Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Response in Discussion on Immutable Human Rights

Part of an online discussion with Roland, this response was too long and too wide-ranging to comfortably fit on the Facebook page where the conversation began.

One of the problems with the idea of immutable human rights is that the evidence from history and cross-cultural studies doesn’t back it up.

The luxuriously comfortable world of the domesticated and educated classes of late 20th Century/early 21st Century Europe causes a skewed perspective. It’s a cognitive illusion to assume that what you know is a) correct and b) a general rule.

Secondly, for there to be immutable human rights they must be encoded in us somehow. There are 2 means by which this is generally thought to happen – evolutionary selection for a genetic predisposition (often called ‘instinct’, which means nothing), or by divine decree.

The problem with that is it’s not logical. If one follows the logic it goes round in a big circle and falls over. Lookie-see:

1) If a feeling that we have certain definite rights is genetically pre-programmed into our brains then we are not free to choose how we feel or to review and change our beliefs. We are enslaved by a perspective that dictates our feelings from within, so in this case the argument for a right to freedom is self-contradictory. If you are genetically pre-determined to feel you have a right to freedom you have no choice in this and therefore you are not free.

If you discount genetic pre-determinism (as many do, because it’s a very hard notion to live with) then perhaps a pre-disposition is a better option. But pre-dispositions are by their nature less precise and so the concept of immutable rights – perfect, unchanging, precise, inviolate doesn’t fit. Plus perfection isn’t found in a natural system. Nature is vague, imperfect and imprecise, hence bio-diversity, niche specialties and speciation. This universe does not contain anything of absolute unchanging perfection. That is fundamental to the laws of physics and a root cause of the existence of matter itself dating back to approx 380,000 years after the start of this universe. So any form of encoded and precisely defined behaviour cannot be unchanging in the natural, physical world. It can only be tied to a particular species in the form of tendencies towards certain behavioural traits. But remember that even the concept of ‘species’ is a category that collapses under scrutiny. A species is just a snapshot in a bio-diverse process that is utterly mutable and constantly subject to change, frequently radical. It’s the antithesis of immutability. If these immutable rights belong instead to all species then where is the evidence in the natural world? Are animals capable of evil?

If you’re not looking for evidence and acting purely on belief, what is it in your philosophy that makes humans so special that they have rights other animals don’t? What, must be asked, is ‘human’ anyway? Would a fully sapient, self-aware android have human rights? What if it was self-aware but shaped like a big goldfish or flower? Does a human with serious brain damage have less rights than you or I? Are human rights a virtue of our form or of our intellect? A combination? Any way you answer that it can’t explain logically how rights can be attached to an AI and simultaneously to a biological person in a vegetative state. If you remove the rights of the brain damaged aren’t you at risk of making a value-judgement on what makes a life worthwhile? The judgement seems to be made from an emotional perspective and emotions are out of our control. That brings us back to the earlier idea of being pre-determined or pre-disposed to feel that way.

Also consider the fact that there was at no point in our ancestry a ‘first human’. Any cut-off point from now going backwards to our ape-like ancestors that one may decide is where the human/non-human boundary exists has to be an arbitrary decision. There is no point genetically or palaeontologically where humans arise, just a seamless blend from one ancestor’s DNA to another’s all the way back to the first post-RNA slime. Where do you arbitrarily assign ‘human’ rights on that chain? If you do it too recently you’re saying ancestors who are a bit too hairy and hunched don’t have the same rights. If you go back too far who’s to say where you stop? Monkeys? Fish? It’s an illogical proposition and can only be explained in terms of mutability and context, like all categories and emotional responses.

2) If human rights have been enshrined in us by a benign deity then freedom is again removed from the equation. If your perceived freedom is only made sacred by virtue of a supernatural power then it’s not by choice. Even the definitions of what’s fair and just are suspect because they are not your own definitions, they’ve been presented to you by a god and you’ve been constructed to feel comfortable with them and as if they’re your own. It’s a theological cognitive illusion and the result is the same. You as an individual play no part in the process and by definition are not free to choose other than whether to obey or defy the dictum of the god. Your ‘choice’, if any, is to be ‘good’ and obey or be ‘bad’ and defy. That leads to all sorts of problems, not least that of culpability. If a god has instilled in all humans a knowledge of right and wrong then ignorance is no defence and any tribesman in Papua New Guinea can be held as a ‘sinner’ for not subscribing to the same view of right and wrong. Sound familiar? Perceived permanence of a natural form of justice, by a process of logical deduction, leads us to religious persecution and the obliteration of freedom of choice. What’s morally right and wrong in comfortable, well-nourished European suburbs is not necessarily the same as what’s right and wrong in a rapidly depleting jungle at the edge of the world. Or on the game reserves of Africa where poachers are shot dead to protect endangered species. Does a rhino on the verge of extinction have more rights than a human simply due to the numbers?

To say that human rights are immutable – i.e. established and maintained outside of human decision making processes - and to promulgate the view that human rights are inviolate, is to ignore the efforts made, the blood spilled and hardships endured, by our European ancestors in establishing what we now perceive to be our deserved rights as free and intrinsically valuable individuals. As voting, fairly emancipated people we generally think of our society and ourselves as deeply connected and that we deserve respect. That view is very ‘Western’ and very modern. Yes it’s been a feature of philosophers’ discussions for thousands of years, but when they discussed the freedoms of men in antiquity they meant men. Not women, not children, and certainly not slaves or even lower classed men. The boundaries of moral certainty move as a culture changes. They are not fixed.

These days there would probably be much agreement on feeling uncomfortable about abuse of power or strength and individuals deserving respect, not being judged purely on how useful they are to society. But that view isn’t universally held even now and historically the opposite has been held by many cultures many times, always justifying it to themselves with arguments couched in their own philosophical and sometimes theological ideals. Such views are artefacts of cultures, just as our own feelings on human rights are. But, as ever, environment and genetics co-exist and shape each other. The key issue here being that they are shaped and thus they change.

On the evidence I’ve seen, I don’t believe there are consciously ‘evil’ people doing ‘evil’ deeds in the world. I think there are very different views of what’s acceptable and what’s desirable and that ‘evil’ is open to interpretation. (For an inevitable Star Wars interlude, to me Palpatine is at his least convincing when he’s melodramatically portrayed as knowingly villainous. I don’t buy it. Dictators are usually driven by a desire to ‘better’ society by draconian means and so aren’t evil in their own eyes).

There does appear to be a genetic link with an inter-personal value system that pre-disposes one to certain feelings, including how we see society itself and our position in relation to it. I forget the details, but this TED talk is where I heard about it. If I remember correctly, whether we are left or right wing, libertarian or fascist, is merely a matter of where we are on the spectrum as defined by our individual phenotype and the culture in which it arises.


Actually, Haidt has a few TED talks on this subject so I’m going to go listen to them all and see what he says before I write anything else.


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