Saturday, April 30, 2011

Who Owns Human Rights?

by Carl Coon,

How serious is our disagreement with China over Liu Xiaobo, currently languishing in a Chinese prison? A pro-democracy activist, the Chinese locked him up, the Nobel people decided to give him an award, and the Chinese wouldn’t let him out to receive it. Now the West is indignant and the Chinese are protesting that the Western idea of universal human rights is anything but universal, rather it is a part of the imperialist effort to impose western values on the rest of the world.[1]
This raises the issue, who has the right to define human rights? The prevailing view here in the USA is that the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, with its emphasis on individual freedom, is the last word, the gold standard as it were. But others. like the Chinese, disagree, and how do we deal with the charge that the values expressed in the UN declaration are culturally biased and don’t represent the values of humanity as a whole? What is the proper stance from a humanist perspective?
As humanists, we start with respect for the value of each individual member of our species. Parse this out and you eventually get to a set of values like the UN Declaration. That statement is undoubtedly thoroughly consistent with what we humanists believe. But is this enough? As a humanist, I also tend to be dubious about anyone’s claim that values as defined in any document are absolute. This sounds too much like religious faith. Let me see if I can reconcile my strong support for the UN Declaration with my discomfort at being asked to accept the validity of any document or doctrine on faith and faith alone.
Part of my reluctance to genuflect before the UN Declaration is my sense that humanity is still very much a work in progress, and we have a long road to travel before we arrive at a state where the kinds of human rights we believe in are accepted by the great majority of humankind. If we are ever to achieve global cooperation and the world at peace we aspire to, we shall need to have a common sense consensus on human rights that will provide a foundation for the shared values that such a world will require. How are we going to get that consensus, by persuasion, or by letting the powerful impose it on the weak?
I’ve had a certain amount of experience dealing with values in societies where they differ from ours. I have found that while the other society quickly adopts technology that lets them make more money, they resist any overt effort to push our values on them. You cannot just go in and tell them they’re wrong and expect them to change. You have show them what our values are and how they work in practice. Eventually they will work out the ways in which the material successes of our culture that they admire are contingent on many of the values they are resisting—and then they will change. But it takes time, and patience.
Another part of my reluctance to go the whole hog with the UN Declaration is my sense that it isn’t necessary to get into a messianic froth over it in order to get the whole world to agree to it. I’m old enough to remember when we were seriously debating whether we could only defeat communism if we fought the Soviet Union and defeated it on the battlefield, or whether there was some other way out. Back in 1969 I predicted that our very different ideologies would converge over time, and that since our system worked better in the long run, the USSR would have to do most if not all of the converging. Fortunately for everyone, my prediction (which was contrary to conventional wisdom at the time) was essentially correct.[2]
This brings me back to China, and the Liu Xiaobo affair. Chinese values emphasize the importance of maintaining harmony where Westerners stress individual freedom.[3] When some incident arises that focuses attention on these differences, we express outrage and they fire back at us. Mutual irritation follows which will probably die down fairly soon, inasmuch as neither side has important interests (as opposed to values) tied up in the dispute. You can chalk the whole incident up as another small step in a learning process where each side gets to understand the other side’s feelings a little better, and hope that the end result will be a beneficial convergence.
Whoa! I hear you saying, do you really believe that values are not important? Well, the point I want to make is that while values are supremely important in the long run, differences in values should not be important factors in the management of daily relations between states. If we manage those affairs sensibly, looking for win-win solutions to problems, and finding them frequently, we can expect that over time there will be a convergence that narrows the gap between our different values, and hopefully eventually eliminates it. If our own values are as robust as we think they are, then the other party will be doing most of the converging, as was the case with the USSR. The world will end up with the kind of respect for individual rights that will lead to the world at peace we all aspire to–a world congenial to our values.
/1/ Boston Globe, December 18, 2010, “Human Rights are Absolute” by Rene Loth
/2/ My thesis when a student at the National War College, class of ’69.
/3/ Article by Dai Bingguo: “Persisting with Taking the Path of Peaceful Development” 12/6/10
Posted for Carl Coon
Originally posted  on his blog, Progressive Humanism  January 21, 2011 


Explicit Atheist said...

I am not convinced that the better values are by definition more robust and therefore automatically prevail over time. The values that prevail within states are dependent on who wields the power of the state, the values of the people of the state and their ability and willingness to influence the rulers, and many considerations that are separable from how positive those values are.

Furthermore, in the world today, autocratic and thugish values remain widespread. Even if the more democratic and just states tend to do better by some measures over time, that still doesn't mean that those values will prevail. Autocracy and injustice can be stable conditions, the good guys always win in the end is a myth. It is possible for the more democratic and just states to regress and for the international tide could go in the wrong direction.

Therefore, I am not so sanguine about this for the future as you appear to be. The future remains precarious and much depends on the democratic countries remaining steadfast and strong in holding onto, defending, and advocating for, the better values. I am somewhat impressed, from some of what I read about some of the diplomacy revelaed by Wiki-leaks, that our diplomates have sometimes advocated privately on behalf of upholding values with foreign leaders despite the awkwardness and inconvenience of being argumentative with those we also want to build economic and other relationships with. I hope we continue to do that.

Don Wharton said...

@Explicit Atheist I think you are right on all factual points that you make. However, in an era of Twitter, Facebook and other social media it i very hard and very stupid for Autocracy to maintain a high level of corruption and control. The astonishing thing about Africa is that it had been consistently awful for so many years. However, the easily accessed solutions available from the Internet has enabled the Continent to grow very robustly in recent times. Things are changing with great speed.

Explicit Atheist said...

Religionists declare faith to be one of the primary values/principles/goals. Organized criminals declare loyality to be one of the primary values/principles/goals. Diplomats declare convergence to one of the primary values/principles/goals. They are all wrong. Neither faith, loyality, nor convergence are worthy values/principles/goals. We may sometimes rely on faith, loyality, or convergence, but it is perverse, corrupt, wrong, negative to elevate such tactics into values/principles/goals.

When I think of convergence I think of the U.S. following the Soviet Union's establishment of atheism model and establishing monotheism during the height of the Cold War. Such convergences can then take on a life of their own. The Soviet Union dropped its establishment of atheism but the U.S. retains its 1950's establishments of monotheism.

Don Wharton said...

I think you are right that convergence per se is not a goal or a value. A value the one can see with convergence is a lowered probability of destructive conflict over a disagreement about values. However, the value there is the consequentialist one of minimizing destructive conflict.

Convergence can be convergence on values which are not in themselves productive of better societal outcomes. We need to ask convergent to what? And are the values that two societies converge toward values that promote better societal outcomes.