an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘human-rights

random thoughts on human rights

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Over the years I’ve had arguments and discussions with people, and semi-disputes online, about the status of human rights, and rights in general. Some have been quite dismissive of their ‘mythical’ nature, others like Scott Attran have described them as a crazy, transcendental idea invented by a handful of Enlightenment figures back in the day, and boosted by the reaction to world wars in the 20th century. There have been objections by certain states claiming they don’t give sufficient cognisance to ‘Asian values’, and Moslem countries have argued that they need to be amended in accordance with Shar’ia Law.

The first point I would make is that, granted that rights are a human invention, that doesn’t make them ‘unreal’ or in some sense nugatory. Tables, chairs, buildings, computers, bombs, democracy and totalitarianism are all human inventions, but very real, if not all of equal value. To describe human rights as a form of transcendentalism also doesn’t make sense to me. Certainly if you say ‘God has granted certain inalienable rights…’ you’re using transcendental language, but that language is, I think, superfluous to the idea of rights, which, I would argue, is grounded in both empiricism and pragmatism.

I would also argue, no doubt more controversially, that human rights make little sense if based entirely on the individual. They are principally about human relations, and so imply that each individual is part of a larger social entity, within which they may be accorded ‘freedoms from’ and ‘freedoms to’. Aristotle puts the point well in his Politics:

the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.

It follows that rights must be under the guardianship of states and enshrined in and upheld by their laws. This is vital because individuals often have competing interests, and it’s sometimes the case that particular individuals don’t recognise or understand that there’s a common, social interest beyond their own. This is the difficulty with rights – because we often think of them as my rights or my freedoms, we fail to understand that these rights, though granted in some sense to individuals, must be based on the thriving of the wider social sector, whether we’re referring to village, tribe or state. And it is to these larger social entities – states, or civilisations – that we owe our phenomenal success as a species, for better or worse.

This raises a question of whether the best human rights should flow from the best states, or vice versa. Interestingly, Aristotle and his students collected some 150 constitutions from the world of Greek poleis or city-states in order to devise the best, most ‘thriving’ city-state possible, which of course should have involved comparing the constitutions with the situation on the ground in those city-states. We don’t know if any such comparison was made (it’s very doubtful), but it does suggest that Aristotle thought that the state, via its constitution, was the engine of a thriving citizenry rather than the other way around.

Turning to rights in the modern world, the unfortunate claim by Tom Paine in his Rights of man (1791) that ‘rights are inherently in all the inhabitants’ of a state, has helped to create the confusion about rights being ‘natural’ to humans, like having two legs and a complex prefrontal cortex (the latter being largely the result of living in increasingly complex and organised society). If we’re to take human rights seriously, we need to be honest about their a posteriori nature. They need to be seen as the result of our understanding of how to create an environment that best suits us, as the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. In that respect, we’ve come a long way, not only from Aristotle (who excluded women and slaves from his citizenry), but also from the the late eighteenth century revolutionaries (who executed Olympe de Gouges for daring to even suggest adding women to the rights-owning citizenry of her own nation). Indeed, examining the issue of rights historically should remind us that they need to be updated on the basis of our ongoing advances in knowledge. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by this understanding, should certainly not be fixed in stone.

My views, of course clash with ‘natural law’ notions of human rights, which tend to be based on the individual an sich, and have claims to be outside of social or temporal considerations.

If we try to think of rights as ‘natural’ or self-evident, rather than something we construct to help us understand what we owe to, and might expect from, the best of civil states, we might well agree with Alasdair McIntyre’s view that there’s nothing natural or self-evident, say, about allowing people, by right, the freedom to express or live by their religious views. Many religious views are notoriously idiosyncratic and sometimes offensive from an outsider’s perspective, and adding the ‘no harm’ principle doesn’t suffice to smooth things over. The jury is very much out as to whether religion is, or has been, a benefit to society, but it’s well known that some religions have, in the past, engaged in human sacrifices. And even today new religions might crop up which may involve practices that the majority would find inimical both to individual and social well-being. And of course the very definition of religion is far from being self-evident. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

However, it makes no attempt to define religion, and in the same Article it claims the right of all to ‘manifest his… belief…in practice and observance’. This, if taken literally, is absurd, as a person might hold a belief that slave-owning is okay, and is given the green light by this Article to ‘manifest that belief in practice.. and observance’. No doubt my criticism doesn’t capture the liberal ‘spirit’ of the Article, but it does highlight an obvious problem. People do act on beliefs, and many actions, based on those beliefs, can be harmful, and subject to criminal prosecution. The law, of course, prosecutes acts, not thoughts, so we know that we’re free to think what we want – we don’t need a ‘right’ to protect this. I won’t try to define religion, but at least it seems to involve both beliefs and actions. Actions will be subject to civil and criminal law, so it might be argued that rights don’t find a place there. Beliefs are private unless and until they’re acted on, in which case they’ll be subject to law. So there’s a question whether rights have a place there also.

The more I look at human rights, the more difficulties I see. Let me take, more or less at random, Article 21 of the UDHR:

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Section 3 here reads like a directive, but I agree that every member of a state should be allowed at least the opportunity to cast a vote for government. In Australia, voting is compulsory for eligible parties, as it is in some 22 countries (though enforced in only 11). It’s questionable whether compulsion accords with human rights and freedoms, but given the socially constructed nature of humanity, voting should definitely be encouraged as a duty, at the very least. The ideal, of course, would be that everybody is aware of what they owe to the state, and their interest in creating and maintaining a state that is beneficial to the whole and so to themselves as a part.

There is no doubt in my mind that participatory democracies make for better states than any alternatives, and if this can be bolstered by human rights language that is fine, though I think that interest and duty (what we owe to ourselves and others) makes more sense as an argument. The ‘Asian values’ objection here (revisited recently by the Chinese oligarchy) is bogus and self-serving, as evidenced by the success of democratic nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. There is a tendency in Asian nations to be more collectivist in thinking and behaviour than in many European nations, and especially the USA, but this would make them more attracted to participatory democracy, not less.

Concluding remarks – the more I look at rights, the more questionable I find them. I would rather encourage a neo-Aristotelian way of thinking. We’re now political animals more than ever, in a wider sense than Aristotle saw it, because civilisation itself is political, and civilisation is hardly something we can opt out of. I don’t advocate world government – that was an impossible if admirable ideal – but I certainly advocate intergovernmental co-operation as opposed to zero sum nationalism. We need to make an all-out effort to improve our state structures and understanding between them for the sake of all their members (and the rest of the biosphere).

Written by stewart henderson

August 31, 2019 at 8:44 am

is Julia Gillard lying about gay marriage?

with 2 comments

Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, says she is opposed to gay marriage. The obvious question to ask then is – why? In fact, considering the obviousness of the question, it’s amazing that it’s so rarely asked. And perhaps more to the point, it’s amazing how often she’s allowed to get away without addressing this obvious why question.

When this question comes up from time to time, Gillard expresses amusement if not bemusement about it, as if she’s already addressed the issue many times. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, she has never addressed the issue. In the recent Q and A program, in which Gillard was the only guest facing a barrage of questions, she was asked in a very dignified way why she opposed gay marriage, and was accused, quite fairly, of denying the sanctions of the law to homosexual couples. Her response was utterly pathetic, and, in my opinion, of questionable honesty.

She began her response by saying that she was going to explain her view. I waited for this explanation, but it didn’t come. Her response was basically this: ‘I hear your concerns, I sympathise, but I take a different [unexplained] view. I can assure you that my view, though unexplained, is deeply held. But don’t worry, many people on my side of politics disagree with me, and I’ve allowed a conscious vote on this, so you never know, the law might change.’

Okay, so she didn’t actually say that the law might change, but she seemed to imply as much, and that it wouldn’t deeply disturb her if it did, even though her completely mysterious views on the subject were deeply held.

And here’s where the honesty is questionable. People with deeply-held views naturally feel that their views are the right views, and that those who hold other views are wrong, mistaken, ill-informed and so forth. They want to, and often feel a desperate, highly motivating need to, convert others to their view. To have a deeply held view that is relativistic, as Gillard’s purports to be, is essentially a contradiction in terms. And to have one that you seem to be at pains to avoid expressing, is nonsensical.

People with deeply held-views are keen, sometime overly keen, to express them, to advertise them, even to dedicate their lives to them. We find plenty of evidence of this, especially with those whose views are anachronistic – creationists, bible literalists, climate change deniers, holocaust deniers and flat-earthers have all tended to make the kinds of noises that exaggerates our sense of their numbers. These people, however fatuous or dangerous their views, are undeniably passionate and determined in their quests. They’re also often quite articulate, after a fashion, because they have thought and worried over their ideas long and hard. Julia Gillard, however, wants us to believe that she has a deeply-held view which is devoid of passion, which is never articulated, and which she’s happy for others to disagree with. It just doesn’t add up.

In trawling through Gillard’s response for anything remotely resembling an explanation of her position, I can only come up with this [and I paraphrase]: ‘How should we deal with this cultural institution of long standing in Australian society? Should we adapt it to fit changed circumstances, or should we develop alternative institutions which legitimise other arrangements? My deeply-held view is that we should choose the second approach.’

I have two responses to this line of thinking. First, trying to convince people that you can or should create alternative, equally legal arrangements for homosexual people [these are surely the only ‘other arrangements’ being referred to – though no doubt some time in the future someone will insist on marrying his or her cat] when there’s already a multi-purpose legal arrangement for people who want to co-habit, namely marriage, is never going to succeed. It also separates homosexuals from the rest for no good reason. They become separated not because their relationships are less loving, less intense or less legitimate. They become separated only because they are homosexual.

The second response is more complex and concerns the historical nature of marriage. Gillard describes it as a ‘cultural institution of long standing in Australian society,’ but white Australian society [which I think is what she’s referring to] is only a couple of hundred years old, and marriage, in one form or another, has existed for tens of thousands of years, and has always been a highly flexible institution, varying from culture to culture. In traditional Aboriginal culture, it was an institution involving complex kin group relationships and obligations far exceeding those in white society, but we haven’t adopted those traditions, no doubt because we saw the white tradition as ‘superior’. In medieval Europe, when ‘never was so much owned by so few’, ceremonial marriage barely existed among the ‘unwashed’ majority, whereas it was very important for the nobles, who had to prove the legitimacy of their inheriting children. In other words marriage, and the importance of marriage, depended on the structure of the overall society, and the way resources were controlled and divided by its members. In highly hierarchical and patriarchal societies, polygamous relationships at the top were commonplace, and we all know about the powerlessness of women even today under marriage arrangements within stagnantly patriarchal, mostly Moslem societies.

However, in more dynamic societies, marriage has changed to accommodate societal change, and will continue to do so. Nowadays, inheritance and ‘legitimacy’ are not so much of an issue, and marriage has become a more relaxed and ‘personal’ affair, no longer considered absolutely necessary for the raising of children. And just as couples no longer have to get married to raise ‘legitimate’ children, couples no longer need to have plans to raise children in order to get married. And that surely leaves the door open to homosexual couples.

It’s noticeable that most lobbyists keen to rigidly define marriage, so that homosexual couples are excluded from this option in perpetuity, are religious representatives. Religion has, of course, insinuated itself into the three prominent ‘milestones’ of human life – birth, death and marriage – since prehistoric times, but I don’t think anyone could dispute that we’ve managed to give birth and to die throughout history whether or not religion happened to be present. That this is just as true of marriage isn’t so well known or accepted, but the fact is that modern organised religion has a vested interest in the marriage ceremony, just as it does in baptisms, christenings and funeral rites. The difference with marriage is that, because it has little of the inevitability or obvious ‘naturalness’ of birth and death, it is more rather than less open to the manipulation of ‘interested parties’. With this comes an equal and opposite reaction, a resistance to the artificial rules imposed on the relationship by ‘authorities’, so that we have civil marriages, open marriages, same-sex marriages and de facto relationships which eschew the contract. I’ll have more to say about the origins of marriage, monogamous or otherwise, particularly in terms of evolution and our primate cousins, in another post.

The point is that Julia Gillard has given no indication, no hint of evidence that she has ever studied marriage and its history very deeply. Even reading Jane Austen might have provided her with insights into the profoundly materialist concerns, and needs, invested in the tradition – or rather, in one strand of the multivarious tradition. But she has spoken only of recent experience – her ‘cultural tradition of long standing’  – in Australia, and even then only perfunctorily.

I’m not surprised at this. I would have been more surprised had she shown real evidence of having studied the cultures and traditions of marriage, both historically and cross-culturally, and then come down strongly against gay marriage – because it would have suggested that she had an anti-homosexual bias that trumped all that knowledge about the flexible, pragmatic and adaptive nature of that institution.

So either Gillard is lying about her ‘deeply-held view’ about marriage, or she’s telling the truth, and her view is deeply discriminatory and homophobic. In an earlier revelation of her views, she held that marriage had always been between a man and a woman and she saw no reason to change that. Again, such remarks hardly reveal deep thought. It’s about as deep as saying, for example, that, in the past homosexuals have always been reviled, thundered against, ostracised and neglected – not to say tortured and murdered – and why should any of that be allowed to change?

In 2004 Australia amended its marriage act for one reason alone – to ensure that it discriminated against homosexuals. Before that, the status of homosexual love and commitment was so far beneath our consideration that the institution of marriage wasn’t ‘under threat’. Only in the twenty-first century, after centuries of denial and suppression, has homosexual love become recognised as such a force in Australian society that it had to be legislated against. The Labor Party colluded with the government of the day in ensuring that this deliberately discriminatory amendment passed with a minimum of fuss. In the twenty-first century. Surely one of the darkest moments in political life in this country. What were these politicians thinking? Did they really imagine that this rearguard action against a tidal movement for change would last? For how long? Until the 22nd century? Until half-way through this one? For a generation?

It’s my view that Gillard is lying about her ‘deeply-held view’. To think otherwise would be to think that she really has a deeply held view that homosexuals should be excluded in perpetuity from an institution that has never, in fact, been static or impervious to social forces. I would rather not think that.

So that leaves the question -whyis she lying? I don’t know the answer to that. Perhaps she has made a secret ‘devil’s deal’ with the churches, something like the one that Tony Blair made with George Bush before the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps she wants to bee seen as a person of backbone who doesn’t flip-flop as much as she’s perceived as doing, and she’s chosen this issue, a minor one to most pundits, to stand firm on. But she may well be hoping that, when it comes time to debate this matter and vote upon it again, her own ‘deeply-held’ view will be voted down. What’s the bet that, when it comes time for individual MPs to stand up and make their passionate, personal views known about the issue, Julia Gillard will not be one of them. She has nothing, really, to say.

Written by stewart henderson

June 29, 2012 at 9:36 am