T3 – Making Truth

Human rights are universal only if we make them so

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Track 3 Intro – audio transcript

In 1776, the creators of the American republic gathered at Philadelphia to issue their famed Declaration of Independence of the thirteen states of the united States of America.  Early on in this now famous and historic statement, they declared that they ‘hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

What does this claim mean?

All 56 of the signatories were indeed men, so maybe this is an example of that gendered term doing gender work.  They were white settlers whose imagination did not seem to extend to the native Americans all around them.  Nor to their slaves, as Carl reminded us in his comment on Track two last week.  The equality that the document conjured up produced a Republic with the blind spots of its founders, a vision of humanity that has required decades of struggle to render less inhumane, and one that still requires great work to make itself a better place.

And yet, as revolutionaries have long understood – declaring something to be the case is a way of making it so.

The united states of America was even more of a figment of its declarers dreams than were the human rights they said underpinned it.  But it now undeniably, truly exists as the United States of America, as does the Republic of Ireland (more or less) proclaimed by Padraig Pearse and his cohort of desperate fighters on the steps of the Dublin’s General Post Office on Easter Monday 1916.

Proclaiming something is not enough to make it true, but it is a necessary preliminary in the struggle for its realisation.

Help From God

The revolutionaries of 1776 were enlightenment men but even so they thought that it was the ‘Creator’ who had ‘endowed’ us with our rights.  Thirteen years later, the French found it convenient to declare their ‘sacred’ rights of man ‘in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being.’  True they weren’t as sure as Padraig Pearse who declared his truths ‘in the name of God,’ but neither were they ruling Him out completely.

The 18th century rights revolutionaries might have been squeamish about the ‘God’ word but they were very serious about what underlay it.  Their talk of a creator and a supreme being was not the irony of early secularists; it was the insecurity of a group of radicals still caught up in cultural theism.

Neither ‘God’ nor ‘God-lite’ can do this work today: surely we are too clever, too happy with the power of our own brains to be lured into this short-cut?

Truth-Making Without God

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 falls back on ‘brotherhood’.   Its first article declares that being ‘endowed with reason and conscience,’ we should ‘act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’.

I have already examined the shortcomings of the whole UN settlement in two common tracks,  one and  three.  But there is nothing much wrong with this idea of ‘brotherhood’ apart perhaps from its dated language.  Today we might say solidarity, and solidarity – old fashioned fraternity – conjures up the image of struggle.

And it is struggle – if we are being precise, successful struggle – that turns truth in theory into truth in practice, potential truth into ‘real’ truth.

Jefferson’s truths were made real by Washington’s guns; the rights of 1789 by the revolution that its fine words helped ignite.  Even Pearse’s ‘blood sacrifice’ was partly redeemed by Collins’s mastery of guerrilla warfare.  In contrast there are many rights claims that have long been forgotten: words without action to support them cannot last, no matter how fine they are. By definition I cannot give examples – lost truths do not come readily to mind.

Growing Truth

We are what we are today because in the generations that preceded us enough brave people took their cue from the revolutionaries of the 18th century and through their common action made talk of rights real.  They did this often at a high price in terms of personal freedom and material convenience.

  • The rejection of slavery epitomised by the resistance shown by Haiti to French colonialism and its Declaration of Independence of 1804.
  • Development of the idea of duties of humanity owed even to enemies in war-time: the Red Cross and the Laws of war
  • The fight for the right to participate in government without regard to property ownership and education
  • The imposition as obvious of the once extraordinary notion of universal education
  • The emergence of the societal commitment to universal benefits
  • The extension to the many of the civil liberties enjoyed in the past only by the select few.

Not all of these advances presented themselves in rights terms on their emergence, and none of them has ever been perfectly realised.  But viewed cumulatively they reflect a culture that is well set on a human rights trajectory.

As beneficiaries of past struggles, these gains represent for those of us lucky enough to enjoy them a precious inheritance. They are our universal human rights, made so by the battles of others. If that universalism is incomplete then this is because the struggle which has got us this far is not at an end.

Defending Truth

Some scholars see human rights as real because of the consensus as to their truth that occurs across cultures, one culture overlapping with the other.  On this account the test of an idea’s truth is how natural it seems in how many places.

But what goes in can come out again.  Truths may become obvious but then fall away, back into the obscurity from whence they came.

Human rights activists are so sure of themselves and the rightness of their cause that they have especial difficulty dealing with impermanence.  Having won our victories surely we can relax and enjoy the fruits of the culture we have helped create?

One truth never changes: making truth is hard, but keeping it is harder.

Today’s struggle is not only about extending our truths to others, it is hanging on to the truth we have.

On the plus side there are the advances that have been made in equality, dignity and accountability.  These affect our schools, our media, our arts, the way we represent the world to ourselves.  They are seemingly seamlessly integrated into the way most people feel and how they think.  In many countries, these human rights gains are solidified in legal form, in written constitutions, bills of rights and domestic laws, rendering them still more firmly imprinted in how we think and what we do.  The United Nations has its own human rights bodies seeking to do across the world (albeit imperfectly: common track three) what these many human rights actors do in their own domestic spheres.

On the other hand,

  • The return of strong nationalist feelings is seriously eroding international ideals of universal entitlement
  • The UN’s inability to reach past nation states (see common track three again) is leaving it ill-equipped to challenge this rise in national chauvinism; indeed the structure of the UN partly encourages it
  • An old idea about people being different and about this difference warranting differential treatment is beginning to seem sensible once again, starting with asylum seekers, and the Roma, moving across to refugees and then to immigrants and from there to … where?

Solidarity Is A Fickle Friend

If we see the truth of human rights as rooted solely in struggle and solidarity and deny any deeper meaning, we have the advantage of not being lured into some kind of old fashioned philosophy, the embarrassment of seeking ‘real truth‘ (in God? in the soul? where exactly?) in a way that we are told all rational people now know is quite impossible.

But without real truth what can we do if solidarity and struggle turn against us, if new overlapping consensuses suggest a different, more brutal brand of ‘common sense’?

I have long thought we do indeed need more than what I have laid out here, that truth is reflected in solidarity rather than composed of it.

That is the subject of a future track, ‘Doing what comes naturally?’ – a short preview: this deeper truth is essential even if we have to make it up.  Any early thoughts on where we can find truth if we push beyond what I have discussed here?

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45 Responses to T3 – Making Truth

  1. Paul Bernal says:

    Can I add a question on truth and foundations – does it matter whether there is one foundation, or would it be acceptable for different people to found their support for human rights on different foundations?

    In the manifesto, you say that ‘the great religions are more friend than foe to human rights’, and overall, I think I agree with you. Agreeing about that seems to me to have consequences when thinking about foundations – because, from what I know of people who are ‘devout’ or at least close to it, their religion has to be the foundation for all of their beliefs. If I want to share a belief in human rights with someone who is a devout follower of a religion (and particularly a strongly dogmatic religion) then I need to accept that for them their support for human rights is grounded in their faith, and that, in essence, as for the creators of the American Republic, they believe that human beings are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’.

    I (and many others) may not agree with them – we may have our own reasons for ‘believing’ in human rights, whether they are philosophical, spiritual, pragmatic, political or even simply irrational – but if I want to join them in the struggle, I have to be able to accept their use of their foundation, and they have to accept my use of mine.

    That, for me, makes the foundation question one that could (and does) have many answers, and different answers for different people. If one group attempts to force others to accept only their, then the whole project is doomed to failure. Isn’t it?

    • Hi Paul,

      I think yours is a really crucial question – does it matter if there is one or more foundations. A lot of people promote universal human rights on the basis that there may be an overlapping consensus that emerges out of different foundations. My view here is – terrific, if you can get the consensus. But I think it is going to be a very small consensus, about a very small set of rights.

      I think people’s foundations directly affect the content they give to rights. Whether you are talking about resource distribution, political liberties or sexual and family law, people’s divergent visions of the human person and the human condition mean they put different content into the rights listed in the universal declaration.

      You get the situation where freedom of religion means completely different – often conflicting – things to different people. We all believe in freedom of religion in the abstract, but we end up fighting with one another over what it means, what it actually means, when we want to build institutions, or constrain people’s behaviour, in our society.

      And so we revert to the politics of human rights discussed in earlier posts!!! 🙂

      • Paul Bernal says:

        Yes, there’s the rub – and the link between this thread and the first two. How far do we ‘compromise’ in order to get agreement, to get consensus, or to accept each other’s point of view even if we don’t agree with them.

        Freedom of religion is an excellent example – I suspect what many people really mean is that ‘you’re free to follow your delusion, just so long as I don’t find it too offensive and it doesn’t get in the way of my lifestyle’. It’s can be an almost indulgent attitude. It’s not about accepting someone else’s point of view as equally valid – but should it be? Or should we stand up for our own views more strongly? If something in a religion is offensive to our conception of human rights, should we accept it or allow it or just say ‘no’….

        ….difficult questions.

  2. Zoe Fiander says:

    okay, head exploding time, and an attempt to be constructive based on two (large) assumptions.

    Beyond the concept of truth itself (which can’t be disproved), there’s the argument that the content of what is true in practice is determined by what people believe in.

    First assumption. Often, it seems that what people *want* to believe in is that things can be fundamentally ‘true’. I think Conor almost does this in saying ‘truth is reflected in solidarity rather than composed of it.’ (sorry if this misrepresents)

    I think it is powerful -on a practical level- to argue that the realisation of human rights is a project that people want to believe in.

    Second assumption. Often what feels compelling – what people want to believe in – is what feels reassuring. (Absolute truth is reassuring!) That’s less of a problem if you are arguing for a status quo since by default it can be reassuring. If you are seeking to build consensus from nothing, it is much harder.

    Human rights are about protecting people and/or human dignity. Given what I’ve said above about people wanting to be reassured, and truth being what people want to believe in, can’t we find a part of the ‘truth’ of human rights here?

    Say a government starts to commit brutalities against a particular ethnic group. The government argues – this is to assure you the people of your livelihood and your futures because the presence of X ethnic group in this state jeopardises it. The human rights argument goes (amongst other things) :

    – this action can never assure anything because it is arbitrary
    – how can anything be assured where the fundamental rights of peoples are not respected
    – human rights is the only ‘true’ assurance against atrocities.

    I guess what I am saying is that if we accept a) people want to believe in truth, and b) people seek reassurance, it is possible for human rights to make a direct appeal to truth, and powerfully.

    • Damien Shortt says:

      Hi Zoe,
      I don’t understand your point fully. Could you give it another go, please? It looks really interesting, but I don’t want to respond in case I am misunderstanding you.


      • Zoe Fiander says:

        sorry – if it doesn’t seem to make sense, this could well be because it, er, doesn’t!

        I think (as I said in response to Federico below) that it is too easy and ultimately unhelpful to conclude that the only agreement that can be reached is an agreement to disagree. So the above are some sketchy thoughts on where consensus comes from or how we arrive at a situation where something feels true.

        I think it is important that human rights can make an appeal to truth (or, as you point out, how can it convincingly argue it provides a better alternative than any other way of arranging society?).

        so my thoughts are based on the premise that it is necessary to be able to make an appeal to truth (which can be disputed, but is it helpful to?) and that there must be a way of making something feel true. Based on persuasion, I guess.

        I would argue that faith/belief in the ‘truth’ of something serves a function or answers a human need (not necessarily an immutable need…:S). That’s perhaps where my assumptions come from.

  3. Sally-Anne Way says:

    ‘Our truth’, ‘hanging on to the truth that we already have’ ? Does this not presupppose that ‘we’ have already fixed a certain ‘truth’, when we also know that interpretations of human rights are still contested and indeterminate – and that’s why they can be appropriated by the neoconservatives etc. in the ways that you oppose?

    Ideals of equality and dignity may have become imprinted in how we think and what we do – but who is the ‘we’ here? Last week’s BBC documentary ‘Tormented Lives’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00vhls2 on how people with special needs are abused on a daily basis, here in the UK, should give us some pause for thought on this point.

    And are there not other ideas that have become perhaps even more deeply imprinted on how we think – e.g concepts of the market economy that might challenge the social democratic model – efficiency, scarcity, survival of the fittest, supply and demand….. These seem very natural – is this vision of the world also then ‘true’?

    • Damien Shortt says:

      Interesting post, Sally-Anne;
      isn’t ‘truth’ that which has never been shown to be false? In the sciences, there are no absolute truths, merely yet-to-be-disproven theses.

      This is the issue that I have with human rights as the moral key-stone of a society … they have already been shown to suffer from crippling logical tensions, but yet they are the best thing we have, so we make do. It’s a bit like a scientist holding onto a theory that has already been proven wrong, but which is still better than anything else on the market. It’s also what enables human-rights-transgressing countries to thumb their nose at the UDHR, since they are easily able to point out how the holy-than-thou countries are at heart no better and they.

      • Paul Bernal says:

        There’s a bit of a difference between proving a scientific theory wrong and admitting that your own nation hasn’t been able to keep to the highest moral and legal standards. In the latter case, you’re not denying that the standards are right, merely that you haven’t been able to keep to them.

        Personally, from an idealistic perspective, I wish we were able to be a bit more honest about our own flaws and failings, and not be ashamed to admit mistakes – it would make ‘our’ moral position a lot more convincing. With the most recent wikileaks revelations, if the US and UK governments were braver, they would be willing to say ‘we don’t like the way that the information was leaked, but we will investigate further and if the things that are being said are true, we apologise wholeheartedly and will do what we can to be better in the future.’

        • Zoe Fiander says:

          but isn’t Damien questioning what makes human rights standards right in the first place? where their moral force comes from, so they can be held up as the best way? it’s a separate issue from whether they can be kept to in practice (perhaps…:S)

          I agree on flaws and failings, by the way, especially if you’re minded to see human rights as a politics which is grounded in aspiration.

          • Paul Bernal says:

            I don’t disagree with Damien that we need to question the ‘rightness’ or ‘truth’ of human rights – just that the analogy with science is misleading. Scientific ‘truth’ can be proven false through new evidence – but the failings of supposed champions of human rights to live up to their own standards only demonstrates failings or hypocrisy in people, not a fundamental problem with the standards themselves.

            Those standards may well be false, temporary or worse – but those problems are very different to the failures of states to live up to them.

          • Zoe Fiander says:

            ah, OK – in that case I agree. some might disagree with setting scientific truth as a special case but I think that horse has been thoroughly flogged…!

  4. Adam b says:

    “But what goes in can come out again. Truths may become obvious but then fall away, back into the obscurity from whence they came.”

    I think this is quite an important point to make with respects to our modern society. We take for granted that we have a right to this or a right to that but as happened so many times in history, the protections people believed they had unequivocally disappeared in times of great political unrest.

    The contemporary ‘global war on terror’ if anything exemplifies the fragility of ‘human rights’, even in supposedly ‘advanced’ Western societies.

  5. Federico Burlon says:

    I believe that although the fear that human rights may come to pass as a “truth” is well founded, there are reasons why human rights may stand the test of time. There are two reasons why human rights may be replaced by another “overlapping consensus,” as Conor notes. One of them we can find in the history of human rights. As Samuel Moyn points out in The Last Utopia, human rights were a replacement rather than a continuation, of other theories of rights. The second reason is that, as Costas Douzinas shows in The End of Human Rights, human rights have ceased to be the language of dissent and have been co-opted by the state. It is clear in light of these arguments that human rights may indeed be another ideology of universal appeal that once sought to change the world but will later replaced when it proves ineffective.

    In order to protect human rights, advocates and scholars incessantly seek for a theory that provides foundations for human rights. For philosophers in the Middle Ages, God was the source of law and rights. For Enlightenment philosophers, it was a lighter version of God: a God that gave us laws and left the scene. As philosophers in late modernity rejected the idea that God was the source of law and rights, human rights scholars began fruitlessly searching for foundations elsewhere. Some argue that each culture should be allowed to find the truth in its own way; others argue that human rights are founded on human moral nature, which all human beings share. Yet no unifying theory has come forth. This prompts me to believe that the frantic search for the foundations of human rights resembles the search for El Dorado by the Spanish conquistadores. And I wonder if perhaps we should accept that there will be no consensus and instead prepare ourselves to negotiate the differences that arise between cultures and ideologies’ interpretation of human rights. An agreement to disagree frightens human rights advocates who see it as a weakness. Granted, agreeing that there are no common grounds on which to agree is paradoxical. However, it may allow us to overcome a monumental stumbling block and begin listening to each other (across cultures, traditions, ideologies), and the West has a lot of listening to do. Perhaps in this way we (human beings) will one day be able to achieve consensus on the foundations of human rights. And perhaps this means that as much as we would like universal human rights we are not quite ready for them.

    • Federico says:

      “And I wonder if perhaps we should accept that there will be no consensus and instead prepare ourselves to negotiate the differences that arise between cultures and ideologies’ interpretation of human rights.”

      I think this is absolutely essential – it lines up with my earlier comments, and my comment on Paul’s post. Even in the West there is not consensus on the foundations of human rights, let alone elsewhere. I think it is a given that there never will be agreement.

      the way I see it is that human rights institutions represent a certain political outcome; to the extent that people like and agree with that outcome, they will use their own traditions to support it – perhaps in the process re-interpreting their own traditions. (Traditions are, after all, vibrary, alive and always on the move).

      Any theory of human rights that hopes to be of use in the world, or which even wishes to accurately describe/explain human rights, must approach the matter like this, in my view.

  6. Zoe Fiander says:

    “I wonder if perhaps we should accept that there will be no consensus and instead prepare ourselves to negotiate the differences that arise between cultures and ideologies’ interpretation of human rights. An agreement to disagree frightens human rights advocates who see it as a weakness. Granted, agreeing that there are no common grounds on which to agree is paradoxical. However, it may allow us to overcome a monumental stumbling block and begin listening to each other.”

    This is persuasive, to a point. However, I wonder if we don’t see it as persuasive because it is a bit of a cop-out (sorry!). Personally I think that something constructive has to emerge and an agreement to disagree does not seem constructive – unless it is a particular sort of agreement to disagree, which isn’t really a disagreement at all (is this the consensus you would like to achieve?). It goes to the point Paul made at the very beginning- what do you do when at the core you cannot establish a common ground?

    • Zoe – this seems to me to be a key issue which reflects back to the earlier discussion about the politics of human rights. If there is able to be substantive agreement, an overlapping consensus, then you get a great new constructive project where traditions come together and create something new. That is one vision of the human rights project.

      The other vision of the human rights project (again, to use language i used in an earlier post, a minimalist vision) is one where basically we all disagree with one another about most things, but agree that we would rather not be killing each other as we try and live together, and human rights is the name that we give to the small set of behaviours that enable us to live in a society where we don’t actually destroy one another…. – this, of course, would be a much smaller list than currently appears in the UDHR! A modus vivendi interpretation of human rights, rather than a flourishing interpretation.

  7. Alan D.P. Brady says:

    I think Conor has raised an interesting issue here. I would agree that struggle is essential not only to the continued development of rights, but also to the retention of old ones. I wonder if it isn’t predominantly a problem of the way we have come to talk about rights, rather than any inherent quality of rights themselves. What I’d like to distinguish here is between what I’m going to (clumsily) call ‘dynamic’ and ‘static’ truth. Dynamic truth is the most convincing argument as yet made; static truth relies on past consensus. I’m not sure either is really ‘truth’ in the way a theologian would understand it, but hopefully it will work for the purposes of what I’m about to write.

    The temptation with anything that lays claim to truth (from the flatness of the earth, to a human right to paid holidays) is to rest on the laurels once the truth has been ‘proven’, and so it becomes ‘static’. Ultimately, I think that all of the various human rights ‘truths’ were initially accepted as true because they had been demonstrably justified by cogent philosophical and political argument at a particular point in time. Our current international system had the atrocities of the Second World War as its trump card argument. However, while the UDHR may have seemed like a set of self-evident truths, the reason that they seemed so self-evident was because there was such a wealth of argument behind them, primarily based on very recent, painful, human experience.

    Regardless of the proposed foundations, human rights as we currently understand them could never have come into being if there had not been strong arguments in favour of them. Like all arguments, these must change and adapt with the times. By this I don’t mean that human rights scholars and advocates should roll over when confronted by the ‘War on Terror’. What I am suggesting is that the reasons for human rights must be continuously articulated in a dynamic way which makes the arguments meaningful for contemporary political discussion. Human rights are, at their core, a set of powerful political arguments articulated in a common manner. I think we should be honest about that.

    Merely relying on the line that something is a human right ‘because it just is’ is the last refuge of the dogmatic lawyer and the first refuge of the lazy lawyer. This is what I mean by ‘static’ truth. The quasi-religosity of some human rights arguments is counter-productive because it annoys opponents and makes it easy to dismiss.

    To a large extent, I think we need to proceed on the basis that human rights as currently understood are based on the best, most convincing arguments relevant to the issues with which they are concerned. A convincing and dynamic re-articulation of those arguments is the best bulwark against the dilution of rights.

    It’s not actually that hard to explain why freedom of expression is essential to a peaceful, stable society. As long as there are still people available to make the argument, freedom of expression should be in good shape.

    The idea of ‘dynamic’ truth is also relevant to the development of new human rights, based on changes in society. Both gay rights and the more modern understanding of the right to privacy could not meaningfully have been articulated in 1945; the former because of entrenched social attitudes and the latter because of a very different technological environment. By continuing to argue for a rights-based approach based on certain core principles (which are themselves strong arguments, rather than objective truths, e.g. solidarity, autonomy etc.) gay rights and modern privacy rights have been in a position to continue to develop; not because of a complacent reliance on some objective long-since-proven truth, but because of sustained and engaged argument by those who understand the need to change minds.

    I should point out that I’m not sure that privacy is doing all that well so far this century, but the way to protect it is to be prepared to argue convincingly against the ‘those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear’ brigade; not to repeat mantras.

    Human rights are a way of arguing and their realisation depends on the continuation of that argument.

  8. Damien Shortt says:

    “Human rights are a way of arguing”…
    If that’s all they are, Paul, then there would be no problem. However, some people want to sling other people in jail because they have transgressed human rights, and there are others, like Conor (I think), who want to create a new society with human rights as the moral, legal and political bedrock.

    When we’re talking about imprisoning somebody, or overhauling our social, legal and political structures because of human rights, then I think it only proper that those rights be capable of robust and rational defence.

    For starters, rights (if they are to be truly rights) must surely be immutable; otherwise, how could we morally justify imprisoning somebody on the basis of a concept that we expect to be different tomorrow, or next year, or in ten years time? If it turns out that a right is not immutable, then we were probably in error in the first place in considering it a right.

    Secondly, rights must surely hold for all persons, at all times, irrespective of the situation.

    If what we are calling ‘rights’ can’t satisfy these two criteria, then we are not properly talking about rights at all and we should change our terminology accordingly, no? We might be talking about something close to rights, a moral philosophy that grows out of rights – but a ‘dynamic’ understanding of truth sounds awfully close to moral relativism and smacks of something a politician would say when caught out on a lie: “I wasn’t telling lies when I said X, it’s just that I have a very dynamic understanding of the truth, you see!” (there’s an ex-prime minister I can hear saying that in my head as I write it).

    The fact that gay rights and privacy were not rights in 1945 does not mean that the truth has changed in the intervening 65 years: it means that the framers of rights in the 1940s were, at best, moral cowards, or, at worst, morally irrational.

    • Damien’s is a useful post because it highlights some of the difficulties. I quite agree that rights need a robust and rational defence – but I think the questions of immutability and universal application are much more fraught, and it partly depends on what we mean by rights in the first place. privacy is a really interesting example, because it is one where there are widely divergent standards, even within western countries, let alone among them, and then compared to the rest of the world. I think Paul’s comments (below) are really useful with respect to this.

      But here is a key point – what kind of right is the right to privacy? Is it a basic right, a human right, or a more “discretionary” right? – for want of a better term, in the way that the right to actual bodily integrity is not? Is it a right one can live a decent life without, or not? (Cf John Rawls’ discussions about “decent” non-liberal societies and the limited set of rights that would have to be respected for them to qualify as decent.

      The gay rights example is much harder. Just because we have gay rights now and we didn’t 65 years ago doesn’t mean that it was ok to treat gays badly 65 years ago and it is not now. But this comes back to the central point about the way in which the human rights project encompasses a certain vision of what it is to be human: a liberal individualist vision. i think the reason why we have gay rights now is because we have processed the implications of earlier moral commitments, and seen that they require us to accept these changes. So, in that sense, what we can say is that as a soceity we have caught up with our own moral intuitions, or that we have systematised these across a broad range of areas from an initial few.

      Nonetheless, it remains the case that lots of people don’t go along with gay rights (see the Tea Party etc) – well, I think these people are wrong; but i think they are wrong because I have been persuaded by the arguments of liberalism – and I have to acknowledge that (as I said here somewhere) not everyone is going to agree with the moral premisies of my liberalism, and there is no knock down argument to force them to agree (damn it all indeed!!)

      And thus we get back to the politics of trying to get people – to persuade them with good arguments – to buy into the human rights movement….

      (NB I don’t accept, just so that I am not misunderstood, – I don’t accept that any of the above leads to relativism, which I manifestly reject!) 🙂

  9. Paul Bernal says:

    I suspect you might mean ‘Alan’ rather than ‘Paul’ – but I do agree with much of what Alan wrote, and I think you’re being a trifle harsh on the framers of rights in the 1940s, to say the least.

    Firstly, we don’t really know what the framers of rights thought about gay rights or privacy – there are plenty of reasons for the absence of such rights from the relevant declarations other than moral cowardice or moral irrationality. First amongst these is pragmatism – with the UDHR, for example, the key was to get something out there, and if advocates of gay rights (for example) had made a point of demanding their inclusion in any declaration, there simply wouldn’t have been a declaration at all. The framers of rights for that document knew that well enough, regardless of their personal feelings. If they had been more ‘morally brave’ we would have got nothing at all, and if human rights is to have any impact it has to be at least a little pragmatic.

    Secondly, I think you’re quite wrong to suggest that human rights have to be universal in time as well as in scope – everything we do has a context. We live in our particular society, at our particular time, and we function with other people and are surrounded by particular stimuli. Gay rights may seem very obviously universal to you, but to even the most morally brave and morally rational at other times they haven’t seemed that way at all – and to condemn those who didn’t ‘believe’ in them in the past just for that lack of belief is, frankly, deeply unfair.

  10. Alan D.P. Brady says:

    I think Damien raises an interesting question regarding the characteristics of ‘rights’. He suggests that anything that is not immutable and unchangeable (i.e. temporally universal) cannot be called a right. I would disagree with that suggestion, but I think that disagreement is of assistance in our attempt to define the ‘truth’ of rights. I think he is right to point to this issue of terminology.

    I accept that my ‘dynamic’ truth idea is a very sloppy piece of terminology but I think it can be useful in understanding how rights can, do and should function. I am in no way suggesting a moral relativism. What I am getting at is that I don’t see any difficulty with something called a ‘right’ being something for which there is a very strong political and philosophical argument which operates in a particular way in a society (not necessarily in a Hohfeldian purist sense of a legal right, but something close to it). To some degree, I think a presumption of immutability and temporal universality can be damaging to the strength of rights arguments, because it robs them of their context. Often the context works in favour of a very strong human rights position, not against it. For example an argument for freedom of speech can be made much more forcefully is we are considering the current situation in Zimbabwe than if we are considering Citizens United v FEC. A mere assertion of immutability and temporal universality does little to convince.

    To a large extent, I think my position on this comes from an understanding of human rights as being an ongoing political project. If you want to change the world, you have to change people’s minds, and convincing argument is a more effective way to do that than an appeal to a universal truth that is beyond explanation. I think that Damien and I disagree on this core ‘truth’ about rights, which I suppose brings us back where we started…

  11. Paul Bernal says:

    There’s another thing that bothers me about the idea of temporal universality – it smacks a little of an assumption that we in the current age have the ability to see the future. I don’t believe I can claim to know what the ‘big issues’ for people will be in twenty years’ time, let alone two thousand. My current research is about the issue of privacy on the internet – and a short time examining the development of the internet over the last twenty years is enough to convince me that prediction is an art that very, very few people, ever get right – not even the most intelligent, the most enlightened, the best informed or the most ‘influential’. That goes not just for the technology but for the things that people consider important, the things that worry them, the things that the are willing to stand up for and so forth.

    There are some, for example, who think that privacy is effectively dead – Scott McNealy, then CEO of SUN Microsystems, told journalists in 1999 that ‘you have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.’ There are others, most recently Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of Facebook, who effectively think that privacy is an outdated notion, and that young people no longer value it. There are others, following from the work of David Brin, who think that privacy is not only outdated but actually damaging, and what we need to do is embrace transparency, and put everything out into the open, and that the result of that will be a better society, and better lives for individuals.

    I don’t agree with any of them – but I do understand that they have arguments, and that there are many people who DO agree with each of their positions. What’s more, it may be that more people take one or other of those positions in the future. I don’t, therefore, suggest that privacy is necessarily a universal and immutable human right, though I would call myself a privacy advocate. I do think that privacy is, right now, a crucial and much abused right that needs to be taken seriously, and, following Alan’s logic, I’m ready and willing to put together what I hope are compelling arguments in its favour – but those arguments, though rooted in long-standing beliefs and literature, are in reality based in what is happening to people now, and what is likely to happen to them in the foreseeable future. I don’t claim, however, to be able to see that far…..

  12. Louise Thomson says:

    I don’t think there is anything unique in our struggle here with the concept of “truth” here but I think we need to consider whether the mainstream forms of knowledge in the human rights sphere are best placed to really address this. Modern human rights seems to be infused with postmodern, relativist thinking that is allergic to the concept of truth, except to say that everything is relative. One of the good things about postmodernism is its respect for individual perspective and ‘truth’ but it gets stuck when trying to uphold any universality. I also think that we are coming from a position of great sensitivity to cultural difference and with a justified concern for any colonial style imposition of cultural and other values.

    I don’t think we should lose any of this but if we are asking questions like ‘what is truth?’ and ‘what is human nature?’, we have to get braver about embracing different fields that are not typically contributing to human rights discourse (at least not directly) and get away from the endless circles of relativist thinking, while still retaining the sensitivity to difference. Asking a lawyer to define truth will bring out a different response than if you ask a sociologist or a physicist. What is defining human rights as a subject and whose answer to these questions is most relevant? Each field will have its own validity claim and its own relative, partial but still authentic truth. So each form of knowledge (such as science and religion) will have its own distinct evidence and validation process. They are all different but they are all true. As Wilber has said, we can either look at these different partial truths as a lie, upon a lie, upon a lie; or as a truth, upon a truth, upon a truth. Instead of using the truths to disprove one another, you could let them co-exist and look for themes that might emerge as some higher or more universal values. This is not an agreement to disagree but a search for a more universal truth. I don’t see a human rights utopia around me as Sally-Ann seems to say but a proper search for a foundation for this vision might help to realise it or may even identify something different and better.

    For example, in many discussions on human nature we are still referring to Hobbes and his understanding of human beings. I recognise that he has been hugely influential but surely we can’t seriously confine most of our understanding of human nature in the subject of human rights by reference to political philosophy, especially that from 1651. I’m not saying it’s not true or valid, I’m saying there are other powerful truths. Martin Hoffman’s ‘Empathy and Moral Development, Implications for Caring and Justice’ could come into it, he’s a professor in psychology and it was even written this century!
    I agree we have no ‘god-lite’ short cut available and humans are a lot more clever in terms of available knowledge than they were, so let’s use what’s available when asking these big questions on foundations and if we are ‘making truth’, let’s be careful that the foundation is as integral as possible.

    • Zoe Fiander says:

      Agree with everything you said here! & it goes to the success or otherwise of the human rights project. It’s well to say, as Alan did, that human rights are an argument (I agree) – but they’re not going to be a very convincing one if they cannot assert their own truth. Even if it’s a manufactured one (if you take that view, what isn’t?)

  13. Paul Bernal says:

    I hope I’m not being too flippant, but isn’t this all a bit of a ‘the blind men and the elephant’ kind of story? Can we accept ‘human rights’ as the elephant, and admit that we’re all at least partially blind?

    • Louise Thomson says:

      Totally agree! But what if the blind men had agreed to discuss each perspective and what the elephant really felt like from all sides instead of falling out over their relative impressions, it would have been easier to claim the existence or ‘truth’ of the elephant. If we stop at saying we’re all a bit blind, then will we ever accept the truth of the elephant, human rights or anything else for that matter?

      • Paul Bernal says:

        I’d agree – we have to acknowledge our (relative) blindness, but still seek to know much more about the elephant – and certainly accept its existence as something bigger and more important than our own little ‘view’ of it.

  14. The language of truth is a very complex one – we use the word true and truth is a range of different ways, and my feeling about this post and the ensuing discussion (some of which I hope to find time to comment on!) is that they are being used in different ways by different people.

    Conor starts with the 1776 declarations self evident truths, and asks what this claim means. I have always argued that something is only self evident when the arguments in its favour have become taken for granted, or when a given way of interpreting something has become the received wisdom. In this sense, there may be nothing at all true about such truths – for example, and one that Conor uses, the obvious religious truths of Christianity, the religion which was the context for the emergence of our rights language. In my view none of its truths (certainly not its doctrinal ones) are true, but 500 years ago most people in the West would have accepted them as self evident, and many still do – indeed, many still argue that we can’t have human rights without them (a position I reject).

    I must confess I don’t really like the language of truth for human rights. I think the discussion has to become less abstract and more detailed. I’m much more comfortable with a discussion about whether I think the individualism which undergirds human rights is an appropriate way of thinking about human beings – but even here, I’m not sure how much further we get by saying this is because it is true. (This points to a big argument in philosophy about why we might say something is true and what it adds to the discussion to do so)

    Another part of my reluctance to talk about the truth of human rights is that I don’t think there are any knock down arguments (or trumping arguments) that establish that there is only one way of thinking about what it means to be human. It is only relatively recently, after all, that we have had this universal category for all human beings. But to think this way about humans is to accept certain moral premises about the worth and value of humans, and these are premises which cannot simply be demonstrated to be true! – although we can argue that for many good reasons we think they should be considered to be true. I think there are a multitude of good reasons as to why we should think about humans in the way that proponents of human rights do – in my terms, there are a multitude of good reasons as to why liberal individualism is the best way, the morally preferred way, of thinking about human persons. But there is no knock down argument, no trump, no self evident truth, to this effect.

    For me, the truth of human rights (since Conor has used the lingo) resides in the fact that they belong to a political project which seems to me, for a whole range of reasons, to be part of the answer to the question of how we might live well. But as I have said, this means accepting a certain vision of what it means to be human, and what it means to live well, neither of which can, as it were, “be proven to be true.”
    Equally importantly, this “inability to prove” should not for a moment be thought to mean that there is something less persuasive or compelling about them. Quite the contrary. Ultimately human rights claims are moral claims, which cannot be pinned down and shown to be “true” in the same way as can be done to the human genome. But to think that this makes them somehow of lesser significance is to show little comprehension of the moral nature of human affairs.

  15. Zoe Fiander says:

    Depends whether you think the truth of moral claims can be decided by enough people agreeing on them, though, doesn’t it? If you think that they can, then it’s just a question of making the case for your moral claim speak to as many people as possible. In a human rights context I don’t think this necessarily means resorting to shallow populism to make it convincing. ( & I accept this turns on how the word ‘truth’ is being used to a extent)

    • Hi Zoe – i don’t think it ever comes down to numbers, so I wouldn’t like to say that the truth of a moral claim depends on the number of people who agree, no. I think one person can be right while everyone else is wrong.

      The important thing for me is the cogency of the arguments – for I also want people to believe things for the right reasons, or at least for good reasons. I think that the reason human rights is popular is because it appeals to very profound arguments within our various human traditions about what it means to be human – and here is part of the problem, in that different aspects of the human rights agenda resonate with different parts of different traditions the world over – notoriously, between goals of collective solidarity and ambitions of individual freedom! But that is another story as we all know… 😉

  16. Sally-Anne Way says:

    It is perhaps nowadays a ‘truism’ (a self-evident truth!?) to say that all ‘truths’ are partial.

    But what is perhaps even more challenging is the question of how can we posit a truth – or a foundation for human rights – that is enough to convince the ‘other’ side(s)? Or, in other words, how do we get beyond ‘preaching to the already converted’ and move towards convincing those who do not agree with ‘us’ – and who may preach, as Conor has phrased it, a ‘more brutal brand of common sense’?

    It seems to me that preaching a truth, is somewhat different from engaging in dialogue. But, even if we do manage to engage in dialogue, would we really reach agreement on universal principles on which we all agree? Or would we find ourselves arguing about fundamentally incompatible – and incommensurable – visions of the world?

    In which case, ‘human rights as politics’ is the call to push our progressive vision of the world as truth, trying to make it more ‘true’, but are we convincing only ourselves?

  17. Zoe Fiander says:

    I have to say the discussion stemming from this track is an interesting sight: lots of people who seem to have been persuaded by postmodern thinking that there is no absolute truth, trying to defend/find/manufacture some sort of ‘true’ foundation – somewhere – for their politics! Although, it’s not like these problems are unique to human rights (although religions – which are also arguably political – would not recognise the problem) so the lack of real ‘truth’ doesn’t deal a fatal blow in practice, perhaps.

  18. My main reaction, particularly in response to Paul’s first reply, is that in order for consensus to remain everyone involved does need to find truth from the same place. Otherwise, as soon as the situation changes, having separate logic or reasoning for coming to that truth means the outcome may also change.

    To my mind, ‘truth’ needs to be something that can be proved, although I cannot see how this would be done. Mill used his basic theory of liberty to attempt to ‘prove’ other moral principles, but this basic theory still cannot be considered truth. If we cannot find a proof for the truth of human rights, then the next best thing is a consensus. However, if we are going to use this consensus to form the basis for the protection and enforcement of human rights, we needs consensus on the logical reasoning for them or we will risk not enforcing rights that need to be enforced, or enforcing concepts that are not held to be ‘true’ human rights.

    • Paul Bernal says:

      Holly, do you mean that if a devout Christian finds God his source of all morality and ‘truth’, then an Atheist can’t agree with them about human rights? Or can the said Christian’s conception of God be equated with something less precise?

      The problem I see is that if liberal, secular, modern and essentially atheist (or close to it) conceptions of human rights effectively exclude the devout – which they would, if human rights tries to sidestep or even ‘trump’ the divine – then everyone loses out.

      • I think in that case the Christian and atheist would be able to agree on the substance of rights, but not the reasoning for them. While this may allowe a rights culture to function, you would run the risk of there being certain situations where they would no longer agree on the substance of the rights due to their separate processes for reaching that conclusion.

        While this may be more of a theological issue, I find it hard to believe that a devout follower of any religion wouldn’t also be able to find a logical/moral reasoning for rights independent of their beliefs.

        • Zoe Fiander says:

          Faith is a get out of jail free card when it comes to establishing ‘truth’, though it doesn’t necessarily determine the scope or the content of rights. I don’t see that a religious person would face the core problem which is being reflected in the discussion here, though they might face a variant of it in arguing for the particular scope of rights.

        • Paul Bernal says:

          Holly, have a feeling that the answer to your last point depends on the particular religion and on the level of devotion – I’ll be very interested to hear what Conor has to say on the subject when he deals with the manifesto point about working with the ‘great religions’!

  19. Damien Shortt says:

    Temporal universality:
    Just been thinking about Alan’s and Paul’s (sorry about the name confusion) responses earlier.

    My understanding of Human Rights is that they should be capable of projection into both the past and the future. The fact that liberty has not always been an articulated Right does not mean that it was once ok, for example, to keep a slave simply because that’s what the contemporary morality/ideology allowed. To my mind, slavery is, will be, and always has been a moral transgression (whether that morality be rights-based, deontologial, consequentialist, or what you will). I think that to let historical slaveowners off the moral hook places one on the relativist spectrum since it begins to admit the argument that Rights are contingent upon circumstance… once this is admitted as a valid argument, it is a short hop, step, and jump into saying that Rights, for example, don’t apply in the context of Chinese Communisim, or Burmese militarism or some such.

    To flog the scientific analogy to death:
    We are talking about truth here. What is true cannot be contingent. We cannot be certain that what we identify as true will always be considered as such in the future. However, it would be illogical for us to state that something is true if we EXPECT it to be disproven in the future. We could, however, maintain a logical position by saying that what we identify as being true at his moment in time MAY at some time in the future be shown not to be true, however, at this moment in time we CANNOT IMAGINE the form that that disproving might take. That takes care of the future-proofing. As regards the past, on matters like Rights and theories, it is illogical to say that what we take to be true now was not always so: it would be illogical to conclude that the sun once revolved around the Earth when that is what everyone believed, until Copernicus and Galileo came along and then geocentrism was false and heliocentrism became true.

    This brings me to the statement about the framers of the UDHR, to which Paul took exception earlier. In the same way that we can accuse the Chinese authorities of Human Rights transgressions, so too can we accuse the UDHR authors as either cowardly or irrational (or somewhere in-between those two poles). Why do we refuse to accept the arguments of Chinese officials that the UDHR does not apply in Chinese affairs, or the Burmese, or the North Koreans, etc.? It is in no small part because we are able to argue that, according to their own system of rationality (and morality), what these governments are doing is either inconsistent or unjust, or both.

    So, when we consider the authors of the UDHR, we are able to argue that they must have been aware that they were denying, through omission, Rights to certain groups of people. They could not have been ignorant of the fact that the universal liberty, freedom of expression, or whatever, that they sought to secure for humankind was actually being denied (or overlooked (this is the difference between the irrationality and the cowardice that I mention) to people of certain types of sexuality and that this denial or ignoring of the universality of Rights was being perpetrated and institutionalised in the very document that sought to establish the Rights for all.

    The one exception to all of this, is where, as was mentioned above, advancements in technology would make it ridiculous to apply this temporal universality criterion: it would be, for example, silly to try to project the moral statements of today about internet usage onto a 17th century context since that context predates the existence of the thing about which we are trying to establish moral statements.

    This was supposed to be a pithy response….look at it now….what a waffler I am!

    • Paul Bernal says:

      I don’t want to argue with you too much – but as someone whose background is in mathematics, and whose family consists mostly of scientists, I know that many scientists know very well that what they ‘prove’ today may be ‘disproved’ in the future, because they understand that science develops, that our understanding of nature develops. They do, at least in general, believe that there is some fundamental or ‘absolute’ truth underpinning it all, but they don’t suggest that their own current understanding IS that absolute truth, merely that it’s the best approximation or best estimate of the truth that is currently available or assessable.

      Similarly, I’m certainly not arguing against an idea of an absolute truth in terms of human rights – but against the idea that we, with our current level of understanding, can say that what we know and believe right now IS that absolute truth. To take it further, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not that people in the past were ‘wrong’ when they didn’t put sufficient weight on the idea of gay rights, for example, but that their understanding of the importance of sexuality wasn’t so developed, because of the state of society at that time. Is that their fault? Should we call them moral cowards or moral irrationals just because they are people of their time and their societies? I wouldn’t do so….

      ….and neither would I blame all those in China for their current level of understanding. I would try to argue with them, I would try to persuade them, I would fight for the rights of those who are oppressed by their government and so forth, and I would (and do) tell them that I think they’re wrong to believe some of the things that they do, but I would also understand why they do so. Some of them may be ‘bad’, some may be morally corrupt, some may be oppressive – but some may just have no experience of what we’re talking about, and need to learn…

      • Zoe Fiander says:

        The virtuous path to enlightenment! I agree -after all, this is about making a better world for people- but still, this way of thinking is vulnerable to the argument that it is only one narrow view of ‘development’ or ‘experience’, and then we go straight back to that slippery word, ‘truth’… I can’t offer a way of resolving the difficulty, though!

      • Damien Shortt says:

        Thanks, Paul,
        the point you make in your first paragraph is precisely the point I was making too. When proposing a theory, the best we can do as scientists or philosophers is to acknowledge that we MAY be proven wrong, but that, for the time being and in the absence of any competing theory, we APPEAR to be right: nothing morally problematic in that.

        However, when we KNOW we are wrong but refuse to abandon our theory or try to mask its shortcomings, then we are on morally unstable ground. To propose a system of Rights that we know to be unstable, exclusionary, or intentionally incomplete…just for the sake of expediency or pragmatism…is morally suspect, in my view.

        If somebody is ignorant of something through no fault of their own, then of course I would not blame them for that. But I cannot imagine that the authors of the UDHR could have been ignorant of discrimination based upon sexuality (trials, prejudices, purges against homosexuals were very common and well known in the decades before and following the 1940s). Anyway, I am no campaigner for Gay Rights, it’s one of a number of examples we could discuss.

        • Paul Bernal says:

          Yes, I think we’re not too far apart – though I can’t claim to know much about the state of gay rights in the 1940s. Personally I suspect it was more about pragmatism than morality – even if they DID agree about gay rights, they wouldn’t think it would be practical to get it into the document, particularly given the religous prejudices and judgments about it.

  20. Carl Schnackenberg says:

    This is a very difficult topic. Putting human rights into words requires agreement, and there’s no universal recipe. But 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. We don’t need to *learn* them at their most basic level – they come as part of the package when we’re born. However, how we express these feelings, and how they develop depends on so many external things, including what everyone around us does and says. So when we talk about human rights we might all be saying different things, but there is some core truth at the heart of it all, and if we recognise that then maybe it makes agreeing on the words easier.

  21. Carl Schnackenberg says:

    Zoe – I think that’s a great point about wanting to believe in truth, and wanting reassurance. If we want to live together with and understand other humans we need beliefs about who we are and how we should interact. We need a foundation for this set of beliefs if we’re to trust it; without a foundation we can’t have confidence in ourselves. If we all have a shared foundation, we can more easily have confidence in each other. We get problems when we build our beliefs on different foundations – I think when challenged we’re more likely to try to bolster our own foundations and undermine others’. Maybe human rights is a shaky foundation, and maybe it requires a lot of shoring up, but it could be the common ground.