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Human Rights between Ideology & Politics:
Alain de Benoist’s Beyond Human Rights

[1]2,055 words

Alain de Benoist
Beyond Human Rights: Defending Freedoms [2]
London: Arktos Media, 2011

The work under review is the third by French philosopher Alain de Benoist to be translated into English, and the second translation to be published by Arktos Media. Like its predecessor The Problem of Democracy, it is a short, dense book written to challenge the authority of one of the most pompous god-terms of our age.

The current vogue for “human rights” can be traced back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. Before this famous declaration was issued, explains Benoist, the directors of the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) undertook a preliminary enquiry:

An international committee was constituted in order to collect the opinions of a certain number of ‘moral authorities.’ Around 150 intellectuals from all countries were asked to determine the philosophical basis of the new Declaration. This approach ended in failure, and its promoters had to limit themselves to registering the irreconcilable divergences between the responses obtained. Since no accord emerged, the Commission decided not to publish the results of this enquiry. (p. 40)

The UN happily proceeded to issue its Universal Declaration of Human Rights anyway.

UNESCO’s failure at finding any agreed-upon source or rational basis for human rights is hardly surprising. The first great vogue for the rights of man had come with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution a century and a half before, and it had hardly gone unanswered: Nineteenth Century thinkers as different as Burke, Bentham, Marx, and Nietzsche had all subjected both it and the social contract theory on which it was based to withering criticism.

From the point of view of serious philosophical thought, this is more or less where we remain today. Yet the notion of human rights seems to provide modern society with something significant that it would otherwise lack. And so, like a religious teaching, it marches happily on in defiance of any number of refutations. It is continually upon the lips of journalists, politicians, bishops, and even such sublime moral authorities of the present age as Elie Wiesel, Nadine Gordimer, and Kofi Annan; yet no one even bothers trying to justify it anymore. Sometimes this is even admitted explicitly: William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, is quoted by Benoist as saying that human rights are “nothing but what men declare to be rights” (p. 59).

But then it is difficult to see why my list of human rights is not just as good as yours—or the UN’s.

Benoist begins his own inquiry with the suggestion that Europe’s single most important gift to the world is the spirit of objectivity. From objectivity follow such characteristically Western notions as the common good, equity, science, and philosophy (as enterprises independent of traditional authority), and the capacity for self-criticism. But it is the nature of every virtue to border upon particular vices. In the case of objectivity, these vices are subjectivity and universalism. While subjectivity reduces reality to perception, universalism foists upon reality an abstract idea not derived from it.

Human rights, he says, are an ideology which “unites both of these errors. It is universalist insofar as it claims to impose itself everywhere without regard to memberships, traditions and contexts. It is subjectivist insofar as it defines rights as subjective attributes of the solitary individual” (p. 22).

The author then proceeds to outline the historical origins of these supposed rights. They were unknown to the classical world.

Originally, law was not at all defined as a collection of rules and norms of conduct deriving from morality, but as a discipline aimed at determining the best way to establish equity within a relationship. For the Greeks, justice in the legal sense represents good proportion, the equitable proportion between distributed goods and charges. Thus, Cicero says of civil law that ‘its end is to maintain among citizens, in the distribution of goods and in legal cases a just proportion resting on laws and customs.’ (p. 26)

Consisting in a certain kind of relation between persons, or distribution between them, justice is a kind of harmony within a group.

Christianity, developing a universalistic tendency already present in Stoicism, broke with this way of thinking:

The Christian religion proclaims the unique value of every human being. Insofar as he possesses a soul which puts him in a direct relationship with God, man becomes the bearer of an absolute value, i.e., of a value which cannot be confused with his personal qualities or his membership in a particular group. [In this way] Christianity digs a ditch between the origin of man (God) and his temporal existence. It withdraws from the relative existence of the human being the ontological anchoring which is now reserved for the soul. The links between men are, of course, still important, but they remain secondary. (p. 27)

The French legal historian Michel Villey put it this way: “The Christian ceases to be a part of the political organism; he is a totality in himself, an end superior to the temporal ends of politics, and his person transcends the state. Here is the seed of the modern freedoms of the individual which will be opposable to the state, our future ‘human rights’” (p. 28).

Before the modern understanding of natural law was developed by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the concept of law became gradually more subjective within Christian thought. Fourteenth Century Nominalist William of Occam taught that only individuals exist; Spanish Scholasticism, writes Benoist, “passe[d] from a notion of objective natural law founded on the nature of things to a notion of a subjective natural law founded on individual reason” (p. 31). So the anticlericalism of the French Revolution and consequent denunciation of the ‘Rights of Man’ by the Church must not mislead us in to thinking that Christianity is incompatible with any conception of universal human rights; in recent years the Catholic Church has acknowledged this, to the dismay of some traditionalists.

On the other hand, the notion of individual rights enforceable against the society as a whole is as unfamiliar to the non-Western world as it was to classical Greece:

 Asiatic thought [writes Benoist] is expressed above all in the language of duties. In the Confucian tradition, men are related to each other by reciprocity of duties and mutual obligation. In India, Hinduism represents the universe as a space where beings traverse cycles of multiform existence. In Taoism, the tao of the world is regarded as a universal fact that governs the course of beings and things. In Black Africa, the social relationship includes the dead as well as the living. In the Middle East, the notions of respect and honor determine obligations within the extended family and clan. (p. 65)

Benoist is aware, of course, that all these groups easily learn to mimic Western rights talk where it can be to their advantage; nevertheless, any concept of individual rights remains fundamentally alien to their native and natural thought patterns.

Accordingly, there is much to be said in favor of the view that universal rights represent a disguised form of Western imperialism. This interpretation is strengthened by the frequency with which the slogan of ‘protecting human rights’ is now employed to justify military intervention. Such ‘humanitarian’ intervention is increasingly being asserted not merely as a right, but as a duty. This is tantamount to the abandonment of the Westphalian system which has governed international relations since 1648.

Alternatively, universal rights ideology may be understood as a theory of historical development according to which “the majority of the world’s peoples are engaged, in the same way as Western nations, in a process of transition from a more or less mythical Gemeinschaft . . . to a ‘modernity’ organized in a ‘rational’ and ‘contractual’ manner, such as the Western world knows it” (Raimundo Panikkar, pp. 66-67). On this view the West is not, indeed, morally superior; but it is in advance, while others are lagging behind.

Furthermore, the individual character of human rights inevitably comes into conflict with cultural freedom, i.e., the freedom of traditional cultures to exist—which necessarily involves their right to exclude what is alien. A Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples was actually proclaimed in Algeria in 1976; it asserts, in part, “the right [of a people] not to see a culture imposed on it which is alien to it” (p. 70). This would seem to imply the right of a cultural collective to crack down on any individuals who might be keen on adopting foreign (or ‘modern’) ways. There is no way out of this dilemma which would satisfy everybody.

Since individuals are inherently weak, the enforcement of individual rights also involves what Benoist calls an “extraordinary rise in power of the legal sphere” (p. 85). Thus, guaranteeing full sexual freedom to individual women has entailed the unprecedented expansion of divorce law (my example). Judicial decisions gradually replace cultural tradition and, in Pierre Manent’s words: “Arbitrariness—precisely what our regimes wanted to defend against in instituting constitutional control—will go on increasing and will be, paradoxically, the doing of judges” (p. 86). From maintaining a shared culture—peculiar to itself collectively but not individually—society dissolves into an assemblage of litigious utility-maximizers forever attempting to instrumentalize the judiciary against their neighbors. This is hardly what the champions of ‘human rights’ had in mind, but it is what we have ended up with.

Benoist develops his own position, strongly reminiscent of Carl Schmitt, in the context of discussing “humanitarian intervention.” The very nature of the alleged duty to protect human rights abroad implies that it can only be carried out by stronger states against weaker ones. The seductive “idealism” of enforcing justice beyond national borders issues in a mere sanctioning of the hegemony of superpowers. American intervention in places such as Iraq, Serbia, and Somalia was surely facilitated by the presumption that she would never find herself on the receiving end of similar intervention. But, as the author remarks, “a justice which is not the same for all does not deserve the name” (pp. 87-88).

Consider a question of domestic policy: if a society does not have the means to provide free education to its members, what is gained by asserting an individual “right” to education? In fact, such a right is no more than an “attribution that a particular society which has reached a certain moment in its history thinks itself able and obliged to give its members” (p. 96).

The crux of the confusion inherent in rights ideology is that, while “human rights” is a legal concept, “the law cannot float above politics. It can be exercised only within a political community or result from the decision of several political units to ally themselves with one another” (sc. the Coalition of the Willing; p. 87).

In short, human rights are in reality nothing but political ideals or goals. Men assert them as rights out of an urge to protect them from the risks and uncertainty of political life; but this is mere self-deception about the human condition. In fact, we are political animals whose rights are always at the mercy of political regimes. In constantly attempting to reduce the prerogatives of politics, human rights ideology even serves to undermine the foundations of its own implementation. Better to dispense with it entirely.

The rejection of human rights ideology is hardly an endorsement of despotism. Rather:

It is a question of showing that the necessary fight against all forms of tyranny and oppression is a fundamentally political question which, as such, should be resolved politically. In other words, it is a question of abandoning the legal sphere and the field of moral philosophy to affirm that the power of the political authority must be limited, not because individuals enjoy unlimited rights by nature, but because a polity where despotism reigns is a bad political society. (p. 107)

This reviewer has no criticism to offer.

The best way forward, as Benoist sees it, is the restoration of what Benjamin Constant called the “freedom of the Ancients,” viz., active participation in political life with all the responsibilities it entails, including responsibility for maintaining what are today styled “human rights” (p. 108). As the author suggests in his previous book on democracy, this participation can best be exercised today within the context of municipal associations, regional assemblies and professional bodies. From the perspective of ancient and classical liberty, we of the West are enjoying precisely the government we deserve.