Thursday, June 22, 2006

Guaranteeing Universal Human Rights

Faith and reason...rights and governance...religion and science...

The contributors to this blog are tackling all sorts of incendiary issues, some that may be considered beyond the bounds of typical or acceptable discourse. So be it.

More importantly, even the nascent stages of this blog (see "The Science of Right and Wrong" and "A Left without Rights?" and the appended comments) have illuminated the interconnectedness of apparently unrelated subjects like faith and technology, and this is all to the good.


In 1968, the Russian physicist, atheist, and moralist Andrei Sakharov wrote:
International affairs must be completely permeated with scientific methodology and a democratic spirit, with a fearless weighing of all facts, views, and theories, with maximum publicity of ultimate and intermediate goals, and with a consistency of principles.

Two and a half decades later, in a commentary on Sakharov's work, Ernest Partridge said:
"Scientific morality" is widely regarded as an oxymoron, since it is commonly believed that science is "value neutral." This belief embraces a pernicious half-truth. The logic of science stipulates that the data, laws, hypotheses and theories of science exclude evaluative terms and concepts, and that the vocabulary of science be exclusively empirical and formal. There are no "oughts," no "goods and bads," no "rights and wrongs." (The fact that social sciences deal with values descriptively, is only an apparent violation of this rule). Capitalist and communist missiles are subject to the same laws of trajectory. The same laws of physiology apply to the physician who heals, and the murderer who poisons. The "value-free" status of scientific vocabulary and assertion is the "truthful half" of the belief that science is "value free."

But as an activity, science is steeped in evaluation, for the "value-free" methodology that yields these "value-free" statements, requires a discipline and a commitment that appears to merit the name of "morality." Thus the advancement of science is characterized by behavior that can only be described as "virtuous," and the corruption of science as moral weakness. In other words, the activity of science (that is to say, of science as a human institution) is highly involved with values. . .

Science and scholarship are engaged in a constant struggle to replace persuasion with demonstration -- the distinction is crucial to understanding the discipline and morality of science.

I will extend Partridge's position to say that "value-free" science not only must be conducted under the constraints of virtuous morality, but that scientific methodology -- that is, study, reason, observation, hypothesis, testing, etc. -- can be used to determine a functional prescriptive societal macroethics. (In this context, I encourage the reading of Brad Allenby's fine three-part series of columns on "Free Will and the Anthropogenic Earth".)

Here's a very simple formulation to start with:
  1. Let's declare that all groups, communities, and societies are free to think and believe what they want, but not to behave as they like. Belief is free, behavior has consequences.

  2. Let's accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, as a global standard.

  3. Let's agree that if we find any group in any society taking stated rights away from weaker groups or individuals within that society, then the world must act to stop the abuse and to prevent its recurrence.
I propose that if the preceding formulation was followed, more humans would enjoy broader rights, and society as a whole would be measurably improved.

Take that as an hypothesis and evaluate it. What can we learn about the potential efficacy of this approach in achieving greater diffusion and enjoyment of the stated rights?

9 comments:

Dale Carrico said...

Well, first, I don't agree with you that your formulation here is simple!

Let me start with your third proposal:

"Let's agree that if we find any group in any society taking stated rights away from weaker groups or individuals within that society, then the world must act to stop the abuse and to prevent its recurrence."

The protection of the weak from the strong seems to me to be pretty much the purpose of rights, so the first thing to say is that anybody who thinks rights are a good idea should definitely affirm some version or other of your third proposal. Definitely I do (maybe some quibbles about wording here or there, but, you know, that's just me being me). But let's delve deeper here.

Relatively democratic societies facilitate ongoing nonviolent reconciliation between deeply diverse stakeholders to issues at hand. This is because "democracy" is no more than the experimental implementations of the ideas that (a) people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them and (b) the reconciliation of diverse human aspirations is better the less violent it is.

The problem is that there are real tensions between (a) and (b) since the commitment to (a) puts nearly everything "up for grabs," a state of affairs that produces a general anxiety and can facilitate outcomes that actually violate (b), especially if we accept that humiliation and insecurity can be kinds of violence.

Rights are affirmations of certain universal entitlements that seek to provisionally restabilize the conditions on which human integrity and dignity are thought to depend, in the face of the relentless destabilization of social conditions unleashed by democratic processes themselves.

Two key caveats: First, needless to say, an affirmation of an entitlement is not the same thing as its accomplishment, and the fact is that even entitlements protected by right (rite) remain vulnerable.

Rights can only seek to secure key entitlements by frustrating their violation, by connecting them as directly as possible to the foundation of the ritual artifice of law and governance so that to threaten them will be tantamount to threats to the given social order as such, and hence threats in which majorities should sense a personal stake.

Second, any characterization of the conditions on which integrity and dignity depend necessarily will be more parochial and contingent than the universal form in which it will be phrased, and there will always be a tension between what is an essentially conservative defense of any such characterization and the thrust of democratic politics itself. But we have no choice in the matter of whether or not we will find this anti-democratic kernel at the heart of any implementation of the democratic project, inasmuch as some conception of integrity and dignity mobilizes and maintains democratization in the first place.

Even as deep democrats, we cannot not want to preserve an inviolable human agency from even the energies of democracy itself. Indeed, it will be in the name of protection of this agency and in the hope that this agency will find its fullest flowering that democracy will be mobilized in the first place.

But make no mistake, this is a way of naming a paradox not resolving it. Democracies must always strike balances and bargains arising out of the different entailments of its commitments to democratization and to human rights.

Now, your second proposal. "Let's accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, as a global standard." Eleanor Roosevelt is a personal hero of mine and this is another proposal I find it easy to agree with you on. But, as always, I do have some hesitations. I mean, you realize I'm sure that there is a vast progressive literature devoted to worries and problems with the Universal Declaration? There are concerns about the enshrinement of "nationalism" in the document and whether not this is in tension with its universalism, for example. There are concerns about the fact that like the US Constitution it is difficult to find in the Universal Declaration an adequate affirmation (ever more important in the emerging era of digital and bioremedial networks) of a Right to Privacy. There are pretty intense arguments about the status of women, of religion, of any number of specific policy questions in the document.

Don't get me wrong, I think it is very important that we not allow "the best" to become the enemy of "the good" -- but I just want to say that it actually isn't a simple or self-evident thing to affirm the Universal Declaration, even for people who we would view as like-minded allies. Again, I want to re-iterate: Like you, I do affirm the Universal Declaration personally, and this is something I like to flog, too.

Still, these complexities call attention to the fact that this second proposal of yours, all three of your proposals in fact, begin with the word "let's," that is to say "let us," and hence seem to presuppose the existence of an "us" wdespite the fact that probably the most conspicuous issue at hand is that the "we" necessary to implement these proposals simply does not yet exist. The very conflicts that we keep talking about -- between various forms of faith, enterprise, community, value and so on -- attest to the problem at hand. Simply ascending above the fray into an abstract language of rationality or science risks the mistake of thinking you are addressing the conflict more efficiently or directly when in fact you are just leaving the actual stage.

I'm less sure about the first proposal. I was surprised to see you listed it first, which makes me think it might be the most important one for you. You write: "Let's declare that all groups, communities, and socieities are free to think and believe what they want, but not to behave as they like. Belief is free, behavior has consequences." I am assuming you just mean to say something like the point of rights culture is to secure the widest possible diversity of lifeways compatible with nonviolent social order. If that is right, then definitely, again, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

I will say, as somebody indebted to pragmatist philosophy, I cannot separate belief from behavior in the way this proposal seems to. It is in their impact on conduct that we distinguish beliefs in the first place, and the formation and intelligible expression of belief is itself always conduct. But I have a feeling this is a philosophical quibble about phrasing and that your point is to insist on rights as a way a respecting commitments both to diversity and to nonviolence, and on that we are agreed.

I don't understand how your proposals in the second part of your post connect up with the discussion of science in the first part. I don't agree at all that "scientific methodology... can be used to determine a functional prescriptive societal macroethics." I am a strong champion of both consensus science and nonviolence ethics, and I have written a short essay called "Is Science Democratic?" in which I proposed some of the affinities I agree with you prevail between the culture of scientific practice and thriving democracies, but I personally think it does a disservice to what is truly valuable in both science and in ethics to try to reduce either project to the terms of the other. I'll just leave it at that.

This was another very provocative post, Mike, and another contribution to the unexpectedly high quality of material this collaborative blog seems to be inspiring in the participants. It's a true blessing and I couldn't be happier about it so far. These posts of yours here have been occasions for me to think through some of these questions in way I haven't in years -- very clarifying and useful. Thank you so much, d

Tom FitzGerald said...

Mike,

The values that inform science are laudable, but they seem no more likely to become the basis of international relations in the near term than, say, the Golden Rule.

Your three proposals are admirable, and like any proposals for policy experimentation, are testable.

However, my disagreement with you (and Ryan) isn't over the testability of policies (gay marriage, embrace of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), it's over the testability of the values from which these policies spring.

These values are not the same as beliefs. Nor are they policy prescriptions. Consider the statement: "Knowing the truth is more important than being happy." This statement is not a prescription for a government policy. Nor can it be evaluated according to a utilitarian metric without prior agreement over whether the humanly relevant thing to measure is knowledge or happiness. It is not amenable to scientific discourse. It may be amenable to other kinds of reasonable discourse (I'm thinking particularly of Habermas here) but not to probing and prodding by the scientific method.

Mike Treder said...

Dale wrote: ...you realize I'm sure that there is a vast progressive literature devoted to worries and problems with the Universal Declaration?

Of course, and that's fine. But we have to start somewhere, and the UDHR is the best place I know of to start.

All three of your proposals in fact, begin with the word "let's," that is to say "let us," and hence seem to presuppose the existence of an "us" despite the fact that probably the most conspicuous issue at hand is that the "we" necessary to implement these proposals simply does not yet exist.

Yes, exactly. A prerequisite to the successful adoption of my three-step proposal is that a global "us" must come into existence. Some may see this as hopeless; I believe it is inevitable.

Dale Carrico said...

Oh, yes, I definitely agree with you that the Universal Declaration is a great place to start, and whether I am struggling to understand the strengths or the limitations or the underlying premises of the document, I am always a champion of it.

You agree with me that a "prerequisite to the successful adoption of my three-step proposal is that a global 'us' must come into existence. Some may see this as hopeless; I believe it is inevitable."

Well, I wish I thought this was inevitable but I see nothing to support anything like that strong a claim -- but, never fear, neither do I feel hopeless about it.

Very close to the center of my personal political preoccupations are [1] democratic reform of the UN (there are a few proposals that especially intrigue me, and perhaps this is something we'll explore in the blog eventually), [2] expanding international treaties to protect the environment, curtail weapons proliferation, improve labor conditions, democratize intellectual property regimes, monitor global threats (tsunamis, pandemics, human trafficking, arms, etc.), and better protect women, children, queers, ethnic or religious minorities, etc. from violence, [3] strengthening the archipelago of multinational regulatory institutions, [4] implementing global standards of law, right, and general welfare, [5] instituting an autonomous rapid-deployment international peacekeeping force, and -- perhaps emerging out of this work -- eventually, [6] full-blown democratic world federalism.

None of these outcomes is inevitable. Not all of them may even be necessary. But global democratic citizenship, a planetary polity of peers, the Whole Earth "we" you are talking about will be the culmination of difficult steps, fought on every side by entrenched interests and fearful dupes by the millions.

I definitely hope that these steps are things we'll talk about here a lot. Technodevelopmental social struggle is both local and global struggle, technoscientific politics are planetary politics. NBIC convergence, climate change, p2p digital and bioremedial networks, the rise of militant fundamentalisms -- these all ultimately have everything to do with abstract wonky talk of international relations and UN reform and such. I think this blog will be all the more useful and relevant because we all definitely seem to "get" this point here.

Tom FitzGerald said...

There are 2 models of nation-state formation from smaller entities that particularly interest me in an international context:

1)Nations born of customs unions. The Prussian Zollverein (tariff union, Zoll cognate w/English "toll," I've always assumed) helped lay the geopolitical groundwork for the Second Reich that Bismarck eventually forced through with "blood and iron" in the Franco-Prussian War. The Zollverein's roll in this regard has served as a model for federalist thinkers in the European Union for years. If only the WTO "free trade" regime wasn't so hideously unfair and unfree, a reformed version of it (or better yet a replacement) might play this role.

2)The other example is the way that the practice of having judges "ride the circuit" of multiple villages in medieval England (a Common Law tradition reflected in U.S. appellate court names, and still literally practiced in Lincoln's Illinois) dispensing the King's Justice helped to consolidate English nationalism and nationhood. The ICJ, and more importantly, the ICC have wonderful potential to fill this role, which I think is not unrelated (along with wanting to be invulnerable to being charged with their war crimes) to opposition to the ICC by neocons in particular and the American ruling class generally.

Tom FitzGerald said...

BTW: Every nation, even a federalist Earth, ought to have a national passtime. Anybody else here watchin' the World Cup?

Mike Treder said...

Good point, Tom, about the World Cup. Here I am, proclaiming to be Mr. Global Citizen, and I don't watch futbol! (Of course, I also don't watch football.)

Dale, at any given time my attitude about the ability of active individuals or groups to effectively influence long-term global destiny can range from quiet confidence (a la Margaret Mead) to near complete skepticism. But since I'm not certain that I (or "we") can't make a difference, I figure the effort must be made.

Regardless of my own actual level of influence, however, I remain steadfastly confident that highly significant change will occur, and that one definite shift we can expect, at some point in the next half-century or so, is an infectious acceptance that citizenship as world citizens matters more than national allegiance. It won't be universal, obviously, and it won't come without pain, but it will come.

Dale Carrico said...

"[A]t any given time my attitude about the ability of active individuals or groups to effectively influence long-term global destiny can range from quiet confidence (a la Margaret Mead) to near complete skepticism. But since I'm not certain that I (or "we") can't make a difference, I figure the effort must be made."

I couldn't agree more.

Tom FitzGerald said...

Mike,

Watching sports generally can be kinda boring for intellectual types. While these may not be of any use to you, I'll throw out two entrées into it that've worked for my own dorky self:

1)Try thinking of sports as a kind of unscripted play. I saw a fun thesis once that sports kind of play out a sort of good vs. evil cosmic drama, with one's own home team ritually representing the goodguys. Unlike all the other stuff on tv (barring certain reality shows, on which I'd have to ask for advice from Dale on how to get into), you don't know if your own personal goodguys are going to win, which gives it a suspense unmatched in today's formulaic thrillers.

2)Try grooving to the chesslike strategy of certain games. With dear old footy in particular, try as much as possible to eschew an estadounidense tendency to reduce futbol, "the beautiful game" to goals. The best, bar none, World Cup match I've seen so far was the nil all (0-0)
draw between (relatively) mighty Sweden and plucky Trinidad and Tobago. T n'T (or TNT, as they say) had a surprise star goalie in substitute Shaka Hislop, and the passionate quality of the play on both sides was just awesome.

Don't know if this'll be of any interest. I was a sports-loather all through high school, and only eventually immersed myself in them as a way of bonding with my dad. But now, I enjoy spectating them a lot, for their own sakes. Go figure.