You are here

Are international human rights the summum bonum?

Someone suggested in connection with my dialogue on liberalism, citing Norberto Bobbio, that the summum bonum liberalism proposes is validated by universal consent in the form of international human rights conventions. My response:

I can’t see international human rights law as a universal consensus on the highest good. The people who determine the policies of the modern state can’t speak persuasively on that issue, they’re as little like prophets as anyone can be, so how can they do so if all of them get together from everywhere and agree on something? When state functionaries get together thousands of miles from their people and agree on something extremely general what you’re likely to get is something that sounds good but to the extent it has practical effect can be relied on mainly to advance the interests of state functionaries.

What international human rights law says is that governments ought to follow rational and orderly procedures (see the conventions on civil and political rights), bring about certain specified results for every individual (conventions on economic, social and cultural rights), and radically reduce the informal claims that individuals have against each other and thus the relevance of informal and local social institutions like the family (conventions on the elimination of discrimination against women, on the rights of the child, etc.). As a result, what international human rights law says in effect is that (1) everybody ought to be happy, as liberalism understands happiness, and (2) the legally-required way to make everyone happy is for government functionaries to run everything in accordance with standards they work out among themselves with no local answerability.

As an aside, it occurs to me that with respect to Vatican II you find the same tendency to attribute transcendent prophetic authority, sufficient to reconstitute the community in fundamental and irreversible ways, to a formally constituted meeting of officials who decide things with the assistence of experts. There’s something very troubling about that picture.