Raw Freedom

Article excerpt

The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna adjourned in agreement to disagree. [On this subject, see also Laura Flanders's report on page 174.] Delegations from the industrialized countries returned home in dismay that some large percentage., if not a majority, of their fellow human beings do not recognize the universality of the right to freedom of expression. Delegations from the developing countries, meanwhile, went home 'depressed once again by the callousness of those dismayed colleagues, who denied there is such a thing as a right to development and rejected the idea that they had any obligation to help secure that right for people whose freedom iS bounded by the struggle for life itself.

Before the next such conference is called, delegates who purport to speak for the industrialized world should re-examine the history by which they came into possession of the rights they celebrate as universals. They could not have a better guide than the philosopher of science Alfred North Whitehead. With Bertrand Russell, in their historic Principia Mathematica (1910-13), he set the foundation for the liberating recognition that mathematics is an empirical science, like any other. In his later years he turned to moral philosophy. In a brief essay, "Aspects of Freedom," published sixty years ago. he set the terms for inquiry into the historical foundations of human rights:

When we think of freedom, we are apt to confine ourselves to freedom of thought, freedom of the press, freedom for religious opinions. Then the limitations of freedom are conceived as wholly arising from the antagonisms of our fellow men. This is a thorough mistake. The massive habits of physical nature, its iron laws, determine the scene for the suffering of men. Birth and death, heat, cold, hunger, separation, disease, the general impracticability of purpose all bring their quota to imprison the souls of women and of men .... The essence of freedom is the practicability of purpose. Mankind has chiefly suffered from the frustration of its prevalent purposes, even such as belong to the very definition of its species. The literary exposition of freedom deals mainly with the frills. …