Human Rights and Moral Universalism

This generation has been given unusual instructions. We enlightened ones are to reject “objective morality,” the source of homophobia and colonialism, and everything that we associate with “backwardness,” and “superstition.” And we are to affirm human rights, in all places, at all times, and that “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.” Where the knowledge of this contradiction has come before our minds, we have typically disavowed human rights or else placed them solely within the realm of our subrational desires: those desires which call for the benefit of oneself and one’s own. And yet we have never acted according to the real consequence of that belief- we have never tolerated those who violate human rights where it does us no harm or attempted to decrease our own implicit universalism so as to bring our beliefs into closer accord with reality. Our unwillingness to tolerate the violation of human rights is the very basis for our objection to homophobia and colonialism; we could not have the war against conservatism without it. We are aware that we have a bias towards perceiving the acts of others as more intentional than they are, and our own acts as more accidental than they are; no one would admire a person who recognized that this bias was the basis for his assumptions, but made no attempt to counteract it. Indeed, we feel disgust at those who are “willfully ignorant.” Our own morality is willful ignorance in our own eyes. So can we admire ourselves? Unaware, we have marched our armies around to our own gates, and now the day of the siege has come. And so the times have given rise to me, a heretic against the religion of his own upbringing, against materialism, even against liberalism, and I am come to advocate heresy.
I propose an alternative resolution to our basic contradiction: the acceptance of a universal morality which is relational, as opposed to the substantive. This could also be called a subject-oriented, rather than an object-oriented morality, not in the sense that it focuses upon the actor to the exclusion of the one who is acted upon, but in the sense that it focuses on human persons to the exclusion of non-persons. A relationally universal morality is one which declares that everyone ought to relate themselves to other human persons in the same way, without necessarily dictating that they relate themselves to non-person objects in the same way. This interpretation certainly has implications for the way in which one relates oneself to non-person objects, but it does not necessarily have the same implications in all cases. Instead, they are determined by context and the relational standard itself. Shared implications, then, arise from shared context. If one were to hold that all human beings must abstain from drinking alcohol as an irreducible moral obligation, one would be advocating substantively universal morality, because alcohol is a non-person object. If one were to hold that all human beings must protect the safety of others, and one’s relationship to alcohol follows only from this, one would be advocating relationally universal morality whether one went on to say that alcohol is acceptable for one’s neighbor, but not for oneself, because one is a surgeon who must always be on call; that alcohol is not acceptable for anyone in one’s own society, at one’s own time, because even those who it does not endanger directly must set a good example for those who it does; or that it is unacceptable in each society and at each time that history has yet seen, because of some facet or other of basic psychology, or of the chemical properties of alcohol. So relationally universal morality can imply certain substantive universalities, but only where these substantive universalities arise from contextual universalities. Even if one were to hold that “it doesn’t matter who you have sex with,” one would be advocating substantively universal morality unless one went on to say “because it doesn’t have a morally significant effect on the way in which people relate to one another;” if they did not go on to say this, one would be implying that the legitimacy of the act derives from the fact that it is sex, and not from the persons involved; sex is a non-person object. But if one were to hold that persons must affirm one another’s identities, one would be advocating relationally universal morality whether one believed that this involved having sex freely or abstaining from it entirely. Relationally universal morality implies that for any given person at any given time, there is only one moral course of action, and failing to take it constitutes genuine wrongdoing. It also implies that this course of action will involve relating oneself to others in the same way as all moral actions everywhere, but it will involve relating oneself to non-person objects in the same way as other moral actions only where there is common context.
Colonialism having taken on a significant place in popular thought as a pure example of the failings of “objective morality”, it is imperative that one consider where it went wrong. The beneficiaries of the institution of colonialism justified its existence by the argument that European society was superior to the societies which it conquered. This argument rests upon the assumption that if what is imposed is superior to what it replaces, then the imposition is acceptable; in other words, that morality resides in the cultures themselves, and not in the imposition or lack thereof. But the cultural practices in question, even when good, were largely contextual. It was seen as imperative that First Nations children placed in residential schools dress in a manner which was considered polite in Europe, eat in a manner which was considered polite in Europe, and speak European languages. For many individuals in Europe, it may have in fact sometimes been a moral duty to dress and eat in these ways, as a mechanism for communicating kindness. But in failing to recognize that these acts were good only because a standard already existed to convey respect by their operation, and insult by their neglect, colonial thought separated the justified object (the specific act of politeness) from the source of its justification (the other person), and thereby substituted relational for substantive universalism. Worse still, much of what was imposed was not even good in context, from intense authoritarianism to rampant sex discrimination. On the other hand, the process of imposition involved mass killings, land reappropriation resulting in mass starvation,  widespread disease, kidnapping of children en masse, mass rape, mass abuse, and the psychological and sociological disintegration of entire generations. A culture cannot be forcibly destroyed without demonizing and dehumanizing other human beings, assuming oneself inherently superior to them, hating them, disempowering them, murdering them, and exploiting them. Colonialism is an abomination not because it suggests that morality is universal, but because it violates the universal moral law: it is mass murder over the misconception that another race lacks manners. Colonialism was wrong, not because European society was or was not superior, but rather because it was colonialism. Morality resides not in the practices to be imposed or not, but rather in the imposition or lack thereof.
The narrative, “there is no objective morality” is misleading and unhelpful, because it fails to distinguish between a particular, destructive course of action (projection of contextually determined moral imperatives across contexts) and the only relevant course of action which is actually beneficial (affirmation of relationally universal morality), and on this account rejects both. The narrative, “there are universal human rights” is profoundly useful, as popularly understood. From a philosophical perspective, it would be more reasonable to say, “there are universal human responsibilities to other humans,” so as to emphasize that, for example, dying in a pure accident is not a “human rights violation,” even though homicide is a “human rights violation,” without sacrificing the narrative’s distinctly subject-oriented outlook. With the understanding, though, that when we say “widows have a right to food” we really mean “everyone else has an obligation to make sure widows get food” it is really the most useful way of talking about ethics.


Talk back, yo. :)

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