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Human Rights As They Are

At present there are practical limits to the effects of human rights theory. However, it is in principle an absolutist ideology that enjoys the support of elites worldwide. In order to safeguard its beneficial aspects, principled limitations are necessary to make it consistent with tradition and subsidiarity.

What is to be done about human rights? Do the dangers of bigotry, racism and political oppression make necessary a worldwide liberal regime backed by economic sanctions, bombs, and the kidnapping of malefactors? Or does the difficulty of limiting such a regime and making it answerable to anyone mean it would be better not to talk of human rights at all?

Some conception of universal human rights seems unavoidable today. Modern developments have shortened distances and enhanced human power, forcing peoples together and making possible acts of extreme inhumanity on an unprecedented scale. Such a situation motivates moral agreement but also limits its possible scope. A natural response would be acceptance of a few clear principles that foreclose serious large-scale abuses and can be affirmed from as many moral, cultural and religious perspectives as possible. The human rights movement claims to stand for such a response, and many of the things it proclaims as universal rights, such as proscription of torture, extra-judicial killings and slavery, fit the bill.

In the most proper sense, therefore, universal human rights are straightforward principles that protect the weak against gross abuses. When Amnesty International talks of human rights violations they usually have such things in mind. However, what are now called human rights go far beyond any universal consensus on minimum standards. As institutionalized, “human rights” are the standards and procedures promoted by the human rights movement and set forth in treaties, proclamations, national legal enactments and so on. They include a variety of demands regarding the goals government should pursue, and often the detailed manner of pursuing them. Such things have have become increasingly removed from popular understandings and often involve comprehensive government control of social relations and economic life.

“Rights inflation” has expanded the concept of rights so far beyond its proper place that it has become destructive. Properly speaking, human rights are fundamental principles all governments must follow to which we are entitled simply as human beings. As such, they are peremptory and categorical. To call a claim a right means it should supersede considerations of law, policy, custom, and choice. Such claims are normally determined by jurists and other experts and legally enforceable at the instance of injured parties. They stop discussion and demand immediate action by an elite entitled to command. Institutionalized human rights thus put uncontrollable power in very few hands. To broaden and universalize them extends and centralizes that power.

Current standards of human rights propose far-reaching changes in the practices and the religious and moral standards of all societies. Some of the changes are quite damaging. The experience of socialist societies demonstrates that many things proposed as economic, social and cultural rights defeat their own purposes when serious attempts are made to enforce them. Many claimed rights relating to sex and gender are at odds with all traditional understandings of the family, and in the end with the stable and orderly private life upon which concrete human dignity and freedom depend. The demand for religious tolerance and equality has ended by driving religion out of public life and establishing an intolerant secularism as the effective state religion. And the crusade against discrimination, which has become the moral centerpiece of the human rights movement, leads to pervasive attempts to control attitudes that soon become tyrannical and end by breaking down all social authorities not based on money or formal state power.

The increasing reach of human rights doctrine destroys self-government. Rights proposed at international conferences, adopted by diplomats and ratified by lawmakers overly impressed by “international standards” become enforceable by a judiciary with broad powers of interpretation, by donor countries who threaten withdrawal of aid and other sanctions, and at times by direct use of force. The destruction of self-government is especially severe if human rights are taken to include general social aspirations. Aspirations require flexibility, since they conflict and it is impossible to settle once and for all how they are to be pursued and reconciled. Treating them as rights forecloses that flexibility and transfers political discretion to bureaucrats and judges. Those entitled to determine what “human rights” require become the rulers.

What makes “human rights” imperialistic is the attempt to establish a single all-embracing set of moral principles for the whole world. A community of nations will inevitably develop common habits and expectations relating to government and social life. However, in a worldwide community differences in outlook make comprehensive common principles impossible. Rather than accepting that moral differences limit the degree of community that is possible, and finding practical ways—such as mutual noninterference—to deal with differences, the human rights movement has attempted to make up for the absence of common moral commitments through expansive interpretations of the few principles that are available. “One world” notions have led to attempts to draw a complete system of public morality out of the abstract rights of human beings as such.

Current understandings of human rights are in fact based on contemporary liberalism, a narrow and dogmatic outlook that attempts to derive all social morality from a specific—and in the end self-destructive—conception of freedom and equality. Liberal human rights claim to represent a consensus among existing moral views while in fact subverting them and substituting a single rigid ideology. While they claim to be based on a few neutral principles that are consistent with a broad range of moral and social systems, the effect of their “neutrality” is to treat distinctions of value as a matter of personal taste and thus not moral at all. The consequence is that their “tolerance” ends by suppressing as intolerant all moral views other than liberalism itself. The liberal principle of non-discrimination expands until it only permits public expression of liberalism, because all other outlooks make distinctions liberalism does not recognize and therefore forbids as discriminatory.

Liberal human rights strive for universality by basing public morality—and therefore all morality, since all morality has public implications—on the dignity of man simply as an abstract being with desires and the capacity to form plans for the future. They conceive of freedom as the right to pursue and attain one’s preferences, whatever they may be, and equality as the equal claim of all preferences to fulfillment. Such a conception cannot be made the sole basis of a moral system. Man is never simply an abstract agent with preferences, but always a particular individual and member of a particular society with a relationship to goals that go beyond his private desires. He is defined in part by the universal human qualities and personal goals that liberalism recognizes, but also by membership in specific social groupings and by understandings of good and evil that transcend human purposes.

To ignore both man’s concrete particularity and his orientation to what transcends him is to falsify him. The result of doing so is a Procrustean system that ignores the nature of those to whom it applies. The requirement that we be treated simply as abstract agents pursuing essentially private goals leads to the peremptory demand that aspects of social identity—religion, ethnicity, class and gender—that put us in a definite place and connect us to concerns that transcend us be deprived of significance. Such an attack on particularistic aspects of social identity is an attack on the form in which human life has always existed. It is destructive, because the connections and loyalties to be destroyed are basic to human life, and because it calls for a degree of centralized control that soon becomes tyrannical.

Human rights violations are far more likely to result from attempts to transform human nature than willingness to accept it. To insist on radical equality with regard to traditional distinctions such as religion, ethnicity, class and sex deprives man of the particular qualities that give him a concrete place in the world, a specific viewpoint, and a set of alliances and interests that go beyond purely individual concerns. It abolishes the significance of traditional institutions like family and local community that give enduring moral substance to a man’s life and thereby give meaning to whatever autonomy he has. It eliminates the stable network of personal connections needed for enduring loyalties and even culture to exist, and so leads to cynicism, self-centeredness and brutishness. It isolates man and make him powerless, with his liberty and dignity wholly dependent on bureaucratic and financial institutions and so more at risk than ever.

Morality depends on what man is. Since he is not only an abstract desiring agent, liberal human rights have no automatic superiority to other moral considerations. They acquire legitimate influence only as other moral considerations do, though gradual and unforced accretions to settled habits and understandings. They can not be treated as ultimate standards. Radical egalitarianism can only substitute one form of inequality for another, because he who defines and enforces equality is never equal to his fellows. And freedom must exist within limitations that protect both it and things worth choosing.

The present human rights movement rejects such a limited understanding of itself and demands a logical perfection that would radically transform human existence. In its uncompromising attitude it resembles its arch-enemies Nazism and Communism. Like them, it attempts to construct a world on a single narrow foundation and destroy everything that reflects a different spirit. Where Communism attempted to destroy material self-interest, and Nazism ethnic disunity, the human rights movement proposes to eradicate the aspects of human life that give it particularity and concreteness.

That project has not yet led to catastrophe on the same scale as the other two. Nonetheless, oppression in the name of equality and tolerance is no less a danger than hatred in the name of love or tyranny in the name of justice. As now institutionalized, “human rights” are religiously and culturally intolerant in a peculiarly radical way. By their rejection of particularism and unbalanced assertion of the sole authority of individual desire and formal procedures they have become intolerant of religion and culture as such, and thus of human nature itself. Their claim to protect diversity masks a dangerous demand for absolute uniformity in all things that matter. In the past century the demand for unity and attempt to reconstruct human nature gave rise to unprecedented tyranny. The human rights movement repeats that mistake.

At present the worldwide effects of human rights theory are mitigated by difficulties of enforcement, but that is changing. In the long run fundamental principles are important, especially when they correspond to strong institutional forces. Modern political institutions, as centers of power not subject to any standards but their own, tend toward despotism. Human rights ideology promotes that tendency by promoting the abstract universal rationalism such institutions embody and weakening all local, particular, and traditional authorities that might resist and limit them.

Contemporary human rights thought has deep affinities to the forms power takes today. Both deny moral order to the universe while insisting on their own universal validity. Both justify the superior position they give themselves by appeal to the supposed need to rely on formal institutions and procedures because of the weakness of existing moral agreement. Both combine formal freedom and equality with comprehensive central control, and both enable careerist elites to indulge themselves personally while imposing their rule in the name of universal principles that no-one is allowed to question. Those who might be expected to point out the dangers of the present situation—writers, scholars and journalists—fail to do so because they themselves belong to the class that created and benefits by it.

Ordinary common sense cannot act as a corrective within current human rights thought because common sense cannot be disentangled from the inarticulate social expectations—the “stereotypes”—it decisively rejects. Nor does human rights thought accept popular rule as a limitation. Since popular views cannot be relied on to be ideologically correct, the human rights movement, like Nazism and Communism, has an innate bias toward rule by a small elite answerable only to itself. It is characteristic that those who favor “human rights” favor transfer of power to unelected officials, and that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights repeatedly exempts implementation of its goals from its own strictures.

To minimize the dangers they pose, human rights principles must be subjected to restraints. First, their international enforceability must be limited. Centrally defined and enforced human rights are self-defeating. A world government could commit atrocities like any other, and there are good reasons to think it more likely to do so than parochial jurisdictions. After all, as a global regime it would be subject to no external controls, and its size and the extreme diversity of its people would make public answerability out of the question.

Secondly, human rights principles must be limited by human moral experience in general. They must be made consistent with the ways of life men have found enduringly good. Since it is not possible to create a tolerable way of life out of whole cloth, standards of human rights must be capable of affirmation from within the variety of religious, moral and cultural perspectives that are the primary objects of allegiance for those asked to support them. Only such broad support can enable human rights standards to avoid intolerant dogmatism and find support in moral experience as a whole.

Standards of human rights must therefore give freer play to traditional particularities. Man is neither the rational self-interested individual of liberal theory nor the collective economic being of socialism. He is a social animal who finds his good in human society, and participates in that good through cultural practices and symbols that foster loyalty and connect everyday affairs with the order of the world. When such things lose authority, those who rely on them in social relations and in understanding the meaning of their lives are plunged into confusion and misery. Since cultures differ, human rights theory must accept the differing understandings and practices that give them public validity. And since culture acquires its force by defining for us who we are, human rights must accept that cultural status—ethnicity, class, gender and the like—can legitimately affect position in the world.

The human rights movement must therefore abandon any notion of creating a new universal moral order of radical freedom and equality. And since the world comprises more than a single public moral order, it must recognize that boundaries between differing societies with differing histories and moral understandings are necessary, and that insistence on “inclusiveness”—comprehensive enforced unity—must be abandoned.

The flaws of the current understanding of human rights are most obvious in its recent manifestations, but they go back to the beginnings of the movement for universal human rights in the years immediately following the Second World War. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while accepting some limitations, pointed the way toward subsequent overreaching. It was drafted with the participation of the Soviet Union, mainly by recent allies of that regime, and it shows signs of its origin. There is nothing holy about it, and the fundamentalism that applies international documents with a lawyer’s mentality to basic issues of social relations must be rejected.

Without a return to basic principles “human rights” as an institution is likely to become more and more a vehicle for overreaching by well-placed ideological and imperial elites and thus defeat its proper purposes. Those purposes are too important to give up, so the tradition of human rights requires radical reinterpretation to save what is valuable in it. There have been many who have explained how various cultures and world religions can be reinterpreted to support human rights. It is far more important to explain how human rights, properly interpreted, can become consistent with cultures and world religions. That is the task that now lies before us.