Saturday, February 08, 2014

Human Rights as an Unnatural Construct


For most (all?) of human history the major selection pressure on humans has been competition from other humans.  Combine this fact with the need for humans to cooperate and certain tensions are sure to arise.  Fundamentally, we need to be able to cooperate with some in order to deal with competition from others.  Many cultures have some version of the following:

Me against my brother.  My brother and I against my cousins.  My cousins and I against the clan.  My clan and I against the other clans...
Societies invent lots of rules that are intended to regulate in group competition, but the need to compete against other societies has dictated different set of rules for outsiders and insiders.  The rise of chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires required gradual expansion of the in group, even while setting up internal hierarchies with special privileges.  In one sense, the notion of universal human rights is a culmination of the gradual expansion of the in groups, but in another, it is a contradiction of the very imperatives that drove us to these elaborate cooperative enterprises: the need to compete with other humans.  It also erodes cooperation by exalting individuality at its expense.

It's my guess that human rights can only be made universal if the necessary social constructs can be implemented to establish complementary parameters for individuality and cooperation.  That means, for example, that toleration cannot be a one way street.