Archives for posts with tag: Rousseau

The Tintern Pub Philosophy Circle met the other night to discuss How We Might Get Human Rights. The discussion was lead by Tim Cross and covered the development of Human Rights as a concept from Hobbes, Locke, the US & French Revolutions and finally to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The premise for the inception of these articulations of rights was that life was for many people pretty cruel and a bit crap, but that we could make it less so.

To me, this seemed an iterative problem. If you consider recent human rights catastrophes (say Rwanda, Sudan, Chechnya or the gassing of the Kurds) then the various evolving declarations of what constitutes human rights appear like a utopian contrivance with serious failures (those catastrophes just mentioned). It is probably precisely because life is pretty cruel and a bit crap that we have failed to guarantee these rights and apply them universally.

To put it another way without a morally and actively courageous state, law and global governance this roadmap to civility will be challenged if not overrun by the weakness of those state governments, as we have seen in those very same examples.

This can be observed by the impotence of the United Nations over Iraq etc. but is probably best illustrated by Linda Polman’s seminal work on the topic ‘We Did Nothing – Why the truth doesn’t always come out when the UN goes in’.

The floor of our pub philo circle seemed to agree that such declarations were merely political posturing and generally not worth the paper they’re written on.  I was not so sure. While I raised my former observation, I qualified it with the fact that we ought not to slip into binary thinking here. That is, some expression of human rights is better than none, despite its failures. To qualify this I cited Amnesty International’s work on both individual cases of prisoners of conscience and Amnesty’s pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a tool by which we can hold signatories to account. It’s no guarantee but, it’s better than nothing – for the reasons just cited.

A little later the debate took a very un-philosophical and strange turn where different members of the floor argued on the original of human rights, not least since Tim had started only with Hobbes. He conceded that of course, the notion of rights and welfare existed prior to this but qualified his starting point as the point of the modern rise of Human Rights as we know it today (by the UN declaration), and the fact that we only had 2 hours. Undeterred, some cited Christianity as the original while other argued Hinduism. I thought this was a flawed distraction to the point at hand but still offered – in an attempt to deaden the avenue – that IMO rights probably arose in an evolutionary sense from the first days of society – probably at group level – where co-operation met language to form a consensus to the general good of all members of the group (within a certain hierarchy). I think we can map that through to today’s articulations of Human Rights consistently from this. Certainly it appeared to kill that part of the debate off, either from ridicule or reason – you decide.

So back to the main debate. In conclusion the most perplexing thing about human rights is that, philosophically, it is a paradoxical notion. To gain rights one has to relinquish certain liberties. By policing rights we absolve ourselves of certain rights.

From a Practical Philosophy point of view Chris Gifford observed that in his teaching of Amnesty’s work with young children, they demonstrated a universal and unsolicited innate sense of fairness and justice. This runs counter to the long-running argument as to whether rights can be natural or are only conferred. Indeed, Chris’s point means that that debate takes a new direction: about who creates these rights. Again, from a pragmatic approach, consensus and co-operation take the lead here and, while people die, it is an arbitrary debate.

My personal summary was that declarations of human rights offered the wrong answer to the right question, but that this answer was better than none at all.

Perhaps human rights is an expression of civilisation which while best informed by reason is, philosophically, above logic – so far – or at least so far as its paradoxical reasoning, on the whole, eludes us. It is a mechanism which, at best, sometimes works. But its failure is deadly. Its non-existence apocalyptic.


I have been re-reading Alain de Botton’s ‘STATUS ANXIETY’, which is a great book.

Here is Alain on Rousseau and what others now call ‘affluenza’…

Was it possible, asked Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his ‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’ (1754), that it might in fact be the savage and not – as everyone had grown used to thinking – the modern worker who was the better off of the pair?

Rousseau’s argument hung on a thesis about wealth: that wealth does not involve having many things. It involves having what we long for. Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we seek something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually own.

There are two ways to make people richer, reasoned Rousseau: to give them more money or to restrain their desires. Modern societies have succeeded spectacularly at the first option but, by continuously inflaming appetites, they have at the same time helped to negate a share of their most impressive achievements. The most effective way to feel wealthy may not be to try to make more money. It may be to distance ourselves – practically and emotionally – from anyone whom we consider to be our equal but who has become richer than ourselves…

In so far as advanced societies provide us with historically elevated incomes, they appear to make us richer. But in truth, the net effect of these societies may be to impoverish us because, by fostering unlimited expectations, they keep open a permanent gap between what we want and what we can afford, who we are and who we might be.