The Rise of Rights and the Fall of Man

Healthy societies have an inbuilt sense of how things are and ought to be. But we have abandoned common sense, integrity and virtue

Features Human Rights

What is the basic moral structure of our lives in the 21st century? Back in the days of the first Elizabeth, we might have said “godliness”. By contrast, Victorian moralists would have invoked “respectability” as the umbrella term covering most of the virtues. To be worthy of respect was certainly in the 19th century a powerful drive, and as Christie Davies has recently been reminding us, it went with low rates of crime and very little anti-social behaviour. In the 1960s a kind of anti-moral umbrella term — “liberation” — became all the rage, and it does continue to be confused with the idea of freedom. But the liberated are a good deal less law-abiding and orderly than the respectable, or the godly, used to be. Liberation is very different from freedom.

The point of this question is that some historical periods have a more or less coherent moral structure, while in others, moral sentiments are fragmented. Many people certainly believe that ours is a fragmented age, a view that in its extreme form takes moral principle to be merely a matter of taste, depending on things called “values.” All we have, it might seem, is a set of “moralities” — Bohemian, Christian, secularist, professional, sexual, professional, etc. The reality is certainly confusing enough to justify such a judgment, but it wildly simplifies the actual confusions of our time. We expend considerable moral energy on projects for helping the poor abroad, while in everyday life there is evident tension between sexual laissez faire and politically correct authoritarianism. A whole class of legal and corporate officials has been set up to enforce these moral positions in law. And what these considerations make very clear is that moral sentiments in our time are closely entangled with political passions. This was certainly not true of the Victorians.

There is one obvious candidate for the role of an overarching system of morality in our time: namely rights, as authoritatively enshrined in universal declarations presenting, as an abstract code, the way we in European states have learned to live. Traditionalists  ask what has happened to duties as the correlates of rights, but that may be to miss the point. Declarations of rights were basically intended to strengthen the position of those working for freedom in countries where rights were thin on the ground. Cynics might think that adherence to such uplifting declarations was merely a bit of harmless posturing, but the Soviet Union was unsettled by even a formal recognition of rights, and the current turmoil in Arab lands illustrates the potency of Western notions of freedom and democracy. Rights have power. But there are two problems with rights, one logical, one practical.

The logical point is that a right is basically a rule, distinguished by the fact that it is named in terms of its beneficiaries. A right to life, for example, is a rule that excludes killing as a way of solving one’s problems, and its beneficiaries are all human beings. The idea of rights is thus a form of moral codification, and codification generally identifies the moral life with abiding by rules. There is more to moral conduct, however, than following the rules, a concern with which can sometimes slide into the vice of casuistry. When British Members of Parliament were caught out making absurd and sometimes fraudulent claims for expenses, their feeble response was often, “We didn’t break any rules.” No doubt most had not, but many had still behaved dishonourably. As with any codification of a complex skill, a part of the concrete activity-namely following admirable rules- had been mistaken by greedy people for the whole. 

Rights have, however, been a runaway success for academics, judges and convicts, for example, who have discovered that their sentence of imprisonment violates a whole range of their human rights, ranging from voting in elections to receiving welfare benefits. It is but one of the notable paradoxes of the world of rights that lawbreakers can demand as of right a voice in the formulation of laws which they evidently hadn’t taken too seriously in the past. Nevertheless, it has been “discovered”, as it were, that convicts ought not to be denied this right. It may be significant that this “discovery” has been made largely by foreign judges at the European Court of Human Rights. And this reveals a further feature of rights: they purport to be universal moral attributes independent of circumstance or tradition. But many of the rights now claimed by convicted criminals are widely recognised as absurd by those in Anglo-Saxon Common Law countries who (like me) had no official rights until an unwanted Act of Parliament was passed in Britain to equip us with these new-fangled things. Those living in the Anglosphere have had no new access of freedoms from such legislation. They already enjoyed the freedom of law, and no external bodies could then interfere with that. But the content of rights varies considerably between one legal and political tradition and another.

The result is that Britain has largely lost the protection of determining its own moral standards, and fallen under a variety of universal jurisdictions. The European Court of Human Rights has recently, for example, declared invalid, as discriminatory, the cheaper motor insurance young women get because they have fewer serious accidents than young men. These rather muddled legal authorities have become so bewitched by the idea of discrimination that they cannot, as Alasdair Palmer has pointed out, tell the difference between actuaries and Nazis.

It is a further problem with rights that there seem to be no end of them. Enthusiasts keep discovering more and more, so that in their fullness, they threaten to adumbrate a comprehensive legislative programme of “governance” that will leave very little for democratic parliaments to do. One way of life will cover us all. Thomas Pogge, a professor at the Australian National University has recently “discovered” that everyone in the world has a right not to be malnourished, which imposes a duty on the rest of the world to come up with the food for the “bottom billion”. Here is an open-ended commitment whose reality must be determined by the procreative decisions of millions of people in the third world. Indeed, these acts will not even be the decision of all the people involved, since the exiguous power of women in these countries largely means that our responsibilities are at the mercy of the lusts of men. As a piece of moral thinking, not to speak of political, this is one more of the more dramatic reductiones ad absurdum of the whole idea of rights, though in its dottiness it must compete with such other absurdities as the fact that the UN Council on Human Rights long included the Libya of Colonel Gaddafi among its many freedom-loving members. Such realities of rights make it all the more remarkable that many universities have jumped upon the bandwagon by setting up research centres devoted to exploring the many aspects of the idea.

Since rights are basically claims, they cannot be taken as the entire field of a moral life in which some recognition must be given to the virtues. Most virtues, after all, seek to limit or inhibit the range of claims. Virtues are about what we ought to do, and here controversy is unavoidable. Some argue that no coherent structure of virtues can today be discovered because immigration has created a “multicultural society”. This is the cue for the advance of an aspiratory virtue of tolerance. It would be nice if we didn’t kill, damage or disdain each other. Politicians are certainly clear that we ought to tolerate each other.

There are, however, at least two problems with this. The first is that one group of social moralists deplores tolerance as a rather arrogant virtue. Toleration is entirely compatible with disdain, and these moralists want to demand the deeper virtue called “acceptance”, which requires that we should recognise that all ways of life are of equal value, and we should respect them as such. This is so powerful a moral conviction among politicians and teachers, for example, that proposals have been made to incorporate it in the curriculum of schools. That all peoples and ways of life are equally valuable is a doctrine advanced in favour of whole classes of  “vulnerables” in our society, ranging from homosexuals to ethnic groups. Nobody of course believes in the equal value of all ways of life for a moment, although there is a lot of pious saluting.

Secondly, acceptance as a programme collides with human nature. Human beings — or at least our European lot-are manic generalisers. Many Christians and Muslims agree in deploring homosexual liberation, while secularists so deplore religion that they want to root it out of European life altogether. Society-indeed all societies — are haunts of value judgments, most of them foolish, all of them of the most limited range. One or two bad experiences with class X and we embrace a generalisation. Much of this, probably most of it, is harmless, because civility and human manners — often foolishly called a “veneer” — impel most people to behave decently toward classes of people they don’t like. But this universal propensity of human beings is widely thought to raise what we might call “the Hitler problem”. Hitler had mad ideas about Jews, and then tried to wipe them out. Ultimately, then, we will only be safe from discrimination, indeed from the danger of genocide, when we teach people a different way of being. The bizarre endeavours of communist states to create a new kind of human being are almost realistic in comparison with this project. It is, however, the basic premise of the thing called “political correctness” which has become so dangerous a force for servility and deceit in our world. Further, it is entrenched in law.

The question I have posed is thus at the centre of our lives, and the difficulty of finding an answer tells us a great deal about ourselves. One reason for that difficulty results from the morality of sex. Virginia Woolf, it may be remembered, suggested sex had been invented back in December 1910. If so, it was such a runaway success that within 50 years it was liberated entirely from the ferocious conventions of past times, and led to the view that all consensual forms of sexual conduct were a universal right. Well — almost all. A major and dramatic exception was made for paedophilia, which has become so central to our moral sentiments as to tempt us into a second universal law of human nature.

As we have seen, disdain for other sets of people seems absolutely entrenched in the human psyche. The anti-discriminatory enthusiasm of political correctness in no way weakens this tendency, for disdain now focuses on ideologically specified classes of people such as racists or xenophobes rather than on religious or racial classes of people. Here in the paedophile case we have another basic constant of human life: outrage. I am not, of course, dissenting from this response, but I do observe that it does seem to be a constant in human moral life. Treatment of moral faults in the media sustain this rather athletic sense of vice and virtue, and keep it in good repair, as perhaps illustrated in my favourite recent tabloid headline: “Love rat in pregnancy shock.”

Outside sexual abuse, however, many believe that sexual behaviour ought to be subject to nothing more constrictive than one’s own personal values. Indeed, any denial of this freedom (such as the Christian view of homosexuality, a view enthusiastically shared by other religions) is thought to reveal bigotry and prejudice. Such a liberated judgment running contrary to the instincts of all traditional societies could hardly have happened without such medical technology of contraception, but it was certainly also a kind of moral revolution.

Just that revolution is part of the reason my question is so difficult to answer-indeed, even to pose. Since the very word “moral” had in past times been narrowed (as in expressions such as “moral turpitude”) to its sexual implications, many simple people concluded that our fluidity about sexual judgments signified that the whole area of morality had become merely a matter of taste. Expressions such as “immoral behaviour” in the past referred to sex, and it was sex (and to a lesser extent violence) that basically concerned the control exercised by the Lord Chamberlain in the London theatre, and the Hays Office in the American cinema. In this central liberation of the last century, the connection between sexuality and commitment weakened dramatically. Many sins, such as adultery for example, could technically be avoided by the simple expedient of not getting married at all. As Cole Porter so famously put it, anything goes.

In order to release ourselves from the simplicities of the view that morality is simply a matter of  “values”, we need to look to the structure of the virtues. Some virtues may be classified as “departmental” because they relate to specific activities; others are “regulative” in terms of the contingencies of actual situations. Thrift is clearly a departmental virtue, prudence or discretion are regulative. The popular salience of the departmental virtues goes up and down according to circumstances, and particularly to our insatiable appetite for convenience. Thrift, for example, is at the mercy of credit availability, and punctuality seems less important in the era of the mobile phone.

It is the decline of regulative virtues that is most evident in the  21st century. Perhaps the most basic of the regulative virtues is common sense. And here we do encounter something that is so remarkable as to reveal a dramatic decline in the moral life. No society could work unless its members had an inbuilt sense of how things are and ought to be, and this sense cannot be taught in abstractions or read off from codes, of which the currency of rights is the dominant corruption of our time. Yet today failures of common sense are the common currency of our daily understanding. We find that social workers, council employees, even policemen fail to live up to the standards that used to be encapsulated in, for example, the fictional Dixon of Dock Green. Officials who cannot rescue a drowning child because they have not been given the appropriate training, and policemen whom the law requires to warn householders against protecting their property in any way that might threaten danger to the intruding burglar, are denizens of the surreal world we have managed to create. Common sense is supremely lacking in many cases that come before employment tribunals, and in many sexual harassment cases, which the more robust women of earlier times would have disposed of with a fast word or a brisk slap.

Above all, perhaps, common sense disappears, often opportunistically, into a compensation culture, whenever the law allows gains to be made by people declaring themselves to have been “offended”. A whimsical example may be found in the case of the Australian who reportedly sued for racist harassment because his colleagues greeted him with “G’day” and asked if his girlfriend was called Sheila. Of course these newspaper stories are a touch more complicated than this would suggest, but there is no doubt that such virtues as robustness and self-reliance have collapsed in the world of those sensitive opportunists who so often resort to law.  

Integrity, in a world where the moral life is thought to have been exhausted by a schedule of rights, is even less in evidence as regulatory than common sense. The whole scandal of parliamentary expenses dramatised this point. On the other hand, the overarching role of prudence, leading people to caution about the dangers to their personal interests, is unmistakable. It is perhaps most dramatically exhibited in the recoil from commitment found in our profoundly unromantic age. Indeed, the most dramatic image of our moral condition is perhaps the popularity of pop concerts designed to help the malnourished in underdeveloped countries. These concerts are patronised by grandstanding moralists many of whom cannot even make the commitment of marriage. We have moved quite rapidly from the world of Tristan and Isolde to that of “Darling, I love you. Terms and conditions apply.”

The most pessimistic view of our moral condition is given by the socialists who deny Adam Smith’s view that in pursuing self-interest, we also promote the common good. Smith added, significantly, that he did not know that much good ever came from claims to trade in the public interest. We need to recognise how revolutionary this view was, and still is, because it accords to the thing called “self-interest” a certain moral value that traditional moralists and later socialists denied on the ground that virtue must involve self-abnegation. These traditional moralists remain a force in the land, and every time capitalist prosperity stumbles, they are on hand to declare that market societies are finished. They found one expression in the slogan “greed is good” uttered by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street, supposedly revealing the vile rapacity of the modern world. The simplest corruption of this kind is simply to identify self-interest with the vice of selfishness. The most confused version of it is to be found in the slogan that people should be put before profit. If profit is being made, one might observe, some people, at least, are getting something out of it.

But then, as normative philosophers such as Amartya Sen sometimes observe, we who live in capitalist societies are not all bad. There is a certain “nobility” in modern Western societies and it is exhibited in the vast range of philanthropic and charitable enterprises we sustain. Some are state-funded, many more result from private contributions, and from the attaching of some kind of charitable “sponsorship” to a variety of testing experiences undergone in the name of altruism. Like all virtues, it requires the usual input of verbal declamations: these are people who want to “make a difference” or “give something back”. And it is indeed in this balance between self-interest and altruism that we may find the dominant self-understanding of the moral life in our time. And as far as it goes, it points to perfectly real virtues in Western society.

But it does not go very far. It mistakes the part-altruism-for the whole of what actually distinguishes Western civilisation from the rest. For the remarkable thing about European societies is less their altruism than the space that their basically Christian culture has allowed for disinterested activities. The vast inventiveness of modern European societies has come from its opening up of the possibility of people using their own talent and resources to do things they just happen to want to do. It is always possible, of course, to attach some notional psychological satisfaction to such doings in order to bring them under the rubric of self-interestedness, but this fallacious slide is merely a fast way of misunderstanding what our freedom means.

The sad aspect of modern life is revealed in the fate of the very word “disinterested”. Most people don’t even understand what the word means. They sometimes take it for signifying being bored, or uninterested in some area. They can also imagine that they are being realistic in following journalists who want to expose apparently benevolent acts in terms of what everybody is supposed to be “up to”. Because Christianity left space for people to explore their own inclinations rather than prescribing a customary life encompassing everything, Europeans became an enterprising lot, and the fruits of that enterprise can be seen in everything from the creation of universities in the Middle Ages to the formalisation of sport in the later modern period. The charitable activities of many Europeans, in all sorts of causes and (in the British case) in the service of all sorts of people, were merely part of this explosion of enterprise, of which commerce and inventiveness were one part, just as charity was another. The danger, of course, is that once disinterested activities prove to be valuable, as so many things done just because people liked doing them have proved to be, the regulators move in. Governments want to instrumentalise universities, and gamblers to have their wicked ways with sport. The dire process of practicality imposes its blinkers on our freedom, and that, as one might once have said, isn’t cricket. It isn’t, in the long run, very smart either.