core, get their authority and their right to claim obedience?

Moral equality

The first of the fundamental principles of convivial governance is equality – moral equality. Every individual is morally equal. Or, as I’ve put it elsewhere: “What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa.”

The basis of my argument for moral equality is not unlike John Rawls’ “original position” thought experiment. If you were behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing into what social position you were going to be born, what kind of moral set-up would you prefer? One where everyone is morally equal, and may do the same things in the same circumstances as anyone else? Or one of moral inequality, in which a minority – of kings or princes, say – can do what they like, and ride roughshod over the wills and interests of everyone else? Few, I think, would pick the latter. For the likelihood of being born an oppressed commoner would grossly outweigh the minuscule chance of being born a prince.

And to those who still quibble over the moral equality principle, I say: Exactly who do you think is to be allowed moral privilege over others? How much? When? For what reasons? Who are you to decide? And why should you yourself not be thrown down to the very bottom of the heap?

The Convivial Code

From this principle of moral equality, it follows that there exists a moral code of what is right and wrong. And this is independent of time, place, culture or the social status of an individual.

To see this, try the following thought experiment. Take a large (large!) sheet of paper, and make two column headings: Act and Circumstance. Then write down pairs of acts and circumstances, in which the act is wrong for any human being to do under the circumstance, and should be prohibited. Any such prohibition must apply equally to all individuals. Continue until you have covered all such situations you can think of. Then take another sheet (rather smaller), and do the same for acts which are required. In other words, it’s wrong not to do the act under the circumstances. When finished, you have your moral code. The first sheet lists its prohibitions, the second its mandates.

I call this code of core ethical rules the Convivial Code. It is, in essence, the “law of the land” for convivial people; the Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun calls it the “laws of conviviality.”

The Convivial Code will also specify those conditions under which individuals may reasonably break the Code, and at what level they may do so. (For example, to use an appropriate level of physical violence in self-defence).

But… does this code actually contain anything?

Before anyone gets too excited, I’d point out that some thinkers have opined that such a code would be empty. Will Durant, for example, wrote to the effect that if you added up all the behaviours considered sacred by some culture, then subtracted all the behaviours considered taboo by some culture, you would end up with nothing.

But fortunately, we don’t need to get our core Convivial Code spot-on right. For using the idea of “agreement to vary,” societies can agree among their members, or individuals or societies can agree by mutual consent, to use additional or different rules above and beyond the core list, or to waive certain rules between themselves. So, we can simply put into our core list whatever we think is right for dealings between strangers, who might be from different cultures. We can then leave societies and individuals to agree to “do their own thing” if they feel they need to.

Constructing, agreeing and maintaining the code

The initial construction and agreement of the Convivial Code will, of course, be a mammoth undertaking. That demands a whole essay in itself. For now, all I’ll say is that we need to extract its essence from many different sources. From Confucius’ Golden Rule, for example. From the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” – the only half decent thing the UN ever did. From the Judaeo-Christian Ten Commandments. From the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. And from many other sources of ethical wisdom from the sages of the ages.

Once done, there may from time to time be reasons to change the Code. I envisage this would be unusual, happening perhaps once in a generation. The procedure would need to be (deliberately) ponderous; probably requiring something on a similar scale to a Constitutional Convention. I call this, of course, a Convivial Convention. And “agreement to vary” would always allow people to keep on using an older version, if it suits them.

Thus, once the Convivial Code is in place, convivial governance will not have any need for a sitting (or even a standing!) legislature. This, I think, is a major step forward; for it gets rid of all opportunities to make screeds of bad laws, and all rationale for having political parties.

Moreover, the Convivial Code has no statute of limitations. As I said earlier, it is independent of time, place, culture or the social status of an individual. It applies to everyone, throughout their lives. And because human nature changes on a scale far slower than the length of an individual’s lifetime, it will apply also to actions in the past, before its promulgation.

Whence the Convivial Code?

Where does the Convivial Code come from? It arises out of the nature of human beings to be convivial; that is, to live together (and to live together as well as possible). Ultimately, it comes from our nature as human beings, as opposed to mere animals. I’ll repeat what I’ve said elsewhere on the subject of human nature:

“We human beings are individuals. And we have free will. But we have also an ethical dimension. We are moral agents, who strive to know right from wrong. And we are naturally good; that is, our nature leads us to seek to do what is right. Even though, obviously, some among us fail to develop that nature.

“Furthermore, it is in our nature to form societies and to build civilization. And at a higher level yet, it is in our nature to be creative. It is this creativity which elevates us above mere animals.”


The second of the fundamental principles, which underlie convivial governance, is justice. I earlier defined justice (common sense justice) as: “the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run, in the round and as far as practicable, as he or she treats others.”

As with the principle of moral equality, I have a quasi-Rawlsian justification for this idea. Behind your veil of ignorance, what kind of justice would you pick? One where everyone is treated, as far as practicable, as they treat others? Or one where some are able to behave like assholes, and to get away with it on a regular basis? While others, who try always to behave peacefully and honestly, are exploited by the assholes, and punished for “bad” things they haven’t done? To me, it’s a no-brainer.

Moreover, a key benefit of this form of justice is that it gives an incentive to behave well towards others. If you want to be treated better by others, all you need do is find a way of treating others better, of making yourself more valuable to others. Thus, the implementation, within convivial governance, of common sense justice will lead towards order; Frank van Dun’s convivial order.

But any implementation of common sense justice must aim to be practical. The target in practice must be to minimize injustice, and to avoid gross or persistent treatment of individuals worse than they treat others. Thus, the courts, judges, arbitrators and support services, which implement justice as part of convivial governance, will not take decisions lightly. They will be required to be as objective as possible, as quantitative as possible, and as impartial and even-handed as possible. And they must be meticulous in their decisions and in their record-keeping.

I will have more to say in a later essay about the justice system within convivial governance. For now, I’ll just say that it will cover at least restitution for wrongs, compensation for unavoidable nuisance or risk, disconviviality (otherwise known as crime), resolution of disputes, and contracts. It will judge, where necessary, disputes between individuals or societies, such as claims for harm suffered. It will judge cases such as libel and divorce, as needed. And it will adjudicate disputes between societies and their members; such as where someone wants to leave a society, against the wishes of the committee or the membership. It will also route compensation payments – for example, for noise or air pollution, which cannot be cost-effectively abated – to those to whom the compensation is due.

It will include safeguards, such as “due process” in all cases, the presumption of innocence and a right to a public trial for criminal accusations. And where they are compatible with conviviality, it will continue to use the procedures of local systems of law.


One of the functions of convivial governance is to defend the rights – such as life (in the negative sense), security of person, property, privacy, and right to means of self-defence – of everyone who respects the equal rights of others. Rights are the “other side of the coin” to the prohibitions and mandates of the Convivial Code. I like to put this as follows: “Provided you behave as a convivial human being, you have the right to be treated as a convivial human being.”

One important point is that, in convivial governance, rights can sometimes be trumped by justice. For example, someone, that has behaved in a disconvivial way, can have some of their rights taken away for a time. This parallels the imprisonment of a convicted criminal under today’s systems. Or someone that has caused objective damage to others, can have some of their property taken away in order to provide compensation to the victim or victims.

But these situations apart, convivial governance must always adhere to one of the most fundamental of all ethical rules: “First, do no harm.” It must never violate anyone’s rights without a good and objective reason.


Freedom is the fourth and last of the fundamental principles of convivial governance. Freedom of thought and action are the default for everyone at all times, unless there is good reason to the contrary under the circumstances. This includes freedom of movement, of peaceful association, of opinion, expression and communication, and of religion. I like to put this as: “Except where countermanded by the Convivial Code, by due process of justice or by the requirement to respect others’ rights, every individual is free to choose and to act as he or she wishes.”

One particularly important freedom under convivial governance is that those, who so wish, may form their own associations and communes in which to live. Thus, a group of people who share a particular lifestyle, or religious belief, or political ideology, can live together under their own set of rules, as long as they obey the Convivial Code in all their dealings with outsiders.

Agreement to vary

In convivial governance, a key idea is “agreement to vary” the provisions of the Convivial Code. Such agreements must be recorded in writing and signed by all the parties. They must, of course, be fair both to the parties and to everyone else, and they must be, in a real sense, “reasonable.”

Through such an agreement, societies can agree with their members, if they so wish, extra rules over and above the core in their dealings among themselves. An example might be a religious society, which demands that its members obey dietary restrictions, such as not eating pork or not drinking alcohol, which arise from tenets of the religion.

Another use of agreement to vary will be to waive certain provisions of the Convivial Code when needed. For example, aggressively punching people will be forbidden by the Convivial Code. But a boxing club will want to allow its members to punch each other, under certain rules, in training or in an actual fight. Indeed, it may want to contract with another boxing club to allow a specific member or members of one club to box against a specific member or members of the other.

Individuals and societies can also agree, by mutual consent, to waive certain provisions of the core rules, either for one transaction or on a more regular basis. For example, a sports club might waive the requirement to compensate for injuries caused while playing the sport, if the parties are willing to take the risk.

Whence the “authority” of convivial governance?

Lastly, the question of where the “authority” of convivial governance will come from. Why should people obey and support such governance?

Before I tackle that question, I’ll first ask, where does “authority” come from under current political systems? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers. In the UK for example, it may come from the “sovereignty” of Silly Lizzie. A rich old woman, who lives in a castle, and has never done a day’s honest, productive work in her life. With a husband that wants to be re-incarnated as a pox to kill off humanity, and a son and heir that is not only a deep-green maniac, but a hypocrite too.

Or it may come from “democracy.” This is a system, under which people are allowed to vote to select from among a number of candidates, none of which are worth voting for. And the majority is supposed to get its way over the minority (or not, if the political class disagree; as over Brexit).

Or it may come from a “parliament” of psychopathic politicians, that care nothing for anyone except themselves and their followers and cronies; have no interest in anything except their damned politics and their own privileged positions in it; and couldn’t keep a promise even if they wanted to. Or it may come from a bunch of unelected, unaccountable, activist globalists and bureaucrats in places like Brussels or New York.

Given all that, maybe I don’t need to answer my original question. But I will, anyway. The authority of the Convivial Code comes from inside ourselves. It comes from human nature – from the nature of all peaceful, honest, productive human beings. And the authority of common sense justice, as implemented by convivial governance, comes from a deep sense of what is right and what is wrong, and from the objective, even-handed and meticulous nature of its processes.

To sum up

The first principle of convivial governance is moral equality; everyone is morally equal. From this flows the existence of a Convivial Code, a moral code of what is right and wrong, which is independent of time, place, culture or the social status of an individual. Moreover, individuals and societies, and societies and their members, can mutually agree to add to or to vary the conditions of the Convivial Code to fit their particular situations. And once constructed and agreed, the Code will abolish the need for any permanent legislature.

The second principle of convivial governance is justice. That is, common sense justice; the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run, in the round and as far as practicable, as he or she treats others.

The third principle of convivial governance is defence of the rights of every individual who respects others’ equal rights. But rights can, at need, be trumped by justice; for example, to secure compensation to victims, or to forestall a repeat of a disconvivial act.

The fourth and last principle of convivial governance is maximum freedom for every individual. Except where countermanded by the Convivial Code, by due process of justice or by the requirement to respect others’ rights, every individual is free to choose and to act as he or she wishes.

Finally, the authority of the Convivial Code and of common sense justice comes from inside ourselves. It arises from our nature as human beings.

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