Human Rights as Social Thought

Human rights, as we know them today, are self-evident. They are born of political grievances and people’s demands for freedom and dignity. But because of the inherent desire of every person to be free, and given the expression of this desire over the ages, the framers of human rights formulated them as a goal to be pursued and as self-evident. Lynn Hunt traces the history of human rights by examining Thomas Jefferson’s famous sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”5 Jefferson helped the French draw up their own declaration of the basic tenets of human rights. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’s ample references to “‘every man,’ ‘all men,’ ‘all citizens,’ ‘each citizens,’ ‘society,’ and ‘every society,’ dwarfed the single reference to the French people.”6 Thanks to these references, the declaration gave the first hints of the universality of the core idea of human rights. Hunt argues that the “declaration ofthe Rights ofMan and Citizen incarnated the promise of universal human rights” Ibid., 17. as laid down in the 1948 UDHR.

Implicit in both the American and the French declaration of human rights or rights of man is the understanding of the human person as endowed with free will and reason, which are the dominant philosophical ideas in eighteenth-century Europe, ideas which formed the basis of the Enlightenment. Hunt points out the obvious contradiction between these declarations of human rights and their implementation in practice. Those who claimed that rights were universal were not inclusive in their treatment of their fellow humans.7 Yet, the fact that they were not inclusive does not vitiate the self-evident nature of their notion of rights. Hunt suggests that it is precisely the idea of self-evidence that renders rights their universality. The reverse also holds. As she argues, in order for autonomy, an essential aspect of human rights, to be possible:

two related but distinct qualities were involved: the ability to reason and the independence to decide for oneself. Both had to be present if an individual was to be morally autonomous. Children and the insane lacked the necessary capacity to reason, but they might someday gain or regain that capacity.8

Thus, even though the Declaration of the Rights of Man excluded certain groups, the thinking also granted the possibility of these groups “growing up” or achieving the essential condition for the practice of rights. The declaration envisaged human rights as a part of being human, though they had to be attained through a rigorous process. Freedom and rights are interior feelings associated with the capacity to reason, and can be learned and nurtured. As I have sought to explain, citing Mugo, the African conception of human rights differs from the Western notions in the sense that the individual is already embedded within a given community. You do not need reason in order to possess rights and dignity. You have rights because you are part of a community. But an important strain in the evolution of human rights in the West stands out, and when examined closely, can enhance our appreciation of human rights in general. It is the role of empathy. As Hunt argues, human rights become self-evident in the cultural practices that recognize that “others feel and think as we do, that our inner feelings are alike in some fundamental fashion. ” Hunt argues further that “autonomy and empathy did not materialize out of thin air in the eighteenth century; they had deep roots” in the maturation of European culture over time.9 Part of that maturation is what she calls “imagined empathy,” by which she means “the sense that empathy requires a leap of faith, of imagining that someone else is like you.”10 Atta’s writing, like those of her contemporaries, also functions on the basis of the same assumption of imagined empathy. Atta therefore believes in the self-evidence of human rights in the sense that humans are born into an ubuntu community. This is a community in which empathy plays an important role in human interaction. Within this understanding, empathy is the basis for every form of successful social activism, which in itself begins in the family. She describes the insufferable patriarchal conditions in which African women live, and she does so in hopes of provoking people’s imagined empathy across the wider society. The idea of treating others as we would like to be treated starts in the family. For Atta, family is society writ small, and the degree to which people accord one another respect and dignity in that small unit equals the degree to which they do so in society. A man who never considers his wife as an equal partner, worthy of respect and dignity, can hardly consider others in society in the same way. Because of the ideology of patriarchy that prevents him from imagining the pain society inflicts on women, he is more prone to see others as means to his ends.

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