art, books, equality, ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (24): Richard Rorty on Human Rights and Sympathy

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty

(source)

Richard Rorty has an interesting take on human rights. If we want universal acceptance of and respect for human rights, we shouldn’t try to argue about it. We shouldn’t attempt to work out rational justifications of human rights, or arguments that will convince people that human rights are a good thing. Instead, according to Rorty, we would achieve better results if we try to influence people’s feelings instead of their minds. And the best way to do that is by telling sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc., or by making political art. Such stories and art make the reader sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience or the reader to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position. The victim, who may be of another class, race or nationality and who seems so very different that he or she initially isn’t even considered to be of the same species and therefore cannot possibly claim to enjoy the same rights, is transformed by the story into a living human being. The sympathy engendered by the story gives the victim a human face. This person also grieves for the loss of children, also has an opinion and a moral sense. He’s or she not a barbarian. As a consequence, the victim can be given human rights.

This approach to human rights doesn’t justifying human rights in an abstract and philosophical way – something which according to Rorty isn’t possible anyway (Rorty’s a post-modern anti-foundationalist highly sceptical of the power of reason or rationality). Instead it motivates specific individuals to respect the rights of other specific individuals. So motivation instead of justification. And the focus isn’t so much on human rights themselves, but on humanity. When human rights are violated, it’s often not because people object to human rights, but because they consider the targets of rights violations as somehow outside the realm of humanity. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was very eloquent about human rights, but was a slave holder at the same time. Undoubtedly because he had convinced himself that negroes were more akin to animals than humans.

The big advantage of the sentimental approach is that is can convince people to accept others into the realm of humanity. Sympathy means after all the recognition that someone else’s suffering is akin to your own. Rorty harked back to David Hume for this insight:

Hume held that corrected (sometimes rule-corrected) sympathy, not law-discerning reason, is the fundamental moral capacity. Richard Rorty (source)

David Hume

David Hume

Hence the importance of a “right to belong to humanity” in the words of Hannah Arendt (see here and here) and of the equal rights provision in the system of human rights.

This approach, or “sentimental education” as Rorty called it, can indeed be very useful, and I regularly use it on this blog (for example, there’s a blog series called “human rights stories“, and there’s also a lot of imagery used here). However, I think we should and can use both strategies, the emotional and the rational one. (I outlined the latter one here. In the field of morality, Immanuel Kant is of course the main exponent of the rational approach).

Thomas Pogge

Thomas Pogge

The emotional approach isn’t without a downside. Human rights violations do not always occur because of a lack of sympathy or because of dehumanization. They are often the result of power structures, cultural practices, legal rules, institutions, international relations etc. Just engendering sympathy won’t do much good there. (Thomas Pogge is known for his work in this field). Moreover, sentimental education implies a willingness to listen – not a notable characteristic of many of the worst human rights violators, i.e. Taliban c.s. – and a certain standard of living that allows people to relax long enough to be able to listen. These are problems which Rorty recognized (source) and which indicate that his approach cannot be exclusive.

More posts in this series are here.

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18 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (24): Richard Rorty on Human Rights and Sympathy

  1. Ikiru says:

    Good post. I agree that both a rational as well am empathetic approaches are valid and necessary. Both have their place in the various human rights struggles.

    There is more immediacy in the empathetic approach that might seem less abstract to more people, so I imagine that it could potentially catch more people’s attention– that is, if such art, films, etc. can get wide circulation. One problem in the US (and elsewhere too I’m sure) is that TV shows like “24” gain more attention than say a bio-pic on Rosa Parks.

    And shows like “24” help to normalise torture. So art can be used to dehumanise as well as humanise. Which one generates more cash? In a culture that thrives on violence (simulated or otherwise) how can people be convinced to engage in something that challenges their assumptions about that violence? — in other words, art that does more than just “preach to the choir.”

    ~josh

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