The Dark Side of Human Rights: Part 1
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…” The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins. A lovely sentiment, but it has nothing to back it up. How can dignity and rights be inherent if we’ve specifically said that life’s what you make of it, that the truth is what you choose to believe, and that you cannot tell someone else what their values should be? And now the UN can decide what our moral values should be? Let’s keep reading.
“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…” Mankind doesn’t have a conscience. Individuals have consciences. And since some individuals had to carry out these acts, we can assume that not all of them were outraged. In fact, one must wonder why there is so much violence and cruelty in the world, if everyone is so outraged at it.
Next they tell us that “…the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…” Who took the vote of the common people, asking them if freedom of speech was on their list of top priorities? If everyone wants it so much, why has it only been around for a few hundred years? Have we even agreed on what we mean by freedom of speech; does it include hate speech, or offensive speech, or politically incorrect speech, or traitorous speech?
I am not saying that the UN is necessarily wrong in their assertions; I am attempting to point out that they have taken a slew of modern Western values and decided that they must be “universal,” for all times and all places. This is perhaps made most obvious by the fact that Muslim countries signed their own “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights” – because the “universal” declaration was not, in fact, universal. Modern international law is built on the assumption that we can get along, regardless of our differing values, if we all agree to do just one thing: keep our promises. The law is what everyone has agreed to follow (or at least everyone with sufficient clout to make a difference.) Which is why the fact that not everyone has agreed to this declaration is so important when we come to the next section:
“Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have… determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom…[and] the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Do we realize what this means? We have allowed not-so-subtle ideas about morality to encroach on what is supposed to be a straightforward legal contract, and this allows us license to “promote social progress” – that is, to use political power to alter the values of others until they meet with our approval. Progress always has to have a reference point; you have to be moving toward something. And in this case, that something, the standard by which we are judging the world’s values, is ourselves.
We need, then, to step back from a Western way of looking at morality, and attempt a more human way of looking at it; we need to step away from the legal framework to look at what is moral. We are mostly agreed that human life has an inherent value and dignity attached to it, that it is worth something and ought to be treated accordingly. But this is not a legal idea; it is a philosophical, religious, or moral idea. It is not something that can be tested, quantified, or proved through syllogism; it is an assumption we all make, or perhaps an intuition we all have.
I fully support the legal concept of rights as a way of organizing society to safeguard this basic value and dignity; one would be very foolish not to. But all this gets mixed up when we start talking about “human rights,” as if along with this idea of dignity and worth came a list of requirements that Western society conveniently happened to discover somewhere around the Enlightenment. This strikes me as a very strange way of talking about something as complicated and unique and uncontainable as a human person. We have taken what was once a legal concept and made it into a theory of morality, and this causes problems, because moral and legal systems deal in very different areas.
(Continued in Part 2)