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.