Why Do We Need Human Rights? (43): Positionality and Transpositionality

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philosophy / why do we need human rights

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Human beings are inescapably positional. We understand the world from the position in which we are. In the words of Amartya Sen, what we observe and how we observe it depends on our position vis-à-vis the object we observe. ”Object” can also be person, an idea etc., and “position” can mean your physical location – if you see a horse from behind you may think it’s a donkey – but also your mood (you see things differently according to your mood), your priors etc.

Another characteristic of human beings is that we want to observe the world as accurately or objectively as we can. “Objectively“ here means focused on the object we observe rather than on the position from which we observe it. The problem is that we always observe something from a certain position and that this positionality can make accuracy or objectivity hard to achieve. We need human rights, and not just our own rights but the rights of others as well, to correct our positionality and achieve something close to objectivity. Someone else may be looking at the horse from the front, and can tell us – using her rights – that from her perspective the horse looks like a horse, not a donkey. Someone with a better mood about someone else can tell us that our view of that person is negatively influenced by our mood. And so on. People exercising their rights can help us achieve objectivity.

different perspectivesBut our own rights also help us a lot. If we don’t have rights, then we can’t move about – physically or intellectually – as easily as we have to in order to see things from other perspectives. If our fellow human beings don’t have rights, then they can’t easily tell us about their different perspectives. In both cases, the accuracy of our observation of the world suffers. Accuracy or objectivity require that we look at the whole object (or person or idea or problem etc.) rather than just one side of it. Without rights it’s difficult to do that. More fundamentally, without rights it may not even occur to us that there’s more than one side because we don’t hear about other sides. Not only is it hard in a world devoid of rights to move and occupy other perspectives or to hear about other perspectives; it’s hard to know that there’s a problem at all.

Objectivity is then a kind of transpositionality: an approach to the world which doesn’t really transcend our positionality – we can’t do that because we can’t look at things “from nowhere” – but which nevertheless liberates us from a limited form of positionality that may be detrimental to accuracy.

Of course, accuracy and objective are not to be taken in an absolute sense. Even in a world with full respect for rights and with people willing and able to occupy many different positions and perspectives and to talk to each other about those perspectives, it may not always be possible to achieve an accurate observation of the world, or even to improve our accuracy. For example – and this is Sen’s example – if we all look at the moon from our own perspective and share our different perspectives among ourselves, we may still conclude that it’s a rather small disk up there in the sky. As long as we haven’t built telescopes or moon rockets, our human rights won’t help us achieve an accurate understand of that part of our world. We may achieve transpositionality but not objectivity.

The good thing is that this is probably an exception and that our rights will normally help us in many cases to improve the accuracy of our understanding of the world. After all, ideas, persons and everyday objects don’t require sophisticated tools to be examined from different perspectives. But they do require human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

3 Comments

  1. I can’t help but notice that in the real world, in the contested spaces where rights language is supposed to shine with these innate qualities of providing positionality and enabling disparate groups the ability to talk ‘objectively’ about something rights language fails so prominently. Instead of a harmony of rights providing good fences and presumably good neighbors there’s a never ending screech of rights claims, counter claims and counter counter claims.

    e.g. I have a right to speak freely. I have a right not to be insulted on the basis if my ethnicity. I have a right to insult any ethnicity because of my political/religious/ethnic beliefs.

    To be more pointed than you deserve, I can’t help but feel skeptical when I read that not only does rights language not add to this discordant regime of claimed rights but it’s required–which seems to not only hand wave shortcomings today but also asserts some sort of historical gloss.

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