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The myopia of human rights

The legalism of the human rights framework makes it blind to the cooperation and sense of civic responsibility that truly makes us human and accounts for our uniqueness.

What distinguishes humans from other animals?  Having souls, their discovery of fire, or their invention of tools? There is now another bold thesis. In his new book, Yuval Harari argues that what distinguishes us is our ability to cooperate with very large numbers of other humans, and in very flexible and diverse modes. If he is right, we may need to rethink some of our central assumptions.

At face value, Harari’s is a counter intuitive thesis. It has become impossible to leaf through a daily newspaper without encountering stories of genocide, corruption, rape, and multiple other manifestations of humanity’s beastly nature. We are all fascinated by House of Cards, from which we infer that only suckers play by the book and uphold standards of decency. Many of us stumbled across the political theory of Thomas Hobbes in school; he told us that man is a wolf to other men and that the only way to reign in the beast is to resign to a larger beast, the Leviathan. We also recall that Adam Smith advised us not to rely on the charity of the butcher and the grocer for our meal, but on their self-interest. So, how can cooperation really be our signature trait?

To make his point, Harari asks us to compare what would happen if we put one human and one ape on an island, or if we were to put a thousand humans, and a thousand apes. He argues that when left alone and to his own devices, a single human is fairly meek and possesses no natural physical advantage over an ape. Yet, when a thousand of us cooperate, we can out-organize apes or any other rival. Harari argues this is the key factor that explains our unfettered domination of the planet.


Flickr/Doug (Some rights reserved)

A single human is fairly meek. Yet, when a thousand of us cooperate, we can out-organize any other rival. Harari argues this is the key factor that explains our unfettered domination of the planet.


If true, this thesis should lead us to reconsider many of our cardinal beliefs, including in human rights. Large parts of the elite consensus in Europe—as well as at Davos and beyond—is post-religious and post-sovereigntist. For these people, a human-rights paradigm provides the central benchmark for good and evil.  Human rights advocates have been spared the debacles confronting advocates of various creeds and sovereignties in their long histories. So, those who speak on behalf of human rights are increasingly unrivalled in their confidence.

Can it be that human rights frameworks are incapable of recognizing the constituent features of a good life? Yet, consider a counterfactual: a world where friendships are transactional, and often last no longer than one week; a world where no one greets one another or attempts to forge bonds of any kind; a world where most marriages are formed through prenuptial contracts, frequently including 10-year sunset clauses; a world where armed forces are staffed predominantly by mercenaries; a world where no poetry is read, and no stories from earlier ages are enjoyed, where we instead have bandwidths auctioned to the highest bidder, 80 percent of which turn out to be peddlers of porn; a world where the deceased are turned into fertilizers; a world where politicians distribute toilet paper ornamented with the faces of their nemesis in their rallies; or a world where decency and magnanimity are museum pieces, with no place in public life.

Most would agree that such a world would be the epitome of dystopia. Yet, measured against human rights standards, there is nothing worthy of condemnation in such a world. Can it be that human rights frameworks are incapable of recognizing the constituent features of a good life?

Social science scholarship has produced significant revelations that are relevant for human rights advocates. Scholars such as Edward Wilson remind us that while selfish individuals do have an evolutionary advantage, so do groups relying on solidarity. We are neither selfish beasts, nor bland members of ant colonies. Our wellbeing hinges on how we balance cooperation and competition, and how we adjust that balance over time and in response to our overall ecosystem. Each successful system or society produces its own schemes to manage this delicate dynamic. Civics, in that sense, is not only our time-tested way to co-manage our commons; it is also our distinctive way for solving this puzzle and managing this dynamic. 

If cooperation is so central to wellbeing, then should we not be more curious about the manner in which cooperation is produced and sustained? Fortunately, social scientists such as Robert Axelrod and Elenor Ostrom did study such questions.  They demonstrated that cooperation can and does emerge even in a world of egoists and without central authority. Various experiments and simulations have shown the most resilient and effective strategy is to trust your peers, and be willing to reciprocate cooperation and punish free riders. When a group of pro-social individuals bond and forge such civic cooperation, they are remarkably difficult to unseat. Sharing normative frameworks, building those frameworks through discourse and practice, frequenting shared spaces, and building reputations through those shared sites prove to be key to sustaining the mechanisms needed to deliver cooperation. This might explain why so many of us are not blasé about the corrosion in decency and civility, and care deeply about symbols of past cooperation.

The point here is not to repudiate human rights, but emphasize the need to recalibrate. Part of the problem may be the dominance of lawyers in the human rights ecosystem. Legal positivism has been blind to any sources of law other than those in black and white, and where there are clear and effective enforcement mechanisms. Unfortunately, such views ignore societal processes and sensibilities. The resulting risk is a paradigm with the demeanour of infallibility, yet is also remarkably oblivious to what makes lives worthy of living, what makes societies and even humanity, survive and thrive. Erring on the side of curiosity rather than fervour, and taking an interest in non-legal sources such as the humanities and social science scholarship may be a useful step in broadening this outlook. The world has learned and gained so much from the human rights framework. It would be a shame if this edifice crumbles due to the myopia of lawyers.


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