Putting Human Rights First

Judith Shklar, the American political theorist, wrote a famous
essay entitled “Putting Cruelty First.” The contrast with my
own title will be immediately obvious, but I would insist that
the worldview which proceeds from both is essentially similar.
What Shklar intended was that prior to any question of
positive virtues and utopian ideals—before we throw around
grand ideas about love and brotherhood—we need to achieve the
seemingly simple yet nearly impossible task of protecting
living beings from cruelty and injustice. As for my title,
human rights may sound like a positive ideal, the sort of
sweet nothing that ought to be anterior to the goal of saving
the world from cruelty, but I would say that it is, in
reality, a fairly plain, even negative goal, like that of
Shklar. But that is only one more reason to pursue it with
vigor and conviction.

In a very limited sense, human rights are a positive goal, of
course. They represent something we want to gain, rather than
something of which we want to rid ourselves. Yet human rights
do not promise universal love or complete human happiness,
whereas utopian projects of various kinds, whether religious
or secular, claim just that. The individual will be blessed
with community, fellowship, and endless joy within the Kingdom
of Heaven, where there will be no work, no strife, and no pain.

In a world in which all people are guaranteed human rights,
there will still be work, I must admit. There will still be
pain and heartbreak and discord. Yet human rights do promise
to do away with the grotesque extremes of cruelty in human
society. In that sense, Shklar’s goal is very similar to my
own. In a world with human rights, there will no longer be
mass graves and torture chambers, gang rape and sexual
terrorism, dictatorship and discrimination. Not only that,
but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) also
guarantees positive freedoms, such as education, health care,
food, and shelter, which allow people to live with a certain
amount of dignity and the capacity to pursue ends they have
reason to value.

This vision of the world, in which each individual will be
equal before the law, regardless of sex, race, tribe, or
caste, will not appeal to all people. Admittedly, just about
every government in the world claims to promote “human
rights”: but just about every government fails to do so.
There’s a reason that the UDHR passed with near unanimity—and
there’s also a reason it is not legally binding. Of course,
governments have a great deal to gain from not respecting
human rights, as do patriarchs who benefit from sexist
institutions, clergy who have reason to fear apostasy: and so
forth. These, however, are not arguments which will seem
compelling to the majority of us who are not in such
positions. Those arguments which may sway us are those which
address themselves to more positive ideals than “putting human
rights first.” As humane and decent people will be tempted by
these arguments, is my goal to address them.

Putting human rights first, as I said at the beginning, is
really quite a drab thing to do, and far less exciting than
putting utopia first. But it is really the only thing that
will lead to a better, more livable world. People will be
sorely tempted to put at least one of the following four in
its place, however, and I will deal with each in its turn:
identity, power, political oppression, and love.


Putting human rights first is all well and good, one might
say—but then, no one really thinks in terms of human rights.
It is not in our nature to think of ourselves as autonomous
individuals outside of all time and place. Few subscribers to
Facebook or Myspace announce in their “about me” section that
they are human beings, first and foremost. We like to
differentiate ourselves from other people: that’s part of what
having a private identity means. We could of course identify
as humans as opposed to animals, but given that animals can
suffer and feel cruelty just as humans do, and therefore have
a right to avoid both, the only available self-conception is
that of a pain-accumulating living being, which leaves little
scope for identity.

Christopher Lasch, himself humane in his views and no friend
to injustice, ascribes quite profoundly to this variety of
argument. The liberal concept of the individual is a
political fiction, he claims. People only exist in community,
and any protest against injustice cannot appeal to an abstract
humanity, but to traditional forms of identity, whether
religious, ethnic, or geographic. As evidence, he cites the
Civil Rights movement, which, he claims, was not brought to
fruition thanks to the efforts of the secularists, humanists,
and liberals who support civil rights as a matter of
principle, but rather to the efforts of a traditional, deeply
religious community. It is such community and the virtues of
self-sacrifice, loyalty, and piety it lauds that lead people
to behave justly, not liberal principles of justice.

Of course, the dangers of putting identity first are only too
apparent. It is undoubtedly true that people need some sort
of identity and community to face the cruelties of the world.
But what critics of liberalism and human rights do not
understand is that no liberal wants to do away with identity.
Such a thing is surely impossible. The goal of liberalism is
to allow the individual to create a personal identity, or to
discover a unique identity which suits her. Likewise,
liberals embrace community, but one ought to be in a position
to choose the community one wishes to be a part of, to remain
tolerant of communities beyond one’s own, and so forth.

However, to put community and identity first never seems to
involve this aspect of private choice, because there are so
many traditional, religious communities readily available.
These exert a profound and understandable attraction. There
will always be a temptation to abandon the headache of
critical thinking and independent experiment and to retreat
into a religious community with straightforward answers.
There will always be a temptation to seek refuge in the arms
of those who consider you one of their own simply because of
your ethnicity, religious identity, or nationality. But the
reverse side of the safety one finds in identity is the
horrors that await those outside of the identity or without an
identity to call their own.

I see little evidence in history that identifying with a
premodern community ever leads one to cultivate a humane
disposition to those outside of the community in question. In
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the traditional African
village at the heart of the narrative is one Lasch might like
to be a part of. It has its own ritual and religious
community, and the people within it are bound together.
Okonkwo, the strong man and patriarch, is certainly happy with
his privilege, his numerous wives, and his slaves. There is
always someone weaker to beat, some chance to showcase his
strength. Yet his youngest son, Nwoye, is troubled by this
reality in a way many of the other characters are not:
particularly by the brutally casual way in which Okonkwo
executes the family slave, Ikemefune, and by a disturbing
incident he witnesses in which a pair of innocent twins are
left to die in the woods (twins being a bad omen).

There will always be Nwoyes in the world, just as human beings
will always feel pity (even if pity tends to be overwhelmed by
other impulses, such as selfishness or sadism). Nwoye, who no
doubt would be a disciple of Judith Shklar, puts cruelty
first: before community or identity. And for that he is
ostracized and his life is threatened, even by his own father.

These sorts of injustices are nearly universal in traditional,
premodern communities. Christopher Lasch may point to the
small African American communities in the South who made such
a difference to the Civil Rights movement, but he is
overlooking the equally traditional white communities in the
South: those with Klansman’s robes and a hangman’s noose in
every closet. Nearly every traditional community in history
has been intolerant of personal choice. Such communities
discriminate against difference, and it is with shocking
rapidity that discrimination escalates into murder and brutality.

The question, of course, is whether or not people can ever
think of themselves in terms other than readymade,
communitarian identities. To do so, admittedly, is a hard
path to tread. Yet for those persecuted by traditional,
blinkered communities, locked out of religious or ethnic
identities, it is the only option: so one can only hope that
such people will embrace universalist ideals which do not
exclude them, such as human rights.


The second of the four alternatives will appeal less to the
people of good will with whom I am mostly concerned, but it
appeals to such an extraordinarily large number of people of
bad will that I think I ought to address it. Human rights are
of necessity founded upon a principle of human equality, as
everyone knows. But there is always the possibility that
people aren’t equal, don’t want to be equal, and will brook no

It is indeed possible that power worship is deeply,
intractably rooted in human nature. We all desire power for
obvious reasons: it allows us to satisfy our wants without
experiencing any negative consequences. Leaving aside the
very real human impulses of pity and altruism, the will to
power does exercise a certain appeal. Yet we cannot all be
powerful in this way without trampling over the power and
freedom of our fellow beings. The liberal solution, the
solution of the human rights movement, is to allow each
individual to pursue her desires so long as she does not
threaten the security, freedom, and capabilities of other
people. This is about as satisfactory as we can get unless we
want to live in a world run by the Marquis de Sade– but then
maybe, just maybe, some of us do. This is the seductive
appeal of power worship. If we cannot all be powerful and
Godlike, perhaps we will settle for being subjected to the
cruel designs of the powerful, and live vicariously through
their actions.

Thomas Carlyle noted this tendency and deemed it “hero
worship”: and regarded it as one of the finest paths to human
satisfaction. William Hazlitt also noticed it, yet it filled
him with horror: “Each individual would (were it in his power)
be a king, a God: but as he cannot, the next best thing is to
see this reflex image of his own self-love, the darling
passion of his breast, realized, embodied out of himself in
the first object he can lay his hands on for the purpose. The
slave admires the tyrant, because the last is, what the first
would be.”

It is no coincidence that just as the liberal experiment was
getting underway, those famous Gothic novels and Byronic
protagonists began entering the European literary scene. The
heroes of the Enlightenment are the weak and abused: see
Voltaire’s ingenuous protagonists who are subjected to the
cruelties of an irrational world and an absent God, or
Montesquieu’s seraglio inmates in The Persian Letters. The
heroes of the anti-Enlightenment are the German princes of
Gothic novels and Poe tales, the Childe Harolds of the world.
They exist prior to and outside of any consideration of the
necessary restraints one places on one’s sadism and power
fetish: they use other people freely and fully. The
appearance of the Byronic hero in later literature usually
serves a similar purpose. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of
Paradise might not generally be considered a great examination
of cruelty, yet it is just that. The acts of cruelty
portrayed therein are minor, but instructive. The
protagonist, Amory Blaine, is a model of the will to power,
whose time is consumed in meticulously reported petty
rivalries and power struggles among the ubermenschen of the
Ivy League.

Why do people prefer this sort of hero to the hero of the
Enlightenment? Few among us are Amory Blaines in real life.
We all have very little power, and most of us are, hopefully,
restrained in what we do to further our power by various moral
considerations. Meanwhile, the powerful are not worthy of
respect or deference. Because of their position they are
uniquely placed to do us harm, and our first task should be to
restrain their capacity to do so. If anyone is deserving of
respect and deference, it is the world’s victims and Stoical

Admittedly, we cannot go through life believing in our
absolute wisdom and refusing to show deference toward anyone.
To expect the individual to approach every situation without
advice and without instruction is far too much of a burden for
anyone to bear. It makes sense to seek role models in one’s
life. However, role models are respected for some
understandable reason, and the individual may reject them if
they fail to provide adequate guidance: the decision to show
deference is one’s own. But power worship is something else
entirely: it is the love of power for its own sake, the need
to defer to something, anything, larger than oneself. This
need is so strong that it has even conjured a superhuman being
out of thin air in the form of God and endowed it with every
conceivable power. This embodiment of arbitrary power is
then, quite literally, worshipped.

This is a disturbing habit of mind, and might conceivably lead
people to put the love of power before the love of their own
most basic human rights. This is a deadly possibility for
those who still hope for human freedom. However, it
ultimately seems unlikely. People worship power when they
themselves are powerless. This is because they see no means
of influencing their fate other than to placate the demands of
those higher up. Yet in a world with human rights, all people
will experience a basic level of dignity and power. And once
their own destiny is firmly within their grasp, they will lose
the desire to trust everything to greater beings. We will
lose the false hope of controlling everything through the
protection of the supernatural, yet we will gain the solid and
very real joy of influencing and personally directing our own


Putting political oppression first was a possibility dealt
with by Judith Shklar, and I doubt I can improve on her
discussion in this case. She recalls an incident from a
Nadine Gordimer novel, Burger’s Daughter to be precise, in
which the protagonist Rosa, raised by a communist father in
South Africa and herself thoroughly anti-apartheid, discovers
a poor black man expressing the frustrations of life by
beating a helpless donkey. Rosa decides not to intervene,
simply because she feels that the black man is the true victim
in the scenario: the victim of untold racial injustice and
governmental abuse.

Shklar writes that Rosa has put political oppression before
cruelty in the hierarchy of vices, and indeed she has. This
sort of hierarchy of moral concerns can have a great deal of
appeal, and has led more than a few people into condoning
truly horrendous actions. Pushed far enough, the logic that
the crimes of the victims are not crimes because they were
born of earlier oppression can lead to an extreme nihilism.
Worst of all, many of the people who begin with an opposition
to political oppression are led around to supporting
infinitely worse oppressions in the name of vengeance.
Supporters of the Soviet regime were supposedly motivated by a
hatred of capitalist injustice and cruelty, yet their own
victims were dispatched in far greater numbers and in
infinitely more horrible ways than any of those who suffered
from industrial capitalism. And today, Western universities
are full of postcolonial intellectuals who have decreed that
everyone in the Third World is a victim of imperialism,
including such poor benighted souls as Omar Bashir and
Ayatollah Khamenei. Columbia’s Mahmoud Mamdani, for instance,
has mounted a bizarre defense of the genocide in Darfur on the
grounds that the United States has also killed innumerable
civilians in Iraq. Granted that the war in Iraq is a
perfectly legitimate target for humanitarian criticism, yet it
has nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes of Bashir, the
ruling regime in Iran, or any of the world’s human rights
abusers, a list of which would make any decent person’s hair
stand on end.

To put rights before political oppression is the only
consistent way to approach the world that will yield anything
resembling a moral result. We must intervene on behalf of the
donkey being beaten, because, whatever injustices are faced by
the man doing the beating, the donkey is innocent in all of
them. Granted that Africa and the Middle East have been used
and abused as geopolitical pawns by great powers, yet that
does not mean we should refrain from criticizing the human
rights abuses committed by their governments. This is because
such abuses are always directed toward the innocent, and
toward children most of all.

The urge to put the fight against political oppression ahead
of the fight for human rights may affect a number of decent,
humane people, but it ultimately plays into the notion that
“our” atrocities are better than “their” atrocities, however
us and them happen to be defined. But there is no “us and
them”: an atrocity is simply an atrocity. Putting human
rights first forces us to come to terms with this basic truth.


Another counterpoint to my thesis is the Gandhian critique of
liberalism. Refraining from cruelty and respecting other
people within the boundaries of human rights is a tame and
drab human aspiration which will ultimately leave people empty
and colorless. It is far better to treat people with active
love and compassion, to seek them out and take an interest in
their well-being, than to respectfully ignore them while
pursuing one’s own ends.

A great many opponents of injustice and lovers of humanity
have been attracted to this line of thought, and have been led
to put love first: prior, that is, to human rights. In
Tolstoy’s short story Master and Man, we follow a selfish and
cruel master as he plunges into a bitter snowstorm, despite
his serf’s wise objections. Too arrogant to turn back or
admit he made a mistake, the master chooses to jeopardize both
his own life and the life of his servant. Not only that, but
when things get truly precarious and there is a threat of
dangerous wildlife taking an interest in the expedition, he
attempts to abandon his serf and save himself. Yet here too,
he is ineffective, and stumbles back to his “man.” And it is
then that he discovers the joys of altruism and the true
meaning of life: he chooses to freeze to death himself while
protecting his serf from the cold.

The story is deeply poignant, and shows the appeal of putting
love first. Had Tolstoy put human rights first, the story
would have been very different. It would have described the
serf throwing off the shackles of the feudal relationship and
striking out on his own. He would exercise and insist upon,
in other words, his right to be a free agent. The master
would remain as selfish as ever and would have remained
unchanged after the encounter, apart from being down one serf
in the final count. Tolstoy, however, chose not to write that
story. He believed in the redemptive power of love over and
above the forceful breaking of unequal and unjust power

In contrast to this doctrine of active love stands the
doctrine of human rights, which can seem selfish and cold in
comparison. Human rights insist that people be left alone in
several key ways: that they be free to pursue their own goals
in life and that they be given the necessary capabilities to
do so. Human rights must always respect the decision of
Ibsen’s Nora Helmer to leave the home rather than live the
life of dutiful self-sacrifice. This aspect of individual
freedom is essential to human rights and to liberalism: yet it
is not incompatible with active love. In fact, love for other
people entails respect for their choices, tolerance, and a
refusal to practice cruelty, all of which are essential
aspects of the liberal ethos.

Meanwhile, let us examine the results of putting love before
human rights. It seems that many religious movements do just
that, with horrific results. Converts to Islam were no doubt
bound to one another through love, yet if one looks at what
Muhammad and the later caliphs did as a result, one sees that
to the same extent that love and fellowship among the Muslim
warriors increased, the horrors practiced on those outside of
the religious fold increased as well. Muhammad was perfectly
close with those who took power after his death, and was no
doubt loved by those who converted to his banner. Yet
innumerable innocents were killed or enslaved as a result of
his campaigns.

In Christianity, the story is rather similar, as Freud points
out in Civilization and its Discontents. The faith enjoined
its followers to treat one another with absolute love, which
many of them did: yet the cruelties suffered by non-Christians
during the Inquisition, the Crusades, and many other events,
rose in proportion.

Active love is no doubt a wonderful thing, far superior to a
simple refusal to engage in cruelty, yet we must put human
rights first: otherwise, people may feel love and egalitarian
impulses for those within their chosen religion or identity
group, and at the same time feel entitled to murder and
enslave the rest of humanity or the animal kingdom. It is
only once we have ensured that cruelty, enslavement, rape,
murder, and all the other things which seem to accompany
campaigns of love cannot happen that we can begin to go beyond
human rights.

As for the perceived selfishness of liberalism, the doctrine
does indeed allow for the individual pursuit of happiness.
Yet it is also a demanding doctrine to embrace. Human rights
require respect for others, tolerance of free expression, and
a willingness to engage frankly with opposing views. It
requires an acceptance of eccentricity, diversity, and the
private choices of the individual. In fact, human rights are
some of the most difficult things for people anywhere to
practice consistently. In contrast, the religious love of the
Muslim invaders or the Christian crusaders or the Spanish
conquistadors, who combined group solidarity with hideous
violence against outsiders—this sort of ideology is the
easiest in the world to adopt, as it satisfies the will to
dominate and exploit while also giving an illusion of moral

Meanwhile, liberalism, with its requirement that one set aside
one’s own absolute ends in the name of peace, tolerance, and
human rights, is a difficult, self-denying, but ultimately
highly rewarding way to live. It is a doctrine that goes
beyond mere political institutions, and grapples profoundly
with the relation of the individual conscience to the outside

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