10 December 2008

On scepticism of human rights

When philosophy is divorced from science (and reason, even), we get so-called intellectuals questioning the validity of concepts like ‘natural human rights’. They argue that the idea of inalienable rights is arbitrarily ‘decided’ upon by a dominant group seeking to impose this relativist idea onto others. One only has to consider the facts – the biological facts of the human capacity for both physical pain and physical flourishing, the psychological facts of the human desire for happiness and aversion to suffering, and the sociological facts of how invoking and enacting the idea of human rights leads to an increase in the good in people’s lives – and one will see the spuriousness of philosophical arguments that construe the idea of human rights as merely being an artificial device of power relationships.

In a stirring defense of liberty through telling the blood-soaked story of humanity’s struggle to achieve it, British philosopher A.C. Grayling writes in his book Towards the Light:

Sceptical questions about the basis or justification of the idea of [human] rights itself are asked by philosophers in safe, comfortable armchairs who have not been arbitrarily arrested and then subjected to electric cattle prods and imprisonment without trial. [author’s emphasis]

Grayling charges such sceptics with lacking the moral imagination to picture themselves as the ones standing ‘on the kindling at the stake as the fire is lit under you, as inquisitors practice the water torture on you, as you languish in prison for your beliefs, as you slave in the fields or go hungry and in rags in the factory before dawn, as you live a life on the margin of society excluded from the goods and possibilities available to the mainstream, as the midnight knock comes at the door, as your children are torn from you and marched towards the gas chamber’. His deliberate chronological sequencing of the above atrocities is meant to show that the last five hundred years have been a (painfully) drawn out process of struggle for the very freedoms we take for granted today. And these freedoms are to this day still denied to millions of our fellow human beings around the world.

When non-Western societies reject the idea of universal human rights – presumably because they agree, at least tacitly, with the intellectual sceptics that such concepts are imposed on others as a form of cultural imperialism – their spokespeople employ the rhetoric of exercising ‘national’ and ‘cultural’ sovereignty, as if their society consists of sentient beings exempt from the human condition. From a metaphysical perspective, rejecting objective realism represents the point of the wedge that is used to drive apart any consensus on the inalienable rights of humans. After all, the foundations of human rights are made up of the biology, psychology and sociology common to us all, and therefore independent of nationality and culture. These are aspects of our shared humanity that can be objectively verified, whether through scientific rigour or just plain observation. You don’t need to have a degree (or be a philosophy professor for that matter) to see that other people are just as capable of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, as you are, irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality, gender or age.

So, to those intellectuals, politicians and opinion-makers who either question or outrightly reject the concept of human rights, I recommend they take a weekend retreat to any part of the world where their elite, comfortable identity will be stripped away by thugs who will then proceed to commit acts on their person that violate the very rights they were born with, but refused to embrace and defend. Or they could save themselves the hassle and just exercise – as Grayling put it – a little moral imagination.


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