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“International Human Rights and Democratic Public Ethics” Speech at a Royal Irish Academy Discourse

University of Limerick, 6th June 2014

It gives me great pleasure to open this discourse of the Royal Irish Academy on “International Human Rights and Democratic Public Ethics.” Today’s discourse is kindly hosted by the University of Limerick and held under the auspices of The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, which I launched in November 2013 with a view to stimulating discussions across all sectors of Irish society on the challenges of living together ethically at this beginning of the twenty-first century.

I would like to avail of the occasion to thank the Royal Irish Academy for their support and encouragement to this Initiative. May I also salute the generous commitment of the University of Limerick and the Ralahine Centre for Utopian Studies, who have valuably contributed to this wide-ranging reflection on ethics by instigating discussions on a number of topics– including one convened earlier today on the question ‘Is an ethical journalism (ever) possible?’ I understand that the UL will, in the months to come, foster debate on another set of issues, and I was delighted to learn that the theme of ‘Critical Pedagogy in the Contemporary Irish University’ was identified by the Ralahine Centre as a relevant topic for discussion.

Indeed, in the face of the crisis precipitated by the global financial meltdown of 2008 – a crisis that has not only economic but also political, social, intellectual and moral ramifications – and, more broadly, in the face of the great challenges confronting our contemporary societies – be it in relation to developments in technology and science, the scale of migrations globally, or global climate change – universities must now be called upon to recover the moral purpose of original thought and pluralist, emancipatory scholarship.

There is, in particular, a pressing need for a critical examination of some of the core assumptions that underpin the social sciences, including in particular the discipline of economics as it is currently taught in university departments across the world. Such teaching has sweeping repercussions on the conceptions that inform policy making, media representations and, more generally, contemporary public discourse on what constitutes ‘prosperity’ and the good life.

Universities have a crucial role to play, I believe, in crafting an intellectual response to, for example, the widespread, unquestioning, acceptance of the myth of the self-regulating market – that extraordinary hubris which emerged by way of response to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of state socialism.

It is this conviction that universities must and can play an important part in nurturing alternative ways of thinking which prompted me in the first instance to invite Irish third level institutions and the RIA to partake in what is – I admit – quite an unorthodox, and maybe slightly hazardous, endeavour aimed at invigorating a wide public debate on ethics.

I find greatly encouraging the positive response Irish universities gave to that invitation, the profusion of stimulating ideas they put forward, and their commitment to organise some 50 events over the course of this year and beyond. My hope is that, having gained traction among students and academics, the debate on ethics will also garner momentum at all levels of Irish society.

I am conscious of the difficulties entailed in getting ethics as Conor Gearty puts it “out of the ivory tower and the pulpit, back down into the market square.”[1] But I trust that such an endeavour can resonate with the wider public, for the simple reason that it is a reflection many Irish citizens have already undertaken.

As members of a small society which has been affected more than most by the global financial crisis, Irish people have been led to an abrupt realisation that the challenge of living together in a creative, harmonious way that permits a flourishing of human capability, cannot be met, indeed can be contradicted, by an uncritical adjustment to the the requirements of economistic visions of life, of a placing of the market at the centre of public policy and private ambition.

Even if not articulated, or widely covered in media, I believe that Irish and European publics are fully aware that humans are far less calculating than the so-called Economic Man of the contemporary economics textbooks. They know that the invitation to view the world as rational, self-interested utility maximisers has inflicted deep injuries on our moral imaginations – on how we conceive our relations with others, at home and abroad, and with our natural environment.  

I believe, in other words, that our citizens are willing to move beyond justifiable anger and recrimination. They are seeking space for a reflection – for an authentic new idea in an impoverished present. They are eager to discuss a new set of principles by which they might represent and project their lives together, and with all those with whom we share our common and fragile planet. And as we do so, not only is a clarification of the place and role of international human rights in shaping public ethics and democratic practice necessary, but our scholarship has to go beyond simply describing the difficulties of definition and ideal compliance. It must lodge these issues for discussion and resolution in the minds of the publics involved.

The language of human rights has become an essential part of our contemporary political discourse. Yet the breadth of that discourse, the many paradoxes and the variety of meanings ascribed to those rights in contemporary scholarship and in public debate require renovation.

I salute the Royal Irish Academy’s decision to dedicate one of their discourses to these important issues, and I very much look forward to hearing Professor Bellamy’s suggestions as to how we can flesh out the democratic legitimacy of International Human Rights Conventions.

We in Ireland have, in recent years, been aware of the intense debate in the United Kingdom concerning the legal position of the European Convention within the British constitutional system. The legal and political context in Ireland is different from the United Kingdom in a number of important respects, not least with regard to our constitutional rights framework which can only be amended by popular referendum. Yet there are issues we share and challenges that must concern us, as Irish, European and simply citizens.

Ireland faces profound questions about the application and democratic accountability of human rights – including in their social, economic and cultural articulation. In this introduction, I will content myself with outlining briefly some of the complexities inherent to the contemporary human rights discourse, starting with the problematic matter of their very foundation, if not, as some have argued, the impossibility of any consensus on such foundation, now that we have distanced ourselves from the idea of ‘natural rights’. I reject the pessimists’ conclusions. We have made advances and with good results, but we are left with some basic questions.

Is the proclaimed universality of human rights founded on immutable values or does it result from agreements among governments? This is an important question. Indeed, as Hannah Arendt has shown, the national appropriation of ‘human rights’ – their entanglement with citizenship – has given rise to new categories of persons without rights, such as refugees, displaced and stateless persons. How are we to conceive of the rights of these people, whose number is in the millions in the world today?

Contemporary discussions of human rights also resurrect, of course, an older and recurring debate about cultural relativism. Surely the critique is valid of those who oppose a hegemonic version of liberalism which simply universalises Western ideas of democracy, dignity and individualism, at the expense – critiques argue – of non-European conceptions of selfhood, dignity, and the good.

These are issues which I addressed at length in the speech I gave to the UNESCO in Paris in February 2013, drawing, in particular, on the work of Professor Mark Goodale.  There exists also a rich intellectual controversy as to whether human rights should be seen as primarily collective rather than individual; social, economic and cultural as well as political and civil; or associated with equality rather than with liberty.

However one positions oneself in those discussions, it seems to me important that we bear in mind the implicit ideology that was carried by the 1948 Declaration and the huge body of texts inspired by it. We may need to unlearn some of these assumptions so as to be able to redefine our practice and experience of human rights.

As French social theorist Jean-Luc Nancy, among many others, reminds us, the ideology of human rights is “that of a humanism of European origin, which … ‘does not think the humanitas of man high enough’, as Heidegger wrote.”[2] Pascal, in another European expression, had said the same thing in a different way: ‘Man [with a capital M] infinitely surpasses man [with a small m].’ According to Nancy, the risk, in writing off all these references, is that human rights will more or less end up floating on the surface of the “icy water of egotistical calculation.”[3]

Finally, when discussing human rights, one cannot dispense with a serious analysis of some of the disturbing uses which have been made of the term in the decades since the end of the Cold War – of its misuse as a rhetoric of abuse on so many occasions. In an article from the recent book he co-edited with Costas Douzinas – The Meanings of Rights: the Philosophy and Social Theory of Human Rights – Conor Gearty identifies two chief ‘manipulations’ undergone by human rights over the last twenty years. The first consists in the projection of human rights as a “cultural value” possessed by Western liberal democracies as opposed to an enemy ‘other’. Such a distortion was manifest, for example, in the rhetoric of the ‘War on terror’, whereby human rights were recast as the ethical prerogative of the dominant culture, and the coalition for war.

Secondly, Gearty warns against a legalist definition of rights allowing for a widening of the gap between declarations of rights and their application and enforcement. Indeed, these days, few countries in the world are without a constitution guaranteeing the rule of law and the constitutional protection of human rights. We have witnessed a proliferation of pseudo-democracies, whose governments proclaim human rights but depart from them in practice.

Yet I agree with Conor Gearty when he argues that, however dangerous these distortions are – and we must do whatever is in our power to redress them –, we cannot afford to dismiss the human rights project for all that. We have precious few other examples of normative guidance at our disposal in today’s world. In Gearty’s own words:

“Wrong turnings … are inevitable in a journey as ambitious as this – an effort to persuade the world … that not only my blood brother but also the unknown stranger is worthy of my care.”[4]

Thus the human rights movement can be described as an ‘ongoing struggle’ to close the gap between the abstract man of the Declarations and the empirical human being in all its diversity; an expression of our understanding of what it means to be human and to resist abuses of power, whether they are directed at our own community or towards people of whom we have become aware through education and modern communications.

As Gearty points out, the word ‘struggle’ is important here, for “it is about the powerless stepping into the light as well as about the powerful to have better eyesight.”[5] Human rights continue to inform popular uprisings against oppressive rule; they remain an important part of the philosophy and practice of emancipation, and – in anticipation of Professor Bellamy’s speech this evening – they have the capacity to play an essential and invaluable role in enriching the political discourse of our sophisticated democratic systems.

I very much welcome the RIA endeavour at thinking through the meaning and place of human rights in our ethical project, and my hope is that today’s discussion will contribute to foster an ethic of human rights, not just as specialism, but as popular practice.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

[1] Gearty, C. ‘Human rights: the necessary quest for foundations.’ in Gouzinas, C. and C. Gearty (eds). 2014. The Meanings of Rights: The Philosophy and Social Theory of Human Rights. Cambridge University Press, p.24.

[2] See Nancy, J-L. ‘On human rights: two simple remarks.’ in Gouzinas, C. and C. Gearty. Op.cit., p.17.

[3] Marx and Engels. Communist Manifesto. Chapter 1.

[4] Gouzinas, C. and C. Gearty. Op.cit., p.36.

[5] Ibidem, p. 37.