2007-05-09

A Tentative Grounding for Human Rights

Ethics, themselves, are probably universal, but it is what we define as worthy of their consideration that changes.

These universal ethics are probably the result of evolutionary pressures, and thus completely innate, meaning any theory of ethics would have to be descriptive, not normative. Also meaning that there are not to be confused with "Morals" which are socially, or institutionally prescribed (normative), and thus can vary from place to place and time to time.

These universal ethics would have to somewhat resemble Kant's Categorical Imperative, in that they are broad, and requires treating others as you would be treated. Including reciprocity and altruism, both of which contain an essence of mapping yourself onto others.

Thus ethics becomes a game of similarity, we map these ethics onto those we can feel familiar or similar too, people (and things) that we can identify with. This allows their application to vary from place to place, and from time to time. This would also explain why dehumanization is an important part of atrocities, and often precedes unethical behavior. We apply ethics to that which we consider "human-like", and things that do not fall into this class do not have to be treated ethically.

Anecdotally we can see this in various behaviors that we see as unethical today, such as slavery and the historical mistreatment of Jews. Slave owners were justified in treating blacks as animals because they saw them as such, whereas they still treated their, white, families and neighbors humanely, and ethically, precluding any real lack of ethics. This can also be applied to more modern situations, like how one can say "I believe in the sanctity of life", and "I believe in war" without a tone of irony.(1)

The paradoxical solution to universal ethics is that they are BOTH universal, and situational. Though it shoves "humanity" into a more nebulous form of being, one that can exclude similar beings, and include the animals and the inanimate (if suitably complex and familiar).

Universal ethics could be seen to by synonymous with "Human Rights", or at least the intrinsic basis to Human Rights. The basis for a system of universal human rights has been eluding me for some time, and this seems to be a potential answer to this problem, while avoiding a concept of human rights being merely socially constructed.

Again, this is a tentative idea, needing much more work and research. I just figured I throw it out there and see what nibbles.


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(1) As in many of the participants in the recent GOP Debates.

2 comments:

Carya said...

"We apply ethics to that which we consider "human-like", and things that do not fall into this class do not have to be treated ethically."

It seems to me that we only apply our ethics to things which we are accountable to. Slave owners had free reign over their property. Slaves had no recourse. It is the same with animals and the natural environment.

Therefore the basis for a universal system of ethics would have to be one in which everyone is accountable to everyone else - true equality... and true anarchy.

tyler said...

The universality of ethics is grounded in the notion of a shared common human nature. By denying a categorically shared human nature one can also deny the grounding of universal ethics.