Wandering Thoughts

May 31, 2009

Human Rights

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:13 am

A few weeks ago I spoke on a panel up at university. The subject was whether universal human rights exist. These are my, slightly edited, speech notes.

The question that has been asked of us this evening is: are there universal human rights? Rights which we are all entitled to, regardless of where we live, regardless of whose borders we find ourselves within, regardless of our gender, race, abilities and age?

I have a short answer to these questions and that is simply: “Yes – Of course.”

I also have 10 minutes of space allocated to my talk. So I had better give you the slightly longer answer as well.

Starting by explaining how I come at human rights philosophically, then going on to address one common argument against human rights, and finally highlighting a couple of real challenges for those of us who believe in human rights.

First the philosophy. I’m not a philosopher and my day to day work involves much more prosaic stuff but it has always struck me that you can’t really talk about international development meaningfully unless you are willing to engage with philosophy. If you want to advocate for economic development you need to be able to explain why. If you want to advocate for protecting the environment you need to be able to explain why. If you want to make the case for Human Rights you need to be able to explain why.

Why is what you are arguing for right? What principals are you building your argument upon? What ends does it serve? These are questions for political philosophy.

For reasons of time, my own partial knowledge of the subject, and the risk of some of you dozing off, I won’t delve into this too deeply here other than to note that, too my mind, the least worst political philosophy is Utilitarianism. That is, the idea that the purpose of society should be to maximise human flourishing and well being. And to remove impediments to this. Clearly, one of the main impediments to human flourishing is its opposite – suffering.

For me as a development worker, reducing suffering is a central intellectual focus. And it is from my belief in the importance of reducing suffering that my support of human rights stems. If you look at the great human catastrophes of the last century – the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Killing Fields, Rwanda – they all involved suffering on a grand scale. And they all also took place because one group of people were willing to violate the basic rights of others. Had Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or the Genocidaires respected – or had they been made to respect – human rights, such suffering would not have occurred.

So, I support human rights as a tool: as a means to an end. The end being reducing suffering and maximising well being. That’s actually a different philosophical take on human rights than that offered by some supporters (this is something we can discuss in questions). However, in practice, it means the same – people’s human rights are to be supported.

This all seems pretty obvious to me. But some people are far less taken by human rights. Why? Lots of reasons, some of which are nonsensical or simply villainous, and which don’t really need to be discussed. One argument against human rights that does seem more credible, however, (at least at first glance) is that put forward by cultural relativists.

According to the cultural relativist case, human rights are a Western concept that shouldn’t be imposed on other cultures, which should be free to determine their own norms and values. It’s an appealing argument because, let’s face it, over the last century or two the West has done a lot of imposing. From religions to economic orthodoxies, we’ve exported and imposed our beliefs on people the world over. And the results of this of this haven’t necessarily been pretty.

Perhaps then, human rights are just the latest wave in this history of colonisation and the colonisation of the world of ideas? And perhaps, as westerners, we should just leave well and good alone for once.

That’s an appealing argument but it is also wrong.

Firstly, human rights aren’t solely a western concept. In Buddhism and Confucianism for example we can find non-European thinkers describing aspirations and offering rules that are surprisingly similar in instances to those found underpinning modern human rights. More importantly, nowadays, all over the world, people campaign for human rights. Human rights were never a purely western phenomenon but they are even less so now.

On top of this though, even if human rights were Western constructs, would this really be an argument against them? Surely, arguments ought to stand or fall on their intellectual merits, not where they come from? We don’t accept ad hominem (dismissing an argument because of who is saying it) as a legitimate debating tool? Why should we accept ‘ad compass point-um?’ – dismissing an argument because of where it comes from?

At the end of the day, the trouble with many of the West’s previous intellectual exports is not that they came from a certain place – ‘the West’ – but rather that they were wrong. Human rights don’t share this problem.

My final objection to the cultural relativist argument against human rights is broader, and to do with cultural relativism itself. Cultural Relativism is, I think, intellectually inconsistent. To a cultural relativist everything is relative and up for negotiation, except culture itself. What is never explained is why culture, and nothing else, is allowed to be an absolute starting point for deriving moral positions. What is so special about culture?

If anything, culture is a particularly poor starting point for arguments about right and wrong. It is a particularly poor starting point because it doesn’t actually exist. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher there is no such thing as culture.

No such thing is culture? Surely, that’s crazy?!? Obviously, there is some such thing as culture? Surely?

And, fair enough, I agree that, at a practical level, culture, cultures, are all around us – but, and this is my point, they are too indiscrete and too interwoven to give us a sound starting point for morality. To see what I mean consider the following:

I have an acquaintance who is young, gay and a recent immigrant to New Zealand. I don’t know how much he thought about morals and political philosophy. But let us suppose that he did. And let us suppose that, as he did this, he tried to find a morality constructed along the lines advocated by cultural relativists – that is, tried to develop his moral system based on the culture he inhabits. What culture’s morality should be setting his moral compass by? The moral compass of the country he was born and raised in? The moral compass of gay culture there? The moral compass of his immigrant community in New Zealand? The moral compass of the gay community here in New Zealand? Youth culture? New Zealand culture? Male Culture? The moral compass of his workplace? Perhaps he should situate himself at the intersection of all these groups and try and find morality there. Within his own unique culture of one? This doesn’t seem possible or practical. If we’re all members of cultures of one, how do we construct shared values?

Culture, of course, changes across time too. Once upon a time the predominant culture in New Zealand kept women at home doing domestic chores and forbade them the vote. Was that right? Were we wrong to have changed it? If we were right to change it, when did it become right? And if we changed back would that be right too?

In short, I think the argument for human rights is considerably more solid and home to far fewer contradictions than its cultural relativist opponent.

Of course, a sound philosophical base doesn’t mean that mean that supporting human rights is uncomplicated in practice. And, quickly now, I want to discuss two areas of difficulty in the practical application of human rights.

The first is that in many instances human rights display something that economists call rivalry.

When economists talk about rivalrous goods, they are talking about goods where one person’s consumption of the good reduces the amount of the good available to everyone else. If I consume some of the fair trade chocolate in our fridge this evening there will be less for my wife to consume tomorrow.

Now it may seem strange to talk about human rights in the same way that economists talk about chocolate but it is an inescapable fact that people can make use of their human rights in ways that deny others theirs. For example, I could use my right to free speech to advocate that others be tortured, or denied the right to vote, or imprisoned without trial. Hopefully, none of you would listen to me. But, unfortunately, history has plenty of examples where people have made similar suggestions and others have listened. Think of the radio broadcasts used to raise support for the Interhamwe in Rwanda, for example.

This leads to the question, should we restrict people’s right to free speech when the speech in question is hate speech? How do we define hate speech? Where do we draw the line? How do we stop other people banning legitimate speech under the rubric of opposition to hate speech? These are difficult questions. Similar difficulties arise when we discuss things such as protecting the rights of minorities in democracies. Should we limit the scope of democracy to prevent tyranny of the majority? How should we do this? Where are the lines drawn? Once again, the answers to these questions aren’t easy.

Another tricky area for advocates of universal human rights is to do with what actions we should take when they are violated. How we should seek to stop the violation of human rights in practice. Sometimes it will be easy, but in other instances it won’t. Consider the case of any one of a number of countries where human rights are still regularly violated. What are we to do? March outside their embassy? Will that really help? Maybe we could try boycotts, perhaps? Or sanctions? But will they do any better? And, in the case of sanctions, are we sure they won’t simply hurt the most vulnerable and change little? Perhaps we could invade? But how confident are we of the ability of military muscle to change things? And how confident are we that we know how to identify legitimate military interventions over illegitimate ones? Once again, answers to these questions aren’t easy.

But then again, little in life that is worthwhile is easy. And the defence and advance of human rights is absolutely worthwhile.

And so, my advice to you this evening ends like this: yes human rights are universal. They matter, and we should all be passionate in their cause, but we should also be thoughtful and careful too, because, like so much in development, the real challenge is not actually identifying what is right or good, but in making sure that it spreads.

After the talk a colleague of mine pointed out to me that my claim that I wasn’t really arguing for the universal existence of human rights but rather for the need to act like they exist even if they don’t (i.e. human rights don’t exist in a deontological sense, god given or inherently possessed by individuals simply because they’re human, but we should still work with them as constructs because of what they can do. That’s a fair point and I appreciate having it pointed out to me – next time more philosophically tidy. I’m also frustrated that I didn’t think of it myself. I would have enjoyed starting of the speech with some flourish like “No they do not exist” – dramatic pause – “but we have to act like they do…”

Which reminds me of this joke.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] smugly certain that his own is superior”. I’ve explained elsewhere what I think is philosophically wrong with cultural relativism so now I’ll limit myself to one simple point. While Augustin’s arguments sound quite […]

    Pingback by Sympathy for the Kristof « Waylaid Dialectic — March 26, 2012 @ 1:40 pm


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