Individual Rights and Collective Responsibility

The standard collectivist critique of individual rights has been with us a long time. It was best formulated in its classic outlines by the Catholic Church during the nineteenth century, amidst a great many cries for social and political change. The line the Church took at the time was essentially to say that rights cannot be understood without respect to “duties,” and that suffering and self-sacrifice are great virtues against which the individual should not be protected. As the classic statement on Catholic social teaching, the Rerum Novarum (1891), puts it, “The… pains and hardships of life will have no end or cessation on earth; for the consequences of sin are bitter and hard to bear, and they must accompany man so long as life lasts.” Rights guarantees, and efforts at social reform, therefore, prevent individuals from properly suffering. By endlessly insisting on individual rights, the document goes on to state, our modern societies tear apart the harmony of the community and lead to unrealistic calls for equality. “The great mistake… is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict… Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order.”

To summarize the religious objection to individual rights, then, such rights guarantee too much to the individual. They destroy social solidarity in the long run by fulfilling the avaricious whims of each person and by accepting as unavoidable endless conflicts of competing rights claims. They leave individuals free from collective constraints: free, that is, to be self-centered, even callous.

This is the most baffling sort of criticism human rights activists have to face. On the surface, in fact, it may appear utterly nonsensical. The argument is that by protecting people from injustice, human rights leave individuals free to pursue selfish objectives. If this is true, and standing up for the wellbeing of others furthers selfishness, then any opposition to oppression throughout human history has been done in the name of selfishness. To take an example close to the religious opponents of individual rights, we might say that by this logic, Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi were promoting selfishness when they gave all they had to the poor, since the poor could then spend whatever they received on self-centered objectives.

The ways in which such an ideology is useful to the powerful have been made only too obvious by history. Women’s liberation in the 19th century was condemned as viciously self-centered, because it emphasized a woman’s freedom to make autonomous choices. What religious opponents of early feminism insisted was that suffering and self-sacrifice were virtuous, so patriarchal domination must be encouraged. But of course, in a patriarchal system, the ones doing the suffering are women, particularly lower class women, while powerful men are more capable than ever of pursuing selfish objectives. The entire doctrine of selflessness and self-sacrifice therefore gets turned on its head, becoming the perfect cover for all varieties of greed and domination.

This is all clear enough. Strange as it may seem, however, it must be said that many of the major intellectuals who have criticized human rights as overly selfish have been anything but friends to injustice. It is these more humane arguments which we must examine and refute if we wish to defend human rights.

One might debate the merits of Karl Marx as an historical prognosticator, but his vision of the ideal society was a desirable one. It was intended to be a society in which human individuals related to one another in a fundamentally affectionate and noncoercive way. Tied in with this was a serious critique of human rights, or what Marx would have dismissed as “bourgeois rights.” This is the line of thinking advanced in his “On the Jewish Question,” which derides rights as being useful only to “egoistic man.” It is only because people are self-interested and alienated from one another in capitalist society that such societies require rights guarantees. Once people get in touch with their more elementary human affections and natural solidarities, such rights won’t even be necessary, according to Marx.

Simone Weil, the French intellectual, pursued a similar line of attack. One might have thought that human rights would be an unlikely target for a Resistance fighter and a participant on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, yet Weil eventually came to feel that rights only made sense in a world of privilege and inequality, even when those rights were meant to be equal rights. She felt that rights turn people out of their traditional communities and make them into autonomous dupes obsessed with their own self-interest and greed. When people are driven by motives such as these, the only possible result can be cruelty, narcissism, and inequality. Rights, even equal rights, are therefore simply an attempt to extend “privilege” to the underprivileged, writes Weil, which is fundamentally absurd because privilege can only ever be the product of inequality.

Common to these and similar ideas is the belief that rights serve the self-interest of the individual and diminish her love and affection for other people. If this were true, rights would have a great deal to answer for. But I think that common sense and the political conscience of most people tells them that it is not true at all, which is why the human rights movement enjoys a great deal of moral esteem.

The most important thing to insist in the face of Marx’s and Weil’s criticisms is that human rights are not a self-interested doctrine. We know this to be true because people devote their lives and livelihoods every day to defending the human rights of others. Bertrand Russell declared that the motivating force in his life was an “almost unbearable pity for the sufferings of mankind,” and this could be said, in greater or lesser degrees, of every major social reformer in history. Many of these held secular or humanistic views—the very same that are erroneously associated with selfishness and materialism—yet they were the ones on the front lines of every struggle for greater compassion in human affairs. The bishops and deacons of their days, meanwhile, were often nowhere to be found, or else complacently siding with the powerful.

This is a truth commonly understood: that people fighting for human rights are not animated by self-interest or callous self-regard. In fact, human rights arise out of our most fundamental collective moral imperative: namely, to protect the weak and vulnerable from harm. Empathy is where they begin and end.

According to Lynn Hunt’s fantastic book, Inventing Human Rights, rights language grew up in tandem with eighteenth century epistolary novels, such as Richardson’s Clarissa and Rousseau’s Julie, which introduced empathy into fiction and extended human feeling across class boundaries. By presenting the lives and needs of servants and governesses (women at that!) these novels made possible a kind of affectionate identification that traditional literature could not provide. Even if modern readers have a hard time relating to these sentimental eighteenth century novels, we can see the same sort of effect at work in Charlotte Bronte and other later writers. The goal of the author is clearly to present the hero or heroine as an individual worthy of respect, dignity, and personhood. As Jane Eyre declares at one point to Mr. Rochester: “Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings?… Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!” This is not a self-interested or individualistic ideal—precisely because it insists on the rights of individuals!

However, Weil might respond that even as human rights activists compassionately struggle for the rights of others, their efforts to do so will ultimately set back their own goals. Once rights are guaranteed to all people, those very same rights will turn the world into a cesspool of greed, with each autonomous citizen pursuing her own goals at the expense of everyone else.

I think we would agree with her that sadism and callousness can exist even amidst a robust human rights regime. If you doubt it, just read Martin Amis’ Money. New York and Hollywood do well compared to Zimbabwe when it comes to human rights standards, but if we recognize any piece of reality in Amis’ novel, we see that these places are no strangers to greed and depravity.

We also experience on a daily basis the fact that human beings can still be degraded even while their legal rights are respected. Modern societies are notoriously prone to coupling equal rights with savagely unequal social realities. People are degraded by inequality on both sides of the barrier. The poor obviously suffer all sorts of indignities, but they are not alone. The well-off are also degraded by the nature of ruthless competition. Marx pointed out that if you build a castle next to a cottage, the cottage becomes a hut. This sets off an endless struggle for greater and greater success, not to procure some useful end, but to outdo one’s peers. Build an even bigger castle next to the first and it becomes a hut as well.

Human rights such as those embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) cannot solve all of the world’s problems. They do not promise an antidote to these forms of degradation or oppression. To argue that they can be used as the sole basis for a complete theory of human flourishing is a bad idea, because it might encourage the notion that our only moral duties are to respect minimal human rights. If we want to live in a more compassionate, egalitarian society, we need to find ideals of life which don’t base the worth of the individual on success or material gain. Our ideal of life should be that of self-sacrifice for the goal of social betterment, compassion, and justice.

All this being said, however, Weil is ultimately and unforgivably wrong when she denounces human rights. Rights can coexist, as we have seen, with inequality and degradation, but they are goods in and of themselves. They may not alone produce perfectly compassionate societies, but they still take us a few steps in the right direction And if we ever want to go further, toward even more egalitarian and compassionate social arrangements, we at least need to start with these minimums. People can’t be expected to start caring about everyone all at once or lavishing love and compassion on the world if they don’t at least begin by respecting others enough not to torture or kill them.

As for greater goals of equality, these aren’t necessarily part of the human rights movement, and human rights activists may feel quite differently about them. Someone like Michael Ignatieff embraces human rights while being perfectly sanguine about capitalist inequality. Meanwhile, I would identify more with democratic socialism and wouldn’t find anything good to say for any form of inequality. I also feel that in order for equal rights to ever be respected, we are going to have to have equal social relations at home and abroad. However, a human rights activist might not necessarily agree, yet we would both support human rights and make common cause for their advancement. This does not mean that the differences between capitalists and democratic socialists are insignificant. But any humane person must recognize that regardless of one’s ultimate social goals, the starting place for the betterment of society is to do away with unjust practices and achieve basic human rights. Our ideals as to how to behave justly in our personal lives should certainly be far more comprehensive, but that does not diminish the value of legal minimums.

We may blame inequality for the modern worlds’ callousness and self-centeredness. In the United States, we see legions of “tea-partiers” and right-wingers today desperately clinging to privilege: small wonder that they do so when privilege is what seems to define a person’s self-worth in our societies. It is inequality which accounts for such pathological worldviews. But we cannot by any stretch of the imagination blame human rights. The effort to do away with all inequality must begin with rights. They are the starting-point, if not the end-point, of egalitarian justice.

Let us take this one step further, and state that the UDHR is in some ways a collectivist document. In its first article, it does not insist that people should behave callously or selfishly toward one another while respecting a bare moral standard: it insists rather that they should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood. It is collectivist, therefore, but not in a way that any oppressive collective would recognize, because it sees that a truly affectionate and egalitarian community cannot have outsiders or “others” deprived of rights. We might even go so far as to declare that this sort of community is inextricably bound up with human rights.

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