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November 01, 2006


I am afraid I have to say that this posting is a bit half-baked.

Historically speaking, the concept of "human rights" is very recent, having emerged after WW II. The emphasis on the rights of individuals is somewhat older, dating back to the eighteenth century, but was focussed more on countering tyranny and absolutism. Other than that, there is very little evidence that political and social arrangements anywhere in the world ever concerned themselves with individual rights. On the other hand, civilizations (as the term is commonly understood) have existed for 4 to 5 millennia. So, the birth of civilization preceded a collectively accepted emphasis on human dignity by about four thousand years. Of course, you probably mean something else altogether by "civilization".

Questions such as "where do rights come from" are the domain of political philosophy and were fodder for the arguments of Enlightenment thinkers. The arguments were designed to counter the theory of the "divine right" of kings. The suggested answers were that either the rights were "natural" (following from ideas of "natural law") or "endowed by the Creator" as in the American declaration of independence. The questions came up naturally in the West due to a confluence of historical and social causes combined with a specific intellectual tradition. Outside of Europe, the question of the origin of rights was never raised. I thus feel that this question is a philosophical red herring, which often leads to ahistorical arguments being trotted out to support one position or another.

Ducking the question of where rights come from, I think we can point to a relatively empirical fact. Human rights have a universal appeal that requires no familiarity with Western history or cultural notions. I submit that the cross-cultural appeal is naturally tied to universally admired ideals of justice. Notions of justice have been common to all societies throughout history. Human rights are the latest refinements of these ideals of justice.

I’ll start by agreeing with your last para. Justice has been a universal concern indeed, and human rights are a way of addressing it. Now on to the rest of your message…

Let me ask you this: before the 18th-19th century European talk about human rights, did humans have no rights? Of course they did. I won’t let you arrogate the notion of human rights to the West (unlike, say, democracy or modernity, both local cultural innovations built upon their notion of the individual).

Human rights have a global, ancient history. Modern European talk of it is simply the most recent episode. Note that human rights don’t have to be built upon their notion of the individual, just as governments don’t need to be democratic. Precisely because the underlying impetus is justice, rights (often implicitly accorded) have been a way of making society more just since ancient times. Notions of dignity and rights have been intrinsic to every civilization. For example: a) The 2500 years old Buddhist and Jain notion of Ahinsa, or non-violence to all living beings (not just humans); b) The 2200 years old Hellenistic Stoic notion of a universal moral law in accord with nature and binding on all men was an early attempt at 'universal human rights'

Most religions, too, have invoked divine injunctions to ensure certain communal and personal rights. It is true that in ancient times, dignity and rights were unequal (Kings and Brahmins were more equal than others) but they were very much present. The right to life, the right to seek redress for a crime, the right to procreate, work, bury their dead ceremonially, etc., are all precursors to more recent ideas of human rights.

Modern Europeans only infused an old project with an invigorating new vocabulary and framework. Theirs is just another cultural response to an ancient concern, a new chapter in our perennial yearning for justice.

Pardon me for being argumentative, but certain points need emphasis.

Your rhetorical question in the second paragraph amounts to a parsing game. Note that I used quotes around the phrase, in order to emphasize the term and its historical occurrence.

Secondly, a large part the modern set of rights generally understood as human rights amount to curbs on the arbitrary power of government. Reflexive anti-Eurocentrism should not prevent us from recognising the fact that this clearly has European origins.

You seem to be interested in a philosophical underpinning for the existence of rights and trace it to religious (Jainism, Buddhism) or intellectual traditions (Hellenistic thought). My point is that this exercise is a red herring. The more important thing is to learn how such rights were achieved in different times and societies. This is more important if we are to understand how political systems are to be nudged towards granting more rights to people.

To elaborate, rights do not exist in a vacuum. In a given political or social arrangement, rights have to be granted, agreed upon or obtained through a struggle. Just because a notion of rights exists in a religious or intellectual tradition, it does not mean that people have corresponding rights. To take an extreme example, Genghis Khan never acknowledged the right to life in the domains that he conquered, whether they were Buddhist or not.

A more reasonable example is freedom of speech. Today, this is accepted as a human right (embodied in the UN's Universal Decalaration). We can hardly argue however that it is widely granted to people around the world. History abounds in examples where rights existed in concept but not in reality.

If you still insist on trying to trace the roots of concepts of human rights [ despite sage advice :-) ], I would suggest that a universal sense of justice is a better candidate than a universal aspiration for human dignity.

As a final note, when you include ceremonial burial as a right, you are stretching the notion of a right too thin. Ceremonial burial is a custom, not a right. A right is a result of a tussle ; a custom would not become a subject of a tussle unless it was explicitly prohibited.

On this blog, you never have to apologize for being argumentative. ;-)

In this post, I deliberately focused on the origin of rights in broad historical terms, so my exercise is not a red herring in my mind. Hunter-gatherers, too, had notions of entitlements (and obligations) in their tribes, undue exercise of power by the chief, acts that constituted an infringement on others’ entitlements, etc. But deep down, where does the impetus for rights in human nature come from?

You say that this impetus can be located in our sense of justice. I agree, but maintain that a sense of human dignity (“I am worth it, and this woman I see across from me is also worth it because she is just like me”) is even more basic, without which ideals of justice have little meaning. It was the denial of human dignity to American Indians that eliminated the question of justice (and therefore rights) in Conquistador minds.

I appreciate your quest for understanding. I am just starting to read your notes, which I stumbled upon in my general science reading and I greatly appreciate the lost cities photo page. You are missing two of great importance, the absence of which greatly illustrates the loss which Columbus Day in America represents, Aztalan, (Wisconsin) and Cahokia (Illinois). There is a small possibility that the Bronze Age in Europe and the Middle East was only possible because of the Mississippian people who built these cities.

On to Human Rights: I believe that you are finding the correct path to understanding this issue. All living things have only one Natural right, and that is the right to Try to Live. Everything else which we humans have become familiar with is actually statutory agreement between the individual and groups. These things have been successful because they allowed a Net Productive means of existence (not to be confused with Net Creativity). By banding together, humans have found ways to specialize and to share risks, and therefore, to have more time and energy available to exploit nature. The inevitable prediction is that unless we realize this situation for what it really is, then we will use our ability to learn and to specialize to the point that we consume everything which we need to survive, and collapse will occur. Our profit-based evaluations of statutory rights don't acknowledge or include two important factors: nonhuman Nature that we are entwined with, and future humans who will require sustenance. True sustainability of human rights must include the rights of all that is not human in order for true sustainability to be possible.

In other words, we need to stop separating humans from the universe, planet, and future. History only shows us failures when we look at how humans have survived. Each conquest of nature is a destruction of part of our future potential. This competitive way of living will come to an end eventually, but whether we choose to end it or Nature does will be determined by our behavior.

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