In his book Beyond Human Rights, Alain de Benoist, French philosopher and intellectual leader of the European New Right, analyzes the theory of human rights. This blog post summarizes five major points of his critique.
1. Human rights are sacred
Human rights, although intended for secular moral guidance, have a sacred character:
Based on propositions declared to be ‘evident’ (‘we hold these truths to be self-evident’ can already be found in the American Declaration of Independence of July 1776), they present themselves as a new Ten Commandments. […] They are, writes Régis Debray, ‘the last, to date, of our civil religions, the soul of a soulless world’. (p. 22)
Accordingly, the dogma of inalienable human rights is hardly debatable in Western society. “That is why it seems today as unsuitable, as blasphemous, as scandalous to criticise the ideology of human rights as it was earlier to doubt the existence of God” (p. 22).
The sacredness of human rights makes sense from a historical perspective. Whereas the ancient Greeks, who invented democracy and highly honored the notion of freedom, had no concept of a singular individual born with universal and inalienable rights, Christianity valued every man as a son of God, as a bearer of a unique and eternal soul: regardless of one’s personal qualities and regardless of one’s belonging to a social group, every human being is created in the image of God.
The Christian narrative of spiritual equality lent itself perfectly to contrive the abstract idea of dignity, which replaced honor and which has nothing to do with the ancient Roman word dignitas that denoted a man’s acquired social and moral worth.
Human rights rest upon the innate dignity of every human being. But if human dignity is to be valid beyond the dubious existence of a ‘soul’ that stands in a personal relationship with God, what can be its rational foundation?
2. Human rights are unfounded
Philosophically, human rights cannot result from Kantian a priori reasoning about acting with an independent will according to the moral law prescribed by reason itself, because:
- How can one be certain that a priori principles apply to the reality of empirical facts, especially considering that morality is always embedded in a social structure?
- Moral autonomy is “acquired only at the expense of emptiness: the ideal of detachment refers back to a freedom sought for itself, to a freedom without content” (p. 52).
- If dignity is tied to the autonomous power of reason, then young children, senile elders, and mentally challenged people cannot be granted human rights, and who would want to condone that?
Conceptually, human rights cannot be drawn from dignity defined as that which demands respect in every man because “if man should be respected by virtue of his dignity and what his dignity is based on is his right to respect, one is in a circular argument” (p. 54).
Biologically, human rights cannot be grounded in human nature because the reality of that nature is neither egalitarian (contra universalism), nor pacifistic (contra the right to live), nor isolated from social relations (contra individualism). That people in a state of nature “would be ‘free and equal’ […] is evidently pure speculation” (p. 49).
Again biologically, human rights cannot stem from the condition of belonging to the human species for at least three reasons:
- If a human being has rights by virtue of belonging to humanity, then the individual is no longer considered in himself but according to his genealogy, from which “it is evidently easier to derive collective rights than individual rights” (p. 55).
- All-human fraternity is not a right in itself, so “to say that all men are brothers only means that they should all consider themselves as such” (p. 55), which is not an argument.
- Limiting rights to a biological species is arbitrary. Why stop at the zoological category Homo sapiens? Why not limit human rights to a specific race? Why not expand them to all sentient beings? If one argued against this arbitrariness on the basis of common characteristics such as the human capacity for reason, then he would again run into the problem of infants, the senile, the comatose, and the mentally disabled.
Ethically, “human rights cannot be founded on Utilitarianism, since it posits as a principle that it is always legitimate to sacrifice certain men if this sacrifice allows one to increase the ‘amount of happiness’ of a greater number of men” (p. 50). Comment: Indeed, the enforcement of human rights may violate objective moral facts; see, for example, Sam Harris’s position on torture.
Pragmatically, people have argued that human rights are simply based on what we say they are, what we want them to be. “The risk is then great of causing the definition of human rights to fluctuate according to the subjective opinions of each person” (p. 59). Comment: I disagree because there is a difference between subjective and intersubjective opinions, and the latter are much more stable.
In conclusion, human rights require not rational thinking or knowledge of facts, but rather ideological opinion and “an act of faith in a better tomorrow and the destiny of man” (p. 40). Who knows, maybe such faith is good and worthwhile—or is it?
3. Human rights are ethnocentric
That human rights constitute solely a modern Western ideology is not a problem in itself. Who is to say that one should not believe that all men possess the same rights? To demand, however, that everyone should believe it is ethnocentric.
What is the point of universal human rights if they are not universally enforced? Yet if they are, what establishes the authority to impose that ideology on non-Western cultures? As shown above, it is certainly not ‘truth’. Comment: I find this misleading; human rights are not imposed on less powerful cultures, but agreed upon by self-determined nations (although there certainly are economic coercions to consider).
Thus, the universalization of human rights appears to be “a devious way of converting and dominating, that is to say a continuation of the colonial syndrome” (p. 63), which undermines cultural diversity. In an imperialistic sense, universal human rights violate the Golden Rule:
If the men should be left free to do what they want as long as the use of their freedom does not encroach upon that of the others, why could not peoples of whom certain customs appear to us shocking or condemnable be left free to practice them as long as they do not seek to impose them on others? (p. 66)
Apparently, the values of modern Western civilization are assumed to be of superior moral worth. Despite this obvious cultural intolerance, de Benoist also discusses common problem cases like female genital mutilation and stoning; you can read up on them if you get his book.
Comment: While we could justify human rights imperialism by invoking the objective moral value of maximizing universal well-being, we must take into account that an external imposition of moral principles decreases people’s felt sense of freedom and thus their well-being. In my opinion, an intercultural dialog that motivates an internal critique of inhumane practices is the best solution to avoid both moral relativism and moral imperialism—it replaces hostile judgment with educating feedback.
4. Human rights are asocial
According to the theory of human rights (and philosophical theories like contractualism), individuals are abstract entities, deprived of all natural and concrete characteristics, fundamentally isolated from society, and independent of culture, history, and locality. This atomistic view of human nature is deeply ideological, abiological, and nonsensical to traditional societies, which prioritize man’s connectedness to his neighbors, his community, and the entire planet.
In holistic cultures, men are granted rights by virtue of the reality of their social embeddedness, not by virtue of the idealism of abstract ideas. What does it say about a people if it devalues trust, loyalty, duty, honor, and responsibility in favor of thirty articles to which most countries only pay lip service? Comment: One could similarly question what it says about a people if it establishes a legal system, yet every complex society has one.
While all peoples share the same desire for freedom and happiness, some may have different ways of responding to that desire than others. Is this inherently evil or do cultures have the right to be different? Do they have, for example, the right to value their cultural identity over individual freedoms?
Do those who denounce such or such a ‘violation of human rights’ always measure exactly at what point the practice that they criticise can be characteristic of the culture in the midst of which it is observed? (p. 68)
The theory of human rights claims that all individuals are equally respectable, but the cultures that give individuals factual social substance are not. How is this not cultural prejudice?
One finds an analogous critique in Hannah Arendt when she writes that ‘the paradox of abstract rights is that in deriving the rights from a displaced humanity, they risk depriving of identity those who are precisely victims of the deracinations imposed by modern conflicts’. (p. 74)
The abstract universality of human rights goes well with the ideal of a dehumanized global market society where social relationships are commercialized and where individuals are interchangeable pursuers of economic interest. But what about societies where alienation is less predominant and where people still value the political dimension of human life?
5. Human rights are apolitical
Beyond military humanitarian interventions, human rights protect individuals only within a liberal society that has incorporated those rights into its legal system, and their implementation depends on the people really believing in them.
Without suitable social conditions and institutions, human rights have no legal significance because they are apolitical, defined as superior to every political form, and by itself ineffective. Moreover, the proclamation of human rights is anti-political:
As Carl Schmitt remarks, it signifies that ‘the liberty sphere of the individual is unlimited in principle, while the powers of the state are limited in principle.’ Concomitantly, the theory of human rights creates a radical novelty: a freedom independent of all participation in political affairs, a freedom of the individual separated from the freedom of the political community to which he belongs, an idea which in Antiquity would have been considered ‘absurd, immoral and unworthy of a free man.’ (Carl Schmitt). (p. 91)
The paradox here is that human rights limit political power and claim superiority over it but at the same time require it in order to be effective. This is particularly obvious for second-generation rights like the rights to work, food, housing, health care, and education:
Not only do they ‘presuppose an organised civil society which will be the guarantee of their efficacy’ but to the extent that they even support themselves on the notion of solidarity, they imply the social phenomenon and cannot be deduced from the pre-political nature of the individual. (p. 96)
Importantly, human rights contrast with civic rights:
- Human rights are idealistic, ideologically abstract, and based on an international contract that knows only individuals living isolated on earth.
- Civic rights are realistic, politically concrete, and based on a national democracy that knows only citizens living socially in a community.
The essential question is which of the two we prioritize over the other. In the case that the two clash, do we want human rights to limit democracy or do we want democracy to limit human rights? When it comes to defining our liberty, do we want sovereignty of the people or sovereignty of an unfounded ideology?
If you want to know how de Benoist solves the problem of personal freedom, I suggest you…
Read the Book
- Why Should We Care About Ethics?
- Traditional Vs. Modern Freedom
- Tribalism and Human Nature
- On the Emptiness of Freedom
- On the Ethics of Ethnopluralism