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

Also, as we have seen, human rights may be rights to all kinds of
behaviors that our sophisticated and sensitive liberal natures may
abhor. Hunting is a good example, given the current threat in England
to ban fox hunting on "humanitarian" grounds, which seem to have more
to do with puritanical objections to the hunters' enjoyment than with
the supposed suffering of the fox. A very good case could be made
that the "right to procreate" (which has now been established in U.S.
common law) includes the right to polygamy (polygyny and polyandry)
for those who can afford it and want it. Why should the state--on
grounds that are always fuzzy and derive largely from religious
prejudice--limit the number of spouses? The overwhelming majority of
human societies (approximately 85 percent) have allowed or enjoined
polygamy. Again, the "advanced" societies have reversed this
tendency, which is wholly "natural" in a sexually competitive species
of large land mammals with moderate sexual dimorphism and
late-maturing young. As with the Romans, the argument for monogamy is
egalitarian. But as we have seen, nature is not egalitarian: if some
succeed and some fail in the polygamy stakes, then the same is in
fact true of monogamy, where some will always outbreed others. And
yet again, the monogamous societies, while banning multiple marriages
as "unnatural", hypocritically allow all kinds of multiple
mating--serial monogamy being the most common example in modern
Western society.

It is a pretty safe bet that almost anything we have condemned as
"unnatural" is something that we know will flourish if we leave it
alone. For if something is natural we have no need to buttress it
with sanctions; it will take care of itself.

Nature's Neutrality

What, then, should we call these rights that are not basic, natural
or human, but which we "know" to be desirable? (Thus we may not know
what human rights are, but we certainly know when we have lost them.)
Surely, you say, we should not give in to relativism and suggest that
they are simply local preferences without universal validity. At
least I hope you are saying that, because that pernicious doctrine
has achieved a sinister grip among the scribbling classes. It is
perhaps strange that the triumph of relativism should come at the
same time that the pursuit of "human rights issues" has come to
dominate international affairs and foreign policies. Yet the two
trends are not unrelated. In a world of relativistic morals, we would
have no basis for attacking offenders against "rights" if these could
be dismissed as mere cultural preferences. We therefore have to
underpin certain rights as "human" to stress their universality. If
they pertain to all humans--on what grounds is not always clear--then
they are impervious to the relativist's objection. What is truly
strange is that a good many theory-befuddled academics and activists
hold both views at the same time, lauding relativism in defense of
"multicultural" agendas while denouncing, say, female circumcision as
contrary to "universal human rights." Logic is usually the first
fatality in ideological warfare.

The cherished rights enshrined in the Constitution, the Declaration
of the Rights of Man, the UN Charter and human rights declaration,
and all the treaties and commissions up to the Helsinki Accords and
the establishment of the International Criminal Court--all of these
are highly evolved political and social rights that derive from the
Western Enlightenment tradition, with its basic values of equality
and universalism. Many of them are peculiar to the Christian
tradition. Despite attempts to base these rights on "nature", in most
cases they--by their very design--either run counter to nature or, at
best, concern things about which nature is strictly neutral.

We have looked at some of the former. As examples of the latter we
might suggest that "nature" gives us no clues about what form certain
institutions might take, only about the rules of engagement, as it
were. We should be able to accrue resources so as to take part in the
reproductive struggle. But exactly how we should accrue those
resources (whether they include that Enlightenment favorite,
"property", for example), to what lengths we should go to prevent
others (our reproductive rivals) from accruing them, and to what
extent we should assist our close kin by passing resources to
them--on all these matters nature is silent. The winners will be
rewarded, but they will be rewarded if they cheat as well as if they
play fair. They will be rewarded if they kill and torture, if that is
what gets more of their genes into the pool. They will be rewarded if
they cooperate, if that is what gets it done. We can see that some
behaviors will be self-defeating--too many cheaters will leave too
few suckers--and probably self-limiting as a strategy in the long
run. But in the short run, a cheater can perfectly well manage a
respectable score in the inclusive fitness stakes. We still celebrate
the con man and the huckster, and especially deride the cuckold. The
law may take one view, but popular opinion is not fooled.

Inclusive fitness theory--preserving and enlarging one's personal
gene pool--is only one way into the issue of what is basically human.
I have taken it here simply as an example. Take another approach,
say, the findings of psychology into the basic list of human
motivations. Certainly we shall find some that suit our warm and
compassionate version of "human", but there will be a list of others
that we would not want on any list of things to be fought for and
protected and promoted.

Take again those things we have in common with our nearest animal
relatives, the chimpanzees, whose genetic material is 98 percent our
own. There is the warm and fuzzy list all right, but there is also,
as Jane Goodall discovered to her warm-hearted horror, warfare,
genocide, cannibalism, homicide, female beating, infanticide,
violence, domination and more.

Take, say, those features that have been found common to all human
societies by comparative ethnography. Once again, the list of saintly
characteristics is overbalanced by the dark features that seem so
inescapably human. It is a pure act of judgment to say that the dark
features, all of which can be shown to have contributed to survival,
are to be regarded as less "human" than the ones we have selected as
worthy of promotion. And there will be yet others that have served
survival purposes and are regarded as benign by even a majority--and
have been so regarded throughout history--such that in our
enlightened judgment they must be added to the list of the truly

Aspirations, Not Needs

So where are we left with our rights problem? Does it really matter
if the term "human" is wrongly applied to rights? It does, because
this is an area that is too important for us to indulge in systematic
self-delusion. We are moving into a period when the pursuit of "human
rights issues" is filling the vacuum in foreign policy left by the
disappearance of clear-cut "national interest" issues (for example,
Robin Cook's much-touted "ethical foreign policy" for the UK). This
has already been the excuse for us to break the rules of
international behavior established in the "national interest" period,
to bomb a sovereign nation into submission and kill at least one
thousand people. This stance threatens to start another and more
deadly war with China. It is moralistic, self-righteous and
aggressive. It is dangerous as well as hypocritical in its selective
action. Yugoslavia was in the end massively bombed to preserve "the
credibility of UK." How useful that "human rights" could be invoked
as a cynical justification. (See also the human and "national" rights
of Kuwaiti sheiks that were so gallantly protected in what otherwise
might have seemed to be an old-fashioned war to protect our vital oil
interests.) And given the moral state of our politicians, this is
about all we can expect.

Robert Benchley was of the opinion that whenever a government began
shouting "spies!" it was inevitably trying to divert attention from
its own shady business. Perhaps we can be forgiven for suspecting
something of the sort when we hear politicians chanting the mantra of
"human rights"--usually to cover some hypocritical, and inevitably
blundering, manipulation of the UN by the powers in the Security

Given the inevitable skepticism about governmental honesty (or at
least competence), we should at the very least insist on being clear
about what we are doing and on what grounds we are doing it. We
should not take action on the grounds that what we are supporting or
suppressing is in some sense essentially "human", when it is no such
thing. A great deal of what is human is in fact what is at the root
of what we are opposing, suppressing, killing and destroying in the
name of human rights. To achieve the kind of world envisioned in the
treaties, charters and commissions, we must indeed suppress and
destroy--or at the very least control--human nature. We are not
acting for it, we are acting against it, or we are supplementing it
in those cases where it gives us no guidance. As Katherine Hepburn
said to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen: "Human nature, Mr.
Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above."

Essay Types: Essay