Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Genetic Basis of Human Rights

The modern human rights movement begins with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The idea of human rights would seem to depend on the idea of human nature. Although the Declaration never speaks of "human nature," it does refer once to nature in declaring that the family "natural"(Article 16). Moreover, the references to the "inherent dignity" of "all members of the human family" and the declaration that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights" implies some shared human nature that is the source of human rights.

Originally, Charles Malik a Lebanese Christian and Thomist proposed the following language for Article 16: "The family deriving from marriage is the natural and fundamental group unit of society. It is endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights antecedent to all positive law." The drafters accepted the first sentence but rejected the second, because they wanted a purely secular statement that did not depend on religious belief. Similarly, proposals to refer in Article 1 of the Declaration to human beings as "created in the image and likeness of God" were not adopted. According to someone like Richard Weikart, in his warnings about the "Darwin to Hitler" connection, disregarding the traditional Judeo-Christian doctrine of human beings as created in God's image makes healthy morality impossible. But clearly, the drafters of the Declaration disagreed, because they thought that the shared repulsion towards Nazi barbarism and the determination to declare a universal morality of human rights that would condemn such barbarism manifested a natural morality that did not depend on religious belief.

This cosmopolitan morality of human rights must somehow be grounded in human biological nature. And yet many of the theorists of human rights are nervous about recognizing such an appeal to human nature because they fear that this would require an indefensible "essentialism." The problem here, as I suggested in a post from a few weeks ago, arises from a false story about "essentialism"--the story that beginning with Aristotle, biological species were regarded as absolutely eternal and invariable in their logically defined "essences."

This will be the first of a series of posts on how a Darwinian conception of human nature supports the modern conception of human rights.

In at least one of the recent documents on human rights, the biological basis of human rights is explicitly recognized. The Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights was adopted by UNESCO in 1997 and then ratified by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1998. The text can be found here.

The first four articles are put under the title "Human dignity and the human genome":

Article 1
The human genome underlies the fundamental unity of all members of the human family, as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity. In a symbolic sense, it is the heritage of humanity.

Article 2
a. Everyone has a right to respect for their dignity and for their rights regardless of their genetic characteristics.
b. That dignity makes it imperative not to reduce individuals to their genetic characteristics and to respect their uniqueness and diversity.

Article 3
The human genome, which by its nature evolves, is subject to mutations. It contains potentialities that are expressed differently according to each individual's natural and social environment, including the individual's state of health, living conditions, nutrition and education.

Article 4
The human genome in its natural state shall not give rise to financial gains.

Here we can see much of the complexity and tension in appealing to human biology as a ground for human rights. Universal human rights assume a "fundamental unity of all members of the human family," which in turn assumes an underlying unity in the human genome, because membership in the human species requires some shared genetic basis. But the human genome brings about not only the unity of humanity but also its diversity. No two human beings are genetically identical. So even if human beings are roughly equal at birth in being identifiably human, they are not completely identical. Here we can see the implicit worry that some human beings might be excluded from the human family because of genetic differences that some people would consider abnormal or inferior.

We can also see here the fear of genetic reductionism. Although being genetically human is the precondition for being treated with the dignity that human beings deserve, human beings are not fully reducible to human genetics.

The human genome is recognized as a product of evolution and thus subject to evolutionary change through mutations. But there is enough genetic stability to sustain the reality of the human species.

That genetic humanity consists of potentialities that are diversely expressed in each individual through the interaction with the natural and social environment of the individual, which includes physical conditions, bodily functioning, and social learning.

Human genes by themselves do nothing. They shape human life only though genetic potentialities that work through complex interactions with the physical and social world. That's why human biology is much more than genetics. The biological nature of human beings depends on the coevolution of innate tendencies, social history, and individual judgment.

The universality of human genetic nature allows for universal human rights. But the moral history of human rights will reflect the complex contingencies of social and political history.

That we can treat human beings with "dignity" depends on certain natural moral sentiments and on practical judgments about how best to express those sentiments. That requires more thought about how Darwinian science might support the modern language of human rights as a language of cosmopolitan morality.


Lorenzo said...

Here we can see the implicit worry that some human beings might be excluded from the human family because of genetic differences that some people would consider abnormal or inferior.
This is, after all, a very reasonable fear.

Pope Paul III's 1537 bull Sublimus Dei expresses views based on concepts of natural rights which are a direct intellectual ancestor of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the same tradition essentially excluded a whole set of people from consideration as properly human on the basis of their sexual nature. (I have a post about this here.) Apart from scriptural literalism (itself highly selective in which scriptures to be literal about) it is natural law thinking which is the main intellectual basis for denying the same-sex oriented equal protection of the laws.

Anonymous said...

If a right, such as the right to life, is inalienable, as the Founding Fathers believed, then it can not be granted by an outside agency such as an ideology or religion or political doctrine. In this sense an inalienable right is a birth right, it exists simply because we are born. But because we have choice we can surrender this birth right either willingly or may be forced by a dictator, et al. to give it up. When the right is surrendered it becomes attached to the "thing" to which it was surrendered, usually an ideology, religion or political doctrine. It is then the ideology which has the inalienable right to "life," not the humans under its "care."