Human Rights as “Fiction”

Human Rights as “Fiction”

The Israeli author and historian Yuval Harari has been much on the minds of Twitter/X users of late, since someone posted a short, 90-second clip of a presentation he made almost ten years ago.  In the video, Harari – best known as the author of Homo Deus – explains his belief that human rights are a mere fiction, that they are not a biological reality, that they are no more than a story that “we invented and spread around.”

Most of those who have responded to the clip – including Jordan Peterson – have argued that the sentiments Harari expresses are evil, are philosophically “inept,” and constitute “ill-informed” “pseudo-observations.”

Now, we’re probably not qualified to tell you whether or not Harari’s observations are “philosophically inept.”  We can, however, tell you a couple of other things about them.

First, they’re not especially unique.  Indeed, such notions are pretty commonplace, especially on the political Left.  Indeed, the utilitarian consequentialism that has dominated the Left’s “ethical” suppositions since the Enlightenment is largely premised on the idea that all rights are human inventions that can and should be overlooked if the “overall consequences” suggest doing so.

Jeremy Bentham, the principal theorist of utilitarianism and one of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, argued that rights are mere constructs, the creation of governments, certainly not endowed by our creator, and designed to favor one group over another. “For every right which the law confers on one party,” Bentham wrote, “whether that party be an individual, a subordinate class of individuals, or the public, it thereby imposes on some other party a duty or obligation.”  Bentham saw the very idea of “natural rights” or “natural law” as “perversions of language.”

In practice, this idea has always meant that some rights are expendable.  Or, rather, ALL rights are expendable if necessary.  The regime’s goals – be it the establishment of a workers’ paradise or the creation of perfect equity or simply the provision of the greatest happiness for the greatest number – is more important than any individual “rights.”  All men are NOT created equal, in other words.  Or, as Orwell’s pigs put it: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

The second thing to note about Harari’s comments is that they may or may not be “ill-informed,” but they do capture historical reality for most of man’s existence.  “Human rights” are based on a notion that has been fairly recently developed in human history.  They are premised on the belief that all men are, at bottom, the same, creations of the same God and therefore deserving of the same treatment.  Human rights are, as Harari says, a religio-philosophical concept, a belief that there is something in all people that is transcendent and that carries the divine spark.

The ability to find the transcendent, to overcome superficial political and even moral differences and to find common ground is NOT the normal state of human affairs.  This ability/desire to seek the transcendent is what the inimitable James Q. Wilson called “the universal aspiration” and which he described as follows:

The most remarkable change in the moral history of mankind has been the rise—and occasionally the application—of the view that all people, and not just one’s own kind, are entitled to fair treatment.  Americans are so familiar with the passage in the Declaration of Independence asserting that “all men are created equal” that they forget how astonishing and, in a sense, unnatural that claim is. . . .
However common the savagery, bloodletting and mendacity in contemporary life, a growing fraction of mankind lives under the claim that men and women are entitled to equal respect.  The spread of that claim is extraordinary; even more extraordinary is the fact that so many people sometimes obey it.  We are appalled by occasional stories of torture, but at one time thoughtful people approved of its routine use.  We are angry at terrorists who take hostages, but once diplomacy was largely conducted by the mutual seizing of hostages, and hardly anyone save their immediate families thought their fate was of the least interest.  People are inclined to treat equals equally, but where once people were thought to be equal only if they were of the same sex, age, class, and religion, today people are often thought to be equal regardless of their rank or station provided only that each has made the same contribution of time and effort to some joint endeavor.  People have a natural capacity for sympathy, but where once sympathy extended to those closest to us, today it often extends to people whom we have never met and animals that are not our pets.

To reiterate, this is not man’s normal state.  In human history, the beliefs that everyone is equal, that everyone has deep intrinsic value, and that everyone is a child of the same God are NOT typical.  They are the result of a specific set of moral and cultural processes that fostered the revelation that the transcendent can be found not just in the supernatural godhead but in all of his sons and daughters as well.

Given all of this, we can draw two conclusions about what Harari says in the above clip.  First, it is neither especially controversial nor especially insightful.  It is platitudinous.  “You cut a person open and you see the kidneys and the lungs, but you don’t see human rights.”  Sure.  That’s…uhh…obvious.  You don’t see the soul either, which is the foundation for the belief in human rights.  Tell us something we don’t know.

Second, Harari’s views and their place in the post-Enlightenment social and political milieus should serve as a reminder that the preservation of “Western Civilization” is not merely an academic exercise, and nor, for that matter, is it a racist-white-privileged-colonialist exercise.  Western Civilization – the culture that grew out of ancient Israel, ancient Greece, Rome, and Christendom – is the very foundation of most of what the civilized world considers vital these days: democracy; equality between the sexes; liberty; market-based wealth creation and accumulation; protection of racial, religious, and sexual minorities, fairness under the law, etc.  Losing Western Civilization would mean losing all of that.  It would mean empowering those who believe that the ends justify the means and that sometimes you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.

In short, we should be grateful to Yuval Harari for reminding us that the world we live in and the freedoms we enjoy are fragile, constantly under attack, and viewed by many as fictions that can and should be replaced with other fictions.  Preserving the fictions that built our civilization is as important a task as any in our world today – and even more so.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.