Human rights expert speaks at York

“There are no mysteries about human rights; a human right will exist when there are those who are at stake, when there are needs for the protections of certain values, values of personhood.” This explanation eclipsed a debate that has sparked over two questions: How can we tell a genuine human right? How do we establish the content of a particular human right?
Within his lecture Professor Griffin outlined the difficulties in the relativity of human rights, questioning the universal nature of rights developed in a western culture.

Combining his expatriate dry wit with examples ranging from the human right to life and euthanasia to the extreme case of counting blades of grass, Griffin expounded on the difficulties of the term ‘human rights’, citing that different societies would have different policies and approaches.

Within his research Griffin has explored different ethical approaches. “I argued that some ethical judgements, namely judgements about human interests are objective, not dependent on a person’s subjective state, desires or attitudes but upon considerations which would lead all rational persons to the same conclusion.” From this Griffin, clarified that “Ethical relativism does not stand alone, it is relative to basic evaluations.”

­Just how relative are human rights to western culture? “There are two ways to bring about an unforced human rights agreement; one would be to put the case of human rights as best we can from the sources of western tradition and hope that the easterner will look into the case and be attracted by what they find. The other would be to search for the ethical beliefs of other non-western concepts to provide a local justification for human rights.”

Griffin finally questioned the role of cultures; “as members of societies we tend to exaggerate the differences between other societies… it is by no means clear that any of us are a part of a culture, let alone which culture.” Despite, as Griffin’s expresses; “Human rights are not relative”, perhaps we as a result of law are led to exaggerate the problem of ethnocentricity within our modern culture.

2 comments

  1. There are myriad mysteries about human rights!
    The whole concept of individual human rights is deeply flawed.

    Of course there are no such thing as “rights” (define it?!… you’ll need to define “good” and “bad” objectively first…); what there are is instincts that responses to stimuli driving all living systems onto optimising survivability.

    “Rights” only exist within the context of a group within a sentient species, and are only justifiable in terms of how they order the group to achieve optimisation of survivability (i.e. inclusive fitness); in other words, the concept of individual rights makes no sense: you only have rights in terms of how others within a group treat you, thus they serve not the interests of the individual; but the interests of the group.

    With this in mind, things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) make only partial sense; there is much to challenge in the clumsy, arbitrary, and logically fallacious assertions.

    It is absolutely meaningless to speak of absolute and inalienable rights.

    We don’t have the “right” to exist; we just do.

    What rights really are are agreements between group members that optimise the survivability (i.e. inclusive fitness) of the species, group, and individual (in that order).
    It’s this very hierarchy that enables us to destroy an individual that threatens the survivability of the group; or (in theory) destroy a group that threatens the species.

    The very act of living: of manipulating the environment; growing crops; rearing food animals; killing weeds and pests, is a statement that only *our* living system species possesses the self-conferred “right” to exist; and the subconscious acknowledgement that every other species, be it bacteria, triffids, or great white sharks has the same “attitude”.

    It’s all very well talking about our own parochial subjective “east” and “west” cultural perspectives, but until and unless you have properly addresses the objective universal perspective of ‘what (your) “rights” are made of’ at the metaphorically molecular, then elemental, then physical and quantum level, it’s rather a waste of time.

    The intrinsic behaviours that inform the development of “rights” (to be encoded in culture) are entirely deterministic, and really boil down to: ‘is your desired act going to degrade my, my group, my species’ survivability?’.
    To the various cultures alluded to, their cultures are the responses to their environment often over countless generations, and as stated in a rather anachronistic way that you can’t really impose “western” ideas successfully on the “east” unless they actually make sense in the environment there: it’s not simply the “westernness” that’s the issue, it’s the aptness in what are often essentially more extreme mediaeval cultures in more extreme climates with different issues to manage.

    The last sentence really does belie the ignorance, bigotry, and flaccid fallacious thinking: the assertion that ethnocentricity is a “problem” is appalling.
    There’s not only a complete blinkered brainwashed failure to notice or even be willing to accept that ethnocentrism is an intrinsic human behaviour that has its roots all the way back to the beginnings of all living systems in the basic definitions of the behaviour of organisms (i.e. territoriality); but it demonstrates a complete laziness and lack of reading… try Sherif’s Robber’s Cave experiment some half-century ago, not to mention the immense body of studies and research now extant, that demonstrates how ethnocentricity is innate and instrinsic – even amongst babies (U of Arizona research…); then try flicking on the telly, and see ethnic conflicts issuing forth all over the world, all the time: it is the norm; not the “abnorm” to be corrected, as you imply.

    It seems that Griffin is moving towards enlightenment, and away from far left Canuteism, by hinting a recognition that an objective-morality and universal system has to be recognised before addressing the subjective moralities of various cultures; but he’s still far from the shore.

    P.S.: learn the difference between a “:” and a “;” and how to correctly use them if you are going to – there are few things more pretentious in newspapery than misusing a semi-colon.

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  2. Jack, of course you’re right that “good” and “bad” need to be defined in order to reach an understanding of objective rights but I don’t think that it’s justified to assume that reaching such a definition is impossible and hence that there are no such things as rights. Indeed, your assertion that Griffin is right to talk of an objective and universal morality seems to imply that objective definitions of “good” and “bad” should be sought.

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, in which case I apologise, but could you clarify your position.?Do you believe that there are objective rights (even survival-based ones) or not?

    A survival-based ethic would not be completely implausible (although it does not seem to encompass nearly enough that is important in existence and experience and would be unlikely to achieve much popularity) but I’m not sure if this is what you are affirming. In other places you give a suposedly matter-of-fact account of the origin of rights to be suggesting that group agreements about rights simply are a fact and do not seem to be offering any evaluation.

    However, your ise of the word “justifiable” in the second paragraph leads you to commit the naturalistic fallacy.
    The context in which you state “rights” exist, even if accurate, says nothing about the circumstances and contexts in which they should exist.

    I believe that rights can be derived from individual interests and not only group ones (if the idea of group interests is even intelligible) and you don’t actually seem to offer any arguments to the contrary, you merely state your theories about species and group rights as though this were enough to establish them.

    Even if agreements between groups to maximise “group survivability” had occurred, presumably implicitly, why couldn’t there be valid agreements to safeguard individual rights? This is what the UDHR seems to be and it isn’t actually incompatiblewith the idea that there are also agreements to maximise group survivability.

    Most puzzling of all is your move from the premise:
    Ethnic conflicts are demonstrations of innate ethnocentricism

    to the conclusion:
    Ethnocentricism is not a problem.

    This is extraordinarily perverse reasoning! The very opposite conclusion seems to follow provided one accepts the modest premise that ethnic conflicts are not a good thing.

    Finally,
    “there are few things more pretentious… than misusing a semi-colon.”

    Except maybe pointing such a mistake out! Most of your response is, at least, interesting and intelligently written. Why spoil it with such a pointless remark?

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