21 May 2024 13:27:27 GMT

The Third Rock Forum - Society

Article Title
The Universal Declaration of Human Rigths and the natural order of things
Paul G
Topic Section(s)
Submitted : 09-07-2022 17:25
Amended : 11-07-2022 12:51
Status : Approved:  
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Most would accept that the basis for human rights, as currently understood, or at the least the source document to which most refer when discussing human rights, is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

This document contains 30 articles, the first of which reads:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. 

While, on a quick reading, most people would agree with the content, the more analytical would feel compelled to make the following observations:

- all human beings are not born free
- all human beings are not born equal in dignity and rights
- while all human beings may be endowed with reason, even the most enthusiastic rationalist would find it difficult to argue that reason is the predominant driver in the affairs of men where there is little agreement amongst nations and people about what is right and what is wrong.

(We will let the advocacy of brotherhood pass as the "should" makes it clear this is an aspirational not an achieved objective.)

The important point is that, while most of the world subscribes to the UDHR, it is not a statement of the way the world is; it is a statement of what, in the view of those who formulated it, the world should be. Given that it is not the way the world is, nor ever has been, it is obvious that the declaration is not underpinned by any 'natural law'.

Moreover, while accepting the UDHR as a benign document, full of admirable sentiments, we have to emphasise that it is so far from reality that, if we want a definition of the way the world is, the following formulation comes closer to the truth:

Human beings are not born free and equal in dignity or rights. Their lives are primarily governed by those with wealth and power. Individuals are predominantly driven by material considerations in which the desire for security, comfort and pleasure are the predominant motivations.  For nations, the desire for  wealth, power and prestige are the dominant drivers. While most people have a capacity for some level of reasoning and many seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong, the evidence suggests they are capable of justifying any course of action, however heinous, using a heady and hearty blend of twisted logic, emotion and hypocrisy. People should act towards each other in a spirit of brotherhood - but much of the time they don't.

The above description may seem a little harsh but it is certainly more consistent with human history than the UDHR.

"That may be so," you say. "But the UDHR was always intended to be an aspirational document.  It asserted its views as statements rather than aspirations to give them more weight."

True. But you don't solve a problem by pretending it is already solved. Where there is a yawning gap between pretence and reality, it surely does more good than harm to point it out.

Of course the extent to which nations have implemented measures to realise the goals of the UDHR, they deserve praise.  Promotion of free and fair elections, attempts at the redistribution of wealth though progressive tax regimes, the abolition of slavery, child protection interventions, commitment to eduction for all people at all levels and plethora of other liberal legislation has given vast number of people rights they have hitherto been denied. 

But insofar as the ideals expressed in the UDHR have been fulfilled, it is not unfair to say that far from confirming any natural law or affirming any natural rights, we have in fact gone and are going against nature.  The drive to make things better comes from the finer emanations of the human mind, not from the natural order of things which, as Hobbes said, tends to the "nasty" and "brutish" or as Tennyson's described it "red in tooth and claw".