Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections: Philosophical Perspectives on Greek and Chinese Science and Culture

By Geoffrey Lloyd | Go to book overview

11 Human Nature and Human Rights

On what basis, if any, can claims to objective moral judgements be made? On what principles should personal and social relations be regulated? Do the claims customarily made, about good and evil, right and wrong, merely reflect the subjective feelings, intuitions, assumptions, or upbringing of those making them—let alone their prejudices and their naked self-interest? Two concepts that currently play a central role in this debate are those of human nature and of human rights. Yet both, as I shall argue in the first part of this study, are problematic. That should not, however, force us to adopt a relativistic position on these questions—as I shall argue in the second part of the chapter. Rather, for the discourse on human nature, we should substitute that of justice and equity, and we need to replace the discourse on rights with one that focuses rather on responsibilities, ties, and obligations. My aim in this chapter is, once again, to explore what a study of earlier thought can tell us about ongoing, twenty-first-century, problems.

The major difficulty that we face throughout this enquiry should be confronted at the outset. In the discussion of classification in Chapter 8 , I already noted the immense diversity of cultures, a diversity that encompasses especially differences in views on how to behave, in particular customs, practices, legal and political arrangements. It was precisely that diversity that has been used to suggest difficulties for objectivity in any field of classification, including those of natural kinds such as animals and plants, where cultural relativism serves as a model, one might say, for relativism in science more generally. That other people's views on correct behaviour should be reported but not censured, and that the Western observer should not tell them what to do, were key assumptions from the start of ethnographic fieldwork, and ones that marked out the ethnographer from, for example, the missionary. However, the agenda of the ethnographer's own fellow-countrymen—including those most keen to engage in such research—only slowly

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