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CCSU: Emeritus firstname.lastname@example.org > From: Kevin Fernlund > University of Missouri, St. Louis > email@example.com > > I think it would be perfectly valid to use human rights to evaluate > modern or contemporary societies. I agree, but the issue is why. Off hand it seems there are three justifications for doing so. One is pragmatic (human rights is a social contract that we enter in the belief that it promotes a better life for those who commit themselves to it), another appeals to objective idealism (a transcendental order under which individuals are subsumed and lends value to their actions), and yet another is sociological (the viability of modern society depends on there being a respect for human rights). The problem with the pragmatic approach is that it is ad hoc and does not engage those who do not enter the contract or wish to break it. I suppose this is why a universal justification is preferred. > > ...drew a prompt retort as he expounded at some length the > > philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Dr. Humphrey joined enthusiastically > > in the discussion, and I remember that at one point Dr. Chang > > suggested that the Secretariat might well spend a few months > > studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!" As for such transcendental norms, it depends on who defines them. For example, I have known Chinese who before 1949 had been gentry and accommodated their new situation in exile with a belief that Confucianism and Christianity were essentially in agreement. But few in the West would subject themselves so radically to family accord at the expense of the inclinations of its members. In 1953 and 1954 as a student I regularly attended Marsh Chapel (although not as a student at BU). Here I (along with Martin Luther King) listened to the sermons of Howard Thurman and were exposed to a reconciliation of Christianity and Buddhism (which Thurman apparently picked up from Rufus Jones). That some major belief systems happen to share certain values does not make them universal; it downplays their profound differences; it depends on an objective idealism that is in tension with the secularism and naturalism we would like to associate with a modern outlook. A universal sociological justification for human rights therefore seems best. Unfortunately, while I and many others have struggled to forge such a justification for human rights, I do not believe there exists any consensus on the matter. In lieu of it human rights will appear Eurocentric and be perceived as a threat to the deeper values of other societies. We can all think of examples. > However, I think it would be highly problematic to use this human > rights standard to criticize societies prior to 1948, for it is poor > history to hold the past to modern standards of human rights and > morality. That is not history; that is historical moralizing. The > historian's job, of course, is to interpret and explain the past, not > condemn or preach about it. Here I must differ although my argument is tenuous. All (modern Western) explanation looks to a relation of things, such as the relation of behavior to physical or cultural circumstance or to a psychological state. That is, explanation presumes a causal relation that represents an event or action as probable in relation to circumstances and thus is appropriate to them. However, human action is always to a degree creative in that it is improbable under the circumstances. Modern Western historiography describes improbable action, but does not make it subject to explanation. It evaluates whether an action is appropriate under the circumstances, and this evaluation of the rightness of action is a peculiarly Western moral judgment. We often think of morality as the employment of values that are real and true independent of circumstance. But in fact values are a function of time, place and circumstance rather than being transcendental. While this suggests we ought not venture to impose our modern Western values on the past, our mode of explanation itself embodies an implicit value judgment that action should accord with circumstance (I believe there is an alternative mode of explanation that takes improbable action into account: a paper presently under consideration by Axiomathes journal). Haines Brown