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Food for a thought beyond just believing


Human Rights Reader 277


Historically, it is actually the organized pressure from minorities and from women on ethical grounds that have often given us the equal rights and the non-discrimination we now take for granted.


[I will here attempt to bring-in the history of philosophy on ethics to support the concept and practice of human rights. I do not want to philosophize with you here, but to help you to consult your own moral inclinations by interpreting what you read below].


Good moral rules help us act in the most rational way possible.


1. Human rights  (HR) tell us we should take into account others and not only our own interests when deciding what we ought to do. The best way of satisfying everyone’s interests is through being consequent with ethics. HR are seen as needed in order to make us human.


2. HR appeal to principles that distinguish values (ought to do) from facts (what actually is). It is imperatives with a-moral-ought in them that are tied to what we do in HR work.*

*: Ought is the verb most often used to express moral duty or obligation; sometimes, perhaps more appropriately, must or have-to is used when HR enter the political arena.


3. In HR work we thus justify the morality of our actions by appealing to the good consequences our actions have for others (and for ourselves).


HR are about respect for living in society and about the promotion of the public good.


4. We remain convinced that applying moral rules achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But the hitch here is: we actually choose our own morality. ‘Thou shalt, thou shalt not’ consists of commands that rule our decision making. Even if we can escape all punishment, we are absolutely forbidden to kill; we are indoctrinated by these moral ‘commands’. We can also be blamed if we have not done what we should have done, i.e., we stand under obligation to give our neighbors their due.


5. We thus have to decide for ourselves what laws of morality we are willing to accept. Is what our conscience commands us good? Consciousness is simply the internalization of the moral teachings of our parents and of society. So, should we accept or reject what we have been taught? Our conscience may disagree, but we must still decide whose conscience and which rules of conscience we ought to obey.


Morality is not just obedience though; it is doing what is right.


6. For Kant, morality was the ability to think and decide for oneself what is right and what is wrong; whom to obey and whom to ignore; what to do and what not to do. If we try to tie morality too closely to our society, it looks as if there is no room for autonomy, no way in which we could disagree. We actually have to be critical and admit that some of these sets of commands are or may be false. But if something is morally reprehensible to us, it should be true to us even if the society in question does not agree with that moral principle.


7. ‘Moral relativism’ has always been a threat to established morality (it has been said it is a result of the crumbling of belief in the dogmas of religion). It was Kant who said we have to agree to at least the basic principles of a universal morality. So that key moral principles hold for every society.

What is right is distinct from what people merely think is right; yet what is right is right everywhere, and is always the same, he argued.


8. In sum here, it is indeed possible (and necessary) for us to act in the interest of others and be concerned about their welfare. Altruism says that people ought to act with each other’s interests in mind. Only if actions are motivated by a concern for others’ interests do we call them truly moral actions.


We sometimes think that we are moral, just because we believe in moral principles. But believing is not enough; action is required.


9. There is a natural principle of benevolence in wo/man (gender correctness added) which is in some degree to society what self-love is to the individual. Some of our desires are desires to serve someone else’s interests. (The satisfaction that accompanies good acts is itself not the motivation of such acts though! As Kant said, moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it).


10. Plato, much earlier, told us that justice** is not a private good (as charity is). Charity just gives the giving individuals a sense of satisfaction and peace of mind. Charity makes the giver feel self-righteous (an act of psychological egoism?).

**: Justice here is meant as the need for lawful-and-fair treatment of other people (which does not mean equal treatment…).


11. Later, Aristotle went further and said that there is no real distinction between ethics and politics and that the proper end of ethics is politics. (Am I thus an Aristotelian…?) ***. For him, justice has much to do with one’s role in society –and ‘respect’ is an ingredient of it. “It is by our conduct in our intercourse with other wo/men that we become just or unjust”. *

***: I wonder if that is why Aristotle though that the passion of our youth is sometimes more virtuous than our rationality in established maturity.

[We note here a caveat: The morality for Aristotle depended upon rules embedded and learned in an elite society of privileged Greek males. Conversely, modern ethical conceptions are universal, not restricted to a particular society].


12. For Kant, every person can find for her/himself what acts are moral; there are thus individual, i.e., personal demands for morality. Not so for D. Hume for whom the end of all moral speculations is to teach us our duties and engage us to embrace them. Hume felt that what is morally ‘fair’ for all will animate us to embrace it and maintain it. “Render wo/men totally indifferent to morality and there will no longer be a chance to regulate our lives and actions”.


13. For J. J. Rousseau, the morality of our actions consisted entirely in the judgments we ourselves form with regard to them. The first reward of justice is the consciousness that we are acting justly. There are though wo/men insensible to all that is right, he posited; they bypass any notion of justice when it is to their own advantage.


In human rights work, we do not speak the voice of remorse, but the voice of outrage.


14. In HR, when we see any act of injustice, it stirs in us an instinctive anger which bids us to go to help the oppressed. But we are restrained by a duty to laws that often hamper our drive to protect those whose rights are being violated.**** Ultimately, what our consciousness decrees is based on our judgment and gut feelings. The power that moves us is consciousness –which is derived from the moral system we adopt in relation to our fellow wo/men. As soon as our reason perceives social injustice, our conscience impels us to pursue it with the voice of outrage that passes judgment on what is evil.

****: Basically, a HR violation occurs when a person treats another primarily as a means to his or her ends, making the violated an instrument of the violator’s purposes. Violators are thus those who pursue the fulfillment of their desires without a concern for any good but their own. In short, violators of HR are ultimately ‘consumers’ of persons ….and the violated persons are the consumed. (W. Gass)  That is why the piling up of violations reaffirms our every day struggle with the violators. Because it makes a difference in what context and in-the-service-of-what-particular-and-specific-interests the distinction is made between manipulative and non-manipulative social relationships, what we constantly seek is to distinguish between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations so as to decisively counter the former. (A. MacIntyre)


15. Kant rejected all attempts to base morality on feelings; it must be based solely on reason, he argued. For him, morality’s central concept is duty –and duty subjects itself to rational principles. He further argues that reason, by its very nature, must be universal. Kant insisted in the independence of morality from society. Morality, for him, consisted only of rational principles. He was concerned with what makes a person morally worthy. “Act as duty requires, but not because duty requires”; “to be beneficient when we can is a duty”. So, retain: Duty brings about the necessity of acting in HR work.

[We note here another caveat: It was conformity with the law what Kant used as the central notion of duty. Not so necessarily for us in HR work since laws often harbor HR violations].


16. Kant indirectly actually says that HR are necessary of-and-by themselves without reference to another end; “they are objectively necessary” he says.

He goes on to say that, as relates to moral imperatives, there are universal laws of reason that tell us what to do: “Imperatives of duty to others become imperatives of principle”. Talks of sympathy and good will betray the rights of wo/men and actually violate them. “Moral principles are necessary, essential to human nature and they hold for every human being”. The maintenance of our humanity-as-an-end in itself depends on respecting HR. One should contribute anything to the dignity of others. Therefore, acting according to universal laws of reason and morality is obeying rational principles. “Morality is a product of our rational will”.


17. For J. Bentham, the interest of the community is the most general expression in the realm of morals; nevertheless, this meaning is often lost. It is in vain to talk of the interest of a community without understanding that it reflects the interest of its individual members though. Bentham thus first looks at one person whose rights seem to be violated and then takes account of the number of persons whose rights are compromised…a methodology we can well use in HR work today.


18. For John Stuart Mill, morality was not a question of applying a law to an individual case. Morality must be deduced from principles even if they are scornfully rejected by some. Key for him was the sense of dignity which all human beings ought to possess in one form or another. For him, morality encases the rules and precepts of human conduct.


19. Friedrich Nietzsche was called the anti-moralist: To him, all people were to be judged by the same moral standards, the standards of duty; there are no elites, he argued. “What does your conscience say? “You should become  who you really are”. “Morality is the herd-instinct in the individual”.

He complained that the morality of the ruling classes is foreign and irritating to present-day taste in that it insists primarily that one has duties only to ones equals. Supposing that the abused and oppressed moralize, he went on, what will  the common element in their morality be? Probably a suspicion and a condemnation of man. “The slave has an unfavorable eye for the virtues of the powerful; he (rightly) has a skepticism and distrust”. Therefore, “power resides in the evil which does not know it is despised; The evil man thus arouses fear”. Moreover, the slave’s desire for freedom and of liberty also necessarily belong to her/his morality.


Knowing is creating, creating is law-giving; truth is power.


20. Under this guise, Nitzsche attacked absolute moral principles of reason that are the same for everyone. This point he made was maliciously taken up in the 20th century in an attempt to destroy universal moral codes. In Sartre’s philosophy, the idea of universal morality is also completely rejected, because, for Sartre, our values are a question of personal commitment. In response to any question about morality, the only ultimate answer is “because I choose to accept these values; this is what I choose mankind to be”.


21. In J. P. Sartre’s writings, wo/man is responsible for what s/he is. Not only for her/his own, but for all wo/men. “Nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all; in fashioning myself, I fashion wo/man”. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do, he argued. To say that it does not matter what you choose is not correct.


What is not possible is not to choose.


22. Sartre went on to tell us “If I do not choose, that is still a choice”. “When I confront a real situation, I am obliged to choose my attitude towards it and, in every respect, I bear the responsibility of that choice. Wo/man makes her/himself by the choices of her/his morality and s/he cannot but choose a morality”.  “It is through my actions that I commit myself to values, not through principles I accept a priori or rules that are imposed on me by society; if you refuse to choose, you are coping out”. What counts is, therefore, simply our choice of actions and values together with their consequences –whatever they are. For Sartre, morality is those values we choose to follow through our actions: He basically thus exhorts our responsibility.


23. Where does all this put us, then?: What we want to know from ethics teachers is not only how people use the word, not even what kind of actions they approve. (G. E. Moore) Why? Because we can encourage and persuade one another to accept certain ethical positions, but the positions themselves are merely matters of personal attitude –rationally justified or not.


If statements of value are to be significant, it is indeed human rights’s business to pass judgments on what is right.


24. Human rights express, if not objective, at least impersonal ethical judgments; no question about that. But note that statements of value are unverifiable. It is notorious that what seems intuitively certain to one person may seem doubtful or false to another. The HR covenants are key to us since they provide some tested criteria of negotiated and agreed validity. In last instance, HR law is an objective rule that is binding whether we accept it or not so that implicit or explicit recognition of these judgments is at the center of every day HR practice.


25. Bottom line, what matters for HR is the construction of a civility that can be sustained. Moral decline gives and has given justification to worrisome misjudgments, policies, actions and HR violations. The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time!


26. Commitment can be said to be a freely chosen adoption of moral principles which one thereby vows to defend and apply in practice. Our commitment defines what we are morally bound to do. What are you bound to do?


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi  Minh City


Adapted from R. C. Solomon, Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings, 4th Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.



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