IN THE CLOSING months of his presidency, Bill Clinton and some of his entourage have taken to using the buzzphrase "human and political rights" to replace the simpler "human rights." A call to the White House press office produced no explanation of the coinage, but assured me that "no policy change was implied." It's always nice to know that it is business as usual.
One would like to think that some sense of the paradoxes and complications of the term "human rights" had come home to the administration, and that in consequence it was on its way to even more qualifications: perhaps "human, political, economic, legal, cultural, national, sexual and domestic rights." This may be too much to hope for, but one gets the impression that President Clinton has meant to restrict "human" to "personal and family" and so needs to tack on "political" to cover all those "rights" that are to do with the wider society and participation in it. But what does this mean? That political rights are not human? That "human" has to do only with our persons and families? Whatever happened to "natural rights", which traditionally used to cover all of the above?
So much has now been written about "human rights" that, like President Clinton, we tend to lose our perspective and get confused. As with the classic issue of "natural rights" before it, the debate becomes so infused with passion that straight thinking is almost impossible. Argument about rights of one sort or another is both possible and desirable, particularly given the current penchant for using "human rights" as a basis for often quite brutal foreign policy decisions. But we have to recognize that putting "human" in front of "rights" -- when, for example, talking of the "human right" of people to free elections--is simply to use a warm hurrah word as a rhetorical device. In the same way, wars of political suppression become "humanitarian interventions", and anything we do not currently happen to like becomes "unnatural", even if it is something as basically human as the hunting of game animals or investment in multiple spouses.
Both "human" and "natural" do have a real content, and we can identify that content. Given the all-too-free use of these terms, perhaps we should ask ourselves what that content might be. The trouble is that we have used them as hurrah words for so long, that we balk at any result that is not consonant with our current enlightened prejudices. We want to define what is natural; we do not want nature to do it for us, for the result might not be pretty.
Thus, if anyone were to make an argument, however logical, coherent and backed by evidence, that there was no natural or human right to vote, for example, he would not be answered so much as ridiculed and condemned as reactionary and anti-humanitarian. Yet a respectable argument could indeed be made that there is nothing in nature, or certainly in the nature of being human, that demands the right to vote as such. That right is not so much a natural or human right as one contingent on the fairly advanced economic and political development of certain civilizations. This is probably the sort of thing Clinton has in mind when he adds political to human in the rights catalogue.
The natural/human right might be phrased as "a right to a say in the affairs of one's group." How such participation in group decision-making is to be ensured, however, is not defined by anything in nature or humanity. Voting only becomes an issue at a certain sophisticated level of political development. It may be possible to argue that at such a level everyone has a right to vote (although exceptions will rapidly be listed--children, lunatics, felons, peers, exiles, non-residents, resident non-citizens, non-property owners, unregistered persons), but such a right is scarcely natural or human. It is more properly cultural, or social and political, deriving from the nature of government so achieved rather than from facts of nature or humanity.
On the other hand, a very good argument could be made, using basic kin selection theory, that there is a natural and human right to revenge. If someone kills my nephew or grandson, he robs me of a proportion of my inclusive fitness, that is, the strength of my personal gene pool. To redress this imbalance, it could be argued, I have the right to inflict a similar loss on him. I should be allowed to deprive him of someone related to him. This could be satisfied by killing two of his first cousins, or any such combination that would level the balance sheet. It is remarkable that many systems of vengeance in human society seem implicitly to observe the logic of inclusive fitness. They do not, for example, necessarily prescribe that I kill the person responsible: one of his kin or clan will do just as well.
This system of vengeance is less efficient as a redress than a system whereby I would get to impregnate one of the perpetrator's females, thus forcing him to raise to viability a person carrying my own genes. Actually, in the example cited this would amount to overcompensation, since I would gain by half to a loss of one quarter. It would be more exact if my brother were allowed to make the impregnation, thus restoring the exact balance. Either method is of course impractical given intertribal or clan hostility, but note how ubiquitous is the practice of impregnating captive women or the women of defeated rivals. The advancing Russian forces in World War II made a massive effort to redress the imbalance caused by German depredations during Operation Barbarossa. Russian genes are now being nurtured by the Federal Republic's economic and welfare systems on a vast scale.
I probably do not have the right to demand that any superordinate entity carry out this vengeance for me (although I may call on supernatural agencies, and will commonly use sorcery to harm an offender). In strict fitness theory I am bound to redress my own wrongs and either succeed or fail, thus determining my own ultimate fitness in terms of the genes that I, and those who have genes in common with me through descent, contribute to the pool. Perhaps the most basic claim we have against a collective entity is that it leave us alone to settle our affairs. It is generally observed, however, that as human societies evolve, many of the self-help functions are delegated to some superordinate authority.
This is the essence of the social contract: for the sake of harmony within the group, certain basic rights to individual action are delegated to the group itself. Hence, compensation comes to substitute for vengeance. Again, this is often framed in reproductive terms: compensation for a murdered man is that which will enable his kin to raise another child to replace him. In many systems before the advent of the monopolistic state, there was no question of personal retribution through the execution of the murderer. Just compensation, which would enable the genetic replacement of the victim, was considered sufficient. This can be seen as a humanitarian advance in human morals, or as a retrograde step depriving individuals of the right of vengeance, but either way there is no question that it preserved the idea of redressing the genetic imbalance caused by a human-activated death. The monopolistic state, however, declares that there is no individual right to vengeance, and reserves that right to itself. Thus th e state exacts retributive justice, but leaves the kin of the victim without compensation, and the imbalance permanent. It is not clear how this is an improvement on the older systems of self-help or compensation ("blood money").
The Woody Allen Question
IT DOES, however, raise an interesting question: At a certain point of development in human social complexity, does the collectivity acquire "human rights" over the individual? This is important because so much of the above-mentioned writing on human rights assumes them to be by definition individual rights. This often goes to the length of seeing no rights as inhering in any collectivity-except, perhaps, the family--and even as seeing the collectivity as the automatic enemy of human rights. Such rights are almost by definition rights against the state. But there have always been human collectivities; we are, as F.H. Bradley observed, following Darwin, following Aristotle, a rootedly social animal. In fact, Bradley argued, we could show that individuals did not exist: the social was real and the individual the abstraction. Take away from any so-called individual everything contributed to his nature and person by society (starting with the genetic contribution of his parents, grandparents and so forth) and wh at is left? Nothing. The whole idea of rights being peculiar to individuals only becomes possible with self-conscious creatures, of which humans are the only example.
What sense does it make to attribute individual rights to ants? Woody Allen's neurotic worker, oppressed by the collective morality of the colony in the movie Ant, is only funny because it is impossible: an anthropomorphizing of the ant condition. But it is interesting because that is precisely what has happened in the human situation. A mammal living in socially complex colonies, like baboons or chimpanzees, suddenly (in evolutionary terms) became conscious of its own condition, probably by evolving powers of speech with which to talk about it. Baboons cannot have individual rights any more than ants. They simply do what they have to do to be baboons and produce more baboons. But once a primate is conscious of its condition, then it can start to ask the Woody Allen type of question: "Why must I always do the things the group wants to do? Why can't I decide for myself what is good for me?" In this way it can formulate the notion first of "individuals" and then of certain things owing to individuals: just as the group has a "right" to a territory, so an individual has a "right" to ... the answer is pretty much anything it can think up. Once started on this delusional pathway there is ultimately no limit except that of the imagination.
The individual "rights" that a primitive, self-conscious, but of necessity group-living primate would claim would of course be based on its individual needs to feed and procreate successfully. But it is important to note that at this level the need to claim rights over the demands of the group would not arise, since the group would be the individual's inclusive kinship network. All individuals feed, struggle for dominance, mate and raise young. In this process, the existence of the group is a necessity like the existence of natural resources. Individuals will make altruistic sacrifices for the group since it is essentially a group of kin, and thus represents the repository of their inclusive fitness. There is no way in which the small group of relatives could be seen as somehow having different interests from those of the individuals composing it. In Bradleyan terms, there could be no distinction between the society and the individual.
A Profoundly Unfair Process
AS LEVELS of social complexity increased after the Neolithic revolution, some 10,000 years ago, organisms would increasingly be dealing with (relative) genetic strangers who made demands on them in the name of social units whose genes were not identical by descent with theirs. It is at this stage that true conflict would have occurred, as organisms started to feel the need to assert their "rights"; that is, the things they needed to do in order to ensure their fitness: the means of reproduction.
In a strict sense, this is the upper limit of the natural or human claims that an organism (read: individual) can have against any collectivity of genetic strangers. It is the area Clinton seems to have in mind when using "human." It is a claim based on the functional necessities of reproductive competition. It cannot be a claim to reproduce successfully, only a claim to be allowed to compete for reproductive success. It is not a claim for fairness: something that Rawlsians would like to write into the "original position." Natural selection is a profoundly unfair process; indeed, that is the point of it. Some start with a genetic advantage over others; all men are not created equal. But all have a right to play their hands to the best of their ability. The group has no obligation to level the playing field unnaturally, but it has an obligation to let the players play.
So we might say that the only basic human rights are those that allow individuals to compete in the reproductive struggle. These would be rights of access to potential mates, and to the resources needed to acquire, hold and breed with them; and the right to raise offspring to viability. (This would underline the claim that the right to "equality" refers to equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. The outcome has to be unequal or natural selection would not take place.) We could speak of a "human right to procreate", although I would prefer to state it as the "right to engage in reproductive competition." For it is important that we recognize these basic human rights not as claims to some kind of benevolence or handouts from the collectivity (even though we may decide such benevolence is due for other reasons). They are claims to be allowed to take part in the reproductive struggle. Insofar as we fail, we fail, and as long as we were not artificially restricted in our attempt we have no cause for com plaint.
To take a currently contentious issue: Is there a "human right" to free choice of one's marriage partner? (I am sure Clinton would regard this as a "human" and not a "political" right.) To those of us reared in a relentlessly individualistic society, such a right seems obvious and basic. But it is so only in such a society. In a society where the clan or extended family is the basic unit--and note that this itself is the basic "human" unit--then it is equally obvious that such a choice is too important to be left to individual whim. What is at stake is the continuing reproductive success of a group of genetically close individuals. The parents of any potential couple carefully monitor the match in light of the probability of a successful reproductive outcome. In doing so, they are acting not only in protection of their own inclusive fitness, but also, in terms of their greater experience and predictive ability, in protection of that of the young couple.
There is nothing either unnatural or inhuman here. On the contrary, our attitude of allowing whimsical affections and passions to decide the choice of partner, with the often subsequent consequences of divorce, step-parent abuse, one-parent family problems and the like, can be seen as inhuman, unnatural and reprehensible. But so high in our value system have we elevated individual choice that it appears to us simply "self-evident" that arranged marriage is unthinkable. It is an infringement of "human rights." It may be an infringement of something, and there may indeed be good moral arguments against it, but the "human rights" argument will not wash.
You might counter that I have just said that the group should not interfere with the right to compete for reproductive success. But in the case just cited it does not do so. Rather, it seeks to reinforce the chances of individual reproductive success, and we could forcefully argue that the group has the "human right" to do so. Societies with arranged marriages are easily out-reproducing those with free choice, despite the access to better medical care, sanitation and nutrition in the latter. There is nothing in the "laws of nature" that says the kin group (the pool of genes related by descent) should not seek to enhance the reproductive success of its members. On the contrary, it should seek to do so, since individuals--given imagination, intelligence and free will, and hence the capacity for delusion--as often as not act against their reproductive self-interest.
Thus, non-kin collectivities, while certainly often acting against the interests of their members, will also often move in to prevent at least self-destructive behavior that might injure individual reproductive success: drug misuse, suicide, child abuse, infanticide or abortion. More positively, they support those whose behavior has reduced their chances of raising children to viability. Monastic institutions in the Middle Ages, while manned by celibate "brothers and sisters", were homes for a staggering number of otherwise doomed infants deposited by those unable to support them. Social welfare systems operate on the same principle: although we have no natural right to their assistance, they have a natural right to assist us. Here non-kin collectivities are taking over the functions that originated, and have their logic, in the kin group. If we support them and they support us it is because of a natural extension of mutuality from the "original position" of kin support.
It is in the interest of a nation, for example, that it reproduce itself. It tends, in its delusional-ideological system, to pass itself off as a super kin group. At the primitive level of evolving humanity (99 percent of our existence as a species) there was no need for such pretense. The kin group was, in essence, the social collectivity. This is why I have argued above that at the most basic, and hence most "human", level there would be no "rights" issue. In promoting the success of near kin we are promoting the success of our own genes (or, more correctly, they are using us to promote their success).
Still within the purview of basic kin selection theory, we have another human right: the right to nepotistic assistance. We have the right both to assist close kin and to receive assistance from them in the pursuit of our own reproductive success. Until the advent of meritocratic bureaucracy, the world lived by this principle. It is what "kinship" is all about: all those gentes, clans, sibs, septs, moieties, phratries, lineages, houses, kindreds and extended families. There is no human society that does not map out, often in alarming detail, its universe of kin, the better to calculate the degree and kind of help and obligation expected. The term nepotism, from the Latin nepos (grandson, sister's son), was first invented to describe the hypocritical (but most certainly "natural") tendency of prelates either to favor their nephews or to hide their illegitimate sons under the nepotic tide. In another stunning reversal of natural values, we have now made it one of the worst crimes against "equality"--which it m ost assuredly is. This does not prevent us, though, at all levels of society up to the very top, from wallowing in the hypocrisy. The most basic feature of social evolution is not so easily defined away.
The point of the above examples is to make us wary of a free and easy use of the terms "human" and "natural." It is not to say that there are no other rights than those that exist in some guttural, shambling, scavenging state of protohuman existence. Of course there are. But we should be more careful in the logical underpinning we choose to give to these rights, if for no other reason than that we render the terms meaningless and empty and rob them even of rhetorical value.
Also, as we have seen, human rights may be rights to all kinds of behaviors that our sophisticated and sensitive liberal natures may abhor. Hunting is a good example, given the current threat in England to ban fox hunting on "humanitarian" grounds, which seem to have more to do with puritanical objections to the hunters' enjoyment than with the supposed suffering of the fox. A very good case could be made that the "right to procreate" (which has now been established in U.S. common law) includes the right to polygamy (polygyny and polyandry) for those who can afford it and want it. Why should the state--on grounds that are always fuzzy and derive largely from religious prejudice--limit the number of spouses? The overwhelming majority of human societies (approximately 85 percent) have allowed or enjoined polygamy. Again, the "advanced" societies have reversed this tendency, which is wholly "natural" in a sexually competitive species of large land mammals with moderate sexual dimorphism and late-maturing young. As with the Romans, the argument for monogamy is egalitarian. But as we have seen, nature is not egalitarian: if some succeed and some fail in the polygamy stakes, then the same is in fact true of monogamy, where some will always outbreed others. And yet again, the monogamous societies, while banning multiple marriages as "unnatural", hypocritically allow all kinds of multiple mating--serial monogamy being the most common example in modern Western society.
It is a pretty safe bet that almost anything we have condemned as "unnatural" is something that we know will flourish if we leave it alone. For if something is natural we have no need to buttress it with sanctions; it will take care of itself.
Nature 's Neutrality
WHAT, THEN, should we call these rights that are not basic, natural or human, but which we "know" to be desirable? (Thus we may not know what human rights are, but we certainly know when we have lost them.) Surely, you say, we should not give in to relativism and suggest that they are simply local preferences without universal validity. At least I hope you are saying that, because that pernicious doctrine has achieved a sinister grip among the scribbling classes. It is perhaps strange that the triumph of relativism should come at the same time that the pursuit of "human rights issues has come to dominate international affairs and foreign policies. Yet the two trends are not unrelated. In a world of relativistic morals, we would have no basis for attacking offenders against "rights" if these could be dismissed as mere cultural preferences. We therefore have to underpin certain rights as "human" to stress their universality. If they pertain to all humans--on what grounds is not always clear--then they are impe rvious to the relativist's objection. What is truly strange is that a good many theory-befuddled academics and activists hold both views at the same time, lauding relativism in defense of "multicultural" agendas while denouncing, say, female circumcision as contrary to "universal human rights." Logic is usually the first fatality in ideological warfare.
The cherished rights enshrined in the Constitution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the UN Charter and human rights declaration, and all the treaties and commissions up to the Helsinki Accords and the establishment of the International Criminal Court--all of these are highly evolved political and social rights that derive from the Western Enlightenment tradition, with its basic values of equality and universal-ism. Many of them are peculiar to the Christian tradition. Despite attempts to base these rights on "nature", in most cases they--by their very design--either run counter to nature or, at best, concern things about which nature is strictly neutral.
We have looked at some of the former. As examples of the latter we might suggest that "nature" gives us no clues about what form certain institutions might take, only about the rules of engagement, as it were. We should be able to accrue resources so as to take part in the reproductive struggle. But exactly how we should accrue those resources (whether they include that Enlightenment favorite, "property", for example), to what lengths we should go to prevent others (our reproductive rivals) from accruing them, and to what extent we should assist our close kin by passing resources to them--on all these matters nature is silent. The winners will be rewarded, but they will be rewarded if they cheat as well as if they play fair. They will be rewarded if they kill and torture, if that is what gets more of their genes into the pool. They will be rewarded if they cooperate, if that is what gets it done. We can see that some behaviors will be self-defeating--too many cheaters will leave too few suckers--and probably self-limiting as a strategy in the long run. But in the short run, a cheater can perfectly well manage a respectable score in the inclusive fitness stakes. We still celebrate the con man and the huckster, and especially deride the cuckold. The law may take one view, but popular opinion is not fooled.
Inclusive fitness theory--preserving and enlarging one's personal gene pool--is only one way into the issue of what is basically human. I have taken it here simply as an example. Take another approach, say, the findings of psychology into the basic list of human motivations. Certainly we shall find some that suit our warm and compassionate version of "human", but there will be a list of others that we would not want on any list of things to be fought for and protected and promoted.
Take again those things we have in common with our nearest animal relatives, the chimpanzees, whose genetic material is 98 percent our own. There is the warm and fuzzy list all right, but there is also, as Jane Goodall discovered to her warm-hearted horror, warfare, genocide, cannibalism, homicide, female beating, infanticide, violence, domination and more.
Take, say, those features that have been found common to all human societies by comparative ethnography. Once again, the list of saintly characteristics is overbalanced by the dark features that seem so inescapably human. It is a pure act of judgment to say that the dark features, all of which can be shown to have contributed to survival, are to be regarded as less "human" than the ones we have selected as worthy of promotion. And there will be yet others that have served survival purposes and are regarded as benign by even a majority--and have been so regarded throughout history--such that in our enlightened judgment they must be added to the list of the truly human.
Aspirations, Not Needs
SO WHERE are we left with our rights problem? Does it really matter if the term "human" is wrongly applied to rights? It does, because this is an area that is too important for us to indulge in systematic self-delusion. We are moving into a period when the pursuit of "human rights issues" is filling the vacuum in foreign policy left by the disappearance of clear-cut "national interest" issues (for example, Robin Cook's much-touted "ethical foreign policy" for the UK). This has already been the excuse for us to break the rules of international behavior established in the "national interest" period, to bomb a sovereign nation into submission and kill at least one thousand people. This stance threatens to start another and more deadly war with China. It is moralistic, self-righteous and aggressive. It is dangerous as well as hypocritical in its selective action. Yugoslavia was in the end massively bombed to preserve "the credibility of NATO." How useful that "human rights" could be invoked as a cynical justifica tion. (See also the human and "national" rights of Kuwaiti sheiks that were so gallantly protected in what otherwise might have seemed to be an old-fashioned war to protect our vital oil Interests.) And given the moral state of our politicians, this is about all we can expect.
Robert Benchley was of the opinion that whenever a government began shouting "spies!" it was inevitably trying to divert attention from its own shady business. Perhaps we can be forgiven for suspecting something of the sort when we hear politicians chanting the mantra of "human rights"--usually to cover some hypocritical, and inevitably blundering, manipulation of the UN by the powers in the Security Council.
Given the inevitable skepticism about governmental honesty (or at least competence), we should at the very least insist on being clear about what we are doing and on what grounds we are doing it. We should not take action on the grounds that what we are supporting or suppressing is in some sense essentially "human", when it is no such thing. A great deal of what is human is in fact what is at the root of what we are opposing, suppressing, killing and destroying in the name of human rights. To achieve the kind of world envisioned in the treaties, charters and commissions, we must indeed suppress and destroy--or at the very least control--human nature. We are not acting for it, we are acting against it, or we are supplementing it in those cases where it gives us no guidance. As Katherine Hepburn said to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen: "Human nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above."
Human rights theorists are often quite honest about this. They disclaim any attempt to base these rights on human nature or human needs and define them as "the best to which we can aspire", or as based on "a moral vision of a dignified human life." This is fine, but it is not then plausible to claim at the same time that these rights are "based on the very fact of being human." They are not; they are based on the fact of individuals being trapped in oppressive collectivities. This is why they must, by definition, be individual rights.
There is nothing wrong with defining rights in terms of high human aspirations, but they will then require a very different justification from rights based on human needs. They involve, in effect, a purely teleological justification: human rights become the rights we need in order to achieve a certain desired end state of society, not rights derived from the elusive state of true humanness. Thus rights involving inclusive fitness are more likely to be respected currently in fundamentalist Islamic societies than in Western democracies. But societies based on Islamic law are usually the ones most offensive to human rights activists.
It can be argued that human rights based on aspirations are no less human than those based on needs. But the problem is that we can aspire to virtually anything, and how do we choose between competing aspirations? Needs at least give us some criteria of arbitration, and very necessary ones, since many liberal-democratic-individualist aspirations, however laudable, have the quality we observed of running counter to basic needs and thus defeating their own objectives. Is there any point in aspiring to a state of affairs that is so inhuman that it is unsustainable, however ethically desirable? The true hair-splitters will want to argue that such impossible aspiration is also very human, and so it is; we are nothing if not a paradoxical animal.
Human Rights and the National Interest
ONE OF THE major paradoxes surrounding the human rights issue is that it became central to foreign policy as part of a deliberate strategy to protect the national interest. Human rights activists will not like this claim, of course. They prefer, as is their way, to think they are acting from nothing but the highest and purest moral considerations. But even they will admit that these explicit concerns--as opposed to a general U.S. urge to be the world's good guys--had a definite beginning in the Ford administration. They prefer, however, to forget that this stance was deliberately engineered by Daniel Patrick Moynihan to counter the hypocrisy of the Third World communist bloc.
Moynihan, as ambassador to the UN, was tired of just sitting there and taking it when the bloc used anti-capitalist moralizing as a basis for attacking the policies of the democracies at the behest of the USSR. So he developed the strategy of counterattacking (or even getting in the first punch) on the rounds of the abuse of "human rights" by these regimes. This brilliantly put the democracies on the attack, reversing their previously defensive stance of continual apology. It put the onus of explanation and justification on the totalitarian dictatorships and their bullyboy leaders. It was not, however, something that arose out of humanitarian concern for the benighted inhabitants of these Third World terror regimes, but out of the need to combat their governments' belligerence in the UN, and hence to curtail the influence of our major competitor.
I am not saying that anything Senator Moynihan did could have been totally cynical, but he was quite clear about the development of this as a strategy of foreign policy first and foremost. In A Dangerous Place (1978), he describes this as his "jujitsu principle": "to use the momentum of the majority against the majority." It was in the defense of the national interest and in the interest of the Western alliance. As one strategy among many to promote our collective ends, it had its place. As an excuse for foreign policy today--given the huge amount of post-Cold War military hardware available, and the compelling urge presidents and premiers seem to have to use that hardware--it deserves a close and skeptical scrutiny. This involves both a scrutiny of its practical dangers, best left to strategists, and of its theoretical underpinnings. With this latter enterprise, some otherwise useless academics can at least show that even if the emperor has new clothes, they are woven of dubious synthetic fibers.
Robin Fox is University Professor of Social Theory at Rutgers University. His most recent book relevant to this subject is Conjectures and Confrontations: Science, Evolution, Social Concern (Transaction Publishers, 1997).
Knowing When to Stop
We must take care that rebellion against the very concept of limits does not become the permanent feature of the American response to international politics. For the recognition of some constraints is an attribute, perhaps the price, of maturing in societies as well as in people... . Mediocre societies and statesmen limit themselves to the easily attainable. Great societies and statesmen strive at the outer reaches of their possibilities. But the denial of any limits leads to exhaustion or disaster.
Henry Kissinger, Years of Renewal…