The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Horotiu: What does a liberal democracy do with mythological beasts?


If you’re not from New Zealand you may never have heard of a taniwha, a creature from Maori mythology that lives in the deep. While some such creatures were good, serving as protectors of an area, some of these monsters were killers who, like dragons in myths from other nations, needed to be taken care of by taniwha slayers.

There have even been the occasional Nessie/Bigfoot style sightings. More seriously however, A couple of times in modern history, local Iwi (Maori tribal groups) have sought to halt construction or development projects because, according to them, they would disrupt an area that is occupied by a one of these creatures, a taniwha.

A few days ago the issue was raised again in Auckland:

Auckland’s dream train project, the $2.6 billion city loop, might have another problem to face – Horotiu the taniwha.

While the government says the project is un-economic, Mayor Len Brown has staked his political future on a tunnel under the central city linking Britomart station to Mt Eden.

But, says Maori Statutory Board member Glenn Wilcox, no one has asked the local Ngati Whatua about it at all.

And they are supposed to as the iwi was here first, he said.

“What’s being done about the taniwha Horotiu who lives just outside here, and that tunnel will be going right through his rohe (area),” Wilcox told the Auckland City Council’s transport committee.


Horotiu, this beast of the deep, now has two Twitter accounts. Our Prime Minister John Key has said that he doesn’t believe that such things exist. But setting the lighter side to one side, there lurks in the deep of this issue a serious question about how pluralism functions in a liberal democracy. A friend said on Facebook on the rail tunnel issue: “to expect Maori to forgo their beliefs is a bit of a stink call.” The comment reflects a wider concern in political philosophy about the respect that we owe our fellow citizen who holds to a different belief set than we do. The question is this:

What does respect require of us when it comes to the beliefs of our fellow citizens that we do not share? As fellow citizens – that is, as members of political society, involved with public decision making, supporting or opposing proposed laws, public projects etc – the issue often never presents itself. For example, the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead, even if everyone accepted it, is never going to interfere with a construction project or a proposed method of electricity generation. Nor is belief in Karma, the Raelian belief that humanity was put on earth by aliens, or the Mormon belief (presumably no longer held) that there are people living on the moon. All that respect requires in these cases, I would think, is that we don’t try to force people to change their mind. Disagree with them, argue with them if you feel moved to, try to persuade them, fine, but the existence of beliefs that we find crazy is tolerated nonetheless.

But to what extent should the fact claims of some be allowed to restrict the actions of others? The issue is further complicated in the case of Horotiu the taniwha, since their taxes or rates are being used to fund the projects that they object to, and that is an issue in its own right. So let us simplify the scenario by eliminating that aspect. What if I am willing to fund the project out of my own pocket and build a rail tunnel, and everybody was willing to allow my project to go ahead except for a small number who objected on the grounds that it might upset a sea monster that they say they believe in, but which I am sure does not even exist?

Overlapping consensus

One solution to problems like this, attractive to many, was that of political scientist John Rawls. His answer took a form called overlapping consensus. Imagine that everyone’s set of beliefs, values and goals is represented by a circle – one circle per person. Society is made up of many circles, since it is made up of many people. But people, different though they may be, are not completely dissimilar to each other. In fact it may even be the case that in one society, pluralistic though it is, our circles more often than not. Still, with thousands or millions of people involved, even though my circle will largely overlap with a lot of other people, as the number of people and their diversity increases, the area of overlap decreases.

Here’s a picture of New Zealand society. There we are – all those circles. Of course there are more circles than this in reality, but as you can see with only a few, the lines make quite a tangled mess – apart from the area where they all intersect. Overlapping consensus is the red zone. It’s the consensus that we all share on policies and laws that are compatible with all of our beliefs, values and goals. If you’re going to advocate a policy or a law that will be imposed on society, then it needs to be a policy in the red zone, one that enjoys overlapping consensus. Of course, your reasons for supporting that policy might be wildly different from mine, which may be wildly different from the next guy’s reasons. But what’s important is that we all do support it in light of whatever beliefs, values and goals each of us has.

So – how would the principle of overlapping consensus inform a stoush over a taniwha? First of all we need to identify what the policy in question is. Perhaps it’s not a policy, law or practice about a taniwha that somebody is trying to impose. It’s a construction project (a tunnel). So the relevant question is: Is the building of this tunnel in the red zone? Does it have overlapping consensus? Clearly not. Those members of society who believe that the building of the tunnel is wrong because it would either disturb or upset a taniwha do not support the project. But this is probably the wrong way to view the situation. This construction project is an action to which policies apply, and in this case somebody has raised the objection that this project should be restricted because of some sort of rule or policy about taniwha. We should, then, look at the situation in reverse: Some people are trying to create a policy that specific areas should not be developed or built on, as it will upset taniwha. If this is construed as a policy, even as a more generalised policy like “these areas should not be developed or built on,” is it a policy in the red zone? Clearly not. For while those who believe that these areas are inhabited by a taniwha might have a reason to support this restrictive policy, most people do not. If they reflect on their beliefs, values and goals, most people are unlikely to think that this policy is compatible with them.

But do we really need overlapping consensus? Rawls himself presented a view slightly more qualified than that suggested above, by saying that what we really want is an overlapping consensus among reasonable views (reasonable “circles,” to use my earlier language). Sure, you’d like to get everyone to support your policy, but there will always be some people who just won’t listen, and who aren’t prepared to accept that really, they do have a reason to support your policy. Still, even if we need overlapping consensus among reasonable citizens for any policy that we want to support, then those who oppose a construction project because they think it will upset a taniwha really don’t have a leg to stand on – unless they are willing and able to show that everyone else, coincidentally, has a different reason to oppose construction in those same areas.

Open Justification

But even if we’re only talking about consensus among reasonable people, is that good enough? Maybe this makes the red zone too small. Perhaps not all that many policies are really the object of consensus among reasonable people. Maybe this eliminates some policies that really deserve to cross the hurdle to becoming public policy. After all, there are some reasonable people who, in spite of being fairly reasonable, are ignorant, or unduly biased, maybe they simply haven’t had the time to study all the reasons that other people might have offered for why a particular policy should be adopted. It could be that while a given policy isn’t justified in light of your existing beliefs, values and goals, if only you were better informed, exposed to considerations that perhaps you hadn’t thought of before, open to listening to all the relevant reasons that might be offered in favour of a given policy, then you’d see that actually you do have reasons to support that policy.

This view of political justification is called “open justification.” it effectively makes the red zone larger. It opens way for all those policies that people might not actually find acceptable, but which they ideally would find acceptable if they were better informed, perhaps a little more fair minded, willing to look at all available evidence and so on.

Maybe the taniwha inspired policy is like this. Maybe, although some Maori have genuinely tried to offer a justification for not engaging in construction projects in certain areas, there are facts that most of us just aren’t aware of, reasons that we haven’t thought about long enough, evidence that we haven’t yet considered etc, and since Maori know that those things really would give us a good reason, in light of our beliefs, values and goals, to oppose such construction projects, they are justified in imposing such restrictive policies on us.

In practical terms, this doesn’t move us forward much. After all, just as there is no agreement already on whether or not this policy should be accepted (the majority opposing it), so there is also no agreement on whether or not we would accept it if we were ideal versions of ourselves, better informed, fairer, in possession of all the relevant evidence and so on. If Maori who believe in these taniwha cannot convince us of the former, how are they going to convince us of the latter? But open justification does not require that they convince us of anything. It only requires that they believe that ideal versions of the rest of us would accept that really, our own beliefs, values and goals, along with the evidence that they wish we knew about, examined fairly, would accept their proposed policies. After all, they are still appealing to our beliefs about what counts as good evidence and reasons, so they’re still showing a level of respect for us.

In other words, although Maori who believe in these taniwha are striving to provide us with a justification for this policy against restrictive policy – they do respect us after all and would not want to just coerce us without reasons – it’s really not their fault that we don’t accept the policy, because there are reasons why we should accept it.


And there’s the rub. Are taniwha believers showing the rest of us respect by actually trying to give us reasons to accept their restrictive policy? Granted, it might be a failed attempt to persuade us. They aren’t ultimately to blame for the way that we react to their attempt, but is there a good faith attempt to even give the justification in the first place? Are there taniwha apologists, providing arguments that certain waterways or areas really do have these creatures living in them? As these are physical creatures (some unusual attempts to re-cast the mythology as no more than metaphor notwithstanding), is there an effort to show that the sort of evidence appropriate for these sorts of beings is out there? Are they making an earnest effort to show that there are some facts that are best explained by the existence of taniwha? Are they, perhaps, trying to give us different reasons for why – even if we don’t believe in taniwha – there are other reasons why we should think that those specific waterways or pieces of land should be left alone? Here the answer is clear: No. People are being asked to limit their actions simply on the grounds that a certain state of affairs is believed to be the case, and that is that. No effort at all is being expended by concerned Maori to mount a case that modern developments are bothersome to taniwha, or that taniwha exist. The appeal is being made that we should simply respect the fact that other people don’t want us to do certain things for their own reasons, reasons that they do not care if we can appreciate or not.

The mark of respect is not whether or not you can convince me that your policy is the right one to live under, but whether or not you yourself believe that I have reasons to think that it is. What is happening here is this:

“We understand that you are not aware of a single reason to believe in taniwha, or that they would be bothered by your proposed project. We also know that apart from believing in taniwha, there are no other reasons for you to refrain from your proposed project. We are not going to give you any reasons to believe these things. We are not even going to try. We will not try to reason with you. There are no facts that we want you to be aware of that might change your mind. Nothing. We simply insist that you act as though we are right, and you are wrong. End of discussion.”

That is where we cross the line from public discourse into coercion. As a liberal democratic society, not only should we not respect this attempt at coercion, but we should remind those responsible for it that in taking this approach to us, they are showing a basic lack of respect for us.


Bill Craig, Richard Dawkins and the “Empty Chair”


Tom Wright: Wrong about Soul Sleep


  1. No comments, eh? It’s a big topic and a big question, to be sure. The only thing I have to say offhand is that this is a question that really puts the lie to any idea that a *truly* cosmopolitan society can exist. Someone or some ideology will always dominate, and conversely there will always be some group that is not completely free to live according to their beliefs.

  2. What do you guys reckon taniwha tastes like? 😀

  3. sam g

    great post.

    i think when writing public policy there is a burden of proof. if the maori cannot show that the taniwha actually exists, then it’s existence can’t be used to justify the imposition of policy on the rest of us.

    when banning a drug, you must show it will cause harm to society if it isn’t banned. when enforcing a speed limit of 100km/h, you must show the probability of fatal crashes will increase to an unacceptable level if there isn’t a limit, and so on and so forth. politicians always try to use statistics and scientific research to justify their policy and attack the oppositions, and rightly so, because what’s the alternative? policy based on hearsay and old wives tales?

    this also applies to christianity. if christians want legislation based on gods guidance (banning homosexual marriages, euthanasia, alcohol sales on easter sunday and so on), they need to first show me he actually exists, actually gives a shit, and that their proposed policy is actually in accordance with his will.

    but i’m not sure the maori actually making a fact claim about the existence of a taniwha in the first place? more that it’s a cultural heritage sight because of the myths attached to it? which would be a completely different discussion all together.

  4. So .. chicken?

  5. sam g

    i’d imagine so.

    you would need to take out the fuel glands they use for fire breathing first though, or they could turn your hangi pit into a bomb crater.

  6. this also applies to christianity. if christians want legislation based on gods guidance (banning homosexual marriages, euthanasia, alcohol sales on easter sunday and so on), they need to first show me he actually exists, actually gives a shit, and that their proposed policy is actually in accordance with his will.

    Well let’s be careful. I have tried to explain why people actually do not have an obligation to successfully persuade anybody of anything. You can’t be held hostage by what another person is willing to accept. People are fickle things! The concern I raised is that Taniwha believers are not even in the business of trying to justify their polices – successfully or otherwise.

    And yes I certainly do take the taniwha claims to be fact claims. The objection raised in this case wasn’t about the place, it was “what’s to be done with the taniwha who lives there?” This is the way the issue has always been presented in the past as well, as a fact claim about something that now lives in an area. I even recall in an interview on one of these occasions where one of the objectors actually claimed to have seen the taniwha.

  7. Are you allowed to cook a taniwha with its own juices?

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