Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Utopia of Human Rights

Those of us who are old enough may perhaps have a fleeting moment of belated recognition upon reading that
Almost never used in English before the 1940s, “human rights” were mentioned in the New York Times five times as often in 1977 as in any prior year of the newspaper’s history. By the nineties, human rights had become central to the thinking not only of liberals but also of neoconservatives, who urged military intervention and regime change in the faith that these freedoms would blossom once tyranny was toppled. From being almost peripheral, the human-rights agenda found itself at the heart of politics and international relations.
In fact, it has become entrenched in extremis: nowadays, anyone who is skeptical about human rights is angrily challenged to explain how they can condemn Nazism—as if the only options that exist in political thought are rights-based liberal universalism or out-and-out moral relativism. The fact that those who led the fight against Nazism understood the conflict in quite different terms, with Winston Churchill seeing it simply but not inaccurately as a life-and-death struggle between civilization and barbarism, is not considered relevant.
You know what? He's right, the author. Human rights (the Germans call them Menschenrechte) weren't always the sum of all political thought, nor the only possible pinnacle of human endeavors. If they are now, it's a very new phenomenon.

Not that there's anything bad about human rights, of course. Yet as John Grey reminds us, until very recently they were something one required of the state - or, put otherwise, it was recognized they're impossible without a strong state to inform them, and thus if not subordinate, at any rate they didn't outrank the state. He does so while reviewing Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, which sounds like a book lots of people ought to be reading. (My list will keep me busy for 5.5 years without sleeping any nights, and that's just the top priority books). The thesis of the book is that in its present form, human rights has become a utopia: un-attainable, even theoretically, thus mildly harmful in the real world. Near the end of the review Grey takes the thesis further than Moyn does:
The intrinsically utopian nature of the human-rights project lies in what its advocates most prize about their movement—its antipolitical orientation. Basic human freedoms do not form a harmonious system whose dictates can be decided by a court, as Rawls and the human-rights movement imagine; they are often at odds with one another—freedom of information with the freedom that goes with privacy, for example. The role of politics is to devise a modus vivendi among these rival liberties. At the back of the rights movement is a vision of an ideal constitution that could in principle be installed everywhere. But such a framework is impossible even in theory, for there are ethical and political conflicts that admit no single, right solution. If neo-Nazism could be countered in the countries where it is reemerging by curbs on free expression and political association, would it be wrong to impose such limits? The answer depends not on any imaginary “rights” but on the effectiveness of the restrictions. Where they have a decent chance of working, I for one would happily support them.
Or the right to life on one side of a border vs. the right to life on the other side of it, I might add; but maybe that's just me.

(h/t, I think, Silke)


Sérgio said...

I´ve just finished reading "The human condition" by philosopher John Kekes. An excellent book. One of his main points is that the Enlightenment is responsible for a major mistake which had incalculable consequences. Namely, in the one hand, they rightly rejected the religious illusion that there´s a moral order permeating the world and which ultimately has its source in God; and they recognized that the world is indifferent to humans which are vulnerable to terrible contingencies, natural and social. But then, they replaced the religious faith by the secular faith, according to which humans are essentially good and reasonable (whith BTW they mistakenly thought were the same thing) and that a wicked and corrupt society is the source of all evil. So the solution to the human predicament is to improve society, institutions, education and science and, voilá, everybody will be happy, healthy, free and fair; justice and truth will prevail and humankind will live in harmony for ever and ever. In particular, evil would be erradicated.

So, not only this resembles the religious milenarism, but history in fact gives no evidence at all that humans are essentially good and reasonable. A whole discussion follows based on the recognition that humans are neither essentialy evil nor good, but ambivalent, and have to work on this realistic and secular basis, trying to control as best as possible the inerradicable contingencies and vulnerabilities to which they are subjected, with the fallible tools available, from critical thinking, science and culture, even though there´s no guarantees.

And I agree with his claim that this view is still widespread within the intellectual western elites, that should know better after all these years.

Sérgio said...

I mean, the naive "secular faith" view is still widespread...

Silke said...

on German radio there is currently an Essay-series about the new human (neue Mensch) which is what all these models have in common.

But the dilemma as I see it is that you need groups, from the bowling club to the state, to be able to get something done, each his own isn't going to accomplish much. And I doubt that project oriented groups are the solution either.

On the other hand each group has inbred the danger of demonising the other at the latest when it is in danger of falling apart.

so on the one hand groups are capable of doing a lot of good as well as a lot of evil. Maybe that's where the concept of God comes in useful as a kind of higher authority, the ultimate judge of group rules to be adhered to.

I can#t discard religion that easily. Mankind seems to have felt the need to have such an explanation of the inexplicable as well as ultimate authority all along and I believe that the ancestors may have had a good reason to come up with such a durable concept.

But what I've gathered so far as most important is to beware of anybody aiming for and/or promising the Neue Mensch.

Bryan said...

Thank you for the brief review and the recommendation, Yaacov. A good quarter of my bookshelf owes its presence to you (and probably half of my Amazon Wish List), and I can only assume there is more to come.

Sérgio said...


Problem is that the religious view is also misleading, exactly because it postulates an external supernatural source of morality, for which there´s no shred of evidence. So in the end what happens is that some caste of specialists with priviledge access to the deity (priests) is formed which are supposed to interpret the signs (natural or written) sent by the external agent. So, there won´t be an ultimate authority, just the opinion of some priests-interpreter. And this is the source of all kind of irrational hatred when priests disagrees with each other and with other religions.

It doesn´t mean that some universal moral principles were developed and arrived at by some religions which are compatible with (and were at the origin of) a secular view based on human well being (when rid of supernatural dress). I think Judaism is a great example, or Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, though these last two have the totally crazy idea of a kind of original sin, that is, that mankind is essentially flawed (as for Islam, I think it is totally disfunctional).

Silke said...


I have no complaint with your view but it leaves unanswered the question how to create agreement about everyday rules and the passion/devotion/motivation to defend them. (as long as the economy is doing well, swearing allegiance to something as cold as the law is easy)

rationality is wonderful and I love it but it is also good at rationalising things away as not so important or look at it another way.

My only "education" in Judaism I had was from the Rabbi-mysteries of David Kemelman und that was a set of rules of behaviour I would find acceptable or at least tolerable.

Also I found Konfucianism as depicted in the Judge Di stories by Robert von Gulik quite attractive (living conditions in those times subtracted - they apparently found the Buddhists to be a dangerous and disruptive force then and there btw)

Sérgio said...


Societies stand and fall depending on the allegiance of their members. The secular humanistic view rejects the religious authority and the illusion of the "secular faith" on the essential goodness of humans. It proposes that society should prize values that favor human well-being, which he divides in three dimensions:
human dimension (basic universal human need of nutrition, rest, security, shelter, etc); socio-, cultural dimension (that changes with from society to society and with time, and from which one gets a cultural identity,which prescribes the limits of individual behavior and pursuits, etc); personal dimension (what each person wants to make with their lifes, her preferences, aims, and opinions on what constitute her well-being; what should be done, within the social limits, to pursue one´s goals, etc). Allegiance should occcur when there´s enough plurality and cultural possibilities, that individuals find that they have a reasonable chance of realizing their concept of well-being, within the bounds of law, cultural codes, traditions, etc. And all that, with the knowlegde that success is not guaranteed, that there are unavoidable contingencies, but that can be reasonably controlled or minimized.

You´ve got to read the book for details. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Yaacov, could you let us know what your list is?

Silke said...


when the Pope held his Regensburg address I felt the need to finetune my stand on religion. Having grown up with a vivid aversion to the Churches meddling in daily life (if you don't behave you will end up in an institution) I was all in favour of the "humanistic" view and started by enthusiastically imbibing everything I could find by Dawkins, Harris and Dennett plus everything the Brits' Humanistic Society's and the German equivalent's newsletter offered. The effect was that, if possible, I trust the atheistic or humanist or whatever you want to call it world view even less than the religious one. The only one I found to have something interesting enough to say that I might want to read more by him is Dennett (btw I consider Dawkins' Selfish Gene unconvincing and I don't care a hoot how popular it is)

After all that I came out with the IMHO rather practical attitude that as long as the religious let me continue to be agnostic to my heart's delight I tend to side with them because I trust that should - heaven forbid - push come to shove they'll be the ones who'll find it in them to act. (Toynbee's four volumed history may have had an influence also)

With the full intention to provoke you one more time, I don't believe that comforts create durable allegiance - for some time they may, but then they become boring. German folksy saying puts it like that: there is nothing harder to endure than a succession of good days.

So what do they do then? I think they do what the present Zeitgeist demonstrates, they increase the parameters for what constitutes good life and good behaviour until their demands amount to as a minimum spinning gold from straw has to be performed.

Sérgio said...


Well, I don´t see how can one trust religious institutions. Though I also disagree with many of Dawkins
arrogant views (even his gene-centered view is not scientifically sound, as genes by themselves can´t do anything), I still agree with him that religions are still allowed a lot of unwarranted & undeserved respect and influence.

In any case, it is up to each person to choose his/her viewpoint and what´s one principles, aims and goals, and live accordingly. So if you think that there´s a flying spaghetti monsters up there which is the source of everything, from atoms to galaxies to morality,
well, that´s your choice. My view is that this is against reason and evidence, it is a fantasy/illusion with no substance, but I won´t fight against your right to these beliefs, as long as the neutral arena of secular society is respected. And this means I have the "sacred" right to criticize, make fun and mock religious nonsense (the same right goes of course to others) So, at least the Western idea of secularism (after many a bloodbath) seems to be something to which different people could agree to subscribe to. And one car argue it is at the core of the success of Western societies.