Human Nature and Human Rights

Human Nature and Human Rights

Mini Teaser: "Human rights" as understood today bear little relation to what it means to be human; but that does not faze their advocates.

by Author(s): Robin Fox

In the closing months of his presidency, Bill Clinton and some of his
entourage have taken to using the buzzphrase "human and political
rights" to replace the simpler "human rights." A call to the White
House press office produced no explanation of the coinage, but
assured me that "no policy change was implied." It's always nice to
know that it is business as usual.

One would like to think that some sense of the paradoxes and
complications of the term "human rights" had come home to the
administration, and that in consequence it was on its way to even
more qualifications: perhaps "human, political, economic, legal,
cultural, national, sexual and domestic rights." This may be too much
to hope for, but one gets the impression that President Clinton has
meant to restrict "human" to "personal and family" and so needs to
tack on "political" to cover all those "rights" that are to do with
the wider society and participation in it. But what does this mean?
That political rights are not human? That "human" has to do only with
our persons and families? Whatever happened to "natural rights",
which traditionally used to cover all of the above?

So much has now been written about "human rights" that, like
President Clinton, we tend to lose our perspective and get confused.
As with the classic issue of "natural rights" before it, the debate
becomes so infused with passion that straight thinking is almost
impossible. Argument about rights of one sort or another is both
possible and desirable, particularly given the current penchant for
using "human rights" as a basis for often quite brutal foreign policy
decisions. But we have to recognize that putting "human" in front of
"rights"-- when, for example, talking of the "human right" of people
to free elections--is simply to use a warm hurrah word as a
rhetorical device. In the same way, wars of political suppression
become "humanitarian interventions", and anything we do not currently
happen to like becomes "unnatural", even if it is something as
basically human as the hunting of game animals or investment in
multiple spouses.

Both "human" and "natural" do have a real content, and we can
identify that content. Given the all-too-free use of these terms,
perhaps we should ask ourselves what that content might be. The
trouble is that we have used them as hurrah words for so long, that
we balk at any result that is not consonant with our current
enlightened prejudices. We want to define what is natural; we do not
want nature to do it for us, for the result might not be pretty.

Thus, if anyone were to make an argument, however logical, coherent
and backed by evidence, that there was no natural or human right to
vote, for example, he would not be answered so much as ridiculed and
condemned as reactionary and anti-humanitarian. Yet a respectable
argument could indeed be made that there is nothing in nature, or
certainly in the nature of being human, that demands the right to
vote as such. That right is not so much a natural or human right as
one contingent on the fairly advanced economic and political
development of certain civilizations. This is probably the sort of
thing Clinton has in mind when he adds political to human in the
rights catalogue.

The natural/human right might be phrased as "a right to a say in the
affairs of one's group." How such participation in group
decision-making is to be ensured, however, is not defined by anything
in nature or humanity. Voting only becomes an issue at a certain
sophisticated level of political development. It may be possible to
argue that at such a level everyone has a right to vote (although
exceptions will rapidly be listed--children, lunatics, felons, peers,
exiles, non-residents, resident non-citizens, non-property owners,
unregistered persons), but such a right is scarcely natural or human.
It is more properly cultural, or social and political, deriving from
the nature of government so achieved rather than from facts of nature
or humanity.

On the other hand, a very good argument could be made, using basic
kin selection theory, that thereis a natural and human right to
revenge. If someone kills my nephew or grandson, he robs me of a
proportion of my inclusive fitness, that is, the strength of my
personal gene pool. To redress this imbalance, it could be argued, I
have the right to inflict a similar loss on him. I should be allowed
to deprive him of someone related to him. This could be satisfied by
killing two of his first cousins, or any such combination that would
level the balance sheet. It is remarkable that many systems of
vengeance in human society seem implicitly to observe the logic of
inclusive fitness. They do not, for example, necessarily prescribe
that I kill the person responsible: one of his kin or clan will do
just as well.

This system of vengeance is less efficient as a redress than a system
whereby I would get to impregnate one of the perpetrator's females,
thus forcing him to raise to viability a person carrying my own
genes. Actually, in the example cited this would amount to
overcompensation, since I would gain by half to a loss of
one-quarter. It would be more exact if my brother were allowed to
make the impregnation, thus restoring the exact balance. Either
method is of course impractical given intertribal or clan hostility,
but note how ubiquitous is the practice of impregnating captive women
or the women of defeated rivals. The advancing Russian forces in
World War II made a massive effort to redress the imbalance caused by
German depredations during Operation Barbarossa. Russian genes are
now being nurtured by the Federal Republic's economic and welfare
systems on a vast scale.

I probably do not have the right to demand that any superordinate
entity carry out this vengeance for me (although I may call on
supernatural agencies, and will commonly use sorcery to harm an
offender). In strict fitness theory I am bound to redress my own
wrongs and either succeed or fail, thus determining my own ultimate
fitness in terms of the genes that I, and those who have genes in
common with me through descent, contribute to the pool. Perhaps the
most basic claim we have against a collective entity is that it leave
us alone to settle our affairs. It is generally observed, however,
that as human societies evolve, many of the self-help functions are
delegated to some superordinate authority.

This is the essence of the social contract: for the sake of harmony
within the group, certain basic rights to individual action are
delegated to the group itself. Hence, compensation comes to
substitute for vengeance. Again, this is often framed in reproductive
terms: compensation for a murdered man is that which will enable his
kin to raise another child to replace him. In many systems before the
advent of the monopolistic state, there was no question of personal
retribution through the execution of the murderer. Just compensation,
which would enable the genetic replacement of the victim, was
considered sufficient. This can be seen as a humanitarian advance in
human morals, or as a retrograde step depriving individuals of the
right of vengeance, but either way there is no question that it
preserved the idea of redressing the genetic imbalance caused by a
human-activated death. The monopolistic state, however, declares that
there is no individual right to vengeance, and reserves that right to
itself. Thus the state exacts retributive justice, but leaves the kin
of the victim without compensation, and the imbalance permanent. It
is not clear how this is an improvement on the older systems of
self-help or compensation ("blood money").

The Woody Allen Question

It does, however, raise an interesting question: At a certain point
of development in human social complexity, does the collectivity
acquire "human rights" over the individual? This is important because
so much of the above-mentioned writing on human rights assumes them
to be by definition individual rights. This often goes to the length
of seeing no rights as inhering in any collectivity--except, perhaps,
the family--and even as seeing the collectivity as the automatic
enemy of human rights. Such rights are almost by definition rights
against the state. But there have always been human collectivities;
we are, as F.H. Bradley observed, following Darwin, following
Aristotle, a rootedly social animal. In fact, Bradley argued, we
could show that individuals did not exist: the social was real and
the individual the abstraction. Take away from any so-called
individual everything contributed to his nature and person by society
(starting with the genetic contribution of his parents, grandparents
and so forth) and what is left? Nothing. The whole idea of rights
being peculiar to individuals only becomes possible with
self-conscious creatures, of which humans are the only example.

What sense does it make to attribute individual rights to ants? Woody
Allen's neurotic worker, oppressed by the collective morality of the
colony in the movie Antz, is only funny because it is impossible: an
anthropomorphizing of the ant condition. But it is interesting
because that is precisely what has happened in the human situation. A
mammal living in socially complex colonies, like baboons or
chimpanzees, suddenly (in evolutionary terms) became conscious of its
own condition, probably by evolving powers of speech with which to
talk about it. Baboons cannot have individual rights any more than
ants. They simply do what they have to do to be baboons and produce
more baboons. But once a primate is conscious of its condition, then
it can start to ask the Woody Allen type of question: "Why must I
always do the things the group wants to do? Why can't I decide for
myself what is good for me?" In this way it can formulate the notion
first of "individuals" and then of certain things owing to
individuals: just as the group has a "right" to a territory, so an
individual has a "right" to . . . the answer is pretty much anything
it can think up. Once started on this delusional pathway there is
ultimately no limit except that of the imagination.

Essay Types: Essay