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Human Rights

The Myth of Universal Human Rights – Part 1


“In proportion to the want of happiness resulting from the want of rights, a reason exists for wishing that there were such things as rights. But reasons for wishing there were such things as rights, are not rights — a reason for wishing that a certain right were established, is not that right— want is not supply — hunger is not bread.”— Jeremy Bentham


The History of Civilization in Less Than 800 Words

As civilizations rose, and expanded, and merged, and collapsed, we humans made great strides in distancing ourselves from nature. For the past eight million years or so, the best survival strategy for primates has been to stay in small groups, usually less than fifty, and to relocate as needed to relatively small territories with ecosystems that facilitated hunting and gathering. Some species, such as the chimpanzees, emerged to be more aggressive and militant, while others, like the bonobos, live in truly egalitarian societies. We humans, on the other hand, have lost respect for nature. Indeed, we now use planetary ecosystems and biota as if they were there for our exclusive benefit.

Cultural anthropologists generally agree that the seeds for civilization were planted shortly after the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years or so before present, during what’s called the Neolithic Revolution — the Age of Agriculture. As a result, humans no longer needed to hunt and gather their food supply; they were able to domesticate it. And this is when the trouble begins. “Domesticate” can also mean dominate, and to dominate is to control, and to control is to have power, and that leads, as we all know, to the desire for absolute power. Humans, for the first time in their several hundred thousand-year history, had made a profound paradigm shift from being at the mercy of nature to thinking they had control over it, at least in part.

The stage is now set for civilizations to emerge. With a surplus food supply, populations increased, the division of labor started, and technology took off like a rocket — the wheel, the cart, woven fabric, writing, permanent structures, the bronze age, the iron age, etc. The excess production of food and other goods also lead to the necessity for a workable economy, which, in turn, transformed the concept of property from communal to proprietary.

These early settlers, now retired from their nomadic wanderings, soon realized that some sort of formal organization, call it a government, was necessary to protect citizens and their property, and to defend territory and needed resources, not to mention dealing with the pesky and always present issues of law and order that always seem to come up among and between groups of people. Typically in these organizations, there was a single “ruler” who was most often assumed to be in direct contact with the deity (or deities) de jour and, being so vested, was granted total authority and jurisdiction over the city/state, nation, or empire. Eventually, this claim to power became known as “The Divine Right of Kings.” (Or Pharaohs, or Emperors, or Chiefs, or, sometimes, even Queens.)

As territory expanded and populations increased, control by these rulers became more difficult and less efficient. This necessitated the establishment of a hierarchical structure, which facilitated a more workable span of control, especially for military operations. A formal government became fully functional when the rulers’ edicts, and then the laws, including punishments for the violations thereof, were put in place.

As we know, civilizations were dominated by authoritarian/totalitarian regimes; sometimes despotic, sometimes benign, which lasted for thousands of years. In fact, it has only been in the last 400 years or so, beginning with the Renaissance and up through the Age of Enlightenment, that the idea of a “social contract” emerged whereby rule by the people, democracy, offered the promise of a potent and effective check on the rich and powerful. Citizens could at last be granted and lay claim to certain individual rights. And the notion of secularism would creep into the design of new governments.

Of course, humans have continued to follow this standard model of civilization all over the globe. However, considering the many dilemmas we face today; economic turmoil, diminishing natural resources, unsustainable growth, racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts, incompetent, corrupt, and ineffective governments, weapons of mass destruction, corporate greed, pollution of all kinds, it may be worth reflecting on whether we made the right choices all those thousands of years ago.

On this point, scientist and Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse,) in an article that appeared in the May, 1987, issue of Discover magazine, titled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” concluded:

“Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny. Hunter‑gatherers practiced the most successful and longest‑lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.”

The Age of Thinking That Hunger IS Bread

The origin of “Human Rights” is nominally traced back to the idea of “Natural Law.” The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius is credited by some scholars with pioneering this idea. His thesis, as described in “On the Laws of War and Peace,” published in 1625, was that natural law is distinct from divine law in that natural law would apply even in the absence of God and even if the affairs of human beings were of no concern to God. In other words, it is natural law that forms the moral code for human society, not the covenants with some supernatural being (or beings) and that natural law is likewise superior to man’s law. From that idea, it was easy to extrapolate natural law into natural rights; that there exist certain universal rights which are inherent in the nature of living beings, especially (or exclusively for) humans, and that these rights are not contingent upon any other laws or beliefs.

Natural law thus became the imprimatur for the “social contract”, which, in turn, begat consideration of Natural Rights, and then Unalienable Rights, and then Human Rights, among other designations. This new worldview became the Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment philosophers and led to the almost universal conclusion (the exception being the contentious Thomas Hobbes) that power should flow from the people, not from the governing authority.

As described by John Locke in his “Second Treatise of Government” published in 1690, which  may sound familiar:

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

Locke’s ideas were certainly not lost on our Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, who, with his inimitable eloquence, in the Declaration of Independence, parroted Locke in the most famous phrase:

“We hold these truths to be self‑evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Of course, when that part of the Declaration was revealed to women, slaves, the poor, and native Americans, you could hear the laughter all the way out to St. Louis. Indeed, the “men” Jefferson referred to at the time consisted of a fairly exclusive group: white male property owners of European descent who were mostly Deists. In fact, when Abigail Adams read what the Founders had done, she wrote to her husband John

I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies for whilst you are proclaiming peace and goodwill to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining absolute power over Wives.”

Looking back from today and reflecting on how Jefferson tries to convert natural law into unalienable rights, it’s easy to see that this oft quoted phrase was only rhetorical. But, while it appears that self-evident truths were really self-serving truths, we need to remember that the primary intent of the Declaration was to offer an alternative form of government to the “divine right of kings” in England and its oppressive and tyrannical colonialism in which the people had no representation in the halls of government to help protect their interests.

Further, we can plainly see that the rights Jefferson declared as “inalienable” were in fact the “natural rights” as described by Grotius and Locke. And, being inalienable, as opposed to unalienable (protected by law), such rights could not be taken away and therefore were immune from interference by the state or by other groups or individuals. Under that logic, a government would be powerless to deny, disparage, or otherwise interfere with such rights. But clearly that is not the case. Just ask the women, or the slaves, or the native Americans, or those we euphemistically call “enemy combatants.”

It can be argued therefore that natural rights, inalienable or not, whether embedded in the social contract or not, are not actually rights in any meaningful sense. It is like saying that a bear has the inalienable right to hibernate, or that a bird has the inalienable right to fly, or that a bee has the inalienable right to both fly and to make honey, or that a great white shark has the inalienable right to scare the begeebes out of the stupid humans who lower themselves into the water in a flimsy cage to observe them!

There is a difference, then, between nature as a condition of survival and nature as the basis for an entitlement to something. The Lockean axiom is wrong. Nature’s law is not man’s law. With all due respect to the great minds on the Enlightenment Age, the case can be made, in retrospect, that their highfalutin reasoning in respect to Human Rights was little more than an epistemological fraud.

However, some of the Enlightenment philosophers advised against being too generous in loading human rights into the social contract. For example, one of the many sources for inspiration to our Founding Fathers, Charles de Montesquieu, cautioned that,

“In the state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal; but they cannot continue in this equality: society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the laws.”

And, James Madison provided this perspective:

“[W]hat is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Then too, the conception of Human Rights that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was applied only on the basis of the moral relativism of the day. Slavery was moral for thousands of years until the abolitionists were convincing enough, and a great civil war was devastating enough, to make slavery illegal, if not downright immoral. Of course, the morality of genocide committed against the “heathen” native Americans, North, South and Central, remained unquestioned for more than four hundred years. And, there have been and continue to be a plethora of moral issues concerning child labor, migrant workers, unions, women’s rights, gay rights, and many others, which have evolved and changed over the years.

Continued in Part 2: Wars and the Efficacy of Human Rights


2 thoughts on “The Myth of Universal Human Rights – Part 1

  1. Jim Wheeler – Joplin, Missouri – U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.

    Having difficulty understanding Trump’s success despite obvious deceit and demagoguery, I was inspired to recall from several months ago, Herb, that you had re-blogged your essays here, so I have finally looked them up. Having finished part I, I know that we are in agreement, at least so far, on the nature of humankind. I will proceed, but in the meantime I’d like to offer a link from the New Yorker with the provocative title, Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. I suspect it will fit right in with your take on the social human mind. But even if it does, the question pends: is there a solution?

    Posted by Jim Wheeler | February 25, 2017, 10:29 AM
    • Herb Van Fleet

      Jim, thanks for your comments. And thanks too for the link to an excellent article on confirmation bias and other blocks to reason. I posted it on my Facebook page. It brings up the disturbing truism that the need for conformation and commonality of belief can overcome reason and that these factors are evolutionary. Goes to my long-held belief, and your too as I recall, that it’s about tribalism. Tribes rule. And inter-tribal relations, if there is such a thing, are difficult at best.

      Posted by Herb Van Fleet | February 25, 2017, 11:42 AM

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