T4 – Doing What Comes Naturally?

Human rights are real not only because of what we are but because our imagination insists on them

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Track 4 Intro – audio transcript

The Journal of Politics is reported this week to carry an article by north American researchers who claim (according to the news report) to ‘have identified a specific gene variant that they say predisposes those carrying it to liberal political ideology … “the liberal gene”’.   Perhaps nature gives us the answer to the question with which last week’s track ended, that truth needs to be found somewhere out there, beyond history, solidarity and political action.

What if this ‘out there’ out to be deeply, deeply within us?

In his reply to Track Three Carl said ’it seems to me human rights come from an innate truth – a feeling about ourselves and our fellow humans. Maybe human rights live somewhere inside us, like love and curiosity.’  Is this the kind of thing we should be pursuing?

The Ambition Of Human Rights

Let us start with something that Anthony said over a couple of replies to track three – human rights are about a certain view of what it means to be human, an expansive vision which sees human flourishing as a goal towards which it is right we should all strive.  The subject is not at all narrow, not merely about being free from constraints or at liberty to do what we want.  It is about all of us having the chance to make the best of things.  If this is right then something large and bold follows:

Human rights is this vast, ethical project aimed at the positive transformation of the world

Am I Bothered?

Fine, so far.  But what about some prior questions that present themselves, frequently skirted around, skated over or ignored altogether among us human rights types at this point in the discussion:

  • Why does it matter that so many are currently lost to the world on account of their impoverishment, either because they die unnaturally young or lead lives of unyielding grimness?
  • Why should we not think of this as simply the (bad) luck of the species birth-lottery?
  • Why care about people we don’t know, are never likely to know and who certainly will never get the chance to do us a good turn even if they were inclined to?

I have already talked a bit about the origins of human rights in my first common track – in times past it was easy to grasp why we both cared for others and ought to care for them: it was God’s direction.  This was whether or not we rooted our faith in Christianity, in Islam or in one or other of the great religions of the world.  Religion still plays a big part in human rights – as you have made clear in your replies to Track three – I think a bit about this in my responses to those comments and return to it in a later main track.

At least since Marx however, secular society has had the greatest of difficulty with absolutes of any sort, a scepticism that has extended to a reluctance to explore any of the supposed ethical foundations that might lie at its core.

That’s why we ended up where we did in track three working out various ways to make universal human rights real, rather than finding them to be so.

Sure the inclination to feel for others, to care about their situation and to act to improve their lot has somehow survived the decline of religion in such cultures, we can see that — but is just (as I once argued might be the case in a lecture to a largely Catholic audience at Heythrop College) nothing more than the death rattle of organised religion, likely to wither away completely as the memory of what faith-based moral duties necessitated is gradually forgotten?

If it is human rights will die with it.

Solidarity, struggle and so on are vital aspects of human rights because they give energy to the asserters of rights, the people determined to win them for themselves and not rely on the charity of others.  But – and this is especially true where the empathisers are concerned (those fighting for the rights of others) – these rights need something to hold on to other than themselves, a vision outside themselves, beyond their power of tactical fabrication.

Back To Those Genes

After decades in the doldrums, when all was thought to be constructed and the human mind a mere creature of the social forces into which the body containing it was born, the link between intuitive thinking and nature has been making something of a comeback.  I noticed this in a talk on Darwin and human rights I gave at LSE a year or so ago.

Look at something I think odd but very important.  So many theories start with intuition – even those which absolutely reject any kind of natural explanation for where they have ended up.  Even Marx intuitively cared, not because of what he thought but rather because of who (or what?) he was.

And Marx was not alone.

I’d say that most philosophers sympathetic to what we are thinking of here as the human rights ideal have grown their various theories out of fundamental insights (intuitions) about behaving properly towards others.

It is the caring for others that produces the theories, not the other way around.

It is clear that many of us want to care for others, feel compelled to do so in a way that seems to flow not from any conscious decision but simply from how we are, and (taking this insight further) that we claim on behalf of those who are the subjects of our sympathy (including the billions whom we do not know) a right to its receipt, together with the actions that flow from recognition of it.

So where does this intuition come from?  Is it merely the common sense of past generations or are its roots deeper than that?

If we think of ourselves not as members of a special species but as each of us composed of a bundle of genes on the look-out for survival, then it by no means follows that in this field we have to commit ourselves to the rather loaded idea of the ‘selfish gene’ – there are many routes to survival and not all of them are marked ‘me alone’. The way we are is not all self-oriented: as Adam Smith put it in 1759, ‘How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it’.

What Darwin allows us to do is locate an insight of this sort within science and then to see it as part of an animal (rather than uniquely human) approach to living. Far from being something spilt into us at birth from which we then learn how to behave, ‘the building blocks of morality’ are as the great primatologist Frans de Waal put it in his Tanner lectures, ‘evolutionarily ancient.’

The intuition to help others that is the product of this evolutionary dynamic, and its offshoot into a more general empathy and outreach to the other that de Waal describes in his lectures, is clearly close to the desire to achieve the kind of flourishing towards the other at which contemporary human rights practice is aimed.

Nature’s Excellence Is Fragile

Of course not all of us care all the time or even (some of us) at all: there are very nasty competing instincts out there as well (tribal solidarity; hostility to the stranger; fear of the different) and these always threaten and often manage to swamp the better side of our nature, both individually and collectively.

An achievement of culture has been to erect obstacles to the success of these contrarian impulses. Since we first began to think about more than merely the next meal, our species has been good at erecting barriers to what it has been quick to see as ‘bad’ behaviour.

Law, custom, and religion have all played a part in this.

In our contemporary culture, human rights are one of the best of these.

It is what Pascal Boyer has called in relation to religion an effective ‘commitment gadget.’

  • It is available to those whose life project or immediate ethical task is the generalisation of the propensity to help the other into something beyond kin, beyond immediate community, beyond nation even, into the world at large: ‘human rights’ helps them sell their story to others.
  • Human rights is the linguistic tool available to the far-seeing activist to help him or her persuade others to understand that we all deserve to be seen and respected and given life chances: the island people whose homes are destroyed by an inundation precipitated by first world greed and recklessness are the contemporary equivalent of the newly arrived neighbour whom some grunting but imaginatively-wired pre-linguistic human types thought it better to befriend and help rather than to kill.

The term human rights works so well to capture this feeling because it is multi-purpose: seeming to make sense at the level of philosophy (‘here is why you ought to help the stranger’), in the realm of politics (‘they have a human right to this or a human right to that – therefore arrangements must be made for them to get it’), and in the sphere of law (‘the right is set out in the Charter or the covenant or in the constitution that our forefathers created to keep us in check’).

It’s a verbal trick to keep us on the ethical straight and narrow, for the good of the survival of the better bits of us.


Tricks are normally clever lies.

How sure can we be that we have found that objective, scientific truth behind human rights which got Damien Shortt in such polite hot water with Paul Bernal on track three?  Is this the Holy Grail of human rights – a foundation rooted in truths about ourselves that no-one can contradict:

  • We are born with certain genes
  • These drive us to act in certain ways, in a spirit of co-operation towards others, a spirit that reflects the rewards shown in the past for such conduct (which has already produced consequent success for the genes concerned in terms of replication opportunities, and continues to do so: helping others makes (genetic survival) sense)
  • These outward-reaching actions occur independently of the genetic rationale for them, being in us they happen, subconsciously, causing us to act as we do without thinking, and (if we are the intellectual type) intuit this or that as the starting point for our caring theories
  • Culture then supports or subverts this caring propensity to a greater or lesser extent: the quality of our lives depends on the balance of our culture, how much it supports these propensities, how much it shreds them.

Sounds great – but also surely fantastically simplistic!

Scholarship is full of over-enthusiastic misuses of misunderstood breakthroughs.

Can we simply take recent work in genetic research like this and turn it into our human rights foundation?

Even if we think it is not the whole story, that we have barely understood it and don’t want to get into the science, should we nevertheless seize on it as a new convincing story, a new religion for our (partly) secular age – one that explains why we cannot helping, why caring is part of us, our job being to support it against other darker parts with whatever weapons we have available.

Nowhere is this true than in the area of asylum and human rights: Common Track Four published today is a reflection on the duties of humanity in the contest of these vulnerable and easily-maligned people.

The weapons with which we defend the caring instinct have been political in the past (track one) and religious as well as Boyer says, but now they also take this important human rights shape.

As I say at the end of Common Track Four maybe the time has come to stop thinking it so clever to push holes in our truths.  Human rights are rooted in a natural inclination to care supported by a culture that protects such a propensity and does its best to make it work – surely this is an attractive way of looking at who we are? Must we give up on that attractiveness just because we are not so sure of its total truth?

We need human rights to be real even if we have to make them so

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33 Responses to T4 – Doing What Comes Naturally?

  1. Paul Bernal says:

    I’ve read and re-read this topic a couple of times, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. Instinctively, I feel as though I agree with it, but in some ways it goes against the grain of a lot of what I’ve been taught. I can’t help recalling Hobbes – in some ways what you’re saying here seems to go directly against Hobbes’ idea that the natural state of humanity was a life that was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And yet, instinctively, I think you’re closer to the truth than Hobbes was – and that we’re actually essentially social animals with a natural wish to care for and look after each other.

    The idea that it’s easier to hate or harm someone you don’t know seems to support this – once you establish a human relationship with someone, the idea of being ‘nasty’ to them seems to be less attractive. Taking it a step further, the placing of ‘dehumanisation’ as the third of the eight steps to genocide makes the same point. If we’re human, we care for other humans. I don’t know how else to put it…. but perhaps that’s part of the point too. If it’s an instinctive thing, it is much harder to express.

  2. Craig Valters says:

    Like Paul, I have read this article numerous times now, and am unsure exactly on how to respond, so forgive me for just musing my thoughts onto the page…

    Certainly, I’ve never agreed with the Hobbesian idea that a state of nature would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. I prefer Rousseau’s conception of ‘natural man’ as having the traits of ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’. Indeed, I believe Rousseau’s aim with his political work was to describe a way to utilise such innate feelings to create societal arrangements that were just – which I think seems to ring true with what Conor is emphasizing we do with human rights discourse now.

    Also, I think (as an MSc Human Rights student) that there is much to be said for the notion of human rights being rooted in a ‘natural inclination to care’ within the project of human rights. From speaking to those involved on the course, you find that they are all united by this common element – in fact, there can even be elements of frustration when discussing the philosophical justification for human rights – they want to change the world for the better, utilizing human rights, but that doesn’t always leave much room for establishing its foundations. But they are foundations that are needed. So I would agree that ‘We need human rights to be real even if we have to make them so’.

    Simply put, perhaps human rights can be the modern day ‘vehicle’ for this supposed caring instinct, if I understand Conor correctly. But I feel it may be a mistake to focus on ‘genetic research’ in this way…there are a whole host of psychological traits in humans, and they can be used to justify any manner of arguments – for example, it’s been argued our ‘innate’ competitiveness and individualism morally justifies free-market economics.

    In fact, I’m unsure what the ideas here can tell us about the content of human rights. Conor, you mentioned that commonly we have erected barriers to our darker impulses, but what if those darker impulses manifest themselves within the human rights discourse? Perhaps this can be discussed elsewhere; after all, this project does revolve around the idea of ‘reclaiming human rights’.

  3. Renjini says:

    As repetitive as this is going to sound, I’m not entirely certain of what to make of the need to base Human Rights on something. I prefer to think of Human Rights as manifestly “there” – existing because it does. After all, we all claim, as a part of our varying definitions of Human Rights, that the same are inherent in us, emanating from nothing at all, except the fact we are born human.

    But I could very well be wrong. Perhaps the innate need to care did give birth to Human Rights and may be the genes do carry answers to why some people are more empathetic than others (probably similar to why some people exhibit sociopathic tendencies, while others don’t), but like religion or culture, if the instinct to ‘care’ too can be shed, who is to say that in the near future, removing the need for Human Rights from our systems, can’t be as easy as gene therapy?

    • Zoe Fiander says:

      Renjini, can you clarify? I don’t see how something – even a concept – can exist without, at the bare minimum, a link to something else. (thus I am confused by “I prefer to think of Human Rights as manifestly “there” – existing because it does.”)

  4. Alex says:

    Brown established a sense of fairness and equity as a human universal; regardless of cultural specifics, everyone has in innate sense of what is and isn’t cricket. This would possibly back up this theory of a ‘caring’ being a biological trait, however my tendencies would be to suggest that this is more due to socialisation of the animal. Having a society wherein there are vast inequalities is liable to lead to social upheaval (due to our innate, biologically programmed competitiveness and wish for a certain level of self-determinance and freedom) and therefore a society which won’t hang about long enough in any stable form to create any social norms; one could deduce therefore that our feelings of contempt towards perceived inequality are derived more from a social imperative than from anything biologically or genetically inherent (to take something approximating a Malinowskian formalist tack).

    As long as we remain a social animal, the need to base human rights in anything seems somewhat superfluous to me. A sense of equality informs our social actions as it is so vital to the continued stability of our society, to reject it is to tempt class conflict (and indeed is potentially a more likely cause than Marx’s traditional Alienation idea), and therefore the collapse of the current social order in favour of something in which basic rights and equitable treatment are given more prominence.

    I think a better idea would be to accept that perhaps a concept of human rights is just the result of our social reality and necessity, rather than a reflection of humans as being biologically hard-wired for compassion to those not within our own immediate kinship groups.

    • Paul Bernal says:

      Is it really possible to separate the genetics from the socialisation? Aren’t we social beings in part because of our genetics?

      For me, the more I think about it, the more it fits. We’re talking about human rights, so we need to think about what it is to be human, and what it is that makes us human. In those terms, to be human is (generally) to be a social being, and what makes us human is the genetic stuff, the biological hardwiring. I’m not trying to suggest a simple causality, but the two go together, don’t they?

      • Alex says:

        Well to a certain extent I do agree with that, it’s just that if we’re going to look at this from a perspective that society is more than just the sum of the individuals of which it consists, I think that putting more emphasis on the social rather than the biological is inherently correct.

        We could argue these sorts of points round and round for as long as we pleased, but I think we can largely come to some agreement that there is indeed an inborn desire for human rights, both in our biological and collective consciousnesses.

  5. Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

    Before this track I was missing the talk on emotions and human rights in the debate -apart from the comment by Carl quoted as a sort of epigraph, and some references by Conor. This is a proper engagement with a perspective that is rare in the rational-dominant theory of human rights. I will only add some paragraphs of a longer text of mine, to comment on this phrase by Conor which is very fortunate because is scandalously right in the middle of our rationalist culture:

    “It is the caring for others that produces the theories, not the other way around”

    ‘a clue about the origins or the impulse that leads the theorist to think about human rights in the first place… The theory of rights is born out of theorists witnessing the pain of others and out of a desire to diminish their suffering. The human rights scholar wants to get involved and to intervene, and to take the side of the victim –of all victims-, against all perpetrators. His thinking ends up being a “philosophy of solidarity” as hope, freedom and human rights substitute knowledge, truth or objectivity as guides of thinking. Theory is not created by a love of knowledge. It is openness to others and a desire for solidarity that makes us to think of rights. To be in front of those who are victims of cruelty, humiliation and oppression, and to look at the face of those who suffer are the experiences that give birth to the theory of human rights. Theories in general and legal theory in particular are consequences of sympathy. Human rights theory is solidarity.”

  6. I think that we are still at the very beginning of learning where science fits into the discussion of human rights – particularly the grounding of human rights. I think there is a great deal of interesting work that is being done on the evolution of our psychology and social beings. And obviously – as brought to our attention by Conor – work on Genes.

    But I’m not sure that it gets us very far really. The report Conor cites gets as far as a gene which predisposes people to liberal ideological views. “Predisposes” is a long way from any kind of political or other action; and it does not rule out doing that which you are not predisposed towards.

    It seems to me that whether because of the genes debate, or the older debate referred to by some of the commentators between Hobbes and Rousseau, people conclude that humans will normally behave like X. But we all know that our normal behaviour can be changed; the behaviour to which we are predisposed, or habitually behave in, can be altered.

    It may be altered because of Rorty’s fellow feeling, or his sentimental stories. It may be because of religious conversion – a tool that was long promoted by European civilisation as a way of changing people for the better, often against there will. It may be because we have been persuaded by reasons and arguments.

    The genetic discoveries are not deterministic. Predisposition leaves a lot open to other influences. It may be that we are all acting against our natural predisposition to care for other people because of the nature of global economics – hence our confusion at why we both do and don’t care about the distant needy.

    But at the end of the day we still have this conundrum: just because we are predisposed (if we are!) to act in certain ways, does not mean that it is right or good that we do so. The science may end up showing us that in order to respect other people we have to do what comes least naturally. And that may be because we conclude that our natural forms of behaviour – selfish acquisitiveness, for example – are bad for our selves and for other people.

    But this conclusion, of course, will rest on the basis (to come back to my theme) of a certain vision of humanity. That vision of humanity might be quite different to what science tells us about our natural predispositions. But, so long as science is not telling us that it is impossible to do X (such as flying out of my window with no aids), there is no reason that we should not try and be something other than what science suggests it is natural for us to be. And there may be every reason in the world to so try – the basic “humanity” of other people being what is at stake!

  7. I am still thinking about the statement ‘truth needs to be found somewhere’, and what I cannot answer it is why are we looking for truth?. Is it to confirm that we are on the right way? Is it to have a strong argument to convince others to follow us? Maybe both?
    First, do we have to convince ourselves? Because if we accept that human rights come from our inner side, we are not supposed to defend our feelings, they are just that. Perhaps we need to base on rational thinking the inner truth about human rights, because at the same time the ‘truth’ is absolutely ignored by other peoples who share the same human nature. Anyhow, even if truth could not be found, empathy and compassion are real things for a start.
    Second, do we have to convince others?. It is probable that we will not manage to change the minds of those leaders and people who profit out of inequality and disregard of rights. In certain contexts, human rights are not supposed to be adopted but imposed as a prevalent paradigm. The next revolution should not be done against the political system but within the system, turning a democracy based on capitalism to another based on social justice.

    Where are rooted those laws of nature that make us care for others ? In Reason as we were told by liberal thinkers or maybe in instinct ? Instinct plays its role in the animal kingdom but as regards human beings there are times in which reason destroys it. Criminal law is mostly based on acts determined by reason and not instinct.
    I was moved by the idea that the core human right instinct is revealed through compassion of an active engage sort -common track 4-. I instantly thought that compassion is not the same as having rights to claim something to someone. Compassion depends on the one that is in a better position to help. And this drove me to think that in a very uneven world, human rights -in practice- depend everyday more on the compassion of affluent societies than in real, effective rights to be claimed by poor peoples.

    And if compassion is essential, which are its limits ?. I do not know if truth could be found on human thinking or feeling, but I am sure that some truth may be found in human action. Assuming empathy as a natural feeling we are all endowed with, not all of us have the means to convert that humanitarian feeling into real help. There could be heroes who prefer to abandon themselves in the benefit of humanity but the average behaviour is one of a human being. The logic that underpins a capitalist democracy states that the allocation of scarce resources is -by definition- limited. Every time we face a dilemma we are obliged to take sides. So we place empathy and compassion in a hierarchical position that starts with us, our close relatives and -at most- our kin. This is the logic of a capitalist democracy as Sarkozy, Berlusconi and other leaders of the kind represent.

    Our human rights project ‘aimed at the positive transformation of the world’ can be defended simply because we believe that is superior to any other form of relationship to our fellow human beings: it is better than simple indifference and better than projects built out of hatred or unequal treatment. The question is about empathy or indifference: which one is going to prevail ?

    • Favio – while I like what you say about empathy and compassion, I don’t find it adequate as a basis for human rights – although it may well be a critical part of how we motivate people to get involved with human rights: by appealing to the empathy and compassion of those that have such emotions.

      But my concern is that a lot of people (perhaps most, judging by appearances) do not have adequate compassion or empathy for their fellow humans. There is something fundamentally volunteerist about emotions such as compassion and empathy. You can’t force someone to be compassionate – it has to come genuinely from the inside.

      For me human rights have to be about justice, not compassion – and not charity. And justice can be enforced on the unwilling – individuals, corporations, governments, can be forced to respect the rights of others, even when they don’t want to.

      So, as much as compassion may be important in the discussion – and it is certainly a part of the humane dimension of human rights – for me it is only ever going to be part of what must be a much more demanding scenario.

      And this is part of the reason why getting the rights right is crcial – precisely because they are something which we then coercively enforce upon others. If we are going to do this, we must be as sure as we can be that we have got the picture correctly, that we understands what rights are as best we can, etc. Because if we have not – and as history shows we often have not – then we make a huge mess of things, and cause untold suffering.

  8. Ronan McCrea says:

    I find it hard to agree about the challenges posed to human rights by the secularization of (mainly Western) societies. I agree that Human Rights are faith based in one sense, namely that they come from a sense of empathy and a faith that we share certain common instincts. However this faith is focused on the importance of human experience in this world. It is a faith in our shared humanity and the possibility of common understandings and feelings. For example, commitments to freedom of choice and expression or protection of privacy are based on a sense of how we ourselves would find it suffocating to have no choice in our lives, even if the choices made for us by others were the same as those we would make ourselves, of how we have a desire to communicate and express our ideas to others and a curiosity to hear the ideas of others in return and how we all desire to keep certain aspects of ourselves away from public gaze to be shared with our intimates or no one at all. In addition to this faith in common instincts, we have a sense of empathy which pushes us to seek to ensure that others are not subject to the suffering which we imagine a failure to respect these rights would cause to ourselves. This can equally apply to positive rights such as a right to freedom from hunger (notwithstanding arguments about the difficulties of making such rights judicially enforceable).
    From this perspective it is not clear to me that religion is a plus in seeking to establish respect for human rights. Some theologies may indeed promote respect for principles such as equality, free expression or privacy but others may not. As Thomas Aquinas said (at least for missionary faiths committed to the importance of the afterlife) the need to save a person’s soul takes precedence over all other goals. Accordingly, the person who forcibly prevents you from abandoning the “true” faith or who dissuades you from “sinful” behaviour using the threat of violence or punishment is actually doing you a favour. As Amos Oz says, the fanatic is always an altruist, simply trying to save you from yourself. Some religions, of course, may place a high value on individual autonomy but this is entirely contingent on their founding texts or beliefs and has not been true of major world religions such as mainstream Christianity or Islam.
    Perhaps more importantly, by sourcing universal instincts relating to basic rights in the a particularist form (the particular revelation or truth claim of an individual faith) religion cannot provide the universalism that is at the core of any worthwhile human rights message.

  9. Zoe Fiander says:

    I agree with much of what is being said in this essay (difficult to comment specifically on the nature of the link without the science background). Some scattered thoughts below.

    I used the word ‘function’ in one of my responses to the first ‘truth’ essay. It is a better word than ‘reason’, I think, because it doesn’t seem so inherently normative (debatable). Still, I don’t think it is unreasonable to argue along the lines that society (and, implicitly, an ordered society) serves a function for us as human animals. That because it serves a function, it has certain features. Saying that the function determines the features is, I guess, a more abstract way of saying ‘It is the caring for others that produces the theories, not the other way around.’ So caring is a function (part of a network of functions?).

    I think the real danger with this sort of argument is that it is reductive – which you do recognise in the essay, of course. I think an argument that the substance of human rights is hardwired into our instinct or psyche is extremely tenuous. However, an argument that human rights serves a function in ordering society and that society serves a function for us as humans (likely with many intermediary steps…) seems better.

    Interestingly, a similar debate has gone on (and continues to rage) within linguistics – first the arguments that all language was social construction, then the backlash where people started arguing for universal grammar, hard-wired language, with varying degrees of construction surrounding it. A notable book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Language_Instinct

    • Zoe Fiander says:

      and also this, now I think of it (another Pinker book): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blank_Slate

    • It seems to me that even if we establish that certain types of behaviour patterns – certain functions perhaps – facilitate ways of functioning in the world, we still have to ask the difficult questions about which of these ways of functioning are good, bad or indifferent. And should they apply to all or only some of us. And,with our increasing capacity to alter our own kind through science – what if we can engineer things so that the functioning of some is designed to support the “higher” functioning of others?

      I don’t know why we think we can get away from having normative debates about this. All ideas of reason, or of function, or anything similar, are laden with normative presuppositions. The very idea that we should try and get beyond the normative is normative…lol.

      • Zoe Fiander says:

        All valid points. I’m not sure it’s a case of getting away from normative debates, though (and I don’t think we can or should – although this is not clear in my original reply). Isn’t it more a shift in focus? I think – especially in the context of things like human rights – that there is a risk of getting tied up in the problematic, indeterminate parts of the theory and that this impacts on how effectively they can be realised in practice. It needs to be pragmatic.

        It does follow that if common morality/humanity is in part the result of genes, that science might be able to alter it, and that this could present a different set of difficult questions from theories which deny some essential humanity. It’s worth addressing them, though. Rather than using the ethical difficulty of the questions a theory raises to decide its correctness (poor word but can’t think of another), I wonder if we shouldn’t be placing more value on its usefulness and relevance to the world. Not that utility should trump ethics. But if ethics have utility, then the distinction’s a bit of a false one.

  10. Carol Coulter says:

    I think it may be too rigid to think in terms of a “genetic predisposition to liberalism”, or that human rights, however codified, represents an embedded universal aspiration for humanity, whether individuals know it or not. It may be interesting to consider a scientific basis for a universal set of human values, but finding one does not necessarily bring us very far, or advance the realisation of a practical improvement in very many lives.

    However, I think that there are many human qualities present in certain individuals that are essential for the survival and development of humanity as a species, many of which we do not even recognise. These qualities are scattered in the population in a manner we do not at the moment understand, and it is likely that they include qualities that at the moment we may even regard as disabilities (the abilities of people on the autism spectrum spring to mind). That in itself is a possibility that should make the issue of embryo selection, for example, one worthy of consideration from a human rights point of view, but that is by the way.

    In this context I have long thought something I would describe as an “ethical impulse” exists to a strong extent in certain individuals. I believe this has historically been necessary for the survival and development of our species and our society. It involves a vision of a different future and has led from time to time to large numbers of people being prepared to subordinate their personal welfare and lives and even those of their families for the sake of the future of their communities or of generations as yet unborn.

    One of the (many) shortcomings of Marxism was its inability to marry this imagination of a better future to its materialist philosophy, according to which each person acted as a member of their social class and in the interests of that class. This led Marxist thinkers (among whom I do not include those who embraced the self-justification of Stalinist regimes) into intellectual distortions attempting to explain why middle-class intellectuals in their thousands cared about what happened to the working class.

    Yet we cannot escape either from the notion of class interest and vested interests. Human rights may be universal in its application, but the realisation of the human rights of the majority of human beings cannot but be at the expense of certain rights (if we regard them as rights) of a minority – the right to unrestricted control of resources, the right to put pressure on governments to act in a certain way, the right to limitless personal wealth, etc.

    • I agree strongly with the last paragraph here, Carol – and it is one of the reasons why I like Conor’s emphasis on the politics of human rights. I think it is clearly the case that a liberal account of rights, such as is the prevailing human rights doctrine, is normatively universal – it intends to apply itself to all people at all times. But it is clearly not universal in other senses – for example, it doesn’t sit well with people who reject the key ideas of liberalism and, empiraclly, it wasn’t around even 500 years ago. Human rights privlidges the norms, values and interests of liberals: that is all there is to it. But liberalism makes the argument that it is the best way of organising politics for human beings, and our acceptance or otherwise of the universality of human rights depends crucially on the extent to which we buy the reasons which are used to support this argument.

      • Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

        Not sure if human rights were not around 500 or 2000 years ago. With another names or another masks (natural law, natural rights, the rights of men, human rights) the same tradition has been present to contribute to the construction of democracy in Greece, to warn about the hybris of absolute power, to sensibilise the Athenians about the dignity of others and the pain inflicted on the inhabitants of their colonies. It has been also an emancipatory discourse and practice in the times of the Conquest of America in the works of Las Casas and Vitoria to oppose and to defend the appropriation of the land, torture and genocide; in Qugoano and Equiano’s writings against slavery; in the US, Haitian and Latin American revolutions of independence to get rid of the British, French and Spanish empires; in the French Revolution opposing absolutism; in the Mexican and Russian revolutions to distribute the land and establish social rights, etc.

        This short account of the history of the tradition of ‘human rights’ takes me also to think that human rights cannot be identified ‘exclusively’ with liberalism. Were Antigone and the Trojans liberal? Sure, there is a liberal stream running through the works of Las Casas, as well as in the US, French, Haitian and Latin American Revolutionaries. But their appeal to human rights in different disguises also belong to the democratic and republican tradition, as well as to the anti-colonial and socialist traditions. If human rights were only liberal they would be in trouble as to their capacity to transform contemporary societies and the world order.

  11. Echoing what most people have said here, the idea that we all have a basic ethical impulse to do help others feels right. However, it seems far too easy to leave it at that without some further analysis of why it feels right and why we have this impulse in the first place.

    Following on from last week’s discussion, I can’t help thinking that we cannot just leave it there. The cause of this impulse is for those with significantly more scientific training, but surely there are also rational benefits to this impulse that give it a reason to exist? For instance, that helping the poorest in society (whether that society is on a local, national or international scale) allows them to participate in that society and therefore enrich it? This enrichment could possibly be seen as artistic, political or economic, depending on your personal viewpoint. While the internal idealist likes the idea of helping others for the sake of it (and therefore showing at least one incident of an ethical impulse!), it seems to me that there should also be a rational reason for helping others.

  12. Paul Bernal says:

    Having felt very positive about this last week, and really thought that there was something inherent in our ‘nature’ that supported fellow feeling, caring for others and so forth, following the coverage of the elections in the U.S. has reminded me how the opposite also seems true: that there often appears to be something almost genetic about selfishness, about greed, about seeking to blame others rather than help them and so forth. This is a very, very difficult subject, and one that I change my mind about more than almost any other.

    • How true – looking at the results of the tea party election….

      But for me it brings it back to this basic point: it is not about how most people, in fact, are (or about whether we can devise some scientific means for assessing what people are – as if people only ever “are” one thing, and not a bundle of contradictions!).

      Rather, it is about how we think people *should be*, and the reasons we have for thinking we should strive to be something different from what we “are”. It is the compelling moral vision that sits within those reasons which is what keeps us going, in our pursuit of such things as a human rights respecting world.

      • Paul Bernal says:

        The trouble with working with ‘shoulds’ is that it again raises the question of who sets the standards, and what are they based upon. For me there has to be a relationship between what we naturally ‘are’ and what we ‘should’ be. Then again, a religious spectre appears – is it that we’re born ‘pure and good’ and then are corrupted by the world, the flesh and the devil, and hence that human rights are about ‘returning’ to a natural state and removing that corruption, or that we’re born full of sin and that human rights are about redeeming ourselves and removing that sin….

        I’m very much looking forward to how Conor deals with faith!!!

  13. Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

    I found the article on genetics and political inclinations that gave rise to this debate and his reading can clarify the terms of the discussion. It can be downloaded for free from the Cambridge Journals Website:


  14. Sebastian says:

    “Of course not all of us care all the time or even (some of us) at all: there are very nasty competing instincts out there as well (tribal solidarity; hostility to the stranger; fear of the different) and these always threaten and often manage to swamp the better side of our nature, both individually and collectively.”

    For me this is the part of the article that comes closest to my impression of human nature. We are fundamentally fragmented beings; in our minds, competing ‘rationalizing logics’ fight it out, each logic absolute and considering itself ‘prime’, identifying all others as external to itself (See the work of sociologist Niklas Luhmann). The economic me, the environmental me, the family me, the sexual me, the etc. etc… We are all capable of dedicating our lives for the sake of others (a la Theresa) but we are all capable of being unbelievably selfish and atomistic, sealing ourselves off from the outside world. I’m influenced by Fritjof Capra and Schumacher and much Eastern thought and I think that the thoughts are a choice we make, a choice that we either do or do not make by listening to our hearts. This ‘compassion principle’ is in everyone but usually or traditionally people find it easy to argue over our intuition/heart impulse in order to give preference to other competing philosophy.

    Human consciousness is evolving.

  15. Damien Shortt says:

    A danger, I think, in admitting genes into the debate about the origins of morality is that it opens a door through which other unpleasant ideas must necessarily be also admitted once that door has been opened.

    If our genetics are the origins of our morality, then how do we account for mutations?

    Genes mutate; that’s how evolution happens. If there is an altruistic gene, or a moral gene, and if an individual is born with a mutation of that gene, upon what grounds can we condemn them, criticise them, or say that they are immoral. This means that we could be forced into conceding that some very nasty people are morally good because they are holding true to the predispositions established by their particular genetic make up. Such a view might also force us into dividing communities into those who have the ‘good’ genetic make up and those who have the ‘bad’ genetic make up.

    Conor writes: “Human rights are rooted in a natural inclination to care supported by a culture that protects such a propensity and does its best to make it work – surely this is an attractive way of looking at who we are? Must we give up on that attractiveness just because we are not so sure of its total truth?”

    The answer to the final question might be, at the moment, yes. We must give up on that attractiveness because down that path potentially lies a moral quagmire. What is a natural inclination now may not always be natural. And what is a positive natural inclination now may not always be seen as positive. And what we see as positive may not be seen as so by all people. Finally, the fact that the majority of us see something as a positive trait does not make it right (Mill and the tyranny of the many over the few springs to mind).

  16. Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

    By chance I have found another very recent article that links genes with ethics and politics. This time the research has been made in Germany, and can be downloaded for free from the Oxford Journals website:


  17. Louise Thomson says:

    Robert Brandom has pointed out that the pragmatists’ understanding of science was that of Darwin and not Newton so perhaps it makes sense for human rights to move to Darwin from Rorty. Brandom said that Newton’s science consists of universal, necessary, eternal principles whereas Darwin’s biology is a concrete, situated narrative of particular creatures or habitats. In viewing the inquiry into science in evolutionary terms, the pragmatists were able to hold their anti-foundationalist approach stating that no belief could serve as the unquestionable basis (or foundation) for the rest. So is a genetic look at Human Rights just going to lead to more pragmatism and away from universalism?

    There seems to be some amazing research showing a biological pre-disposition to empathy in humans which could provide motivation for a discussion away from pure freedom to satisfy individual desires. There are also studies on the moral lives of animals that show that they live by rules of conduct that maintain social balance in a type of ‘rights recognition’ which exists without the need for conventions and lawyers. This research provides really good reasons to look at the ethical treatment of humans and animals and might counter arguments of pure social construction of human and animal rights. The research seems to say that morality is ‘natural’. As many people have pointed out here, other more selfish behavior also seems to be natural, but as so much research in the Humanities seems to be focused on why people commit atrocities (rather than why they don’t) it is great to bring in something that looks at why people might be ‘good’.

    I think that in addition to using this research to spark a debate on ‘natural goodness’, to address the co-existent reality of natural selfishness, we could perhaps look at research into human behavior beyond the pre-disposition to empathy and why and how we do not always act with empathy (particularly towards strangers).

    Work in the sphere of moral development by people such as Graves, Kohlberg, Gilligan and others suggests that human development goes through stages, with the higher stages being more ‘worldcentric’ in terms of perspective. In these higher stages there is an ability to empathise with strangers beyond the purely selfish or ethnocentric positions of the lower stages. At higher stages, perspective means that you tend to make moral decisions that take into account the interests of others with whom you do not directly identify.

    I know from raising this in a LSE seminar last year that making any kind of statement of hierarchy of human morality or development can be controversial. I was told that we should not make qualitative distinctions on the moral behavior of others (which seemed to me to be a qualitative distinction of morality in itself). I tried to argue then that the research was cross cultural but that was not enough to be able to justify a discussion on any form of hierarchy it seems.

    I think this research is relevant to human rights, however, as it can align with the more universalist approach of Newton and Einstein and might have more to offer than Darwin to help us move beyond pragmatism to some form of foundation. It seems really pretentious and odd to use Einstein and Newton but what else is there out there that is considered universal and ‘true’ in the absolute sense in this secular world? Piaget and Kohlberg argued that morality, especially ideal moral reciprocity, is akin to logic. Gibbs argues that the prescriptive truths of mature morality join those of logic and mathematics in reflecting a deeper reality and that love and the ethic of mutual respect might be clues to the meaning of the universe. He asks whether primary reality can to some extent be accessed. In studies, Lorimer (and others) have found evidence that some human beings have experienced a reality where humans are connected at a deep level. It seems that this reality is occasionally experienced by those who transcend the boundaries and limitations of ordinary perception. This is not an ‘elite’ perspective in terms of educational background or geographical location and can happen to anyone, anywhere, we all possess that potential. Gibb states that if life is so profoundly interrelated and if we are all somehow part of each other, then to put oneself in another’s place is to experience not only the other but also part of oneself, and to help or hurt others, is ultimately to help or hurt oneself. This might all sound very utopian and vague but there is sound research to back it up when you look into work done in other fields (although the validity claims may be different from those of law or Darwinism for example).

    I’m struggling to articulate properly why this research might be relevant to human rights but there is a film that I think illustrates it. In ‘V for Vendetta’, the protagonist states that “fairness, justice and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives”. In this film there are references to Einstein: (“god does not play dice”) and the interconnectedness of people when a deeper, universal, absolute reality is accessed. It may all seem a bit obscure, but in a film primarily about human rights in a fictional totalitarian regime, it was perspective, a deeper appreciation of reality and a realisation of the relatedness of all beings that sparked revolution. These concepts cannot be so obscure and the link just tenuous when even a relatively mainstream film can make these points credibly. Of course this is just a film and it does not ‘prove’ anything but that is why artists can lead the way with an idea that resonates while positivists worry about proof on their terms.

  18. Joe Hoover says:

    Many interesting comments here, but also much that highlights the danger of the appeal to science as an appeal to a determinate human nature. And we should be clear that this is exactly what’s going on if we think biology/genetics will solve the problem of human rights foundations – looking to our physical and animal natures will only do this job if we expect to find answers that can be stated as “all human beings are/should be empathetic” – or display some other favored trait.

    I strongly support what Anthony’s been saying thus far, which is that the appeal to a scientific human nature doesn’t actually deal with the normative question – it doesn’t actually provide the moral certainty or assurance we seek for human rights as a political project. Not only are we as likely to find nasty human behaviors with a “natural” basis, leading us to require further justification for supporting the cooperative over the competitive, etc. But animal behavior can and is changed all the time, and for those animals that are self-conscious and reflective, behavior can be changed through internal as well as external forces – so we still need a further reason why we should remain empathetic and caring, rather than make ourselves cruel and viscous.

    None of this discounts the potential value of biology and psychology for moral and political thought, but I think we need to be very careful. Not only do “we” tend to approach science naively, many on the “science” side approach political and moral issues with the same lack of knowledge. To use the example of the article linking genetics and liberalism.

    What is actually linked is a variation in the 7R allele of the D4 dopamine receptor – which is to say one bit of DNA that expresses variation in the part of the brain responsible for dopamine and this has been to related novelty-seeking behavior. Already, this is an incredibly complex statement that would take far more background reading of the footnotes to the article in question to even begin to understand fully – what’s missing in the article (I’ll assume in good faith that its backed up in references) is how the physical changes in the D4 dopamine receptor caused by variation in the 7R allele leads to the social concept of “novelty-seeking behavior”. I suspect previous studies have a clear definition of how this process works, but I also suspect a great deal of reduction has been necessary to measure “novelty-seeking behavior”. Further linkages are then made between “novelty-seeking behavior” and “openness” as a psychological trait, which is then in turn associated with “political liberalism,” which raises all the same questions about “openness” as a psychological trait and the all important linkage between this trait and “political liberalism” – the idea that liberalism can be measured with certainty, much less with a notion like openness must strike political theorists as surprising, at the least. And to top this off, the study uses the number of friends in adolescence as a proxy for environment factors. This doesn’t suggest that there isn’t rigorous science being done here, but that the gap between genetic explanations of social behavior is far too wide to take lines like “genetics explains liberalism” as anything other than misleading and flashy headlines.

    And this is only the first half of the problem, because even if a strong genetic link was made to liberalism or we found that human rights had some basis in our biological nature, it’s not at all clear what the normative implications for this actually are. I found the comments discussing Hobbes and Rousseau telling – human nature plays a fundamental role in their political theories and its tempting to turn to our superior science to derive a superior human nature, but the nature of our science and our sense of what makes a proper moral argument have changed dramatically since their time. Is there a convincing story to be told about biological prerequisites to human empathy as a shared psychological/emotional capacity, of course, but it doesn’t tell us that we should value or privilege our capacity for empathy.

    I think Louise’s mention of the pragmatists turn toward a Darwinian science rather than a Newtonian one is important. Dewey, for example, thought Darwin’s theory of evolution went hand in hand with a new experimental science that fatally undermined the Newtonian world. For Dewey evolutionary science was fundamentally about biological adaptation of organism and environment (importantly arguing against Spencer’s conception of an essentially teleological evolution, or crude survival of the fittest account of competition) and while it had implications for human morality and politics it was not that biology would give us Archimedean point, but that we had to see ethics as a process of self-conscious social learning aimed at realizing our best visions of ourselves. He took it to require giving up what he called the quest for certainty in the realm of values, either in terms of universal and final principles, a universal end toward which all humanity does/should tend or even universal accounts of human nature, whether they led to utopianism or immoralism.

    The most promising aspect of Conor’s project thus far, to my mind, are those that emphasize that human rights are an active political project. This importantly doesn’t imply that human rights cannot be made less exclusive or that they lack moral content, but only that the moral values are always uncertain and require constant action. I worry when we seek justifications for human rights that go outside of their positive effects – both in terms of good consequences (less cruelty) and developing the kinds of selves and communities we value (more sympathetic and inclusive) – because it leads us to think that human rights necessarily lead to these positive effects (doubtful) and that human rights will “do good things” even if we don’t actively attend to their meaning through our actions (impossible, I reckon).

  19. Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

    Track 4 is an extension of Track 3 as it explores the problem of the foundations of human rights which, for Conor, appears to be necessarily linked to ‘truth’ or ‘total truth’. The track is skeptic regarding the possibilities of genetics and genes, as well as culture and emotions, to embody the foundation that Conor is looking for. This is already evident in the title, which is formulated as a question that expresses a doubt rather than an interest in getting responses: ‘Doing what comes naturally?’ Above all, he appears to concede or to give up at the very end when he reluctantly formulates two other questions in a different tone: ‘Human rights are rooted in a natural inclination to care supported by a culture that protects such a propensity and does its best to make it work – surely this is an attractive way of looking at who we are? Must we give up on that attractiveness just because we are not so sure of its total truth?’

    I subscribe to this conclusion, but probably I understand these phrases in a different sense to Conor’s. The key appears to be in the words ‘rooted’ and ‘work’, i.e whether we are looking for transcendental foundations of human rights –a ground, an origin, a ‘root’-, or if we are thinking of how to ensure human rights are respected –how to defend human rights, how to guarantee they ‘work’. The more practical or pragmatic interpretation appears to be the more plausible. As Zoe wrote, the theory of human rights ‘needs to be pragmatic’. A drive for strengthening the human rights culture can have in an eventual genetic predisposition for new experiences (Settel et.al) and towards altruism (Reuter et.al) a good and powerful ally. Similarly, the cultivation of moral feelings like sympathy by socialization represents a very productive path for extending the number of people we care about. This trail has been already walked by Aristotle in his interpretation of tragedy, and has been recently re-established in the middle of the contemporary ‘Turn to emotions’, particularly by Rorty and his neo-pragmatic approach to human rights and sentimental education. Taking this line of thinking and action requires further reflection.

    In the first place it is necessary to make clear we are here in the realm of culture, or political culture. Cultivation of moral feelings is a means, a strategy, for ensuring individuals, societies and the inhabitants of the world at large, are less prone to exercise violence on each other, and more able to care about the victims of abuse or those in need. Developing such a culture of respect, empathy and altruism—a culture favorable to human rights—, increases the chances that individuals and communities —local, national and international—act in such a way that their behavior conforms to human rights rules. However, cultivation of emotions, although has consequences on politics and law, is not the tool to defend human rights in the political and legal arenas. In these other spheres of action, other rules apply and other are the vehicles for fighting for human rights, e.g. political mobilization, acting before the courts, etc. Therefore, although powerful and necessary for the development of the human rights culture, socialization of emotions is just one of the instruments of the struggle for human rights, one that ‘works’ in the dominion of culture. But it should and it is accompanied by other means, including argument and reasoning, or in Holly’s terms ‘rational reasons for helping others’—which also function in the political arena and the legal sphere. Feelings are also powerful in legislative bodies and courts, and in the field of politics—let’s not forget Bush’s administration of fear, and Bin Laden’s use of terror—. This makes evident that feelings can be also in the wrong side: fear, terror and hatred fuel wars and violence.

    Something similar can be said of genetics. If there is an inclination in our genes to help others or to be ‘liberal’, human rights activists can be certain of having a good start when trying to socialize children and adults in pro-social behavior, or to convince people about human rights. The possibility of ‘moral’ genes posited by new research and new sciences also raises the prospect of manipulating genes in order to ‘engineer’ more altruistic individuals and more just societies, which in turn creates very difficult moral problems. But, as Zoe, I think it is preferable to face this moral conundrum, rather than to avoid engaging the new advancements of science.

    But one thing is to embrace emotions and genetics as forces for human rights, and another to find in them the foundations of human rights. Antony has already expressed the main reason for this: ‘just because we are predisposed (if we are!) to act in certain ways, does not mean that it is right or good that we do so’. These are two different set of questions or two different areas of knowledge. In ethics, politics and law, criteria of legitimization or justification are the currency—not facts or events or ‘truths’. In addition, as we can be almost sure we are genetically inclined to be violent, we cannot exclude that science starts to map the genes that predispose us to be selfish and destructive—which would not mean this is morally right.

    The question that remains is whether or not human rights need foundations, and what we understand by ‘foundations’. Do we need to come back to modern concepts of ‘universal truth’ or ‘Truth’, at a time when philosophers like Badiou work on this direction only to decry of human rights? Sure, Rawls and Habermas, our contemporaries, still pursue ‘universals’. But this is a topic that requires detailed and further elaboration.

    • Zoe Fiander says:

      V interesting, Jose, thanks! In relation to your penultimate paragraph – yesterday I was thinking vaguely about whether a distinction really can be drawn between these two separate areas of knowledge. The problem I kept returning to is that criteria of legitimisation or justification themselves need to rely on a concept of truth (without they are meaningless). However, it seems false to say that because actions/processes/feelings have a (biological?) purpose, that this is enough to make them ‘right’. Unless we start splitting biological truth and ethical truth – but then the idea behind this line of thinking seems to be to find a common foundation for both of them. It’s tricky indeed.