Human Rights Without Morality: a Response to Joshua F. Leach

In a recent article for Butterflies & Wheels, Joshua F. Leach puts forward an argument for a human rights culture that is underpinned by the notion of ‘collective responsibility’ and which seeks as its goal an ‘affectionate egalitarianism’.[1] While the arguments in the article are far from new and are not particularly controversial, I find myself troubled by the key assumptions that underpin Leach’s vision.

Leach has stated that in his article he was not seeking to argue ‘that there is a philosophical basis for morality’ and believes that ‘morality is a question of what we each value’, however I’m not sure that this will do, given some of the claims made in his article.[2] I personally object to the term ‘morality’, as for me it carries far too much metaphysical baggage. ‘Ethics’ seems to me to be a better term, as ‘morality’ has religious connotations, or at least connotations of following something that is ‘deep’ and intrinsic – something universal which perhaps resembles the Platonic ‘forms’. Certainly, I wince when I hear atheists such as Christopher Hitchens speaking of things being ‘evil’. That aside, I am unconvinced that Leach’s article does not contain a philosophical vision (he writes, for example, of seeking to ‘find ideals of life’); certainly it contains naturalistic assumptions from which a moral philosophy of sorts is seen to derive.

In his article, Leach claims that ‘human rights are not a self-interested doctrine’ and that ‘[i]n fact, human rights arise out of our most fundamental collective moral imperative: namely, to protect the weak and vulnerable from harm’. He also claims that the ‘modern world’ is characterised by ‘callousness and self-centeredness’ which includes ‘clinging to privilege’. In Leach’s view, this is actually ‘pathological’. Leach makes two very strong claims here, both of which are based on assumptions about nature. In two previous articles of mine, I have put forward a case for overcoming and ignoring arguments based on ‘nature’.[3][4] To a certain extent, then, I sympathise with the poststructuralist problematisation of the discourse of ‘nature’, while drawing somewhat different conclusions to those of the advocates of these ‘denaturalising’ critiques. Philosophical debates about what is ‘natural’ or ‘fundamental’ to humans are for me a waste of time; a mildly interesting distraction, perhaps, but of no real use in formulating ethical or political arguments. That is not, of course, to say I don’t have my own views on what is most likely to be ‘natural’ for human beings, but rather to say that I don’t see that as having any relevance to deciding how to live one’s life or how best to order societies.

Leach’s claim that human rights are derived from ‘fundamental moral imperatives’ seems to me to be very shaky as it assumes that there is strong evidence for this claim, or that this claim is so self-evidently true that no evidence really needs to be marshalled in its favour. However, does an examination of history support Leach’s notion that the desire for a human rights culture comes from fundamental, deep, and instinctual ‘imperatives’ that we as humans all share? Arguably not.

Throughout human history, societies have not been predominantly based around compassion, but rather around in-group loyalty. Until the advent of modern transportation, most human beings lived their entire lives in small communities based heavily on in-group loyalty, rather than universalism. Individuals were loyal to their families or clans, which in turn may have been loyal to a wider (essentially tribal) community, but that was largely where any sense of moral imperative ended. The whole of human history is marked not by universalism but rather by conflict – conflict over resources, ownership of land, the dominance of clans, and so on. This tribalism is arguably far more fundamental to human beings than any sense of the ‘brotherhood of man’, and the idea that most humans have felt any moral responsibility to the weak and vulnerable of other families and clans is dubious at best. The evidence that humans are essentially tribal, bound by loyalty to the in-group and a complete disregard for those outside it can still be seen time and again in modernity, let alone throughout history as a whole. The history of genocide, for example, is an on-going one, as is the history of adherence to exclusionary belief systems.

It is amazing how quickly any supposed ‘fundamental collective moral imperative’ disappears with examples of ethnic conflict, for example. Where was the ‘moral imperative’ when Serb forces marauded their way across Bosnia and Herzegovina, carrying out ‘ethnic cleansing’, which included the murder of children and widespread rape? Where was the ‘moral imperative’ in the Twentieth Century when whole nations mobilised around the idea of exterminating the Jewish people? Where was the ‘moral imperative’ when Nazi Germany carried out its programme of murdering disabled children? On a less dramatic level, where is the widespread support for Socialism in the West? Capitalism rules supreme, even though it is based on competition which inevitably advantages some over others. Socialism has very little popular mandate in the West, not simply because of some supposed conspiracy by the ‘ruling class’ to suppress the masses, but because the majority of people actively oppose and resent the idea of institutionalised compassion and egalitarianism. If there really is a ‘fundamental collective moral imperative’ to protect the weak and vulnerable from harm, why do so relatively few people in the West concern themselves with the plight of the homeless or agitate for greater Government funding for programmes for the disabled?

Leach, of course, has an answer of sorts to some of these questions. For him, the ‘modern world’ is marked by ‘callousness and self-centeredness’ and this in fact ‘pathological’. Here again we see the invocation of nature – for that which is pathological is maladapted and malfunctioning and consequently at variance with a state of that which is natural and healthy – as well as a strange assumption that ‘callousness and self-centeredness’ are somehow modern deviations from the natural human state of affairs, which is based around ‘collective moral imperatives’ (imperatives which just so happen to coincide with Leach’s own values). However, as I have argued above, there is no reason to see modernity as any more callous than any other historical period; on balance, it is arguably far less marked by callousness than other periods in history (despite the continually re-appearing atavism embodied in Fascism and Nazism, for example, and in on-going conflicts and genocides).

Leach’s Socialist moral vision shares much in common with some of the ideas at the heart of Christianity. Of course, in Christianity the centrality of compassion and concern with the poor and the weak is seen to be somehow tied in with a divine plan, whereas Leach replaces this appeal to God with appeals to ‘fundamental’ principles. Friedrich Nietzsche’s argument about the origin of Christianity and other ‘slave moralities’ still seems to me to offer a rather devastating response to the kind of assumptions underpinning Leach’s moral values. Where do moral systems based on ‘compassion’ ultimately come from, asks Nietzsche. His answer is to point out the utility of such moral visions for those who are disempowered. That same utility was what led to Socialism’s popularity in certain times and places in the Twentieth Century West, and the widespread increase in wealth and overall standards of living in the West are arguably why it no longer holds such an appeal. Nietzsche writes:

Suppose the abused, oppressed, suffering, unfree, those uncertain of themselves and weary should moralise; what would their moral evaluations have in common? Probably a pessimistic mistrust of the entire situation of man will find expression, perhaps a condemnation of man together with his situation. The slave is suspicious of the virtues of the powerful: he is sceptical and mistrustful, keenly mistrustful of everything ‘good’ that is honoured among them. On the other hand, those qualities which serve to make easier the existence of the suffering will be brought into prominence and flooded with light: here it is that pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness come into honour – for here these are the most useful qualities and virtually the only means of enduring the burden of existence. Slave morality is essentially the morality of utility.[5]

As a Socialist, Leach may well be unimpressed by such an argument, but I see no objective reason to give his rosy picture of human nature and morality any more credence than the interpretation given here by Nietzsche.

A closely linked problem with invoking a morality supposedly based on something that is ‘fundamental’ in human beings (and presenting evidence to the contrary as evidence of ‘pathology’) is that of defining what we mean by ‘humans’, when notions of inherent solidarity are posited. As Richard Rorty argues:

Those who wish to supply rational philosophical foundations for a human rights culture [I am aware that Leach does not consider this is what he was trying to do] say that what human beings have in common outweighs such adventitious factors as race or religion. But they have trouble spelling out what this commonality consists of. It is not enough to say that we all share a common susceptibility to pain, for there is nothing distinctively human about pain. If pain were all that mattered it would be as important to protect the rabbits from the foxes as to protect the Jews from the Nazis. If one accepts a naturalistic, Darwinian account of human origins, it is not helpful to say that we all have reason in common, for on this account to be rational is simply to be able to use language. But there are many languages and most of them are exclusionist. The language of human rights is no more or less characteristic of our species than languages which insist on racial or religious purity.[6]

This point is absolutely key. Leach’s argument for human rights assumes that it is essentially obvious that humans are naturally inclined towards embracing and supporting a human rights culture, when the inverse may well be true, or, at the very least, there may be no greater evidence to favour one view over the other. Leach’s appeal to a collective vision for human rights stands on shaky ground in its assumption of the universality of ‘fundamental collective moral imperatives’. Such an assumption is also ultimately unnecessary and causes more problems than it solves.

Leach acknowledges that it is possible to ‘embrace human rights while being perfectly sanguine about capitalist inequality’, but he opposes ‘the notion that our only moral duties are to respect minimal human rights’. That is fine in itself, but he then states that ‘morality is a question of what we each value’, while at the same time pronouncing capitalist, individualist society to be ‘pathological’. Leach wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants to adopt a reasonable stance – there is more than one way in which to frame and actualise human rights, and none of these is intrinsically ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – while at the same actually making strong pronouncements that pathologise views of society other than his own and imply that a ‘morality’ other than his Socialist vision runs contrary to something that is ‘fundamental’ to what it is to be human. Taking Nietzsche and Rorty’s criticisms into account, I’m not sure that is much of an argument, but then perhaps it is not really intended to be one. Certainly, some sections of Leach’s article border on sermonising, rather than philosophising. Leach states, for example, that ‘[o]ur ideal of life should be that of self-sacrifice for the goal of social betterment, compassion, and justice’. This is where Leach’s article is at its weakest. Are we to take his article to be an argument in favour of a certain view of human rights and what a human rights culture should look like, or are we to take it as a kind of ‘I have a dream’ speech? It seems to incorporate both, creating an uneasy tension between a philosophical discussion of different views of human rights and an impassioned plea to change the world.

I believe there is a better line of argument to the one adopted by Leach. All value judgements based on what may or may not be ‘fundamental’ values and all talk of ‘pathology’ should be thrown out as they are far too subjective and far too ideological. All references or inferred references to what is natural should go as there is no solid evidential basis for them, and even if there were, that something may be ‘natural’ is not in itself a compelling argument. If we want to defend and promote human rights, starting with the individual is a far more effective and rational approach than proposing arguments based on collectivism and ‘moral’ notions of human solidarity, especially given the fact that, in the real world, most human beings really don’t think or live in that way.

The most basic and, for me, satisfying defence of a human rights culture is Rorty’s simple statement that a society based on human rights ‘is much more likely to produce greater human happiness’ than one that is not.[7] An argument can easily be made that appeals to the individual and to self-interest, which at the same time can benefit the wider community: I support human rights not because my heart aches with compassion for every other human being on this planet, but because living in a society based on human rights gives me both freedom and security. The vast majority of people are attracted to freedom and security, therefore this is the best starting point when promoting and defending human rights. It’s not a cast iron argument, but human rights themselves are fragile, and it is more likely to be seen as a compelling argument than being told that we must order a society in a certain way because we are required to do so by ‘fundamental moral imperatives’ (we should also remember that the Nazis considered exterminating Jews to be derived from such fundamental imperatives). The assertion that individualism forms the bedrock of human rights also provides a bulwark against racism and other forms of irrationalism that are based on collectivism, blood mysticism, in-group thinking, tribalism, and so on.

Unlike me, Leach is an advocate not only of human rights, but also of Socialism, although I feel his article unfortunately ends up trying to imply that one can’t have one without the other, which is manifestly untrue. Far be it from me to tell Leach how to argue for Socialism, but again I would say that his desire for ‘affectionate egalitarianism’ needs to be argued for independently of any reference to ‘human nature’, ‘pathology’, and so on, especially given his claim that his Socialism is really derived from what he ‘values’ as opposed to originating from any evidence or comprehensive philosophical system.

The key point, I feel, is that, as I have argued previously, we should leave all arguments based on ‘nature’ (and that includes appeals to ‘fundamental’ aspects of ‘human nature’) out of the argument for human rights. While we’re at it, I’d throw out politics and philosophy too…

[1] Joshua F. Leach, ‘Individual Rights and Collective Responsibility’, Butterflies & Wheels, April 5, 2010.
[2] Comment by Joshua Leach, April 17, 2010.
[3] Edmund Standing, ‘Against Nature: Why Nature Should Have No Say on Human Sexuality’, Butterflies & Wheels, February 18, 2005.
[4] Edmund Standing, ‘On Nature and Justice’, Butterflies & Wheels, July 23, 2006.
[5] Friedrich Nietzsche (1990) [1886] Beyond Good and Evil, trans. RJ Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books), p.197.
[6] Richard Rorty (1994) ‘Ethics Without Principles’ in idem (1999) Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books), p.86.
[7] Richard Rorty (1998) ‘Pragmatism, Pluralism, and Postmodernism’ in idem (1999) Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books), p.270.

About the Author

Edmund Standing holds a BA in Theology & Religious Studies and an MA in Critical & Cultural Theory. His other articles on this website can be found in the articles archive.

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