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

Human rights theorists are often quite honest about this. They
disclaim any attempt to base these rights on human nature or human
needs and define them as "the best to which we can aspire", or as
based on "a moral vision of a dignified human life." This is fine,
but it is not then plausible to claim at the same time that these
rights are "based on the very fact of being human." They are not;
they are based on the fact of individuals being trapped in oppressive
collectivities. This is why they must, by definition, be individual

There is nothing wrong with defining rights in terms of high human
aspirations, but they will then require a very different
justification from rights based on human needs. They involve, in
effect, a purely teleological justification: human rights become the
rights we need in order to achieve a certain desired end state of
society, not rights derived from the elusive state of true humanness.
Thus rights involving inclusive fitness are more likely to be
respected currently in fundamentalist Islamic societies than in
Western democracies. But societies based on Islamic law are usually
the ones most offensive to human rights activists.

It can be argued that human rights based on aspirations are no less
human than those based on needs. But the problem is that we can
aspire to virtually anything, and how do we choose between competing
aspirations? Needs at least give us some criteria of arbitration, and
very necessary ones, since many liberal-democratic-individualist
aspirations, however laudable, have the quality we observed of
running counter to basic needs and thus defeating their own
objectives. Is there any point in aspiring to a state of affairs that
is so inhuman that it is unsustainable, however ethically desirable?
The true hair-splitters will want to argue that such impossible
aspiration is also very human, and so it is; we are nothing if not a
paradoxical animal.

Human Rights and the National Interest

ONE OF THE major paradoxes surrounding the human rights issue is that it became central to foreign policy as part of a deliberate strategy to protect the national interest. Human rights activists will not like this claim, of course. They prefer, as is their way, to think they are acting from nothing but the highest and purest moral considerations. But even they will admit that these explicit concerns--as opposed to a general U.S. urge to be the world's good guys--had a definite beginning in the Ford administration. They prefer, however, to forget that this stance was deliberately engineered by Daniel Patrick Moynihan to counter the hypocrisy of the Third World communist bloc.

Moynihan, as ambassador to the UN, was tired of just sitting there and taking it when the bloc used anti-capitalist moralizing as a basis for attacking the policies of the democracies at the behest of the USSR. So he developed the strategy of counterattacking (or even getting in the first punch) on the rounds of the abuse of "human rights" by these regimes. This brilliantly put the democracies on the attack, reversing their previously defensive stance of continual apology. It put the onus of explanation and justification on the totalitarian dictatorships and their bullyboy leaders. It was not, however, something that arose out of humanitarian concern for the benighted inhabitants of these Third World terror regimes, but out of the need to combat their governments' belligerence in the UN, and hence to curtail the influence of our major competitor.

I am not saying that anything Senator Moynihan did could have been totally cynical, but he was quite clear about the development of this as a strategy of foreign policy first and foremost. In A Dangerous Place (1978), he describes this as his "jujitsu principle": "to use the momentum of the majority against the majority." It was in the defense of the national interest and in the interest of the Western alliance. As one strategy among many to promote our collective ends, it had its place. As an excuse for foreign policy today--given the huge amount of post-Cold War military hardware available, and the compelling urge presidents and premiers seem to have to use that hardware--it deserves a close and skeptical scrutiny. This involves both a scrutiny of its practical dangers, best left to strategists, and of its theoretical underpinnings. With this latter enterprise, some otherwise useless academics can at least show that even if the emperor has new clothes, they are woven of dubious synthetic fibers.

Robin Fox is University Professor of Social Theory at Rutgers University. His most recent book relevant to this subject is Conjectures and Confrontations: Science, Evolution, Social Concern (Transaction Publishers, 1997).

Essay Types: Essay