For some reason, the belief in “human rights” is one of the few dogmas that the postmodern West still deems sacrosanct and holy.
Conceptualized by some Enlightenment thinkers, “human rights” became a form of symbolic currency for the liberal world order. This took place in 1948 when, following the horrors of WWII, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Since then, this holy document dictates credibility and legitimacy in international law. As a nation-state, if you don’t “respect” the UDHR, you become the worst kind of apostate. This makes it a very convenient tool for the West, as it means that anyone who doesn’t consider the individual to be “sovereign” and “sacred” (in other words, whoever opposes the West’s liberalizing agenda) will naturally be opposed to the UDHR.
The US is of course notorious for starting wars in the name of human rights. In fact it’s such a sacred religious imperative of international law that in 1990 some countries had to come up with The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI)!
However there have been critiques of the notion of “human rights” prior to it becoming enshrined in the UDHR – even from within the West.
In their book, Human Rights on Trial, Jean-Yves Pranchère and Justine Lacroix (both teachers of political science at universities in Belgium) mention a few of these authors – all of whom are key figures in the West’s intellectual history.
Of course there are some unsurprising names which include “conservatives” such as Edmund Burke and Carl Schmitt as well as Christian traditionalists like Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald.
But the authors also put forward a couple of ideologues which may seem more perplexing:
- Jeremy Bentham (one of the most respected apostles of liberalism); and
- Karl Marx (the spiritual father of Marxism – an ideology which was the cause of immeasurable pain to countless religious individuals).
A Liberal Case Against Human Rights?
Bentham, who died in 1832, is one of the main figures of liberalism – particularly its utilitarian variety, which posits for the maximization of “happiness” (which is itself ill-defined and thus dangerous) for the maximum number of individuals in a given society.
Bentham’s critique of the human rights notion is particularly captivating as it echoes that of the founder of Anglo-American conservatism: Burke.
Bentham lambasted human rights instruments and treaties preceding the UDHR. However, encapsulating the same spirit, and like Burke, he thought that the human rights philosophy leads to nothing less than anarchy, tyranny and selfishness.
Jean-Yves Pranchère and Justine Lacroix write on pp. 100-101:
Burke had already denounced human rights as a ‘digest of anarchy’ threatening the entire social order. Bentham shared the same concerns (…) Bentham considered one of the Declaration’s most corrupting fallacies to be the way it specifies what governments ‘can’ or ‘can not’ do rather than what they ‘ought’ or ‘ought not’ to do, irrespective of circumstances.
This leads to a second charge levelled at the rights of man, which also echoes Burke’s earlier criticism: that the unlimited nature of these rights risks transforming them into an instrument of despotism. Since all the claims derived from these rights are equally absolute and yet mutually exclusive, they are bound to lead to violence: since they are neither true nor false, they can only impose themselves or be suppressed. The equality of rights, which entails universal sharing, contradicts the sacred right to private property; to give precedence to either one becomes equally arbitrary.
Finally, like Burke before him, Bentham violently denounced the selfish individualism underlying the Declaration of Rights, which he saw as a threat to social cohesion
His critique of “selfish individualism” may come as a surprise considering his liberalism and utilitarianism, and in the next few pages the authors note this apparent contradiction, concluding with the following on p. 106:
It would not be impossible to claim that Bentham’s utilitarianism really rests on an incoherent form of egalitarianism, which simultaneously asserts and denies the equality of rights between all individuals.
Inconsistencies aside, a liberal, from his own perspective, has every right to deny “human rights.” After all, the “freedom” he loves is being nullified by the arbitrary decision of an international entity – an entity which bullies the nations of the world into subscribing to its civilization-specific definition of “human rights.”
Also, imposing a definition of “human rights” seems to contradict the individualism that the liberal-progressivists propose. Why should human rights be about specific articles of international law? Why can’t someone define their own rights (like they define their gender?), opting for more or less than the UDHR depending of their own belief-system?
A Marxist Case Against Human Rights?
The Marxist critique of “human rights” is less mysterious. After all, Marxists view private property as a way of cancelling the social emancipation of the proletarians. Private property is a cornerstone of the capitalist-bourgeois system, whereas article 17 of the UDHR sacralized the right to property.
But Karl Marx’s own critique of the “human rights” philosophy goes far beyond just this.
Jean-Yves Pranchère and Justine Lacroix write on pp. 157-158:
Marx’s early diatribe against human rights as ‘the rights of the member of civil society ie. of egoistic man … of the man who is separated from other men and from the community … enclosed within himself … withdrawn into his private interests and private will’ is well known. Proclaimed as universal rights pertaining to the abstract individual, Marx suspected that human rights in fact promoted the interests of a highly specific social category: the property-owning individual of the capitalist system. Moreover, he argued, not only the context in which they emerged but their very form was inextricable from bourgeois ideology, which Marx described in a famous passage from the Communist Manifesto as having submerged all feeling in the ‘ice-cold water of egotistical calculation’ and dissolved all feudal ties leaving ‘no other nexus between two people than naked self-interest’. Selfish calculation is in this account built into the very form of rights, which translate the ethos of what the young Marx identified as the ‘atomism’ of ‘civil society’, or the individualist principle taken to extremes – an ethos blind to the social conditions for its own existence, those of class war, in which Marx rapidly saw the truth of a ‘war among themselves of all those individuals no longer isolated from the others by anything else but their individuality’. At first glance, then, it seems difficult to deny that Marxist thought and claims for human rights are radically opposed.
Marx thus criticizes the notion of “human rights” for being individualistic (communism itself being collectivist) and a by-product of the capitalist-bourgeois world.
The authors later show that Marx never talks of “justice.” There’s no theory of the concept of justice in his works as it’s a word too morally (and thus religiously) charged. This is ironic considering that SJWs are often-self styled Marxists.
The authors even mention that there would be no “human rights” at all in an “ideal” communist society. They write on p. 163:
The logical conclusion of this argument seems to be that human rights give the illusion of a political liberty which in fact they render impossible, stripping political rights of their meaning and setting against them as an absolute limit the security of property and the ‘freedom of selfish man’. Claims to human rights, according to this view, hold no promise of emancipation. Conversely, once a communist society has successfully abolished class conflict, it would have no use for human rights as legal guarantees.
In fact “human rights” go against the very notion of civilization from the perspective of Marx. The authors write on p. 172:
The concept of ahistorical ‘human rights’, liable to be unconditionally demanded in any context, is thus in Marx’s view an absurd notion that should logically lead us to deplore the entire course of human history. Has it not always taken the ‘bad side’, and succeeded in developing ‘civilisation’ only through the social forms of slavery and feudalism, untenable from a human rights perspective? A serious belief in eternal rights can only produce a truly religious sense of frustration at the irrationality of history, in which the rights of man are constantly violated and reality never matches up to the ideal. Marx repeatedly decries this ‘sentimental’ point of view, which he sees at play in the legal versions of socialism that condemn the wrongs of capitalism without understanding the historical necessity of these so-called injustices.
They present many other points too, but all of this is pretty much anticipated. After all, communist states historically lead to death and suffering for literally millions of individuals. Even today, as one of the few remaining communist states in the world, China doesn’t mind ignoring human rights when it comes to imposing its ideology on Uyghurs.
We should therefore not be singled out and forcefully “civilized” into accepting the “human rights” religion – especially when prominent ideologies from within the West have manifested a certain ambiguity when it comes to its acceptance and adherence.
Readers would also note how we have selected two modernist ideologies to look at within this article. Of course an Islamic critique of human rights would be much more substantial (the very individualistic emphasis on “rights” and so on).
The seminal difference here is that the others are extremely hypocritical.