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Students of Human Rights
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arvindiyer Offline
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Students of Human Rights

Recently, I happened to read the [url=http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml
]Universal Declaration of Human Rights [/url]and watch this tutorial video from Amnesty International and this aptly animated version (which coincidentally was posted on Facebook too).

One would assume that after 21st-century high-school education, these rights must be known cold, but we all know all too well about the gaps in Civics education. Let us use this forum to become students of Human Rights. Here are some questions we can address:

1. What is the philosophical basis and historical origin of each of these human rights?

(eg. The idea that all human beings deserve rights because they are endowed with 'autonomy and reason', was perhaps first explicitly stated by Kant.)

2. What are the circumscriptions, exceptions and priorities that apply when one or more human rights conflict with each other?

(eg. When can a State impose penalties upon someone claiming to exercise her right to nationhood and self-determination by demanding a new state?)

3. Since the declaration of the Universal Human Rights, how much have things changed for the better and is the incidence of violations decreasing?

(Perhaps updates and news feeds from human rights watch committees in India should be part of our regular reading.)

4. The declaration was drafted way back in 1948. If we were to draft another declaration today, what rights would we add?

(We must remember that the Civil Rights Movement in the US happened much after many of the rights demanded therein were already explicitly stated in the UN Declaration. Now that consciousness has risen about other injustices which may have been treated as fait accompli in 1948, perhaps the document needs to be updated.)
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Lije Offline
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RE: Students of Human Rights

Thanks for bringing this up. I had been meaning to ask on what basis do freethinkers/naturalists chose their morality on. Justifying human rights is a good starting point for that.

(10-02-2011 09:34 PM)arvindiyer Wrote:  1. What is the philosophical basis and historical origin of each of these human rights?

This is a question that interests me the most. I watched the video on Kant. I won't say I understood it fully, but I find Kant's emphasis on duty unsettling, mainly because that is what religions subscribe to. I did find Kant's arguments for human dignity very persuasive and they may be sufficient enough for human rights, but I'm looking for a philosophical argument that isn't duty based, but still makes a strong case for human rights. My noob understanding of utilitarian philosophy tells me that it can, but I'd like to know if that is correct.

Also, as we have a vested interest in Indian culture, another question that seems appropriate here is, how well did Indian philosophies handle human rights? I know that the astika philosophies with their emphasis on varna dharma and karma fail in that aspect. What about other Indian philosophies?
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arvindiyer Offline
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RE: Students of Human Rights

(11-02-2011 01:43 AM)Lije Wrote:  I find Kant's emphasis on duty unsettling, mainly because that is what religions subscribe to.

Though the emphasis of both is on 'duty', what they base the definition of 'duty' on couldn't be more different. Perhaps the discomfort with the term 'duty' is because it is commonly understood to be derived from the injunctions of an authority.
However, Kant defines duty in terms of the categorical imperative , the application of which is an exercise of reason.
Contrast this with the following view of duty, which can be taken as the viewpoint of Hindu orthodoxy (coming as it does from an organization close to the Sangh Parivar and claiming to represent Hindu interests), from the original source here.
Quote:In matters of the Self, of dharma and religion, the Vedas are in the forefront as our guide. Next come the dharmasastras. Third is the conduct of the great sages of the past. Fourth is the example of the virtuous people of our own times. Conscience comes last in determining dharma.
So in the Kantian framework, 'duty' is derived from an exercise of reason while in this purported Vedic framework it is a faith-based submission to an arbitrary formulation.

(11-02-2011 01:43 AM)Lije Wrote:  I'm looking for a philosophical argument that isn't duty based, but still makes a strong case for human rights. My noob understanding of utilitarian philosophy tells me that it can, but I'd like to know if that is correct.

Kant, like Locke before him, rejects utilitarianism because its emphasis on the benefit of the collective can potentially be at the cost of individual rights, which to him are sacrosanct. For him, any system that treats people as means to an end (social or political) and not as ends in themselves, is unacceptable. This conforms to an everyday notion, namely our intuitive rejection of 'using people'.

From the definition of the categorical imperative,
Quote:The second premise is that conduct is "right" if it treats others as ends in themselves and not as means to an end (the "Second Maxim")

Lectures 1-4 in Harvard's Justice course have a comprehensive evaluation of utilitarianism and how libertarianism to a degree addresses its limitations.

Do we find anywhere in Indian philosophy the principle that people are ends in themselves? Probably not. The Bhagavad Gita in 3:20 and 3:25 emphasizes that even somebody who has attained the highest individual goal ('Self-realization'), must eventually function as a means of 'lokasangraha' (literally 'keeping the world well-constituted'), commonly interpreted as sustaining the world order. This supports the claim that according to the Bhagavad Gita, even the highest type of human being (in its estimation) is little more than a means of 'world sustenance' and in this collectivistic bias, the Gita falls short of the Kantian standard.

(11-02-2011 01:43 AM)Lije Wrote:  I know that the astika philosophies with their emphasis on varna dharma and karma fail in that aspect. What about other Indian philosophies?

I have no references to back this up, but the Buddha while specifying Right Livelihood in the Eightfold Path, forbade sale, trafficking and ownership of human beings and in this sense, declared slavery illegitimate. Perhaps this was the first ever such repudiation of slavery, considering that the ancient Greeks remained a slave-owning civilization and America ('One Nation Under God') had not outlawed slavery till Lincoln.
(This post was last modified: 30-07-2011 11:27 PM by arvindiyer.)
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arvindiyer Offline
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Alan Dershowitz : Rights from Wrongs

One useful aid in this study is the book "Rights from Wrongs : A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights" by American legal luminary Alan Dershowitz. Here is a recent news item describing how Prof. Dershowitz turns the Dominique Strauss-Kahn controversy into a teachable moment. The message of the book is proclaimed in the dedication itself: This book is respectfully dedicated to the countless victims of terrible human wrongs - wrongs that have been the source of human rights. May these rights help to prevent the recurrence of these and other wrongs.
Some answers suggested by the Introduction of this book to questions raised above, are as follows:

1. What is the philosophical basis and historical origin of each of these human rights?

Quote:The first classic answer is that rights come from a source external to law itself, such as nature, God, human instinct, or some objective reality. This theory (or, more precisely, set of theories) is generally called natural law...The second classic answer is that rights are internal to law - that they are granted by the law itself. This is generally called positive law.

In this book I challenge the approach to rights taken by both classic natural law and classic legal positivism. I propose a third way - an experiential approach based on nurture rather than nature, This approach builds a theory of rights from the bottom up, not from the top down. It constructs this theory by examining the history of injustices, inducing certain experiential lessons, and advocating rights based on those lessons. I therefore come down squarely on the side of nurture, rather than nature, as the primary source of our rights. I would prefer the term "nurtural rights" over "natural rights" if it were more pleasing to hear.

2. What are the circumscriptions, exceptions and priorities that apply when one or more human rights conflict with each other?

Quote:I'm a moral relativist only in the sense that, explained later on in this book, although I believe strongly in certain rights and in certain moral principles, I recognize that in truly extraordinary situations these rights and principles may have to be balanced against the imperative of survival.

3. Since the declaration of the Universal Human Rights, how much have things changed for the better and is the incidence of violations decreasing?

Quote:Today there are powerful forces that pose grave dangers to rights that we have long taken for granted. At the same time, many defenders of rights insist that we accept the case for them essentially on faith. The debate has become polemical, with one side arguing that the new reality of global terrorism changes everything, while the other argues that it changes nothing. A more nuanced discussion is needed to strike the appropriate and ever-changing balance between security and liberty.

4. The declaration was drafted way back in 1948. If we were to draft another declaration today, what rights would we add?

Quote:A fundamental right should be harder to change than a mere legislative preference. The process of adaptation must be deliberate. The reasons justifying change should be weighty, institutional and long-term. But as the very human framers of our Constitution understood, there must be some mechanism - however cumbersome and difficult - to change positive-law rights. Hence the amending process.

The approach towards rights in the book, seems to be one of 'realization-focused comparison' rather than 'transcendental institutionalism' (as outlined here)

Quote:It is more realistic to try and build a theory of rights on the agreed-upon wrongs of the past that we want to avoid repeating, than to try to build a theory of rights on idealized conceptions of the perfect society about which we will never agree. Moreover, a theory of rights as an experiential reaction to wrongs is more empirical, more observable, and debatable, and less dependent on unproven faith, metaphor and myth, than theories premised on sources external to human experience.

Here is a video by the same author talking about a different book at Authors@Google, but about similar themes such as fundamental rights and the case for certain restrictions on free speech.


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