Human rights and the boundaries of moral communities

Jag har tittat igenom de texter jag skrev när jag studerade i USA för tre år sedan. Några av dem jag gick faktiskt att läsa utan att rodna. Följande text är lite för lång för att vara en bloggpost, så jag tänkte först citera några centrala stycken ur den för att ge ett hum om vad som avhandlas, och de riktigt tappra har givetvis fritt fram att läsa hela texten nedan.

Richard Rorty notes that crimes against human rights are not conceived of as such by the ones who commit them, simply because they do not perceive their victims as being humans (Rorty 1993, p. 112). This points to the fact that people can, in a sense, honestly subscribe to human rights while at the same time committing genocide. Which means, further, that what norms one subscribe to is only half the answer; the other being who one regard the norms to apply to.

Rorty notes that the man who famously thought it was self-evident that all men are born free and created equal, himself held slaves. And, to take another example, the abolitionists used — and this I find rather striking — a poster of a slave with the caption “And am I not a Man and a Brother?”.

Immoral acts do not, if we look at them from the perspective of moral psychology, actually constitute the breaching of norms, but simply the result of a narrow conception of to whom they apply.

In regard to Taylor and the plurality of justifications of norms, this means that some of these justifications might justify the same norms but without being equally good, in the sense that some justifications might more easily allow for a narrow application.

One of the things that [Tocqueville] discusses is the very idea of humanity. This idea is not likely to occur in an aristocratic society. People are too divided into classes and fraternities/guilds so that the idea of a unity amongst all men becomes a very unnatural one.  The same goes for the idea of universal human rights. Slavery, for example, is not, for an aristocratic mind, looked upon as obviously and inherently immoral. Not even to the slaves themselves, in ancient time, slavery seemed necessarily immoral. This is so because the general idea of humanity does not occur to the aristocratic mind, and if it did the idea would not seem very true to life. A certain degree of equality, it seems, is necessary for the idea to become plausible at all. And it takes even more for any humanism — any doctrine that allot moral importance to humans qua humans — to arise.

In the section about Mme. Sévigny Tocqueville’s explanation is not so much concerned with different values and virtues, but rather the scope of our moral community. Equality has, according to Tocqueville, made our moral community larger; the range of people we are able to feel with has become wider.

Do we have more sensitivity than our fathers? I do not know, but surely our sensitivity bears on more objects. (Tocqueville 2000, p. 538)

Mme Sévigny, who says hangings “appears to me a refreshment,” is not really insensitive to suffering, but the inequalities of her society has made it impossible to see herself in others.

One would be wrong to believe that Madame de Sévigny, who wrote these lines, was a selfish and barbaric creature: she loved her children passionately and showed herself very sensitive to the distress of her friends; and one even perceives in reading her that she treated her vassals and servants with goodness and indulgence. But Madame de Sévigny did not clearly conceive what it was to suffer when one was not a gentleman. (Tocqueville 2000, p. 537)

Hade jag skrivit denna text i dag så hade jag utan tvekan använt mig av Rawls distinktion mellan concept och conception. Jag hade nog också diskuterat David Hume explicit.

Human rights and the boundaries of moral communities

I.

The universalism of human rights poses interesting questions when it collides with different cultures and traditions. The ideas of human rights developed in a particular part of the world, yet it claims speak about all humans. Can the norms of the human rights culture spread without Western values in general necessarily being imposed on other cultures? This paper will discuss certain parts of Charles Taylor’s “Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights”, and, in the course of this, some ideas of Richard Rorty will be used. The final part of the paper will give a Tocquevillian view of some of these issues.

Charles Taylor distinguishes between norms, the legal arrangements to enforce them, and the justifications of the norms. If we are hoping for a world consensus on the norms of human rights, Taylor advises us to leave room for different systems of ideas and justifications. The consensus would be a kind of Rawlsian overlapping consensus. Taylor thus invites us to think pragmatically about the philosophical underpinnings of the norms we desire. And such a view, presumably, should open our eyes to the value and potential of other cultures and traditions. Taylor’s fear is that the Western human rights culture, trying to impose itself, play into the hands of those people who might have values and norms that we abhor. Simply put, this may happen when the humans rights culture is proposed in such a way that adopting it would demand, or seem to demand, the abandonment of traditional values. If consensus of norms really is our goal, then our best strategy might rather be a pluralistic one. This would mean that we should be encouraging developments within a culture and tradition that seems to further the desired norms. This explains the importance that Taylor puts on the distinctions between norms, legal systems, and justifications: it is necessary that the human rights culture can be adopted in parts, not as a full-blown philosophical, political, and institutional doctrine. Human rights must not be conceived as necessarily involving of a radical modernization process that the culture in question must go trough.

The Western human rights culture is justified by a humanist doctrine that, so to speak, put humanity at the top of the creation, and the individual derives its dignity by being part of the human race. With the scientific revolution, with the end of the idea of a telos in nature, humanity suddenly stood out as an exception. Originally, humans were a part of, and being controlled by, a cosmic order; but now humans found themselves not only to be the exception in the world, but virtually ‘on the top of the world’ and in control.(fotnot 1)  Individuals, being part of humanity, therefore received intrinsic value, and the idea of human dignity and human rights evolved. The norms that sprung out of this humanism are the important things, but the question is: can they be justified in other ways?

The pragmatic view of philosophical justifications that Taylor started out with allows us to ask whether some ways of justifying the norms are better, more secure, than others. Here I have some concerns regarding Taylor’s optimism regarding other justifications and the possibility of consensus of norms.

Taylor is optimistic on reaching some agreements on fundamental norms:

One can presumably find in all cultures condemnations of genocide, murder, torture, and slavery, as well as of, say, “disappearances” and the shooting of innocent demonstrators. (Taylor 1999, p. 125)

In my view, agreement on these abstract norms doesn’t take us very far when it comes to issues of human rights. In the most obvious case, disputes of human rights violations don’t come in the form of one part claiming that it is wrong to shoot innocent demonstrators and the other part claiming it’s rather okay; the dispute is instead, in this case, on the question of innocence. This obvious point can be expanded, for it raises the question: who counts as human?

II.

Here I will use some of Richard Rorty’s views on human rights. Rorty notes that crimes against human rights are not conceived of as such by the ones who commit them, simply because they do not perceive their victims as being humans (Rorty 1993, p. 112). This points to the fact that people can, in a sense, honestly subscribe to human rights while at the same time committing genocide. Which means, further, that what norms one subscribe to is only half the answer; the other being who one regard the norms to apply to. When rights are derived to individuals in virtue of them being humans — being part of the human race — then the definition of “human” becomes the moral battleground, so to speak. For Rorty, the attempt to justify universal rights by reference to any shared human nature will not work as an argument. Justifications may be found that gives “all” a certain right, but this justification might not by itself give an inclusive “all”. Rorty notes that the man who famously thought it was self-evident that all men are born free and created equal, himself held slaves. And, to take another example, the abolitionists used — and this I find rather striking — a poster of a slave with the caption “And am I not a Man and a Brother?”.

In regard to Taylor and the plurality of justifications of norms, this means that some of these justifications might justify the same norms but without being equally good, in the sense that some justifications might more easily allow for a narrow application. There is no doubt that religions may justify some of the same norms as those of the Western individualistic humanism; we might all be, for example, ‘Children of God’. But using such language to justify norms become subject to the same kind of problems; those who commit crimes against the rights so-derived will not conceive it as crimes, because they do not regard the victims as fulfilling the conditions for being treated according to the norms, i.e. as “humans” or “Children of God”. Immoral acts do not, if we look at them from the perspective of moral psychology, actually constitute the breaching of norms, but simply the result of a narrow conception of to whom they apply. That is how the great moral rules of religions can fit together with the cruelest of actions.

For Rorty, this is reason enough to let the question of justifications rest. Any justification in terms of ‘something we all have in common’ inevitably carry with it a possible way of exclusion, a way of constructing a “us” worthy of moral recognition and a “them” — for instance, the “Sons of Satan” — that can be neglected without a breach of the universal norms. For Taylor, who, unlike Rorty, talks about different theoretical justifications for the same norms, these reflections result in a concern whether all justifications are equally good. The pragmatic question in regard to justifications can perhaps be put like this: which justification is most easily used to exclude some people as unworthy of recognition? After all, to me it seems that it is here rather than in regard to the norms themselves that the important disputes takes place. I don’t know to which extent these comments will be a criticism of Taylor, but for my own part they grew out of a suspicion that the analytically clear distinction between norms and their justifications over-simplified the matter. Norms that appear the same, taken at face value, might find very different applications due to how they are being justified.

How different are the justifications that Taylor has in mind? Taylor is critical of the adoption of simple modernization theories that, for instance, result in the view that “Asian values” are simply pre-modern. There is an “inability of many Westerners to see their culture as one among many” (Taylor 1999, p. 143), an inability which seem to make us prescribe other cultures to copy our own ideas to ensure human rights. I am not sure, however, how strong Taylor’s claims and demands for pluralism are. The example he puts forward, of a reformed Buddhism, a “protestant Buddhism”, seem to fit in well with a standard modernization process, and some of the emerging Buddhist ideas of autonomy seem to take away some of the differences. Hence, the claims of there being a big difference between justifications for similar norms is not convincing, simply because the ideas that justify the norms seem to be ideas that clearly move in the direction of Western ideas. That a modernization process will take partly different ways and expressions seems rather obvious, and this claim I have no qualms with. A movement within Buddhism that resembles a protestant reformation was news to me, but very uplifting news indeed. But it does look like just another route to more individualism and humanism within Buddhism, and a move away from “Asian values”. And I am not sure if that really is what Taylor wants the example to show. At times I understand him to allow for much more different justifications and ways of thinking.

III.

The ways in which modernization takes form in different traditions are interesting to study. How uniform is the process, and which ideas can play roughly the same roles in different traditions? In the section where Taylor describes the development in the West, where greater importance is given to suffering, a footnote points to Alexis de Tocqueville. I have a Tocquevillian outlook deeply ingrained in me, and I find that it can give a few interesting points in regard to the Western ideas that Taylor discusses: the humanism and the sensitivity to suffering. So I will end this paper by sharing this Tocquevillian view.

Tocqueville uses aristocratic and democratic society as ideal types.(2)  Democratic society is not necessarily democratic in the political sense of the word; what is meant is a society characterized by equality. This is contrasted to the aristocratic society that is characterized by inequality, the individuals being separated in classes and castes. When Tocqueville travels to America he is not interested in America for its own sake, but as the country where equality is most prevalent. He wants to get a clear picture of the ideal type of democratic society. In the second volume (1840) he discusses the influence that equality has on human intellect and sentiments.

One of the things that he discusses is the very idea of humanity. This idea is not likely to occur in an aristocratic society. People are too divided into classes and fraternities/guilds so that the idea of a unity amongst all men becomes a very unnatural one.(3)  The same goes for the idea of universal human rights. Slavery, for example, is not, for an aristocratic mind, looked upon as obviously and inherently immoral. Not even to the slaves themselves, in ancient time, slavery seemed necessarily immoral. This is so because the general idea of humanity does not occur to the aristocratic mind, and if it did the idea would not seem very true to life. A certain degree of equality, it seems, is necessary for the idea to become plausible at all. And it takes even more for any humanism — any doctrine that allot moral importance to humans qua humans — to arise.

The most profound and capacious minds of Rome and Greece were never able to reach the idea, at once so general and so simple, of the common likeness of men, and of the common birthright of each to freedom: they strove to prove that slavery was in the order of nature, and that it would always exist. Nay, more, everything shows that those of the ancients who had passed from the servile to the free condition, many of whom have left us excellent writings, did themselves regard servitude in no other light.

All the great writers of antiquity belonged to the aristocracy of masters, or at least they saw that aristocracy established and uncontested before their eyes. Their mind, after it had expanded itself in several directions, was barred from further progress in this one; and the advent of Jesus Christ upon earth was required to teach that all the members of the human race are by nature equal and alike. (Tocqueville 2000, p. 413)

In the section of Democracy in America that Taylor refers to when he discusses the Western development regarding suffering, Tocqueville tries to find an explanation. Taylor’s own “the affirmation of ordinary life” is not part of this, even though it is on the whole very Tocquevillian: the ordinary life during times of democracy versus the ‘higher realms’ advocated in aristocratic times. It is certainly in line with Tocqueville’s thinking that in aristocratic times other values than suffering and pain were of overriding importance. However, in the section about Mme. Sévigny Tocqueville’s explanation is not so much concerned with different values and virtues, but rather the scope of our moral community. Equality has, according to Tocqueville, made our moral community larger; the range of people we are able to feel with has become wider.

Do we have more sensitivity than our fathers? I do not know, but surely our sensitivity bears on more objects. (Tocqueville 2000, p. 538)

Mme Sévigny, who says hangings “appears to me a refreshment,” is not really insensitive to suffering, but the inequalities of her society has made it impossible to see herself in others.

One would be wrong to believe that Madame de Sévigny, who wrote these lines, was a selfish and barbaric creature: she loved her children passionately and showed herself very sensitive to the distress of her friends; and one even perceives in reading her that she treated her vassals and servants with goodness and indulgence. But Madame de Sévigny did not clearly conceive what it was to suffer when one was not a gentleman. (Tocqueville 2000, p. 537)

And in our times, the ideas of racial inequality made some people unable to conceive, for example, what it was to suffer if one was a Jew. So we are back at the question of the boundaries of our moral community. These boundaries, which determine the indifference to suffering, is according to Tocqueville not culture bound — for instance, specific to Western civilization — but always the result of underlying inequalities and its corresponding mindsets. That is — in regard to Asian values as well as the Shari’a — a positive thesis, because it at least makes away with the idea of other cultures as being inherently more indifferent to individual suffering.

Footnotes:

(1) And from this view it looks obvious why autonomy and consent of the individual in relation to the authority of society becomes so important in Western thought: being under authority will always  seem unnatural and as an necessary evil at the most.

(2) Max Weber picked up the idea 60 years later by reading Tocqueville and made it an explicit tool of social science.

(3) The idea of humanity is requires at least some degree of equality: ”As conditions become more equal and each man in particular becomes more like all the others, weaker and smaller, one gets used to no longer viewing citizens so as to consider only the people; one forgets individuals so as to think only of the species.”

References:

Rorty, Richard. 1993. ”Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” In On Human Rights,    ed. Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley. New York: BasicBooks, 111-134.

Taylor, Charles. 1999. “Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights.” In The
East Asian Challenge for Human Rights
, ed. Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 124-144.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 2000. Democracy in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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