Are human rights based on love?

According to The Australian, the new girlfriend of David Hicks, Aloysia Brooks, ‘writes poetry on human rights issues’. Thankfully the paper spared us any quotations from it. But we were not so lucky in escaping ex-Justice Michael Kirby’s imaginative musings on ‘human rights’:

In an article published in The Age last week he told us that:

The essential underpinning of fundamental human rights is love. Love for one another. Empathy for fellow human beings. Feeling pain for the refugee; for the victim of war; for the prisoner deprived of the vote; for the child dying of cholera in Zimbabwe. We can imagine what it must be like to be a victim because, as human beings, we too feel, and yearn for, life, freedom and justice.

That’s quite a segue from ‘love’ to the pity we feel for a kid we’ve never met and never will meet dying of cholera. Putting ‘love’ as the underpinning of human rights seems to me to have things the wrong way around. It is because we don’t love each other, because positive emotions of any kind are in finite supply, that we need social norms and legal and political institutions that seek to protect us from others and to manage conflict in a peaceful way.

Judith Shklar, a fine Harvard political theorist and escapee from the Nazis as a girl, had it right in her famous essay on the ‘liberalism of fear’: that liberalism – which provides much of the ideological basis of ‘human rights’ – begins with the evil of cruelty, and the desire we have to live free of fear.

Whether legally-entrenched ‘human rights’ are the best way to put limits on cruelty is a debate that we will again be having over the next six months. But it we had unlimited love no such legal rights, and no such debate, would be necessary.

20 thoughts on “Are human rights based on love?

  1. I also think that, compared with the language of obligations, the language or rights is far less loving. Why? With the language of rights, one can just say “the child dying of cholera in Zimbabwe” has a right to medical care, and leave it at that. Speaking in terms of obligations, though, one has to say something like “we should be giving money to charities who fund cholera treatment” or “we are obliged to depose Mugabe so a democratic government can provide for these desperate people”. In the first case, there’s a warm fuzzy feeling with little need for commitment on behalf of the speaker; in the second, the real-world substance of the “right” — its institutional or practical expression — is made clear.

    Also, rights tend to establish a liberal baseline of conduct, which we would expect loving or even decent people to go beyond. For example, I have the right to be rude and unpleasant to family members, to spend all my money on junk food and pornography, or to abandon my parents in old age. None of these rights emerges from love — not others’ love for me, nor my own for others or myself. Perhaps “respect” is a better word (others “respect my rights”), but we usually mean something more when we say that word.


  2. Once upon a time I was a strident supporter of “rights-and-process” liberalism – both personal, proprietorial and political. Very much on the side of autonomy against authority.

    If anything, judged by charitable donations and relationship sacrifices, I was a much less “loving” person then. Typical angry young Leftie leading a hedonistic lifestyle with little care for parents or children.

    Nowadays I am older, and (i hope) wiser and nicer. But I have much I get impatient when the talk turns to rights, at least in this country. I am more interested in discharging duties rather than enforcing rights.

    Also I am disgusted when liberals invoke the spectre of fascism everytime the authorities overstep the mark. My father – long time anti-fascist warrior -thought this was the freest country on earth.

    Too free sometimes, such that democratic authority can’t get it’s public goods provision job done due to NIMBYs. And let’s public bass fester on grounds of political correctness.

    By all means let’s have accountability. But enough prattle about rights and process. And more practice on duties and progress.

    “Love means always having to say you are sorry”
    Nick Cave


  3. Leon – I agree about the impoverished moral vocabulary of ‘human rights’. Murder, rape and torture – powerful, evocative words for terrible deeds – are now often described as violations of human rights, which can be no more than a legal technicality. ‘Human rights’ claims are routinely made about relatively trivial things – eg squatters being thrown out of university property, after months of requests for them to leave. And while I don’t think prisoners should be deprived of the vote, it is a rather minor addition to the misery already being inflicted on them for good reason.


  4. I would think that love, being a subjective emotion, leads more directly to utilitarianism than to the creation of human rights. I may feel no love for the alleged child molesterer or terrorist, but I will defend his right to legal representation and due process out of fear that I may one day be falsely accused. More generally, I suppose basing human rights on love makes it easier to extend them to include social and economic ‘rights’ than does basing them on freedom from fear or cruelty.


  5. “Aloysia Brooks, ‘writes poetry on human rights issues’. Thankfully the paper spared us any quotations from it.”

    So Andrew, good to see you can sneer as well as any left-wing latte elitest. It seems you haven’t actually read any of her poetry? Human rights / justice would hardly be an original topic for poetry. She may not win the Nobel Prize for poetry, doesn’t mean she should stop doing it.


  6. Russell – It is some years since I studied poetry, but I do not recall any good poems on this topic. Perhaps you can suggest one. Given that most published poetry is awful, I am assuming that the unpublished poetry is worse still – even on more promising subjects than ‘human rights’.


  7. Didactic political poetry is amongst the worst ever written. Not surprisingly Dylan’s most famous folk song is his worst most cringe worthy work. Compare it to his truly excellent lyrics in his latest albums or in less political works when he left the whole folk scene. (of course there are some exceptions like his tribute to Woody Guthrie and Woody Guthrie himself. It takes a rare artist to write didactic works which are also genuine works of art. Orwell failed and was a better essay writer then he ever was a novelist, Steinbeck succeeded).


  8. Andrew Norton and Jason Soon sadly are obviously ignorant of much of the entire Western literary canon. And it shows in many ways. May I refer you to the bleeding obvious greats whose poetry was to a very large extent precisely about human rights: Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Blake, to name the most familiar to anyone with a modicum of culture or education.


  9. I freely admit that my knowlege of poetry is patchy. But we are still waiting for the name of a poem that a) makes specific mention of rights (and not just various issues since defined as matters of ‘rights’), and b) is a good poem.


  10. Andrew, human rights, in one way or another, have existed and been defined in all human societies since at least the early invention of the taboo against cannibalism and other ways we came with of defining humanity.

    Arguably America’s greatest and best-loved poet Walt Whitman in “Leaves of Grass” incorporates themes which include opposition to slavery, support for democracy, the rights of women, homosexuals and children. The set of poems are an an extended, explicitly political and visionary celebration of communiality and a detailed affirmation and defence of human rights and human dignity.

    For Whitman, the democratic vision is ultimately a vision of love.

    “Whoever degrades another degrades me
    And whatever is done or said returns at last to me….”


  11. Richie – If we define human rights as equivalent to human sympathy, then yes this goes back to caveman times, and there is plenty of poetry on it. But there are many ways of arriving at the conclusion that we should not eat each other or should have democracy or treat women equally without resort to rights theories. Poetry would be among the least theoretical of approaches; like other forms of the arts trying to get us to feel what it would be like to be in some situation. It isn’t a great medium for making an argument that somehow we have an inherent right to x, y or z.


  12. If support for human rights is not motivated primarily by love or compassion, which then leads to the desire to protect and defend the weak or vulnerable, then what do you think motivates it? And why is not then so easily overridden?

    I don’t know what you mean by inherent rights. Rights are inherent only to the extent that they are deemed by various groupings including nations to be states of being that various categories of human beings ought to be able to enjoy if able to be brought about by social action. This involves a conscious act of will, and is not reliant on some biological imperative, contrary to your implication.

    The fact that theory is the less influential factor productive of human rights merely emphasises the far more significant and primary role played historically across all cultures by the arts (in particular poetry) in reflecting and promoting understanding and appreciation of human rights and human dignity.


  13. Richie – Fear, self-interest, anger, desire for peace, sense of fairness; many motivations are possible. Most of the major civil rights campaigns had substantial doses of anger and self-interest from those who thought they were wronged; they weren’t the strong looking after the weak, but the weak challenging the strong.


  14. Don’t know if this constitutes ‘good’ poetry.

    The Development Set
    by Ross Coggins

    Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
    I’m off to join the Development Set;
    My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots
    I have traveller’s checks and pills for the trots!

    The Development Set is bright and noble
    Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
    Although we move with the better classes
    Our thoughts are always with the masses.

    In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
    We damn multi-national corporations;
    injustice seems easy to protest
    In such seething hotbeds of social rest.

    We discuss malnutrition over steaks
    And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
    Whether Asian floods or African drought,
    We face each issue with open mouth.

    We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
    Raises difficulties for every solution –
    Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
    By showing the need for another meeting.

    The language of the Development Set
    Stretches the English alphabet;
    We use swell words like “epigenetic”
    “Micro”, “macro”, and “logarithmetic”

    It pleasures us to be esoteric –
    It’s so intellectually atmospheric!
    And although establishments may be unmoved,
    Our vocabularies are much improved.

    When the talk gets deep and you’re feeling numb,
    You can keep your shame to a minimum:
    To show that you, too, are intelligent
    Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”

    Or say, “That’s fine in practice, but don’t you see:
    It doesn’t work out in theory!”
    A few may find this incomprehensible,
    But most will admire you as deep and sensible.

    Development set homes are extremely chic,
    Full of carvings, curios, and draped with batik.
    Eye-level photographs subtly assure
    That your host is at home with the great and the poor.

    Enough of these verses – on with the mission!
    Our task is as broad as the human condition!
    Just pray god the biblical promise is true:
    The poor ye shall always have with you.

    (via Wronging Rights)


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