Friday, September 10, 2004

Grounding Human Rights

Digital Freedom Network has a piece by Luke Thomas on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Specifically Thomas addresses how the signatory nations bridged some deep philosophical divides in order to arrive at the finished document, but in the course of the discussion he mentions something that Viewpoint has questioned in the past and wishes to do so in this instance as well. First some groundwork:

The preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world... [emphasis added]

And Article 1 of the UDHR reads:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. [emphasis added]

Thomas provides a gloss on these passages:

The UDHR, and most human rights advocates, generally argue that the human rights man enjoys, both positive entitlements and negative obligations, are a product of the inherent dignity of man. Without this dignity being upheld, man is being deprived of his various rights. The espousal and maintenance of dignity, or the lack thereof, is the measurement of human rights.

He then goes on to quote a philosopher named Jack Donnelly:

The source of human rights is man's moral nature, which is only loosely linked to the "human nature" defined by scientifically ascertainable needs. Human rights are "needed" not for life but for a life of dignity...violations of human rights deny one's humanity; they do not necessarily keep one from satisfying one's needs. We have human rights not to the requisites for health but to those things "needed" for a life of dignity, for a life worthy of a human being, a life that cannot be enjoyed without these rights.

As Donnelly sees it, Thomas explains, human rights arise from human action. Donnelly categorically denies that they originate from a deity, society, or nature. Instead, "human rights represent a social choice of a particular moral vision of human potentiality." Donnelly argues that man has profound potential for good towards others and for themselves, a "moral vision" or "potentiality" as he describes it. That potentiality can swing in a number of directions, but under the guidelines of an appropriate moral vision towards dignity and worth, it can largely be used for good. Thus, "human rights are a social practice that aims to realize a particular vision of human dignity and potential by institutionalizing basic rights."

Now here's the problem. When one cuts through the verbal undergrowth it turns out that the ascription of human rights to persons is purely arbitrary. It represents a mere "social choice" based upon the signatories' particular "moral vision" which is, of course, different for different people. Human rights turn out to be nothing more than words on paper. They're not grounded in anything more solid than the subjective preference of the authors of those words. If the writers had other preferences they would've come up with a different set of human "rights", or none at all.

In other words, if we want to live a life which has some dignity, we have to enjoy certain rights, but there's no right, nor can there be, to dignity itself. The dignity of the individual is an arbitrary value in the hands of the state. There's no reason, beyond the preference of those who hold power, why a state should care about the dignity of its citizens. Thus the rights which make dignity possible are contingent upon the whim of the state which grants them.

In this view, human rights can be nothing more than mere conventions. Contrary to the UDHR preamble, they don't really inhere in persons at all. They are not inalienable. If the government is the source of our rights then government can easily strip us of them, and should they do so, they would be doing nothing for which they could be reproached. The state is under no obligation to provide for the dignity of its citizens, and is therefore under no obligation to grant "human rights".

This is a considerably different picture of rights than that envisioned by the Founding Fathers, and the reason for the difference is not hard to spot. Donnelly may deny that rights originate from a deity, but the Fathers, following John Locke and others, were convinced otherwise. They realized that unless human rights and human dignity were grounded in something beyond human predilections, unless they had roots in the firm soil of transcendence, they were simply empty concepts hanging on sky hooks anchored in nothing.

John Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government, which exerted such powerful influence upon the Founding Fathers almost a century after its publication, wrote this:

"No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker...they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure...there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy another, as if we were made for one another's uses as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours."

Locke is telling us that we have dignity only because we are made by the Creator of the universe, in His image. We are loved by Him and belong to Him. That is what gives us value. We have a right not to be harmed because no one has the right to harm what belongs to God, and they do so at their eternal peril.

Thomas Jefferson incorporates this same understanding of the source of our rights into the Declaration of Independence where he writes that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

If Donnelly is right then Locke and Jefferson are wrong, and God is not the basis for our rights nor our dignity. But if that is true, then human dignity and human rights are mere illusions, empty conceits, hollow words that we comfort ourselves with to mask the truth that we are just ephemeral gobs of mud and blood, with no significance or value, in a vast, empty universe that laughs at our pretensions to "rights" and "dignity".

If Donnelly is correct then the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights is like a bunch of children saying "Let's play make-believe. Let's pretend that we have rights." Everything goes well with this make-believe fantasy until someone says that he doesn't want to play the game any more and then the fantasy collapses.

The attempt to ground human rights in something other than the transcendent is doomed to failure and frustration, and any rights not so grounded are chimerical. They have no reality, no substance. They are mirages of oases in the moral desert that is the history of human oppression.

Inspector Dreyfuss

The CBS National Guard document scandal has been all over the blogosphere for the last twenty four hours. The question is no longer whether the documents are fraudulent, that seems to be highly probable, the question everyone is speculating about now is how did these counterfeits get into the hands of 60 Minutes and who's behind the scam.

There are other interesting questions as well, like will there be any accountability, will this shorten Dan Rather's career, and so on.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of this episode, however, is that it will make it exceedingly difficult to persuade the American voters of the truth of any charge against George Bush. CBS and Rather are being made into laughingstocks over this and few elements of the major media are going to risk a similar fate trying to shore up Kerry's sagging campaign by running allegations based on anything less than absolutely certain evidence.

It is astonishing that, according to The American Spectator's Prowler, the DNC first came into possession of these documents and had suspicions about their authenticity, but passed them on to the Kerry campaign anyway which then forwarded them to CBS. In other words, they were willing to tarnish Bush with charges which they believed may not have been true. Nice people. They're getting what they deserve.

As a side note: Anyone who has read Bernie Goldberg's book Bias which exposes the inner workings of CBS News and Dan Rather's pomposity will think that any embarrassment which attaches to Rather over this will also be richly deserved.

This episode is turning out to be a black eye, or worse, for everyone involved except the man whom the punch was intended for. As Viewpoint has noted before, watching this campaign is like watching the 1976 Peter Sellars film Return of the Pink Panther with Bush's opponents in the role of Inspector Dreyfuss.

For more on the controversy go here, here, and especially AllahPundit here.

The Party of Optimism

Never let it be said that the Democrats are not the party of optimism. The latest incantation of the Kerry campaign is that George W. Bush's middle initial stands for "wrong". Presumably the Dems are hoping that if they hear it often enough their base will associate the word "wrong" with George Bush. Such a hope is a sign of unbounded optimism. Recall that these are the same voters who found the Florida ballots beyond their ken and the same people so detached and apathetic about politics that a pack of cigarettes and a ride to the polls were sufficient inducement to get them to pull the lever for Al Gore. It's not at all evident that these folk are even aware that the word "wrong" has a "w" in it, much less that they would ever associate the word with George Bush's name.

Latest On Fallujah

There've been a lot of reports of fighting in Iraq but not much detail. The Strategy Page is a good place to go to find it. Their report for September 9th makes for interesting reading. Here's an excerpt:

September 9, 2004: When reporting fighting in Iraq, it's common for journalists to report only Iraqi deaths known to local hospitals, and question American military reports of higher enemy casualties. The reporters apparently are unaware that the gunmen will not take their dead to a hospital, and often not take their wounded either. This is because American troops make every effort to identify dead or wounded enemy, so as to obtain more information on what individuals, and families, are involved in anti-government activity. U.S. troops maintain databases of who they are fighting, the better to pick targets for raids or surveillance.

American smart bomb attacks continue on Fallujah. The attempt, last Spring, to have former members of the Iraqi army provide security in Fallujah, failed. The Baath Party and al Qaeda gangs terrorized the "Fallujah Brigade" and firmly control the city of 300,000. But the anti-government forces have many enemies in Fallujah, and the U.S. is apparently getting lots of targeting information. Daily, the smart bombs blow apart houses used by the gangs for housing, headquarters or ammo dumps. The gangs have become very paranoid, believing there are spies everywhere. They are correct, but some of the most revealing spies are unreachable.

Above Fallujah, U.S. warplanes and UAVs circle constantly, able to clearly view what is below, day or night. The telescopic bomb sights allow pilots to see what kind of weapon people are carrying, or whether women and children are in a crowd. The gangs have learned to never gather in large groups, at least not without plenty of women and children nearby for protection. But that doesn't always work, for the AC-130 gunships can kill a man without harming someone ten feet away.

The gangs fear that the American troops are coming back to Fallujah, and they are right. The not-so-secret plan is to go back in before the end of the year, kill all gang members that can be found, and then turn the city over to Iraqi troops, composed mostly of Shia and Kurds. Fallujah has long been controlled by Saddam supporters, and the non-Sunni Iraqi occupation force is not expected to be afraid to use force against their long time tormenters.

The site has updates daily. Good stuff.