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Human Rights

by on June 3, 2018

Human Rights

by Marco M. Pardi

Human beings have a strong tendency towards rationality and decency. (If they had not, they would not desire to legitimize their prejudices and their passions.)

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963). The Olive Tree and Other Essays. 1936

All comments are encouraged and each will receive a response.

This is a tough one. I don’t remember a time in my adult life when I did not wonder at “Human rights”. According to whom? What are the criteria for a right?

This subject may be approached from several perspectives: philosophy; religion; jurisprudence; humanities, and etc. each having its own set of criteria yet unavoidably interfacing with all of the others. As with most if not all other things I choose to approach it first through Formal Logic. Thus, I reject propositions based on “you know” and “they say” as well as propositions based on presumptions that “everyone knows” and “it’s agreed”.

Granted in this case an attempt to fundamentally define terms, such as human, could quickly ensnare us in a morass with no other escape than acceptance of the unsavory “everyone knows” assertion. As far as I know there is no outside authority sitting on the sidelines telling us what we are. But examples pertinent to rights appear in unexpected but everyday settings. In the United States there are people who ascribe humanity to a zygote, certainly to a blastula. And, should the woman carrying this object engage in behavior which may harm it some States have laws, including feticide, intended to safeguard the rights of this object, now recognized as a person. Thus, does a positive pregnancy test this morning confer a right to this woman to commute to work in the carpool lane? After all, there supposedly are two people in the car.

Most of the fetus as a person with rights beliefs are based in religion. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not categorically against religion. I’m against what people do with religion. The Latin term itself is a portmanteau: re (to do again) ligare (to bind). We commonly see re-peat, re-member, etc., and we commonly use ligature, ligament, etc. The selection of the word religion is based on the idea that the developing infant is fully enveloped in the cosmos and, through maturing, gradually emerges as a separate, autonomous adult entity unbound and longing to be reunited with that early, innocent state. Religare (religion, re-binding) is proffered as an answer, or THE answer. Who can argue with wanting reunification with Allness? The problem arises when someone claims to know that innocent pre-autonomous state and to have the only way of getting there.

In more basic terms I recall a discussion in a graduate school class during which we reviewed various means of analyzing Primate behavior. During a discussion of Etic analysis, borrowed from linguistics, I reminded the group that humans are also Primates and questioned why we could not study humans in the same way as we study other primates.

Audible gasps. I pressed the point; what sets humans apart from other Primates when it comes to studying them? I was not advocating we apply some of the same biological testing, though I felt like it. Nor was I evening out the difficulties in cross species analysis. I was trying to elicit claims of inherent rights, and was ready to challenge proponents to defend those claims. What I got in response was seemingly based on common knowledge in the department that I had voluntarily served four years in a combat unit. One person cited the Geneva Conventions and the Rules of Engagement, as if there is anything gentile about trying to wound or kill each other (wound is better for several reasons). I was convicted of being jaded. I found this atmosphere quite distressing, not least because a strong current in Anthropology pushes us toward “objectivity” and cultural relativism.

Actually, my time in the military did shape my views in some ways. I formed a rather hazy cut-off point for personal culpability: a child soldier apparently below the age of 12 can perhaps be scared off instead of maimed or killed. I judge him/her as acting under the influence of older individuals. From 12 on up this person has made their own choices and will reap the consequences.

I apply this to other cultural practices. For example, most cultures that practice genital mutilation, either FGM (female genital mutilation) or circumcision, do so on children under 12. I consider those children to be victims. So I ask the question: What gives the mutilators the right to do what they are doing? Yet, many anthropologists would ask, What gives me the right to be critical? Personally, I would terminate someone, male or female, who imposed FGM on a little girl. But I’m that way about a lot of things. I suspect I would be told I don’t have the right.

The United States has enshrined a Bill of Rights. I think the listed rights are fine. But especially when discussions of “gun rights” arise I hear people talk about “God given rights”. Again, I’m not arguing with the focal point of the belief (whether there is or is not a God); I’m asking why I should accept as valid a human statement based upon an unproven act (the granting of the right to bear arms) by an unproven and indemonstrable entity (God) especially when that statement serves the purposes of the human speaker. I’m not saying the entity (God) does or does not exist; I’m questioning the acceptance of rules which are claimed to have emanated from this entity.

International relations are increasingly clouded with discussions and accusations about human rights and abuses. Having lived and/or traveled in many places, and having had intense conversations with many people it was not long before I came to feel that concepts of human rights (and therefore abuses of them) are often culture bound. Many people are appalled by the stereotypic American claim that bearing arms (firearms) is a God given right. And many are confused by the fierce claims of freedom coming from people who take pride in living in a “law and order” society which has one of the highest per capita rates of people under lock and key. The situation reminds me of the trite saying about the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rule.

Formal Logic calls for precise identification of source, exact definition of terms, and calculation of the relative valence (power) of terms. It is more than three dimensional chess; it demands to know the authority by which each piece employed in the matrix is given its power. Again, since I cannot identify an authoritative outside source for the allocation of the relative (human) powers at play I must assume it is a human game constructed on a “you know” basis. It seems very close to the elementary violation we cite when we disqualify a word definition for using that same word in its own definition. We are, “Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps”. (I tried that for fun in the military. Didn’t work there, either.) So it seems to me that the fundamental premise is that a human right is a human right because powerful humans say it is. Am I wrong in feeling an atmosphere of Might Makes Right?

I do hope we get significant interaction on this. This site has many readers in many countries. Everyone is always welcome to freely comment. It is your Right.

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4 Comments
  1. Marco, I have long thought about the human rights violations in N. Korea. But who or what determines precisely to what extent these rights are being violated? The United Nations? Beyond that, how could anyone go about enforcing compliance?

    • Thank you, Dana. As you know, I receive almost daily emails from Human Rights Watch, ACLU, Amnesty International, and other such resources. While I agree with most of their positions, and would not want the examples cited done to me, I still find myself questioning the authority for their judgments. When one body’s rights impinge upon or negate another body’s rights who decides?

      Indeed, there is a body at the United Nations which seeks to delineate these, and to pronounce on the degree to which they have been violated, yet three problems arise: Not all State level societies are members of the U.N.; certainly not all cultures are represented by the U.N.; and enforcement, short of economic sanctions or outright military intervention is based mainly on shaming – something to which not all societies or cultures are vulnerable.

      Finally, as you also know, I am a rabid advocate of the rights of non-human life forms. But that’s another blog entry.

      Thanks again.

  2. I’ve spent the past 24 hours thinking about this question, and other than everyone treating everyone else humanely, I don’t know that there is an answer. We all know that this does not happen, nor is it likely to in our lifetime.

    I remember you teaching us that we shouldn’t interfere with the practices of other cultures, but when it comes to things like FGM, how do we not. It is an atrocity, and while I am not particularly knowledgeable about such or other examples of cultural horrors, I tend to think that, while it may not be our right, perhaps it should be our obligation.

    The question you raise is valid: who gets to decide what needs changed, and who gets to decide how that is accomplished? What was the reason for those awful behaviors, and does that reason remain culturally necessarily; my guess is that it is not. The problem here is that there is no real way to enforce the changes necessary. People are going to do what people are going to do, no matter what the rest of the world thinks.

    We all deserve to be treated well; how I wish we lived in a world where this was the norm.

    • Thank you, Rose. I look back on those early years of teaching and shudder at the times I spent reciting the company line. Even in my recent years I addressed the topic of Applied Anthropology by saying the issue was: “If you want to help, join the Peace Corps; if you want to study and learn, become an anthropologist. There are many very tough things you will see, and you will learn much about yourself in the process.” Yet, I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I would change, by whatever means necessary, many of the practices toward children and non-human species. Yet, in the back of my mind I am always cognizant that I would be enforcing my own views.

      I agree. It is our obligation to intervene on behalf of those being victimized. How to effectively do it? Short of setting some very gory examples, I just don’t know

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