’Tis a strange world indeed where those of us who appreciate the literary style of Cicero, the poetic genius of Shakespeare and the philosophical depth of Goethe find ourselves defending a publication like “Charlie Hebdo”. But defended it we have! Immediately following the massacre in Paris, we joined the chorus of voices that cried out: “Je suis Charlie!“ For many of us, however, the matter is more complicated that the simple asseveration indicates. If we pose the question today: “Suis-je vraiment Charlie?”, the answer must be more differentiated than it was in the hours and days following the tragedy. My outrage at the perpetration of violence against the cartoonists and my sympathy for the families whose lives have been shattered by this tragedy remain fresh in my mind. So if you ask me in this regard: “Are you Charlie?”, the answer is still: “Yes!“ But if we go a step further and consider the character of this publication, its aim and its style, my answer would be: “No”. I understand that this satirical publication in comic form is intended to evoke and provoke dialogue. I do not think, however, that it represents the best tradition of French satire, and I am skeptical that it really evokes the kind of productive dialogue that is so urgently needed in Western societies today. In an article that appeared in the Zürich newspaper (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, Jan. 9), Marc Zitzmann pointed out correctly that “Charlie Hebdo” has much more in common with the latrine graffiti of the old Roman soldiers than with the elevated satire of the French Enlightenment period as exemplified in the writings of Voltaire. In spite of the almost childish vulgarity of “Charlie Hebdo”, I do not in any way question its right of free speech, and it would be in my opinion a grave error to legally limit the freedom of the press in order to restrict the content of such publications. I simply raise the question about the prudence of exercising the right in particular situations.
So my concern really goes beyond the Paris massacre to the more fundamental issue of civil or human rights. As essential as the concept of human rights has been and still is in Western societies, it has proven to be inadequate in certain situations as a reliable guide to just conduct. There are numerous situations in which the rights of one person conflict with the rights of another so that some other standard must be applied in order to decide the matter. Rights, by their very nature, tend to be abstract, whereas moral and ethical decisions are always concrete and contextual. Therefore, the exercise of a particular right without regard to the concrete circumstances at hand can lead to results that are morally questionable, i.e. dubiously just. What we need is an approach to moral reflection that supplements the notion of rights, and in my most recent public talks, I have suggested that the concept of the “common good” would serve this purpose well. From this perspective, two questions must be raised with regard to a particular course of action. 1) Do I have the right, morally and/or legally, to act in such a way? 2) If I exercise my right in this concrete situation, am I likely to promote the common good? Or to be more specific: If my aim is to promote constructive dialogue, am I likely to accomplish it by exercising my right at this time and at this place? The concept of human or civil rights is a relatively modern concept, not clearly attested before the seventeenth century. On the other hand, the concept of the common good dates back to antiquity and probably originated with the Stoics. If we could combine the concept of human rights and the common good, much would be gained for the future welfare of our society.