Boundaries of Freedom
The concept of human rights provides a way of thinking about shameful, violent and terrible acts and events that happen across the world. As you read this blog, there will be reports in the media of terrifying cruelties and injustices elsewhere. These events are all too real, but ‘Human Rights’ is a concept. It is a device for thinking about the ‘real’, and expressing our thoughts. As much as most philosophers will tell you that an unemotional response is necessary for constructive conceptual analysis, the analysis of Human Rights is different. The concept must be viewed both from a distance and with sympathetic understanding of the human experience to which the concept refers.
It is contentious but I believe that Human Rights is a concept that, for most people, most of the time, is far less important than the ability for simply those that affect them to express virtues that are narrow in scope and much more personal. In every day life , ordinary kindness is more important than Human Rights (Glover 1999:41). Ordinary people, however, are sometimes not permitted an everyday life (Freeman 2004:3). It is often argued that human rights are most needed when they are most violated, and are therefore often overlooked and misinterpreted when they are least needed.
It is worth noting that I am a staunch supporter of Human Rights and am by no means objectionable to their being nor their continued usage but, as I mentioned earlier, they are concepts, not property, and are therefore subject to reading, interpretation and manipulation which can undermine their worth.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration states that all human beings are equal in rights.
Article 18 says that everyone has the right to freedom of religion.
Here lies a basic obstacle. Religions often (if not all) deny that all human beings are equal in rights.
This is an obstruction that is not limited to religion. The right of an individual may conflict with the right of another.
Article 1 further states that all are “endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
It is widely understood that each human has a conscience, an inner sense of what is right or wrong, impelling one toward right action, however since the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it must also be recognised that such conscience might be ignored. It would therefore be possible to argue that even ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are concepts rather than inherent truths. Our conscience is a complex mix of multiple ethical and moral principles that control or inhibit us. Furthermore, it is changeable and more relative to nurture and cultural difference than a ‘universal’ singular understanding.
The ability for human beings to ignore or actively disengage with their own conscience or inner moral code (perhaps intrinsically linked to humanities greed for power) has allowed for the development of governing bodies, both religious and political. Government, or moderation of freedom might for many be described as a paradox. Handing power to one individual / group of individuals to determine the freedom of another might be seen also as a paradox and yet this is the make-up of the United Nations and is vital in the establishment and continuing work that such an important governing body does control.
Such paradoxes are perhaps born from the notion of ‘equality’. In truth we are not born equal, nor are we born free. We differ in sex, size, shape, strength, mental ability, location, family, colour – all of which curve our destiny, all of which we can do little about. Our view of equality has evolved through the formation and ideals of Western Culture – it is not something that is prevalent in nature, something that is well-expressed by Herbert Spencer’s phrase of “survival of the fittest”. That is not to say it is therefore not something we should not try to establish. Society is often thought to be most acceptable when power is balanced and a sense of unity and equality presides. It must be reminded though that this is not something that occurs naturally, but is something that requires a movement, by that I mean those with power actively engaging to help those without. For example, I might help an elderly man to cross the road – utilising my superior eyesight and strength to guide him to safety, or, on a larger scale, the United Nations might use its power to put pressure on a Fascist-lead country to free its political prisoners.
Human Rights take active engagement to maintain.
Utilising power and authority to shield those that are weak and unprotected is key to Human Rights, and, whilst it might be a paradox to the core concept of “equality” it is often common practice throughout most, if not all cultures and therefore could be described as part of our collective conscience.
Many cultures do not understand the concept of human beings ‘having rights’, but all understand the moral concept of being ‘right’ and conforming to a standard of rightness.
verb (used without object)
It is a western notion that conformity suppresses freedom, and thereby restricts Human Rights and Free Speech. It is important to separate the idea of choosing to conform and unwillingly conforming through political/religious suppression. In order to live with and understand others we might willingly conform to the standards and wishes of others to promote harmony, thereby making our lives easier and more fulfilled. It is through this ideology that the conceptual notion of effective society is born.
We are constantly seeking the balance between conformity and freedom, between allowing creative freedom and controlling that which, through such freedom, could be hurtful (either emotionally or physically) to others. Why should society allow the freedom of individual to negatively affect the happiness and well-being of another? Our ideals and consequential laws as a society are full of such paradoxes and I believe that such laws need constant development and scrutiny as we seek within our community to redefine the boundaries of our freedom and bring further understanding to how we, as individuals, can better develop our community through both conformity and expression.
Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
“In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”