Future of Human Rights

Future of Human Rights

During the Holiday season, there are expressions of “peace and goodwill and peace to mankind.” The smart observer notices that peace is difficult to achieve and that goodwill is occasionally expressed, but seldom sustained. Belligerence is a feature of human nature and challenges the brightest and most benevolent minds.

Michael Ignatieff, in his essays about Human Rights reviewed the recent and not encouraging history of the human rights movement in the world. "Human Rights" as a political concept is abstract and needs to be grounded in a clear understanding of human nature. Ignatieff asks the question that lies at the heart of my inquiry: “If human beings are so special, why do we treat each other so badly?”

He argues that human rights is the language of defending one’s autonomy against the oppression of religion, state, family and group. The proper emergence of rights is from the bottom up, from individuals who insist that the group they belong to respect the rights of each member, as an individual. Almost by definition, rules imposed from the top down, by a moral authority declaring rights and insisting that all obey the rules imposed, is not human rights. Ignatieff reminds us that “human rights come to authoritarian societies when activists risk their lives and create a popular and indigenous demand for these rights, and when their activism receives consistent and forthright support from influential nations abroad.”

To recall my original description: at the level of the largest organizations, small groups decide on policy and procedures that effect many nations, even the fate the entire species. The tendency to impose universal rules and policies from the top down is dangerous because individuals and small groups cannot understand the diverse needs, values and beliefs of large numbers of humans. World-wide policies will tend to fail since they emerge from limited understanding, and ignore the tendency for humans to relate most strongly to the values and beliefs of their local group. World government is an oxymoron.

Whatever we value about civilized human existence - culture, knowledge, social justice, respect for human rights and dignity must be practiced anew and stored as modifications of each person's neocortex. Success at humanitarian efforts within a society reveals that portion of human attitudes, beliefs and behavior that can be modified and/or are supported by innate tendencies. Failure of moral authority reveals the extent to which innate negative tendencies prevail no matter how diligent the effort to modify or suppress them.

Human destiny as a species still lies with the programs in the old brain that offer only limited empathy and understanding and insist on the priority of survival at any cost. Individuals can transcend the old programs by diligent learning and practice but individual effort and learning does not change the genome, so that their can be no enduring human rights without the persistent and relentless initiation of new humans into a rational and compassionate world order. This, of course, is so far an impossible goal to achieve. You can then argue that if only 10% of the human population is not properly initiated they will have the power to destroy the civil order accomplished by the more reasonable 90% unless they are vigorously contained, depriving them of their human rights.

I was reading Ignatieff’s book on human rights in the library when someone left another book on an adjacent table, the Ultimate Aquarium by Bailey and Sanford. Since I have learned a lot about biology and animal behavior from aquariums, I began to browse and found a good description of the human predicament.

Bailey and Stanford stated: “An aquarium is a closed environment that depends on the knowledge and skills of the aquarist to produce a community of fish that flourishes rather than perishes.”

I have often used the example of the aquarium to alert readers to the idea that if a fish behaves badly or becomes ill, you have to change his diet, clean the aquarium, and/or change his companion fish. You do not call a psychiatrist. Fish are highly specialized creatures with complex behaviors and social lives. Cichlids are tropical fresh-water fish with intelligence, individual characters and interesting behaviors.

Here is Bailey and Stanford’s description of cichlid breeding behavior with the name “human” substituted for “cichlid”:

“Most humans can be induced to breed in captivity, but it must be understood there is a downside to their breeding behavior. This has given the entire species a reputation for being difficult, destructive, aggressive and so-on. The worst problems can be avoided by understanding the reasons for their actions and taking the behavioral and physical needs into account. Digging is a natural part of human behavior and attempts to curb it by having no substrate are cruel. Landscaping sometime with the uprooting of plants is often a necessary preliminary to breeding – the construction of nursery pits or nests. Large humans may try to remove intrusive décor and equipment by brute force… the environment should be tailored to natural behavior. You will never achieve the reverse!A human who needs to hold a private territory to attract a mate and raise a family will quite justifiably regard tank mates as competitors, intruders or potential child-eaters, and do his or her best to eliminate such threats. Even if the aquarist is aware of the need for an exclusive territory, he rarely comprehends the amount of space required… although many species can be included in human communities, it must be accepted that some need their own aquarium… Sometimes the hostility of the territorial male extends to the female. In nature, a female can simply swim away when she does not wish to breed. To stay is to indicate interest. In the aquarium she cannot swim away, the male assumes she wants to breed and when she rejects his courtship, he attacks her like any intruder and she may be killed… even with a compatible and bonded pair, the male may suddenly turn on the female if they are alone in the aquarium. His prime instinct is to defend his territory but if there are no actual enemies, his aggression may be directed at the only available human, his mate. This can be avoided by placing the couple’s aquarium adjacent to another tank containing humans large enough to pose a threat.”

Ignatieff, M. Human Rights. Princeton Univ Press. 2001
Bailey, M. Sandford, G The Ultimate Aquarium. Lorenz Books, 1995

Please see: Existence and the Human Mind

An Exploration in Contemporary Science and Philosophy
By Stephen J. Gislason MD