Europe as a Prototype for a Global Open Society

The following talk was delivered at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. George Soros is founder and chair of the Open Society Institute.

Europe is in search of its identity. I don’t think one needs to look very far. To my mind, the European Union embodies the principles of an open society and it ought to serve as a model and motive force for a global open society. 

Let me explain what I mean. 

The concept of open society was first used by the French philosopher Henri Bergson in his book The Two Sources of Morality and Religion published in 1932. One source is tribal and that leads to a closed society whose members feel an affinity for each other and fear or hostility toward the other tribes. By contrast, the other source is universal and leads to an open society which is guided by universal human rights and seeks to protect and promote the freedom of the individual. 

This scheme was modified by the Austrian-born British philosopher, Karl Popper in his seminal book The Open Society and Its Enemies published in 1944. He pointed out that open society can be endangered by abstract, universal ideologies like communism and fascism which claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth. 

Popper was a philosopher of science and he argued that the ultimate truth is beyond the reach of the human intellect. Even scientific theories cannot be verified beyond doubt; they can only be falsified and it is only the fact that they can be falsified that qualifies them as scientific. We cannot base our decisions on knowledge alone and our imperfect understanding introduces an element of uncertainty into the world in which we live that is very difficult to cope with. 

Ideologies like communism and fascism seek to eliminate uncertainty but they suffer from a fatal flaw: they are bound to be false and misleading exactly because they claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth. These ideologies can be imposed on society only by using various forms of repression. By contrast, an open society accepts the uncertainties inherent in our imperfect understanding (or fallibility), and seeks to establish laws and institutions which allow people with divergent views and interests to live together in peace. The distinguishing feature of these laws and institutions is that they safeguard the freedom of the individual.

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