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Joanne Donovan

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What are human rights? How do we decide and are they universal?

Are human rights the starting point we begin with when looking at how our societies function, or are there more important issues? How true is this statement; 'when people focus on being ethical without being pragmatic they end up being neither.'

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Closing Statement from Joanne Donovan

Thanks to everyone who participated in this conversation. Some excellent threads. All the best to you and your families for the new year 2012. Peace.

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    Dec 18 2011: Joanne: Where do see human rights emerging from? Can you give an example of a human right and explain how it came about?
    • Dec 20 2011: Tim, if I may add 2 cents here...

      Human rights, I would argue, derive from a need to find coherence and communication between disperate groups. An individual has no rights, and requires none, A family has less than a tribal group, and need of them as well. In turn a tribal group has less need of rights than a nation-state. The more groups you mash together, the more rights you require..

      A list of some intrinsic human rights may include...

      The right to pursue my own existence derived from the fact that I exist.

      The right to freedom of thought, should I know what that thinks like.

      The right to pursue breeding, and placing the value of the welfare of those bred over the welfare of others. Derived from the biological imperative.

      The right to own two things, the one in my right hand, and the one in my left. This of course derives from my bipedal nature.

      The right to place my groups value system above that of others, deriving from the necessity of community in ongoing tribal existence and competition for resources.

      The right to a provincial, self-cetered viewpoint of the world, derived from brain physiology.

      The right to take what I can from those weaker that I. Because it's an ape eat ape world, and we would not have survived to come so far if we din't know the virtues of a monkey sandwich.

      The right to dream that it could be better. That one I think, is just human nature.

      And thankfully, the right to construct fanciful moral grounds to unperpin my emotive appreciation of what life should be, and then offer that construct on others. This last being derived from the desire for a good life, and the realization I am unlikely to have it for myself, unless I also share it with a group.

      All other rights are extrinsic.

      Regards
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        Dec 20 2011: I think you're missing my point Ian. Pick just one human right. Now, explain where/how it came about.
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          Dec 21 2011: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights appeared and had the possibility of existing only in relatively recent times. Before the 20th century people discussed only the rights of different groups. The impulses which led to creation of the concept of universal human rights occurred in 20th century
        • Dec 21 2011: Tim,

          Forgive me, I am often a tad tongue in cheek...

          A short awnser on freedom of religion...

          We need it because the rise of monotheism created the possiibility of a unified codex of truth, a spititual right and wrong, which had not previously existed.

          We have it because of the spread of literacy during the rennaisance, and the enfranchisement of the individual during the post-absolitist enlightenment.

          I am happy to provide a more comprehensive examination of this idea if you like.

          Regards
        • Dec 21 2011: Sergi,

          i went on to read your other post, and cannot help but agree with your analysis of the Universal Decleration, though I am loath to disqualify the Decleration of the rights of Man and Citizen as a precursor document.

          regards
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        Dec 21 2011: Ian - So, in your religion example you must admit that there was a time when such a right didn’t exist, then a later time when the right was established. So, at least over time, the right was not universal. Moreover, it became more widespread (over space) gradually, thus initially it was not universal (globally that is). Perhaps at some time it will be (if not already) accepted by all governments (i.e. - groups capable of enforcing the right) and will then be called universal.

        But the idea that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” is one I find hard to justify historically. In fact it has been said that this wording was utilized merely as a propaganda mechanism to gain support for the American revolution. When it came time to actually write a legal document in the form of a constitution the wording was much more constrained.

        What do you think? Do universal human rights exist apart from society’s willingness and ability to defend them?
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          Dec 24 2011: It's starting to sound like you're not drawing a distinction between recognizing a right in principal and recognizing one in practice, Tim. Surely we can agree that religious freedom is a core human right and has always existed independent of what cultures have evidenced in practice.

          Accordingly, it should be hard to justify rights in a historic context. This in no way dismisses their validity. We live in a society now where scientific tools are at our disposal that can illuminate what restrictions or liberties are better or worse at promoting human well-being and societal flourishing. Prior to this we've had to work off a collective gut-check when we say "this is a right, that is a right" and many of these instincts have been spot on. (some have not)

          As we move into a global mindset different cultures will show different answers to those same human yearnings. Until now there's been no way to objectively say "this value is more important to the well-being of people and cultures than that value". That is measurable now.

          Human rights are those core principals we value and which we build the laws to run a society by, that maximize human well-being and maximize the flourishing of a culture.
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        Dec 24 2011: B. Reynolds. It baffles me why you would believe that “religious freedom is a core human right and has always existed independent of what cultures have evidenced in practice.”

        That is a totally subjective opinion based on your upbringing in the modern world with a western indoctrination.

        Imagine you lived in middle ages Europe. And you were raised in the dogma of the catholic church of the time. You believed that if your children deviated from the right path they would be doomed to eternal damnation and burn in hell without hope of escape. Would you believe in religious freedom? Would you allow influences which might mislead your children? If you truly believed the dogma wouldn’t you want restrictions which would optimize the chances of getting to heaven?

        Rights emerge out of consensus. Why would you believe that religious freedom exists independent of social/historic context?
    • Dec 21 2011: Tim,

      Or perhaps the right to property...

      Some blame agriculturalism for this concept of ownership, as once we settled down to farm we had a place to keep posessions, and it proved individually benificial to do so. Personally I blame the bag, or perhaps the gourd, as prior to this innovation you could only own what you could hold in your hand.

      Then again, monkeys have been observed having a favorite object, like a stick or stone, which they carry about and evidence some interest in claiming as private,( often this object appears to be used as a toy, and this behaviour is more common among younger primates). Perhaps then, ownership is more deeply ingrained than social conventions would inspire.

      Regards
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        Dec 21 2011: this one was brilliant:) Thanks!

        The right to pursue my own existence derived from the fact that I exist. (as a human, as an animal, insect, plant, etc.)

        The right to freedom of thought, should I know what that thinks like. (if i do not know i am thinking, and then i exist)

        The right to pursue breeding, and placing the value of the welfare of those bred over the welfare of others. Derived from the biological imperative.(all are eating each others but never eat up all totally, or all are eating each others but all stays like alive)

        The right to own two things, the one in my right hand, and the one in my left. This of course derives from my bipedal nature.(and third one is in the mouth. monkey has four hands)

        The right to place my groups value system above that of others, deriving from the necessity of community in ongoing tribal existence and competition for resources. (the right to struggle and to other entertainments)

        The right to a provincial, self-centered viewpoint of the world, derived from brain physiology. (and from body psychology)

        The right to take what I can from those weaker that I. Because it's an ape eat ape world, and we would not have survived to come so far if we din't know the virtues of a monkey sandwich. (to ape monkey to eat a sandwich )

        The right to dream that it could be better. That one I think, is just human nature. (to dream to have more dreams)

        And thankfully, the right to construct fanciful moral grounds to unperpin my emotive appreciation of what life should be, and then offer that construct on others. This last being derived from the desire for a good life, and the realization I am unlikely to have it for myself, unless I also share it with a group. (with real or dreamed group)
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          Dec 24 2011: Seems to me that there's a much better and more logical argument for some of the rights listed above.

          The right to peruse my own existence not derived from the fact that I exist (which is arbitrary) but instead from the fact that all people want to continue to exist so it's better if we grant that right to one another.

          The rights of free speech and free thought, because my thoughts and speech don't infringe on your right to exist. Only my actions can do that.

          The right to property and ownership because we all have a healthier more trusting society and greater chance of flourishing if I don't have to spend most of my life protecting myself from the thievery of others.

          I disagree with several of the other points above because they appeal to the lowest common denominator. Any universal right is essentially a value we hold that derives it's power from it's ability to maximize societal well-being and flourishing as well as set a floor. "the right to take what I can from those weaker than I, etc..." clearly doesn't do this.
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        Dec 21 2011: I agree with Sergej, Ian. The monkey example is very thought provoking.

        If we say that the monkey has claimed the right to a piece of property, how long does that right last? If he/she leaves it laying around and another monkey lays claim to it, does the second monkey then have the right to the property? If the first monkey fights the second monkey and wins it back, does he/she then reclaim his/her right?
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        Dec 25 2011: Just because ownership is natural, that doesn't mean that the right to ownership is. Or how do you explain the transition?
        monkeys fight over the ownership not over the right of ownership.
        ceci n'est pas un pipe... or something.
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        Dec 28 2011: Thanks! For some reason, I love this line of discussion, re the monkeys. Why I do not know. I guess I long to find out if we are the cruel capricious chimp that bites the heads of sparrows when in captivity, or are more like the gentle more cooperative creatures we see living in troopes in the wild

        Regarding the chimp and the stick; it would all depend on the chimps attitude to the stick. Liking something, picking it up and using for a time does not necessarily imply a sense of ownership. If he or she would defend when another chimp was to try to pick it up/take it/ borrow it/ steal it. Perhaps then a sense of ownership has come into play? If so, then I guess ownership is an attitude, another social construct. Quite a negative one too, since whatever is owned must be defended.
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      Dec 24 2011: Curiously Tim you asked me this question; 'Joanne: Where do see human rights emerging from? Can you give an example of a human right and explain how it came about?' just as I was asking you almost the same question further along.

      Which country? Which culture? The women's right to vote in my country can be linked to a set of socio-economic circumstances which enabled New Zealand's women to claim this right ahead of all other nations on the planet bar one. This is an example of a 'right' which is a social construct and a result of a political power play, as Ampourya has stated.

      On the other hand, if we look at smaller groups of humans living closer to nature, the right to an equal share of whatever resources are at hand seems to be a birthright, granted by virtue of your birth into that group of humans.

      Laws are forged by political strength and will, they are subject, to 'culture' and 'world view'. Strip this away, what human rights remain?. The right to be part of your family, the right to be loved and to give love. The right to breathe air, eat food, drink water. The right to give and recieve help when you need it or when your family/clan need it. All primates seem to follow these basic principles, it seems, to my way of thinking innate to us.

      Andres Aullet put up an excellent post further along the thread about primate DNA and lizard DNA existing side by side within us, forming the cooperative, and at the same time, territorial human chimp.
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        Dec 24 2011: Hi Joanne. My contention is that rights evolve. There is no such thing as a universal right in the sense of an inherent rights. Without the ability to defend a right - either politically or by consensus (which is a kind of politic also) - there are no rights. If there ever arises such a thing as a universal right (in the sense of a right possessed by all humans), it will only be when all political powers and the general consensus supports the right.
    • Dec 29 2011: Tim,

      I am glad I got a chance to respond before the conversation ended, my best wishes to you all for the holidays...

      Tim, I entirely agree that we have evolved our current set of rights out of societal constructs. I found your medieval cotholicism point quite apt. Religious freedom was not even necessary before consolidated religion, (monotheism), as heresthe opposite of religious freedom) was impossible before a codex of beliefs was formalized and enforced.

      I would stress again that "individual rights" is kind of an oxymoron, rights are a byproduct of grouping ourselves. When we lived in religious and racially homogenous groups they were unnessecary, and thus didn't relly exist. Rather than rights we had duties and debts. I think of socially homoginized hunter gatherers here, and the cultural research would agree.

      I would argue that our modern concept of rights are more a product of law and the development of ethical philosophy, both deriving from the ancient middle east, rather than from any universallity of instrinsic values. Human culture has been, and is, so varied that very few, or even none, of what we call "rights" are found in all cultures and times. Roman fathers had the right to kill thier wives and children on a whim, and no one would have the right to gainsay them. Rights have, it seems, evolved in tandem with other social institutions, such as religion and government.

      The right to life seems to me to be a good example of a concept in the midst of that evolutioon, as it it is in direct opposition to a womans right to choose and it's conception, ( if you will pardon the pun) has altered dramatically within my own lifetime. Or perhaps the right to be gay would be another example.

      Or consider the rights we have left behind as we have changed. icelandic law in viking times included a right to seek vengence, chinese custom included(s) a right to infanticide. Does the state have a right to take life for crimes? all evolving with us...

      Regard
    • Dec 29 2011: Mahai, and Joanne...

      As to monkeys and ownership, I must admit that I read on it in passing and primate behaviour is not my field. I would hazard that ownership is neither natural nor it's counterpart. Blatant disparities may be less natural, but it certainly seems to be in our nature. Does a monkey own a toy once he has put it away? Koko the gorilla had a cat, and it was definitly her cat... but did she learn that from her human teachers? Perhaps just emulate them? Or mabey they do feel that way in the wild. unfortunatelt Koko's vocabulary was not wide enough to discuss much philosophy, and she is as close to the primeval mind as we have yet been able to glimpse.

      As I mentioned above, the development of sedentary agriculture is widely regarded among anthropologists as the root of modern property concerns. For the first time individuals had conspicuous wealth, and a place to keep it. That may just be a coping mechanism... with side effects.

      I think I can understand the ethos behind it, some tribes still hunted, and might take your grain in a cold winter should game be scarce. Should they get the literal fruits of your labors when they have invested nothing and it may starve your own kith and kin? Few parents would gladly hand thier household goods over to the barbarians, had they a choice in the matter.

      Thank you joanne, for an excellent topic and conversation.

      Regards
    • Dec 29 2011: B. Reynolds

      It seems we shall have to agree on our right to free thought, for thouse thoughts are in conflict.

      You will note the distinction I made between intrinsic, ( those listed) and extrinsic, ( to many to list) rights in my toungeful note above. Intrinsic to any beast is the right to exist, to breed, and to attempt to prosper. this is what I mean. Extrinsic rights are those conferred by society, religious, secular, family etc... In a different society you would have different rights. ( As an aside, freedom of though had been either illegal or heretical through most of human history)

      As to your statement that there is and always has been a right to freedom of religion underlying mankinds societies, though all unrealized. I cannot think of one moralist, or philosopher who would concurr. from Aristotle to Zoroaster, from Austraila to Zimbabwe, I can find no support for that in theology or philosophy. Perhaps we all agree they had that right, though they did not know it, but that is, I am sorry to say, a meaningless and ethnocentric distinction.

      Truth to tell sir, freedom of religion is a a latecommer, and were you to mention it to a pantheist or monotheist at any time before the modern age they would think it mad. The pantheist for freedom was implicit in that there was no universal dogma to enforce, the monotheist for there was only one truth, and you must believe it, like it or no. It is the deists and atheists, by which I mean the french and other revolutionarries of 17-18 c . who wrote the foundations of our modern freedoms. Even the protestant reformers did not want freedom of religion, thier arguement was for some catholic states, and some protestant states, but one religion to a land, and no more. In many ways Martin Luther was less tolerant than the papacy.

      Still, feel free, as I shall, to think for yourself.

      Regards,
    • Dec 29 2011: B. Reynolds

      Upun a closer reading of your note, I would remark on your statement that...

      "Any universal right is essentially a value we hold that derives it's power from it's ability to maximize societal well-being and flourishing as well as set a floor. "the right to take what I can from those weaker than I, etc..." clearly doesn't do this.

      As I mentioned to Tim, The list was a tad tongue in cheek, and if you read the last of it....

      "The right to dream that it could be better. That one I think, is just human nature.
      And thankfully, the right to construct fanciful moral grounds to unperpin my emotive appreciation of what life should be, and then offer that construct on others. This last being derived from the desire for a good life, and the realization I am unlikely to have it for myself, unless I also share it with a group. "

      ...you may have put that in a different context.

      But while we are on the topic, what rights promote the well being of the Mongol Horde? A perfectly harmonious society that lasted for centuries and commonly forced children to fight dogs for food, so that they might be strong enough to survive the brutal steepe. What we call barbaric they called good parenting. I am not arguing for relevatistic rights, I am saying that they are so, wether we like them or not. Aristotle had the right to own slaves, as did Thomas Jefferson. Voltaire was a rabid and unrepentent anti-semite... there was no need to repent of something everyone knew was true. Viking lords, egyptian pharohs, Han emporers, all were buried with thier slaughtered wives, servants and goods.

      What does all of this point to? We are each a product of our place and time.. the only universal rights I can think of, as applied to all mankind, through all time, are those I listed above... everything else has been open to the interpretation of those people in thier own time.

      Regards

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