Human Rights versus Group Rights in Law and Reason: Checking Postmodern Creep

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes in its preamble: “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” By “members of the human family,” the document means individuals. Human rights adhere in each individual as the birthright of our species ties and therefore demand equality. Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Humans are reasoning and moral beings and should regard each other thusly. Article 2 states that the Declarations enumerated rights are entitlements “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Elenor Roosevelt displaying a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United States in December 1948

Crucially, being a member of a group gets you no more or no less of the rights to which everybody is entitled. While the Declaration makes reference to collective entities, such as the nation-state, the associated right, the right to a nationality, resides in the individual. Indeed, there is no logical basis for organic group rights in the Declaration. A group right as distinct from the rights of individuals could abrogate human rights by allowing immunity from the right to not be a slave. To allow the group to control individuals outside of human rights is respect for tribalism, a primitive and oppressive religious construct quite out of line with human rights. Article 6 states: “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” This in principle obviates tribalism.

This principle is embraced in the United States tradition. Indeed, more than other countries, the United States aligns its ideals with these principles—indeed it anticipates them in its Bill of Rights!—and the logic of these rights proceeds on the basis of equality. If every individual is in principle a person before the law, then each person has in principle a right to speech, assembly, and all the rest of it. A white teenager from Kentucky standing at the Lincoln Memorial is as equal before the law – a law that regards silence as indicating nothing – as an elderly American Indian activist banging his drum in protest against the presence of white people on what he claims as his sacred lands. In principle, they both have a right to exist in that space and for whatever purpose they decide as long as that purpose is not to physically harm (some would add harass or intimidate) others.

Because each person is endowed with reason (albeit that capacity is still developing in the young of our species because of our long path to maturity), the arguments and claims a person makes—if he is making any—must be reasonable, which means reliance on secular facts and logic. Gender, race, religion, or other identities are no more reasons that arguments are true or false, right or wrong as they are for claiming privileges before the law. Just as an individual in principle should enjoy no special dispensation for the fact that he identifies as an American Indian or is identified as a white person, so his arguments gain no gravity on that basis. He stands as an individual and his reason and conscience shoulder the same burdens as that of every other mature person. The reality that power or identity can make falsehoods and wrongs appear true and right does not change the objective standards for reasoning though arguments and claims made about the world.

What about empathy? Empathy is about understanding what moves a person. It is not a method for determining the truth. Our shared reality is not a matter of perspective or standpoint. To believe otherwise is to do ideological work.

The extent to which postmodern epistemology—in a nutshell, the method that holds that what a person is determines whether she is right or wrong and that how she feels about something determines the truth of a situation or thing—has become accepted by so many people on the left is a testament to the ability of approved cultural managers serving in establishment institutions to shape popular thought, to mislead people from the path to justice. How else would so many persons claiming to speak to justice embrace the irrational and superstitious ethic of intergenerational and collective injury, guilt, and punishment? How else could reasonable and conscientious people assign blame to individuals or excuse their actions with no evidence or justification other than they are members of a group, that they “belong” to an historically imposed or embraced social construction? How else could intelligent people turn the logic of racism into a virtue signaling politics of the left? All this over against the beautiful and obvious logic of human rights.

In a review of Mistaken Identity by Asad Haider in The Guardian, Ben Tarnoff writes, “Collective self-emancipation doesn’t require abandoning one’s identity—if that were even possible—but linking it with those of others in widening circles of solidarity.” Some identities can be left behind. Some can’t. But the widening circles of solidarity is a start. However, one can get there a lot sooner by recognizing the following:

There are two things that either bind all of us or most of together. The first is species-ties. We are all members of the human family. This means that human rights exist in the individual and all individuals simultaneously. The second is our economic position, which for the vast majority of people is proletarian. So while it is true that racism explains why blacks as a group trail whites as a group in every significant social category, the plight of poor black and poor white individuals is an economic system that exploit human labor. This is why lumping by race or some other demographic category and viewing everything through its lens obscures more than it illuminates, something captured well by Valerie Tarico, in an essay published today in AlterNet (“Here’s why Evangelicals and social justice warriors trigger me in the same way”).

As I argued on this blog yesterday: Those of us on the left who still cast our lot with the struggling proletarian masses have to start speaking out against identity politics as its currently manifested (frankly, even if salvageable, I am not convinced of its utility) and that means looking at ourselves. The process of critical self-reflection begins with recognizing this essential and universal truth: If our politics make assumptions about who people are, what they believe, what they do, what they’re responsible for, and what they deserve on the basis of the color of their skin or some other socially constructed category, then our politics aren’t just wrong, they’re antithetical to premise of human rights and the interests of working people.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

One thought on “Human Rights versus Group Rights in Law and Reason: Checking Postmodern Creep”

  1. I have found it striking that this viewpoint is far more likely to be espoused by white males. The problem with this approach is the same as the problem.of classical economics. It assumes original position of equality. But original inequalities are not simply quantitative differences that even out given a regimen of economic justice. They create systemic distortions that must be systemically addressed. Exploitation of labor is modeled on relationships between the genders in the household and cannot be addressed without understanding how and why these structures are sustained. Consensus does not exist on what constitutes a like being to which equality applies:. Does it extend to animals and fertilized ova? My neighbor asks to horns. How can she treat me as an equal if she thinks people of my religion are not the same species? Asserting equality does not create it. Theories that assume difference away fail because they offer no pathway from the status quo to the ideal starting point.

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