Men, not things: human rights and the idea of the person

Patti Whaley contributed this article to the July 2005 magazine

Primo Levi, in If This Is A Man, offered several reasons for his survival of Auschwitz. Finally he said, “I was...helped by the determination, which I stubbornly preserved, to recognize always, even in the darkest days, in my companions and in myself, men, not things, and thus to avoid that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck.”

Levi had, perhaps, never heard of the concept of human rights when he went to Auschwitz; but his determination to regard others as “men, not things” sums up what the human rights movement is about. To write about the idea of the person in human rights is to try to tease apart two notions that are so intertwined, so mutually dependent, that it takes a while to see that there is something that could be called “the idea of the person” in human rights at all. As Mary Midgley warned, in The Myths We Live By, the more fundamental a myth is, the more difficult it is to see it clearly.

Basically, it’s this simple: persons have rights. To be a person is to have rights, and to claim rights is to claim full status as a person. At various times, and even now in many places, personhood has been denied to slaves; women; children; Jews; criminals; homosexuals; gypsies; indigenous people; people with disabilities; or any number of other alien or disenfranchised groups, and the denial of their personhood has been the excuse for the violation of their human rights. The history of the human rights movement could be described as the expansion of the idea of the person from those original bearers of rights—propertied, free, Christian white men—to successive groups of non-persons. Even now, for those of us who think we’ve fully bought in to the human rights approach to life, the discussion isn’t over; most of us don’t recognize embryos as persons, and as science draws closer to offering us clones, robots, and other forms of modified and artificial life, the question of personhood, and the rights that attend upon it, will continue to arise.

The question is an acute one because the link between human rights and the person is absolute: the option of extending only some rights to groups of “not-quite-complete persons” is foreign to the human rights approach. Granted, some people’s rights are restricted for their own protection or the protection of others; many people lack the capacity or the resources to exercise their rights to the full; and all of us are obliged to restrain the exercise of our rights so that we don’t trample on the rights of others. But we don’t become non-persons; our status as rights-holders remains intact, and the need to restrain one right does not become the excuse for violation of any others. The idea invoked to justify the holding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, that certain people by virtue of their suspected crimes have “sacrificed” their claim to basic human rights, is anathema.

How did such a concept of the person arise? If we look closely at the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we can derive some idea of the characteristics of the rights-bearing person. Then if we look at the story of how the UDHR came to be, we can discern two possible origins of the type of person portrayed in that document.

The UDHR doesn’t define what a person is; but several of its clauses give a clear indication of what a person is assumed to be. Francesca Klug (in Values for a Godless Age: the story of the United Kingdom’s new Bill of Rights) outlines three key points:

First, the human person has dignity. The preamble of the UN Charter asserts the “dignity and worth of the human person”. The UDHR takes up this thread; its preamble calls for the "recognition of the inherent dignity … of all members of the human family". Article 1 goes on to say that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward each other in a spirit of brotherhood." Article 29 speaks of humans as having a personality whose "free and full development" is an essential element of dignity.

So, on the one hand, we are born with dignity; on the other hand, our dignity depends on the full and free development of our personality. Dignity consists in being free and autonomous, in having the capacity to reason, in having a conscience to determine right from wrong, and in cultivating proper brotherly relations towards other humans. From this description, Klug draws the conclusion that the concept of human dignity envisioned in the UDHR is more complex than the simple freedom or liberty invoked by the French and American revolutions. Dignity requires more than the absence of constraint; it requires access to the means for a decent life, an environment of social justice, and the availability of real choices about personal development.

Secondly, the human person has equality. Although equality had been asserted in the past, for example in the English Magna Carta, in the American Declaration of Independence, and in the French “liberty, equality, fraternity,” these declarations essentially meant “equality for people like us”. “People like us” was understood, tacitly or explicitly, to exclude women, children, slaves, Jews, non-Europeans, and various other classes of non-persons. To combat these underlying assumptions, the UDHR spelled out exactly what was meant: human persons had rights "without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." All persons have "equal protection of the law" and are "equal before the law".

Thirdly, the human person exists in community with others. The UDHR has often been accused of being hyperindividualistic, of privileging the demands of the individual over the needs of the community, and of failing to take account of the reciprocal relationship between the individual and the community. This hyperindividualistic, hyperautonomous view of the human, claiming his rights over and against the community, has been criticised as being a very Western and very male view of the self. This may well reflect how rights language has been used, particularly in the West; but a return to the original language of the UDHR suggests that this might not be the whole picture. Article 29 states that “everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” Both clauses are important here. The relationship is not merely one of mutual advantage, where you uphold your duties to the community in return for their protection of your rights as an autonomous person. The community is actually the only medium “in which the free and full development of [your] personality” can take place. Paradoxically, your full realisation as an individual human person depends on your interaction with your community—on balancing your autonomy and freedom with an equal measure of participation and responsibility.

Michael Ignatieff (in Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry) takes the view that the key characteristic of the person described in the UDHR is agency: the freedom and ability to make real choices about the things that make life meaningful. Human rights violations, in this view, are those actions that unjustly restrict or punish the exercise of that agency, and rights language ought not be extended beyond the need to protect individual agency. The emphasis on the quality of agency is explicitly a minimalist view of the person, intended to sidestep questions about dignity, equality, or the qualities inherent in the good life, which are seen as unhelpfully controversial. Focusing on the concept of agency, or active self-determination, gives us a basic standard of human decency while allowing different persons and different cultures to define their own concept of the good or dignified life.

A further quality often invoked with regard to the person in rights language is integrity, that is, wholeness or inviolability. A person has physical and mental boundaries that may not be breached without his or her consent. So, for example, when Amnesty International decided to expand from working on only civil and political rights to working on all rights, their intermediate stepping-stone was to focus on those rights which violated “the integrity of the person”. This suggests that certain violations such as torture, imprisonment, slavery and rape are more serious than the denial of the right to education or the right to vote; although these latter violations deny the full agency of the person, they do not violate his integrity.

Beyond these rather general qualities, the human rights paradigm doesn’t develop the idea of the person in much detail. Obviously the rights ascribed to persons in the UDHR tell you things about what a person does: they need food and medical care, they have families, they work, they rest, they own property. But there is relatively little attention to the inner qualities of the person. We know from Article 1, cited above, that people have reason and conscience; beyond that, only Articles 18 and 19, which protect the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression, suggest anything about the inner life of the person, and they do not delve further into what that inner life might be. The UDHR does not speculate on whether the person has a soul, or has any life beyond their time span on this earth; other than protecting our freedom of religion, the UDHR presents a wholly secularised view of the person. This might seem so obvious as not to bear pointing out; it becomes more important when we realise that some rights statements developed in other cultures, for example in Islamic societies, grant rights to the dead.

We have then, in the UDHR, the idea of an autonomous person, with dignity, equality, agency, and integrity, developing within a community of other persons, and bounded by birth and death, beyond which no questions of rights arise. How did we arrive at such an idea of the person, and is the person described a “real” person or a “nonreal” person?

One view—we could call it either the “optimistic” view or the “realist” view—is that this is the way persons actually are. The idea of the inherent dignity of the person stretches back as far as Roman and classical law, and continues through writers such as Locke and Thomas Paine. For some philosophers dignity was simply “natural”, “self-evident” or “inherent”; for others, dignity derived from God. The choice of the word “dignity” in the UDHR was a way of accommodating both points of view; both religious and non-religious people could find common ground in the idea of dignity, and could hold their own opinions about the origins of that dignity. Nevertheless, Michael Perry has suggested that even this idea is “ineliminably religious”. That is, whether or not the idea of human dignity originates or can be located in any of the existing world religions, it has the quality of a religious idea. To imply that there are sacred limits which humans must not cross in their dealings with each other is to take a “worshipful attitude” towards the human person.

The alternate view—let’s call it the “pessimistic” view or the “nonrealist” view—is that the UDHR represents a reaction to the experience of World War II. After the Holocaust, and the realisation not only of the crimes committed by the Nazis but also of the ability of ordinary citizens to stand by and see such crimes committed, people desperately needed some way of reassuring themselves that such crimes would never happen again. In creating the UDHR, they didn’t so much recognise human dignity as construct a barrier to guard against our natural indifference to the suffering of those outside our own circle. “In other words”, explains Ignatieff, “we do not build foundations on human nature but on human history, on what we know is likely to happen when human beings do not have the protection of rights. We build on the testimony of fear, rather than on the expectations of hope.” This is a much darker picture; it suggests that if there is such a thing as “real” human nature, it’s not a pretty sight. By this view, the portrayal of the person in the UDHR is an attempt, whether consciously or unconsciously, to create something different from human nature: not what we are, but what we might hope to become if we continually hold the UDHR as our standard. Viewed in that way, human rights is a very "nonrealist" idea; similarly to the way we construct God as a way of personifying our religious urges, we construct this sort of ideal person with dignity and autonomy, and then set about thinking what we would need to do to make that sort of person possible.

Which of these is the “true” view? On an optimistic day, I might say that wisdom lies in being able to keep both possibilities in mind; we have both innate dignity and innate depravity, and human rights is simply a vehicle by which we help ourselves to choose dignity. On the day that I write this, when the self-styled “civilised world” is debating the publication of photos of a former dictator in his underwear, the pessimistic view wins out. That Saddam Hussein wears underwear, and looks as hapless in it as most of us do, is not news; that some of us are still prey to this mixture of petty vengeance and adolescent voyeurism—now, that’s scary.

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