Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The social self and human rights

All is one. Everything is connected to everything else. For centuries philosophers and mystics have said so. And maybe they were right.

Their convictions were based on feeling (oneness with Nature, etc.) but also on thinking about reality. Recent scientific and social thought based on some seminal 20th century ideas is very much in line with these basic insights.

Mutual information is the formal term used to describe the situation when two or more things or events share information with one another. Two things have mutual information if by looking at just one of them you can infer something about the properties of the other. This notion has applications in physics (quantum entanglement is a super-correlation of particles which may be separated by great distances, and a dramatic illustration of mutual information), but it also has applications in the social sciences. Mutual information has recently been used to help explain the origin of societal structures. (See, for example, Vlatko Vedral's Decoding reality (OUP 2010), pp. 93-108.)

In the middle years of the 20th century, structuralist thought developed in linguistics and other social sciences which encouraged this general line of thinking. In language, for example, it is not the actual speech sounds which matter so much as the relationship between the sounds. More radically, people could be seen not as atomistic individuals but as nodes in a network. In other words, we exist only to the extent to which we relate to others, and we are defined by the sum of those relations. Solitary confinement, then, could be seen as eating away at a person's very core.

But a prisoner in solitary confinement has already been formed by countless social interactions. Think of a new-born baby. What happens if the baby is isolated from all social contact (but continues to be fed and exercised etc.)? This is an experiment which would be unlikely to get ethics committee approval. The sad and fragmentary accounts of children raised by wolves or other wild animals suggest that they never adapt to human society. But at least these children raised in the wild had a society of sorts, albeit not human. A laboratory-raised child without social contact would arguably not be a person at all. Those who believe in the religious notion of the soul might beg to differ, but even religious people would accept that an infant raised without social and linguistic input could not function as a person.

This notion of personhood being essentially derived from the culture and community may be seen to pose problems for liberal (and classical liberal) ideals of human rights and individual freedom. If rights are seen to be somehow innate or objectively real (whether God-given or not), they may form the basis of a political or social philosophy.

But if the very existence of the person is not only dependent on, but in a profound sense derives from, the broader community, then any notion of individual rights will be contingent and circumscribed. What society gives, society can take away.

The view that I am putting seems to necessitate a drastic revision of the current notion of human rights. A strong case could be made that many supposed rights are mere fictions and others are inappropriately applied. Issues such as euthanasia may also have to be reconsidered.

Historically, liberal principles and notions of imprescriptible rights developed when virtually everyone believed in a spirit or soul which not only animated the body but encapsulated the individual's essence. How can they be reconciled with a purely secular view of the social self?

In addition to these problems of metaphysical baggage, the proliferation of human rights (or rights inflation) is further eroding the credibility of the concept. Behind this tendency to invent and assign new rights is the antagonism many on the left feel towards the idea of charity: if what the underprivileged receive is their 'right', they are (supposedly) not beholden to the generosity of others.

Despite these problems and confusions, I think it is still possible to be committed to classical liberal ideals (like individual freedom). What is valuable in this tradition of thought can still be defended - but on pragmatic rather than on religious or metaphysical grounds.

The rights which survive will not be static and innate but rather dynamic and, for the most part, contingent, arising out of a person's interactions and relations with others. Those who cannot - or who choose not to - embrace reciprocal responsibilities will not be accorded the freedoms enjoyed by those who can and do, but they too should be treated with justice and humanity.

For, arguably, not all rights are contingent. Justice (or due process) is fundamental to the view I am putting. Whereas most (all?) other rights are contingent on acceptable behavior, justice should apply equally to all.

Impartiality or 'equality before the law' is a centrally important idea, and it is only undermined by attempts by the left to implement other - more problematic - forms of equality.


  1. Awesome post. Sent me to the googleplex to define "structuralism," for one thing. Washed me up in the lands of cultural anth and linguistics which fascinate me. Promptly I got swamped and lost my paddle in a river of competing -isms, so I swam back here to tell you what makes this post so awesome:

    Look at the tags you assigned. Every one is a deep concern of mine. You know I'm primarily a moral theorist, and my theory is a cultural view of ethics: my meta-ethics is thumbnailable as "ethics is cultural." That will be a primary focus of my upcoming blogs. "Culture" is the context in which "morality" operates. In fact, on many levels they are the same thing and my upcoming project is to explain what I mean by that.

    But several elements of that theory connect to the subject above. For instance, how meaningful (and independent) is the "individual"? As you observe, a human isolated from society at birth could form no identity whatsoever. If that is true, every individual is a product of society (I say culture) and the onus falls to thinkers such as you and me to figure out how the "individual" remains meaningful (and deserving of respect and rights), given his/her status as "one node in a network" in which the network is more significant than the individual. There's an answer to that question, I think ... but wow, what a difficult answer it is. Ockham might need to roll over in his grave.

    Very thought provoking ...

  2. I'm glad we seem to be thinking along the same lines, and I agree with you that much of great interest and much that is quite confronting seems to flow from the ideas I am drawing attention to here.

  3. I came across a story once –unfortunately I can’t remember where - that King James IV of Scotland, a man of inquiring mind, decided to isolate two newly born children to see what, if any, language they would speak as they matured. When eventually brought before the court they were found to be fluent in Hebrew! Well, I did say it was a story. :-)

  4. "... trailing clouds of glory do we come ..." (God spoke Hebrew too, didn't he?)

  5. I'm of the view that all is seventeen, or maybe forty-three. But apart from that small point, I agree very much with your views on rights (and duties) arising from the social self, and not from selfhood as such.

    This is the view advocated by Sandel, Walzer and MacIntyre back in the 1970s, in reply to Rawls and Nozick. Roughly, it is the core idea of communitarianism.

    As I see it, one can be both a communitarian and a libertarian. The idea involves both minimum but strong government and maximum individual liberties. Free individuals tend to accept responsibilities and to form strong voluntary communities. (They'd better, or we'll make them do so.)

  6. In practice, though, I think the so-called communitarians (some of whom - e.g. Sandel - explicitly denied being communitarians) backed away from the quite simple and radical conclusions which follow from the idea that rights arise in communities. There was also a strong left-wing element in communitarianism as it developed, was there not?

    I like your formulation of the communitarian/libertarian ideal.

  7. Not sure about Sandel, but MacIntyre denied the term. M. is still a Marxist of course, though he accepts a lot of liberalism also.

    Maybe there can be many varieties of communitarianism. I think of it as a method of thinking, as a matter of giving priority to the social, and as fitting the good of the individual into that framework. How that works out in practice could be interpreted quite diversely, it seems.

    The greatest difficulty for this approach is accounting for the needs and interests of the severely disabled.

    There's a debate going on about whether prisoners should get the vote. On communitarian grounds they should not: their crimes show that they have forfeited a say in the community's affairs. EU bureaucrats take the opposite view, to nobody's surprise.

  8. I'd be interested in further discussion of the difference (above) between Mark and GC. Mark says ethics arises from the social; GC says it arises from the cultural.

    I'm with Mark on this. A shared culture as such generates no rights or duties; a shared social life does. Suppose I am a Buddhist in Thailand and you are a Buddhist in Tibet. We have a common culture. But do I have any duties to you or you to me? But I do have duties to Thai society and to my fellow Thai Buddhists, it seems to me. Our reciprocal relations generate these duties and the corresponding rights.

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding GC's viewpoint.

  9. Mark, what a fascinating post. Seriously I lurve it. I know saying "lurve" is silly, but then so am I.
    Must come back and read this over for seconds.

  10. TalesNTypos, I can live with lurve!

  11. Alan, you made a point about the needs and interests of the severely disabled. Defining the self as essentially social and rights as arising from social relations does seem to leave many severely disabled people without rights. But this does not mean that they should not be treated humanely and with due respect.

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  14. Now, to finish "ethics" vs "morality," in a nutshell: morality is cultural behavior. Some of "moral behavior" is encoded in DNA (the tendency to judge our peers, examine their motives, assess their membership in the group etc). We have (I believe) cultural DNA (we're wired for language, no?). And ethics is political behavior. Take that!

  15. What you say, GC, seems to make a lot of sense, though I reserve the right to come back and scrutinize some of the detail. Alan may have something to say on it as it was his challenge you were answering.

    On the issue of ethics vs morality, I don't think your distinction is generally accepted usage, so it could lead to confusion. (I know some philosophers have felt the need to create new words or define old ones in specific ways.)

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  17. So Mark is more right than I am: "ethics is societal" is more proper to say. I am saying that ethics is built on the cultural foundation below it -- the layer where "morality" is. That's where I get "ethics is cultural."

    (We are: social >> cultural/moral >> political/ethical.)

    If I were to correct my statement accordingly, it would read "morality is cultural" (which is what I mean) and this eliminates the dichotomy Alan notes between Mark's formulation and mine.