Dr. Machan, a contributing editor of The Freeman, teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.
It is interesting that so many people find the humanities, especially philosophy, irrelevant. People have always resisted philosophy. In our time it is often the so-called practical professionals who regard thinking about the great questions a waste of time and would rather handle problems piecemeal, on the spur of the moment, with no consideration of the big picture.
Yet no sooner does someone attempt to defeat philosophy than philosophy tends to win. Philosophy is, after all, trying to make sense of the world, of seeking, with spirit and determination, to attain wisdom, to live the examined life. And even those who set out to deny its value get trapped by philosophy—their denial is itself an attempt to reach wisdom, namely, that seeking wisdom isn’t wise, so it’s wiser to give it up!
This was evident at the June 1993 international human rights conference held in Vienna, Austria, where the assembled heads of governmental and non-governmental organizations debated human rights. One of the most troubling topics of the conference was what human rights are. When we speak of human rights, are these conditions that everyone everywhere ought to enjoy? Should these same basic conditions be protected by governments everywhere in the world? Or are human rights one thing for people in one part of the globe and another for those in another part?
Many leaders of Third World countries where various types of dictatorships still flourish argue, predictably, that human rights should not be understood the same way in Western democracies and their own societies. Why? Because their societies, they say, require greater regimentation, more state interference, and pervasive government planning in order to survive. This really means, of course, that because those in power in such societies have goals and purposes that require subjugating others, they don’t believe that the concept of human rights—to liberty, autonomy, full political participation, civil rights, religious worship, freedom of the press—should apply.
There are, of course, cultural differences that should be honored. But they do not concern rights, which are basic principles of human community life. Cultural differences are valid only where they include peaceful practices, customs, mores, etiquette, styles, and tastes. Different cultures often exhibit certain prominent temperaments that prevail in a society. The Scandinavians are often more quiet and collected than Latins. The Finns are more melancholy than the French. Verbosity, reticence, even shyness can be matters of temperament, the kind of benign difference that is important for an individual’s life. And there is much diversity in the arts of different cultures, based on different histories, climates, and other factors.
But human rights are based on universal human attributes. Indeed, universal human rights concern the basic freedoms that people ought to have protected so as to make peaceful choices for themselves in all walks of life. And it is only if such rights are given full protection that the valuable differences based on the highly diverse circumstances in people’s lives can be fully exploited and realized.