Friday, 15 April 2011

Neomodernism and human rights; something a touch more academic.

Right, in the interests of proving my academic credentials - and showing a little bit of what I do for a 'living' (ha) with my PhD research, here's an introduction to academic neomodernism by way of an argument about human rights. The argument was originally put by Jurgen Habermas as a critique of postmodernism. I won't do academic stuff like this often, but I think it's not a bad thing to occasionally dip your toe into academic matters, so try this for size.

A preliminary point: there is a debate to be had over whether human moral rights or human moral duties are more important. I happen to favour the latter view, and you'll find this surfacing in my novels, particularly in 'The Earth Trembles' in my critique of Ayn Rand's objectivism. Either way, though, it's a debate we can put aside here; the same point holds both ways.

Anyway, the argument goes like this; postmodernism embraces a view called moral relativism, which says that moral principles only apply to the cultures that believe in them. So, if I belong to a culture which says cannibalism isn't OK, I nevertheless can't condemn the actions of someone from a different culture where cannibalism is accepted. To take a more contemporary argument, if you belong to an Islamic culture which says that women should wear the burkha in public (I know not all Islamic cultures do), and I belong to a culture which says it's immoral to cover your face in public (as at least one friend of mine believes), we nevertheless have nothing to say to each other on the subject. Our disagreement is prevented by the fact that one culture is not allowed to prescribe or proscribe behaviour to another.

So, we rich westerners can't condemn Amazonian tribespeople for their 'primitiveness' any more than they could condemn us for our frivolous wasting of natural resources and destruction of the environment. It doesn't sound terribly reasonable when you put it like that, but it gets worse; 'Western culture' holds, generally speaking and within reason, that life is sacred. But under postmodern moral relativism, we cannot condemn anyone who believes that life - or even some kinds of life, like for example godless heathens - isn't sacred, nor can we condemn anyone who believes that certain people deserve to die, provided they come from a culture which approves their views.

Habermas' basic point is that this kind of relativism is totally incompatible with anything resembling an ethics of human rights. If we want to say that there are inalienable human rights (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, say), then we can't accept relativism. I suppose we could say that since we're talking about human rights, we don't necessarily have to accord those rights to members of other species, but that has no effect on cultural divisions.

(footnote: that last sentence breaks down if you're prepared to say that different cultures are different species, but good luck with that - it's the worst kind of racism, pure and simple).

What does this mean? Well, it means that we are obliged to pass judgement on different cultures and say that not all cultures are morally equal. Now, I recognise there's a severe risk of parochialism and bigotry in saying that, but I've not finished explaining, so bear with me.

You can condemn a culture as morally inferior only in respect of some human right it unapologetically fails to uphold. That means that first, you have to have a set of human rights, and you have to have an argument which establishes why those rights are universal. This is harder to do than it sounds, but let's assume it can be done. If you have a sound argument for some particular right - that is, if you can prove that it's a right - you can condemn a culture which fails to uphold it.

For example, if you can prove that free speech is a human right, you can condemn the US for locking up Bradley Manning (assuming that represents a clear-cut case of attempting to restrict freedom of speech).  If you can prove that democracy is a human right, you can condemn Libya for going without it - or at least, you can condemn Gaddafi and his cronies, since the cultural balance in Libya seems to have rather shifted in favour of democracy lately.

If this all sounds uncomfortably judgemental, don't worry. It's a by-product of taking morality seriously in a world used to relativism. You can't have morals without being prepared to condemn immoral acts; it's worth remembering that moral acts can - and should be - praised (I didn't use any examples of praise because they tend to be harder to come up with). Taking morality seriously is at the heart of neomodernism, just as denying its seriousness by means of relativism is at the heart of postmodernism.

Maybe I haven't convinced you, but I hope I've at least given you something to think about.

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