Uniquely human: the basis of human rights

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In the 1990 Introduction to her book, It Changed My Life, Friedan wrote: “I think we have gone beyond the sexual politics and confrontations with men that marked the first stage of the women’s movement.”478 One could argue that Friedan’s pronouncement was premature and that she had not become wiser with age. Surely, however, she had not joined a war against American women. Faludi was also not kind to other authors, such as Jean Baker Miller and Sara Ruddick for their emphasis on the differences between men and women.479

One U.S. author whom Faludi did not directly criticize, Carol Gilligan, had become the most prominent voice of difference in the 1980s.480 Faludi granted that Gilligan was not antifeminist but nonetheless is “in danger of being dragooned into the backlash’s service.” It is true that when Ms Magazine did an interview with Gilligan it was headlined “Are Women More Moral than Men?” a question that would have received an affirmative answer in 1850.481 Faludi writes that “difference became the new magic word uttered to defuse the feminist campaign for equality.”482 As I have pointed out throughout this chapter the opposite of difference is sameness not equality. The term equality is helpful only when one specifies equal in respect to what?

Gilligan did not set out to show that women are not equal to men; she explored how women come to moral decisions and their path of moral development. She was particularly critical of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development which placed women lower than men on his scale of one to six. Instead of arguing that women should be higher up the scale, Gilligan called into question the scale. Kohlberg’s stages of moral development reflected the dominant strain of philosophical thinking about sex since the seventeenth century. Men were supposed to develop by gradually shedding all forms of dependency until they could stand alone with their solitary conscience and judgments of what is just.

Gilligan’s study raised the issue of a morality that integrates justice and compassion. She implied that the moral ideal is not independence but interdependence. “Responsibility to care then includes both self and other, and the obligation not to hurt, freed from conventional restraints, is reconstituted as a universal guide to moral choice.”483

It was fitting that Gilligan’s early study was of women struggling with whether or not to have an abortion. The two parts of the women’s movement collided in the 1970s after the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade that decriminalized abortion. It is tragic that abortion became so divisive despite the fact that most of the country agrees on most of the issue. What could have united the majority is an effort to drastically reduce the need for abortion and to see that when abortion occurs that it be as safe as possible and as early as possible in the pregnancy. If thirty percent of pregnancies in the U.S. (forty percent in New York City) end in abortion then clearly the country has a problem with its means of controlling birth. The labels of pro-life and pro-choice used for lobbying are not helpful to thinking about the issue or to reaching agreement on policy. As is usual in arguments about morality, how a person formulates the question is already decisive for the answer.

The question of abortion is about life; it is also about sex and control. Modern feminism might be said to have begun with the invention of the birth control pill in the late 1950s. For the first time women could have the power to control pregnancy. The relation between a woman’s role as mother and a woman’s exercise of her professional talents was suddenly transformed. Kristin Luker’s brilliant study of the abortion debate showed that both sides shared many values.484 But for one side, the availability of abortion was the symbol of their freedom to compete in the work world. For the other side, the acceptance of abortion was an attack on their identity as wives and mothers. It was tragic that the two sides could not work to broaden their base of agreement even while they continued to disagree.485


The dispute over abortion highlights the competing assumptions about woman-man relations during the past two centuries. Abortion has sharpened political opposition among women, but it has also had what might be a more lasting effect: a debate by women about the identity of women. Particularly for many of the women who were marshaled to oppose the Supreme Court’s decision it was their first experience of political organizing and getting their voices heard on public issues. The feminists who had wanted to break down the wall of separation between private and public had succeeded, perhaps with mixed feelings about the results.

It is unlikely ever in the future that the difference between men and women will be expressed as public man and private woman. The women who have opposed abortion are defending the value of family life which is a legitimate concern. The United States has not yet figured out how to integrate home and job, success at work and the care of children. It is not a woman’s problem; it is a problem that can only be solved by the cooperative effort of men and women.

The long struggle for the extension of rights to women inevitably threw light on what a human right means. The human rights of women, just as those of men, include a right to life, a right to protection of their physical integrity, a right to develop as a human being. The identification of the “rights of man” with individual agency excluded women but the assumption that individuals are in charge of their destiny was also not healthy for men. ; Human rights are about persons in relation; as a result, human rights include a passive as well as an active element. Women and men both have some learning to do.

There are differences in what rights mean for a man and a woman. The human race may never get agreement on whether some differences are based on the nature of manhood and womanhood or whether they are based on contingent events of the past. In the future, every difference may be open to change. One has to hope that the human race will have some wisdom in deciding which differences should be eliminated and which differences are worth retaining for the richness and variety of human life. There is now a realistic hope that the conversation about the future of the human race can take place between a diversity of women and a diversity of men. The consideration of issues of difference and sameness in the sexual area should take place in the context of children and a better future for people worldwide.

Chapter 5: Age as a Test for Human Rights

This chapter continues the theme of the previous chapter on sameness and difference. Instead of the relation between the sexes/genders of the human race, this chapter is concerned with humans as temporal beings. To live in time is to become different in some respects while remaining the same person. This change over time brings about a shift in the human individual’s dependence upon fellow human beings. As long as a human life exists, neither human dependence nor human independence is total.

An implied concern of this chapter is health and sickness. A serious illness increases human dependence on the skills and kindness of others. When humans feel healthy they tend to be oblivious of illness as a condition that affects everyone in his or her lifetime. In the later part of life, age and health concerns come closer together and sometimes fuse. Most of this chapter is about the development of healthy human beings but with full awareness that the possibility of serious illness or disability is never more than a few heartbeats away.

At the end of the chapter I consider the reality of death which is the destination for every human being. From all appearances, the dialectic of dependence and independence ends in the defeat of independence. The last moment is one of “giving up the ghost,” and ceasing to be able to act with the independence of a human being. Human beings, if they are fortunate, can live sixty, seventy, eighty or more years. However, from the first moment of life they are the mortal ones. The awareness of that fact comes very early in life. It is impossible to say exactly at what age that fact becomes known but it is probably earlier than we tend to think and before a child can articulate a concern with death.

Rousseau theorized that all of the evils in human life derive from our fear of death.486 We build fences around our lives to ward off any perceived threat to our existence. Unfortunately, we misconceive the conflict because mortality lurks within the organism itself. It does make sense to protect ourselves against external threats that can kill us and to invoke protection from those who can help us. But it is easy to become obsessed with avoiding whatever can do us harm, not recognizing that a richly textured human life is one that requires a trust in forces beyond us, dependencies that actually support our independence.

In his book on sickness, hope and human limits, William Lynch writes: “It is the secret fear of most people that they cannot have both dependence and independence, just it is their secret hope that they can. Fortunately they not only can but must. But such a homely truth is not much preached in our land. We are forbidden to have precisely what nature demands most. We are often forced by our culture to deny dependence, passivity, the wish and ability to receive.”487 The individual cannot give a proper place to this dependence without a social context that routinely accepts that there is no shame to needing help. We need a form of political society, Alasdair McIntyre has written, in which it is taken for granted that disability requiring dependence is something that all of us have experienced or will experience.488

The relation between dependence and independence is relevant to the question of human rights because of a tendency to turn our attention away from dependence. We tend to think that independence is the normal human state. Human rights become identified with independent individuals. A necessary reminder is Henry Shue’s description of human life: “For everyone, healthy adulthood is bordered on each side by helplessness, and it is vulnerable to interruption, temporary or permanent, at any time.”489 A five-year old and a ninety-five-year old are not helpless but they are more dependent on others than the “healthy adult.” We do not usually deny that severely dependent people are part of the human race but we tend to act as if they were beings who are less than fully human. Whether “human rights” refers to an effective set of practices can best be answered by looking at the activities and treatment of the most dependent of human beings.

The many movements for rights since the 1960s have included a “children’s rights,” movement. The literature of “children’s liberation” contains many praiseworthy suggestions about the lives of young people; it also contains some proposals that strike most people as bizarre. I will briefly engage this literature on “children’s rights” although my main concern is those rights that are unambiguously “human rights,” rights that apply to all people including children.

In one sense the thesis of this chapter is simple: Human rights apply to human beings whatever their age and health. Subsets of the human, such as children, the aged or the dying deserve the protection of human rights. A more complex thesis of this chapter is that humans who are highly dependent, such as young children or the seriously disabled, may help to clarify what a human right is. That is, those people in the human race who think of themselves as independent, autonomous, and self-sufficient, may have something to learn from those whose dependency is obvious. The people who take care of the very young or the very old may discover important truths from those they are caring for concerning the full range of humanity.

While this chapter is about the relation between dependence and independence, it is dependence that has to receive more emphasis because of the tendency to equate human rights with “agency,” the ability to act for oneself and make claims for one’s rights. A right is a claim made upon a community but the claim need not be directly made by the person who is deserving of the right. A person who cannot speak, or cannot speak in a way that will be heard, needs a proxy who can voice the claim.

Child or Adult?

In modern times there has been a sharp distinction between persons of a certain age thought to be dependent and other people who are supposed to be independent. The names for these two ages/stages of life are “child” and “adult.” We think it is obvious that these two names describe a contrast built into human nature. “Child” refers to an incomplete human being, one that needs to be taken care of by the complete or mature version of the human being. An “adult” is someone who has arrived and is capable of taking care of “himself.”490 Until recently the model for a complete human being was taken to be male, and the implications of that assumption still linger on. Women have finally had some success in protesting their exclusion from independent adulthood. However, most of the people called children have had little opportunity to voice their complaints about being treated as merely potential adults.

The problem that resides in the split between dependent children and independent adults cannot be solved by granting some rights at a slightly younger age. A thorough rethinking of the language of child and adult is needed. A confused and confusing language prevents the human race from coming up with better political, social and economic arrangements. The word child is a very ambiguous term, a fact that is occasionally noted even by people who continue to use “child” as if it had a clear reference.

Since child and adult have been paired as opposites, “adult” is also an ambiguous term. For describing the process that goes from birth to death we need to develop a language that reflects the continuously shifting mixture of dependence and independence in the course of a human life. I have no ideal language to propose. What I can do in this chapter is resist the language that is ready at hand. Many things said of children are simply misleading. Some language is demeaning; for example, the word kid usually guarantees that a young person will not be taken seriously. I will make some tentative generalizations about age while aware that there are variations across cultures, as well as exceptional individuals within any categories based on age.

The earliest stage of human life is “infancy.” Although it lasts only a few years it is profoundly formative of everything that follows. The Latin infans means someone who cannot yet speak. The English word stays close to that meaning although we do not suddenly stop using “infant” on the day that the infant says its first word. The French use l’enfant much beyond this initial stage. The English word child includes infant; that is, childhood continues after infancy ends.

Infancy is marked by extreme but not total dependence on parents and others concerned with care of the infant. From the moment of its birth, a child is an actor, a distinct person asserting the beginning of personality.491 Infancy is largely blocked out of human memory, in part because it was so frightening. Even the well-cared-for infant has fears that are realistic. The trip from the birth canal to the end of infancy has always been perilous. In a modern country, such as the United States, the survival of nearly all infants could be guaranteed but there is a shocking failure to use available means to care for every mother and every new-born infant. Rhetorically, there is an abundance of sentimental speech about infants but the practical support that is needed for mothers and infants is seriously inadequate.

“Early childhood” refers to the period up to five or six years of age. It culminates in “the age of reason.” According to the medieval church, that was the age when one could commit sin. It is the age when the young child begins to use the rationality present since birth. Before the age of five or six, the child can act on its own and figure out how to get things done, but trial and error along with imitation are the chief tools. To create ideas that go beyond the immediate situation requires some years of both physical and mental development.

At about age five or six the child begins to figure out the most basic rules of logic. Human development comes at a price. In this case, the opening of the mind to abstract ideas and a consciousness of oneself have the effect of closing off the young child’s amazing capacity to absorb reality, most strikingly its capacity for language.

In early childhood, the infant passes from a state of non-speaking to being a linguistic whiz who is able to sponge up the most complex language without learning any rules. Then the curtain falls which is a sign of passing from early childhood to later childhood. The self-conscious human being tries to learn language by studying rules of grammar, a process that cannot duplicate the listening and responding of early childhood. Paradoxically, it is the realization of the complex nature of language that undermines the child’s ability to absorb a language. The gains of later childhood, on the other hand, are immense. A curtain is raised on a new world of ideas, plans, and interests. The older child can now use its reason to navigate connections, develop its own independent judgment, and realize projects of its own choosing.

The “age of reason” does not automatically issue in reasonable individuals. Reason has to be put to use over a period of time. Aristotle pointed out that “we see that the experienced are more effective than those who have reason but lack experience.”492 That principle has not changed. Some children rapidly acquire a wide range of experience; they nevertheless remain temporal beings who need to integrate physical and mental growth. A too rapid exposure to all things human could overwhelm the developing child.

Jean Piaget referred to the “American issue” of trying to hurry up the process of development.493 Older children should have some say in the pace of their own development. Superficially, they may seem anxious to join the company and privileges of grown-ups but an open dialogue with them might reveal some anxiety at being pushed too fast. There is nothing wrong with acting like a child if you are seven or eight years old.

Most traditions mark the emergence of a new stage of development when a person reaches eleven to thirteen years of age. Later childhood is finished and a new stage with no fully accurate name begins. We do have the term adolescence in the modern world, which is closely associated with the “teen-age” years. A beginning of a new stage of life at age thirteen seems about right but there is nothing especially significant about age nineteen as an endpoint for adolescence. There is a sense in which everyone is adolescent (becoming adult) from the beginning of life to long after one has ceased to be a teenager.

However this period of life is named, the word child should be used sparingly, if at all. The reason why people would hesitate to stop calling a fifteen-year old a child is because of the assumption that life divides into childhood and adulthood. The fifteen-year old does not have all the characteristics that are associated with adulthood so therefore he or she is called a child. We think of the fifteen-year old as still “a dependent” and therefore not an adult. If, however, every stage of life is a mixture of dependence and independence then there are not just two stages of life, and there is no magic moment when one passes from childhood to adulthood. The use of the term child up to age sixteen, eighteen or twenty-one is what makes the literature of children’s rights contain some proposals for rights that are sensible and badly needed along with proposals that seem preposterous and unrealistic.

The end of childhood and the beginning of early adolescence is marked by physical changes. Both sexes experience changes in the body accompanied by emotional changes that are a source of excitement and confusion. The human race has created a huge gap between the ages when boys and girls are physically capable of producing children and the age when there is a suitable social, economic and psychological context for taking care of children. At an earlier stage of human history some girls became mothers by the age of twelve. Neither society nor the individual can sustain such a practice today. There is no solution for the tension that this gap causes. However, the society of grown-ups could do more to ameliorate this tension rather than exacerbate it. Institutions of society bombard older children and early adolescents with sexual stimulants and then older people claim to be shocked when the young act out their impulses.

At about the time of this physical change, the person reaches a new stage of intellectual development. The beginning of teen-age adolescence is marked by a capacity for new levels of abstraction that make the manipulation of ideas more exciting and more efficient. At this age, the logic of science becomes much clearer; and the study of history is likely to be more attractive. Profound philosophical ideas which were present in early childhood but obscured in later childhood may once again become a lively interest. Piaget gave the name “formal operational” to this capacity for abstracting ideas at age eleven to thirteen in contrast to “concrete operational” abilities that start at age five or six. Piaget’s study of the capacity of children and adolescents to understand logic and mathematics is an invaluable contribution for designing a school curriculum. His work, however, reveals the difference between a power to reason and the full range of human experience.

Piaget’s application of his findings to the area of morality is relevant to the question of human rights and young people. His 1932 book The Moral Judgment of the Child has had a profound effect on theorizing about morality. Piaget did not claim to study human development or moral development, despite his name being constantly invoked for support in these areas. Piaget concentrated on “judgment” and “the child.” Thus he traced the difference between the ages of six and twelve in a child’s judgments within the area of morality. There is nothing wrong with this concentration so long as one does not equate it with moral development throughout life.

Piaget begins with an assumption that “all morality consists in a system of rules, and the essence of all morality is to be sought in the respect which the individual acquires for these rules.”494 That is a terribly cramped notion of morality which can blind one to the development of moral attitudes and moral virtues. Some of the most important moral influences in a person’s life come during infancy and early childhood. Piaget’s assumption of what constitutes morality leads him to say that before the age of five a child is “pre-moral.”495 That language could be disastrous for discussing human rights and early childhood. An infant is not a responsible moral agent but its moral life is at issue from the first moment of life. How the infant is acted upon together with how it responds is a central moral issue. Erik Erikson is more helpful here in saying that “all moral, ideological and ethical propensities depend on this early experience of mutuality.”496

Piaget distinguished two main stages of moral judgment (within later childhood) which he called heteronymous and autonomous. In the early stage, rules are sacred commands that have to be obeyed; justice consists in following the rules. In the later stage, rules are understood to be socially adaptable; justice means giving everyone his or her fair share. Piaget thought that children would come to a form of democracy if they were not interfered with. By about the age of twelve, justice is understood to depend on a simple equality.

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