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Saturday 28 July 2012

Is There Something Wrong with Human Rights?

The great German philosopher Hegel wrote something that is true as well as poetically beautiful, namely that philosophy is like Minerva's owl, that only takes flight at dusk.

What he meant is that the awareness of a historic period takes place at the end of it.

In history there is a constant shift of power, the dominant orthodoxy changes, and often the oppressed become oppressors and vice versa. And yet generally society, public opinion continue to see things as they used to be in a past age, to believe that today's victims are the same as in a previous historical time and those in power now are those who were in power yesterday, whose power is in fact largely gone.

You can see that every day when men and whites are discriminated against, yet people still believe that women and blacks are victims of discrimination. Homosexuals are classical oppressed of yesterday who are now - or rather the homosexual activists are - oppressing and persecuting whoever disagrees with them. Their "rights" trump everyone else's, in particular those of Christians, as the clergy of the Church of England who will soon be forced to marry "gays" in church well knows.

Another example of this Hegelian Minerva's owl syndrome comes from a part of the counterjihad movement. Some people in it, like the blog Islam versus Europe, say that human rights are practically responsible for all evils on earth, or at least in the West.

Whether they mean the ethical and political concept of human rights or the way it has been legally applied by - especially international - courts is a little ambiguous - although it has been better specified after my pointing out these ambiguities -, but it does not matter so much from their perspective because they are not in search of theoretical clarifications but of short- or medium-term strategic solutions to the problems caused by mass immigration and Islam in the West, or rather just in Europe. So they happily neglect the question of the validity of the concept because only its space-temporal consequences of here and now are important for them.

Minerva's owl comes into this because the anti-humanrightists (I had to find a shorthand, and this is the best I came up with) rely heavily on Samuel Moyn's book The Last Utopia, which is a classical case of misunderstanding of the historic myopia Hegel highlighted with his metaphor.

Moyn says that the great moral and political achievements of the last couple of centuries, like the abolition of slavery, owe nothing to the principle of human rights because this expression and idea only became popular in the 1970s. This allegedly helps the anti-humanrightists in their argument that nothing good has ever come out of human rights.

Aside from the literality of this approach (was the radio invented only when the term became widely used?), Moyn's fundamental error is that he thinks that historical figures and movements should be aware during their lifetime of their future role in history.

What Moyn says about human rights is true of most other constructs, constantly applied with hindsight to past events. History is a continuous re-interpretation of the past in light of the present. So there is nothing new or exceptional, no conspiracy here.

Specifically, the concepts of rights, natural rights and God-given rights in ethics were established by modern philosophers like Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679), John Locke (1632 - 1704) and the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, continuing a Christian tradition, so well before the 1970s.

It is no coincidence that suffragettes were calling for women's rights to vote and black leaders for civil rights.

The danger of not having any ethical theoretical foundation and relying just on democracy purely intended as majority rule, as anti-humanrightists advocate, should be obvious when analysing when that approach could take.

If the majority were allowed to rule without any ethical guidance or restraints, you would have nothing to oppose a majority group who decided to enslave and exploit for their own benefit, even in the cruellest and most violent way, a minority group.

One of the problems, these counterjihadists say, is that "rights conflict with one another so someone has to decide on their relative weights".

This is common to all laws. That's why there are judges. It is fallacious to think that this problem is limited to human rights. No law, legal or ethical principle has absolute validity. Even the most basic concepts, like individual freedom, have only relative validity. One person's freedom ends when another person's freedom begins. If a man had absolute individual freedom, he would become a despot, like the tyrants of the past.

So, in the same way as we don't consider the limits to the principle of individual freedom and the balancing act that we need to perform in its application sufficient reason to reject it, neither should the principle of human rights be discarded because "Rights conflict with one another so someone has to decide on their relative weights".

As anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the law will tell you, each law has only a limited scope, and often different laws contradict each other. There is always someone who "has to decide on their relative weights".

In fact, coming back to the issues of immigration and Islam, if there is a problem it is that human rights have not been protected and respected enough, be it those of the native Western populations, or of people dissenting from the politically correct line.

The examples that the anti-humanrightists give as reasons in support of their cause are in fact better viewed as the opposite.

I will explore them in a forthcoming post.

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