culture, human rights and international law, law, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (20): Universal Rights

the earth as seen from the moon

A few more words on the universality of human rights (following up from here). Legally, human rights are universal norms and rules. Almost all countries in the world have accepted international treaties that translate human rights into law, or have accepted membership of international institutions which proclaim to respect human rights or work towards the realization of human rights (such as the UN). (There’s an overview of the acceptance of the two major human rights treaties here and here). Moreover, most if not all national constitutions proclaim human rights to be part of the country’s highest law. Even North-Korea recently changed its constitution in this sense.

So, this example of North-Korea makes it obvious that legal universality isn’t the same thing as universality tout court. There are in fact three types of universality – legal, moral and factual universality: universal acceptance of legal rules, universal acceptance of moral rules, and universal respect for legal/moral rules. Ultimately, it’s the last one that counts, of course. These three types don’t require each other, but the last one obviously benefits from the presence of the first two:

  • Legal (or normative) universality. Legal consensus doesn’t require moral or factual universality. Countries can adopt legal rules for other reasons than moral conviction, and legal rules are – by definition I would say, otherwise we wouldn’t need any legal rules – regularly violated.
  • Moral universality: there’s moral universality when human rights are part of the “morality of the world” (or Weltethos), or – in other words – are accepted as peremptory moral rules by all of the world’s cultures, nations, subcultures, religions etc. This doesn’t require legal universality. You can have moral consensus and still have a rogue dictator somewhere who has refused to sign a treaty. Nor does it require factual universality, again because you don’t need a rule – legal or moral – for something that is a fact.
  • Factual universality: human rights are not just norms but facts; there are no human rights violations. Again, this doesn’t require legal or moral universality, since actual respect for human rights may have other causes than legal or moral pressure. However, it’s fair to say that without legal and  – especially – moral universality, factual universality is highly unlikely (although many would say that it’s utopian in any case).

Notwithstanding the prominence of human rights talk in almost all domains of life and all corners of the world, there is no moral universality. There are certain ideologies and schools of thought (yes, there’s a difference) that argue against the universal value of human rights. Either they argue against human rights in general, or – more commonly – they argue against certain elements of the system of human rights: for instance, they may reject certain types of human rights (e.g. economic rights), or they may reject the “absoluteness” of human rights and accept that certain human rights can be bracketed in certain circumstances when higher values are in danger (e.g. the use of torture in emergencies). Examples of arguments against the universality of the entire system of human rights can be found in the theory called “cultural relativism“, or in the view that economic development has priority over human rights.

How do we promote moral universality? Read here.

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religion

Religion and Human Rights (2): God is Alive and Kicking… Mostly Kicking

god

Fragment from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling painting

This is a post on the logic of religious terrorism.Those who listen to the daily news, and that’s about all of us, know it very well: God is not dead, whether you like it or not. Many of the major news stories are about religious conflict: Islamic terrorism, Muhammad cartoons, the Pope insulting other religions…

It seems that God is directing world affairs, or at least the God in the minds of the numerous religiously inspired actors who initiate the world events that reach our news programs. In many cases, these events are violent and bloody. God is alive, and He’s kicking, of course not personally but through His representatives on earth. And of course He’s kicking the unbelievers or the believers of a rival God.

So it is not uncommon to hear complaints about the pernicious effects of religion. I want to argue that it is not religion as such which should be blamed for religiously inspired suffering, but the status of religious beliefs in the minds of those causing the suffering. There is an enormous difference between the action patterns of those who think that their religious beliefs are their personal opinions and those who think that their beliefs are exact images of the Truth.

Opinions are, by nature, non-despotic: they cannot be forced on you. The truth can. No one can escape the truth. The laws of physics for example have a despotic character. You have to accept them. Opinions can be accepted or rejected, depending on the force of the arguments for or against, on your personal disposition, your intellectual powers of understanding etc. Another characteristic of opinions is that they are part of a contradictory world of different opinions. An opinion exists only as long as its contrary also exists. If the latter ceases to exist, then the former becomes what we may call some form of truth, at least to the extent that we may give this label to an opinion that is the object of a worldwide consensus. The laws of physics for example have attained this level of consensus and therefore can be labeled “truth” rather than “opinion”. Religion obviously has not.

Truth implies consensus. Who dares to resist the truth? Only a fool or a moron. Truth eliminates debate because no one contradicts the truth. As long as someone who is neither a fool nor a moron contradicts the truth and gives good reasons for doing so, we have not yet attained the level of truth and remain in the world of opinion. This world is one of plurality and contradiction; the world of truth is one of uniformity. Only when everyone is convinced and no good reasons or arguments against are left can we claim to have something like the truth. Even when some opinions are predominant, they remain mere opinions as long as good arguments against are available, or, in other words, as long as contradictory opinions based on good arguments—and not mere prejudices—are available.

As everyone who expresses an opinion, I also would like to see my opinions elevated to the status of truth. But that depends on many things: the force of my arguments, the disposition of my readers etc. It is not a result that I can determine or even predict. If I would force this elevation—on the condition that I would have the power to do so—then I would not be acting democratically. Democratic politics does not take place in the world of truth or the world of uniformity and despotism. Opinions are the fabric of democracy.

Democracy is the game of different and contradictory opinions, some of which become temporarily predominant because they are backed by the better arguments or the arguments that can convince a majority, on the condition that we speak about a perfect democracy unhindered by manipulation. The predominant opinions then inform government policy, but non-predominant ones continue to exist and continue to make their case in an effort to become predominant themselves. If these other opinions no longer exist, then it is not opinion but truth that informs government policy. Which can and does happen, even in the case of perfectly democratic governments. But it is not typical of a democracy and not its essence. One can even say that the job of a democracy is finished when it happens.

For example, the fight against inflation is no longer an opinion. There are no longer good arguments for the opposite policy and everyone is convinced that it is a good policy. Hence, there is no democratic debate for or against the fight against inflation. The policies of all governments, including democracies, are inspired by this truth, but this has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy can only enter the stage when different actors present different and contradictory opinions, for example opinions regarding abortion. There is intense debate about this subject. The predominance and hence also government policy shifts from one side to the other and back again.

But what we see in the example of abortion and in many other examples in the field of religion, is that democracy does not only stop when an opinion is elevated to the level of truth. It also stops when contradictory opinions continue to exist but are no longer argued. Proponents and opponents of abortion have practically stopped to give reasons and arguments. They just throw citations from the Bible or general and vague claims of rights at one another. In fact, their opinions have not been elevated to the level of truth but have rather descended to the level of prejudices or “feelings” or beliefs. Democracy requires opinions, not something more or less. Opinions are based on arguments and reasons, not on evidence, proof, certainty, prejudices, feelings or beliefs. Democracy only has a function when there can be debate and there can only be debate when there are opinions, not when there is more or less, not when everything is either truth or belief. Of course, beliefs should not be excluded from democratic politics, just as truth should not be excluded. Beliefs can be a powerful force behind debates. They can inspire thinking and discussion, but they will never be the essence of democracy. If there is nothing more than beliefs, then there is no democracy.

So truth can enter democracy—democratic governments would be literally stupid not to allow this—but it will never be its essence. When truth becomes the essence of politics, democracy dies. This can happen when people forget that what they believe is not an opinion but the truth, and this often happens in the case of religious beliefs. People become unable or unwilling to see that other, contradictory opinions based on good arguments continue to exist, and try to transform politics from a space of discussion into a machine for the application of the truth. Other opinions are suppressed and violence is used against people who hold them, because these other opinions are not recognized as valid opinions based on arguments. Instead, they are seen as mistakes or errors or even lies because they contradict the beliefs of those who believe to posses the truth. And who would not admit action against errors or lies?

This unwarranted renaming of opinions into truths and the subsequent actions against opinions that are not in fact errors or lies but real opinions based on sound arguments, not only destroys debate and democracy but destroys the very lives of many people. Politics becomes a tool to transform reality, to shape the world according to some theory or utopia considered to be the true teaching. Islamic fundamentalism is a typical example of this approach. The adherents of this ideology are convinced that they possess the truth and are unable or unwilling to recognize the views of others as valid opinions based on sound arguments. Everything outside of their worldview is false and needs to be corrected or destroyed.

If you see yourself as the carrier of truth rather than one who holds a particularly well argued opinion, then you have to suppress other views. You are morally obliged to act against mistakes and lies. Allowing someone to lie or to live a life of mistakes is immoral. This person is not someone who happens to hold another opinion based on arguments that according to you are less successful, and who has to be respected for this. He or she is clearly stupid or even of bad faith, and has to be re-educated in order to access the truth. Democratic argumentation and discussion will not help in these cases because argumentation requires a target that is either sensitive to good arguments and hence not stupid, or of good faith. And in any case, truth does not need arguments. It is self-evident and, if not, merely requires explanation. But explanation does not help either when the target is stupid or of bad faith. Force is then the only means left. This is the fatal logic that drives people who believe to be the holders of truth away from democracy and in the arms of tyranny and terrorism.

All this does not mean that democratic politics cannot or should not be based on strong beliefs. Participants must believe that their opinions are valid and that they have good reasons for believing in these opinions, and they can act according to these opinions. Democratic action can be inspired by beliefs and theory, and even should be if it wants to be intelligent and something more than pure activism. But it should never forget that others may be inspired differently and have sound reasons to follow other opinions. Action inspired by theory has to take place within the democratic game of competing opinions and should not replace this game by the effort to impose something that is mistaken for the truth and that is in fact merely one opinion in a setting of many competing opinions.

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