Uniquely human: the basis of human rights

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The idea of liberty as a freedom from government restrictions was enthusiastically embraced in the United States. If one could count the uses of “freedom” and “liberty” in the history of the United States, liberty would be the sure winner. The revolution was fought in the name of the “sacred cause of liberty.” The Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution includes a series of rights as liberties.164 One of the chief symbols of the United States is a French gift, which came to be called the Statue of Liberty.


In the last few decades there has been an attempt to return to a nonviolent meaning of revolution.165 Many people would dismiss the idea as nearly a contradiction in terms. The British American revolution followed by the more violent French Revolution set the meaning of revolution as an overthrow of a government by violent means. The nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries seemed to confirm that meaning. It was assumed that an exceptional case such as Gandhi’s could not be replicated under other conditions.

The current discussion of nonviolent revolution was helped by Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, first published in 1993, and still being republished.166 Sharp’s book, which was translated into forty languages, is a manual of nonviolent tactics that has had worldwide influence. George Lawson, in his book Negotiated Revolutions, offers case studies of the Czech Republic, South Africa and Chile as nonviolent revolutions.167 Neither Lawson nor others who speak today of nonviolent revolution would deny that there are likely to be violent incidents that occur within popular uprisings. Nonetheless, guerilla warfare is not the essential means for getting rid of a tyrannical government. Aided by the “technological revolution” in communication, political revolutions by peaceful means now have some hope (but no guarantee) of succeeding.

After the French Revolution, the word revolution carried connotations not only of violence but of rejection of the past in favor of a new beginning. This attitude was symbolized by the French attempt to create a new calendar in which the year one began with the birth of the republic on Sept. 22, 1792. The attempt to wipe clean the slate of the past was bound to fail but not before a sea of violence and bloodshed confirmed that fact.

Neither the etymology of “revolution” nor its history before the second half of the eighteenth century connoted a violent rejection of the past. On the contrary, “to revolve” carries an image of circular movement. A revolution would be a turning back to the beginning. The first prominent use of “revolution” in the English language was to translate the fifteenth-century work of Copernicus, entitled De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Copernicus used “revolution” to describe the regular, lawful, orbital movements of heavenly bodies. Neither in Latin nor in English did the word imply newness or violence.168

The war for independence (or liberty) by the British colonies in North America that lasted from 1775 to 1781 is usually called the American Revolution. From one perspective, the war was a consequence of the revolution that had occurred in the 1760s. In another respect, the war was a first step to the completion of the United States’ revolution in the 1780s. The first of these two perspectives was expressed by John Adams in an 1818 letter to Hezekiah Niles: “The revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people….This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution”169

Adams was accurate in pointing to the change in minds and hearts that swept across the colonies in the 1760s and early 1770s. But in political terms a more important point was made in 1787 by Benjamin Rush: “The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government.”170 The new form of government was developed by looking back to classical models and to what was called the “Glorious Revolution” in England at the end of the seventeenth century.

The English reform of 1689 was to restore the monarchy and rights that had been lost or suppressed. The revolution looked to the Magna Carta and the rights of Englishmen guaranteed by the unwritten constitution of four centuries. In 1775, the British American colonists appealed to the British people, acting as “descendants of Britons” and acting in defense of “the glorious privileges” for which their ancestors fought.171 The British American revolution thus retained some of the older meaning of revolution even as it fed into the more violent meaning that the word came to connote.

While every political revolution invokes a right to liberty, the individual person’s liberty needs a context of some new form of government. In British America the Declaration of Independence proclaimed a right to liberty; the Constitution was intended to secure freedom. The French Revolution’s libertė was in tension with equality (fraternity came later) and both needed the context of a stable constitution.

The Individual and Society

What led up to the eighteenth-century’s declarations of the rights of the individual was a reconstituting of the question of how the human being is related to other human beings and to the human environment. Hugo Grotius had enough continuity with the ages before him that he could speak of the rights of individuals as grounded in reason or nature. The theorists who followed him – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume and others – had to start with a different set of assumptions because the world had changed in so many ways.172

A favorite metaphor in this period was the “state of nature.” It is the state from which “man” emerged to form “society” by consenting to the rights, privileges and obligation of civilized men. Not everyone accepted this image. David Hume is the most prominent philosopher who rejected the exercise of imagining a state of nature. Edmund Burke, although accepting a form of contract across the generations, was also skeptical of social contract theories.

The idea that there was a “state of nature” preceding the world as we know it has echoes of the Christian belief that there was a “pre-lapsarian” world. None of the modern theorists, however, imagined the state of nature as a paradise from which man and woman were banished. Rather, thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries imagined a not very desirable condition of “man” in the state of nature.

Whatever deals and compromises “men” made in passing from the state of nature to civilization, they acquired duties and rights in relation to other human beings. Rights were henceforth to be based on human agreements. The obligations of each man were to his fellow men; his rights were legal claims on the basis of agreed upon laws. The rights in society could be described as social rights. It was especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that “society” came to be a grand category which can encompass all things human – although not the nonhuman.

The idea of “natural rights” had an uneasy relation to political rights in civil society. The term natural here could refer to the state of nature and therefore be opposed to the political and social. That could be a way of asserting that natural rights are superior to any political rights but it could also make the idea of natural rights part of a mythical world that was imagined to precede any human society. Did “man” give up his natural rights when he entered society? Does “man” leave nature to enter society? The only way to work through the maze of meanings for “natural” and “natural rights” is to attend to individual authors within different traditions.

Thomas Hobbes. The seventeenth-century writer who set the direction for much of what followed was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). His book, Leviathan, was a new kind of theoretical imagining under the claim to be science. Hobbes’ name is often associated with Grotius and there are definite connections. But while Grotius’ relation to the centuries before him remains somewhat ambiguous, Hobbes asserted a radical break. Except for retaining the medieval language of ius naturale, his political philosophy was thoroughly modern. Hobbes interprets “right of nature,” as meaning “the liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himselfe, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently of doing anything which in his own Judgment, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereto.”173

Hobbes does not speak of natural rights but of the “right of nature.” There is only one right, that of self-preservation. Anything that the individual deems to be the “aptest means” to preserving his life follows upon the right of nature. Because every man is intent on defending his life against every other man, the state of nature is also called the state of war, which in Hobbes’ famous description of man’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”174 To stay in this state is to court death.

The only way out is that men give up their ineffective liberty in the state of nature and agree to give over power to a single head of a society. The state so formed would then protect each individual’s life and liberty. The modern individual and the modern state were conceived together. One can imagine the state as a project of individualism; or, conversely, one can view the individual as formed on the model of the state. Each is bound only by “self interest.”175 Leviathan was written during the civil war in England; Hobbes’ theory justified a powerful state that would use whatever force is necessary to keep the peace.

John Locke (1632-1704). Another important English theorist, John Locke, was writing at the time of the restoration of constitutional monarchy. What Parliament had done, Locke justifies on paper. His Second Treatise of Civil Government was generally understood in the American colonies and during the French Revolution as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice. “But so far from being a preface, it has the marks of a postscript, and its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience.”176

In the history of rights theory, Locke is famous for the trio of life, liberty and property.177 Locke has often been harshly criticized for saying that the chief end of government for men “is the preservation of their property, to which in the state of nature there are many things wanting.” But in the paragraph immediately before that statement he defined property as “their lives, liberties and estates.”178 Thus, one could say that for Locke the fundamental right is property which includes life and liberty.

Locke drew upon one strand of tradition in invoking a right to property. In most medieval writing, “private property” arose after the sin of Adam. It was a right but, unlike life and liberty, one that could be “alienated.” Locke by including life and liberty within “property” made a right to property “inalienable.” He was not, however, endorsing the private wealth of millionaires. He was interested in property as proprium , that is the security of a person’s physical integrity and the immediate extension of the self in the stewardship of goods. Jefferson would draw on a different tradition going back to Grotius by way of Jean Jacques Burlamaqui that property is not included in inalienable rights. Around this point, significant differences would arise between British American and French Revolutions

The context of Locke’s political writing was the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689 which established or re-established the rights guaranteed to the men of England. King James II on ascending the throne agreed to a document that limited the crown’s power. Only with the consent of Parliament could the King engage in most of the activities of governing. The document outlaws cruel and unusual punishment; it likewise forbids excessive fines. It guarantees free speech and a trial by jury. (It also guaranteed that “the subjects which are protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions”). Most important, with reference to the whole document, the members of Parliament “do claim, demand and insist upon all and singular the premises, as their undoubted rights and liberties.”179

David Hume (1711-1776). In the eighteenth century, a distinct school of philosophy emerged in Scotland. The group included Adam Smith whose Theory of Moral Sentiments provided the basis for a group of Scottish theorists of morality.180 Smith’s economic theory in The Wealth of Nations was lifted from its context of a philosophy of human sympathy. “All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance….Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.”181

The most famous philosopher in this group of theorists was David Hume who became a chief critic of contract theories of society. He is especially critical of the rationalist philosophies of his day which assumed that the will can be moved by “reason alone.” Modern ethics to this day is in large part an attempt to answer Hume’s contention that reason is the slave of passion and that no abstract principle is capable of overriding the emotions.182

Hume rejected the theories of Hobbes and Locke on the origin of society and natural rights. Moral life begins with the affective life of the family. Morality is not sustained by abstract reasoning but by custom and “prejudices,” a positive term that refers to the judgments of tradition. Education has to help the individual to sort out which prejudices can be justified and which cannot. While the contract theories posit adult males setting up the world, Hume realistically begins with unequals, that is, women and children as well as those men who have a variety of incapacities.183

Human beings are not born as selfish and egotistical. Hume writes that “it is requisite that there be an original propensity of some kind in order to be a basis to self-love, by giving a relish to the objects of its pursuit; and none more fit for this purpose than benevolence or humanity.”184 While Rousseau later used “pity” as the main feeling we are born with, Hume’s basic sentiment is “sympathy,” a capacity to feel with the other, to put oneself in the place of another.

David Hume was an opponent of natural rights but he could be an important resource in understanding human rights. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hume was clear and consistent in his meanings of “nature” and “natural.” He contrasts nature and artifice but not as opposites; the artificial can be what is thoughtfully contrived and designed. “Justice is artificial but not arbitrary.”185 Unlike Hobbes’ ethical problem of every man at war with every other man, Hume sees the problem as my family and friends in conflict with someone else’s family and friends. His “laws of nature” are a cumulative attempt to work out peaceful and just relations dependent on promises and on adjustments that deal with inequalities.

Hume’s metaphor describing reason as the “slave” of passion overstates his case. That image can interfere with what Hume is concerned with, namely, a way to overcome dichotomies of reason and emotion, thinking and willing. Ironically, his most often quoted line is “you cannot derive an ought from an is.”186 Often the line is glibly announced as if it ends any argument about the source of morality. Statements of morality are then detached from any connection to the “real world,” the world of facts. Morality is sent to the shady world of “values” that are based solely on choice.

If one considers Hume’s work as a whole, it is clear that his intention was not to affirm a world separated into “facts” and “values.” What he denied was that statements of obligation can be derived or deduced from statements that attempt to describe the world. That is the beginning not the end of the story. What is needed are terms that embody our moral stance and include our experiential knowing. Hume uses the term “sympathy” in this way. Annette Baier, a contemporary scholar of Hume, takes “trust” to be the fundamental moral category.187 One could also begin from care, love, responsibility or many other terms that can be used as anchored in reality while taking a moral position. “Human rights” is not such a term, that is, a starting point of ethics. Hume would probably be skeptical of the idea of human rights but his concern with justice and sympathy for all persons could be a contribution to the meaning of human rights.

English Colonists and Liberty

John Adams said that the British American colonists began declaring independence “upon taking ship in European ports to find a land of their own in America.”188 They left their homes to make a precarious trip to a “wilderness” which was thousands of miles away. Why would any seventeenth-century European do that? Individual motives are not always easy to ascertain. However, the people who wrote accounts of colonial life consistently cited two reasons for the colonization, namely, economics and religion.

The Virginia charter of 1606 states that the purpose of the plantation is “the propagating of Christian religion to such people, as yet in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.”189 There is no reason to think that this ostensible purpose of converting the natives was fraudulent. An intention to spread the Christian gospel was a regular part of the invitation to migrate to America. However, the economic motive that is usually stated as secondary was no doubt the primary reason for many individuals.

Later history books in the United States tell the story of Virginia from the perspective of the European settlers. America represented freedom, that is, liberation from the old world and old ways. Unfortunately, one man’s liberty can be another man’s oppression. In the case of Virginia the white man’s liberty was at the expense of American natives and imported Africans.

The arrival of Africans in 1619 probably seemed at the time a minor event. Laborers were needed to work the tobacco crop. However, a recent writer puts the event in proper perspective: “The flag she flew was Dutch; her crew a motley. Her port of call, an English settlement, Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia. She came, she traded, and shortly afterwards was gone. Probably no ship in modern history has carried a more portentous freight. Her cargo? Twenty slaves.”190 Technically, these first Africans were not slaves but their condition of servitude in these alien surroundings began the terrible practice of slavery that nearly ended the union of the states. The plight of African Americans remained the shame of the country long after slavery had ended.

As for the native people, they could not be subdued for work in the same way as the Africans could. They could be bargained with, as occasionally happened, or they could be subdued with firepower. The Europeans looked on the Indians as savages, ignorant of civilization. If the Indians could not be converted they would have to be eliminated.

The myth that envelops the United States’ origin is centered on the 1620 settlement at Plymouth. For most U.S. Americans, the Puritans fled the religious oppression of Europe and founded America (= United States) as the land of freedom. Since they were beyond where the patent of the Virginia Company applied, the group on board were required “to Covenant and Combine ourselves into a Civil Body Politic.” The one-paragraph document known as the Mayflower Compact has been highlighted in the myth that the Puritans were founding the United States and its government. This covenant, the first of many in New England, does deserve credit for its contribution to evolving notions of government.191

As in Virginia, the Indians were the other side of the story of God leading his people across the sea to conquer a wilderness. Commentators who were otherwise humane seemed oblivious of the native peoples’ having a right to defend their homes and their way of life. If God was on the side of the settlers, then their enemy was the enemy of God. In a war with the Pequot in 1637, William Bradford describes the killing of four hundred Indians: “It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent therof.” These horrible sights, sounds and stench do not generate sympathy for the Indians’ loss of life. On the contrary, Bradford continues that “the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice [referring to Leviticus 2:1-2] and they gave praise thereof to God who had wrought wonderfully for them to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”192

A voyage in 1630 that established Massachusetts was tied to political changes at home. King and parliament were at a standoff. When the king dissolved parliament and could not raise taxes, England’s war with France came to a quick end. Ships became available for a westward voyage and the Company obtained the Arbella. The passengers on the Arbella did not sign a covenant before disembarking but they were admonished by their leader, John Winthrop, to “knit together” as a community. In his speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” Winthrop said: “We must delight in each other, make others’ concerns our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together.”193 He warned that getting rich could not be the aim of the settlers.

A less often quoted part of Winthrop’s sermon reminded people that they should know their place and stay in it. “God almighty in his holy and wise providence hath so disposed the condition of mankind as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and duty, others mean in subjection.” It may be that there will always be rich people and poor people but even God-fearing Calvinists did not necessarily accept that the present arrangement of the rich and the poor was God’s disposition.

Liberty Civil and Religious

German Arciniegas notes that independence was not something that sprung up in Philadelphia in the year 1776. “The experience of three centuries was needed to define it. America had emerged as the continent of European liberation at the moment when the first immigrants occupied it. The Spanish, Portuguese, Englishmen and Frenchmen discovered a land to which they went in search of their own emancipation.”194 The English settlers gave their own distinctive twist to the theme of liberty.

The eighteenth-century British Americans devised an interpretation of the previous century in which liberty – religious and civil – became the one central concern.195 Children in the United States would later read the history of seventeenth-century New England through the myths elaborated in the eighteenth century. The colonists saw as united two kinds of liberty, civil and religious. The overarching idea that held together the two ideas of liberty was “America.” For many Americans both then and now, America is another name for liberty. Both the Christian Church and the United States government are taken to be legitimate insofar as they are instruments of liberty.

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