Surviving Human Nature

Some Topics

  • Future of Human rights

    Michael Ignatieff in his essays about human rights reviewed the recent and not encouraging history of the human rights movement in the world. Human rights are abstract and largely invented. Analysis of the feasibility and the methodology of human rights needs to be grounded in a clear understanding of human nature. Ignatieff asks the question that lies at the heart of my philosophical inquiries: “If human beings are so special, why do we treat each other so badly?”

    Ignatieff argues that human rights is the language of defending one’s autonomy against the oppression of religion, state, family and group. The proper emergence of rights is from the bottom up, from individuals who insist that the group they belong to respect the rights of each member, as an individual. Almost by definition, rules imposed from the top-down, by a moral or political authority insisting that all obey the rules imposed is not human rights. He reminds us that “human rights come to authoritarian societies when activists risk their lives and create a popular and indigenous demand for these rights, and when their activism receives consistent and forthright support from influential nations abroad.”

    An essential feature of a free society is the protection of human rights, but rights are difficult and expensive to maintain and vary from country to country. There is a fascist tendency built into every democracy. Once elected, leaders find elections inconvenient and will use their power to limit the rights and freedoms of those who oppose them. “Human rights” is an abstract notion. The real dynamics of human rights is not in the direction of benevolence and creative pursuits but in the direction of mitigating the damage done by the greed, anger and aggression of humans competing with each other for prestige and resources. The tendency to treat distant others with indifference, disdain or cruelty remains a stubborn obstacle to freedom. Humans want to banish and ultimately to kill others who do not belong to the local privileged group.

    An ideal country gives each citizen and equal voice and protects human rights, but real democracies are compromises. Representational government replaces the participation of each citizen. Governments establish rules that are less than ideal and enforce these rules in a manner that inevitably compromises human rights. The balance between group interest and individual interest is always in flux.

    The arbitrary nature of most rules is mitigated in free societies by giving citizens the right of appeal when they believe they have been treated unfairly. In Canada, a complex infrastructure of government agencies, professional associations, appeal boards, commissions and the law courts provide avenues of regulation and of appeal. The main function of this complex organization is to dissipate anger, the energy that fuels conflicts and, in the best case, to resolve disputes in a constructive manner. An angry citizen who expresses his or her anger directly will damage or destroy property and may injure or kill others. The anger of a citizen who is treated unjustly will usually be absorbed in a lengthy judicial process that diffuses anger and blame with tedious procedures and paperwork.

    Humans act from self-interest and group interest. Altruism and cooperation are aspects of group interests. In the best case altruistic behavior links self-interest and group interest. Affiliations are required to promote self-interest and require exchanges of favors and gifts. Helping others in need satisfies a deep instinct for group survival, for mutual protection, food sharing and child care. Affiliations and altruistic acts are, however, conditional and limited in scope and duration. There is no affiliation that protects against conflict: family members fight; lovers become enemies; business partners become competitors or fight in courts; allies become adversaries, successful corporations are attacked by competitors and regulatory agencies.

    Humans require regulation using a system of rules that are an external form of behavior coding. External regulation can evolve and improve by creating and maintaining stable social and political structures in a democratic infrastructure. Democracies are, however, unstable and vulnerable to internal dissolution as much as external attack. Democracies require elaborate internal rules and surveillance to prevent subgroups from achieving control over critical functions such as the money supply, police, courts and military forces. Subgroups are always competing for resources and control so that no civil society can be considered stable and enduring without an energetic and educated population of activists who are prepared to defend freedoms and privileges on a daily basis. Paranoid governments such as US administrations, develop elaborate spy networks inside the country that includes collecting data from phone calls, emails, and internet postings. In the worst case, governments imprison, torture, and kill citizens who are critical of the government and participate in protests.

    To recall our fundamental truths: at the level of the largest organizations, small groups decide on policy and procedures that effect many nations, even the fate the entire species. The tendency to impose universal rules and policies from the top down is likely to fail because individuals and small groups cannot understand the diverse needs, values and beliefs of large numbers of humans. World-wide policies will tend to fail since they emerge from limited understanding, and ignore the tendency for humans to relate most strongly to the values and beliefs of their local group. World government is an oxymoron.

    Whatever we value about civilized human existence - culture, knowledge, social justice, respect for human rights and dignity must be practiced anew and stored as modifications of each person's neocortex. Success at humanitarian efforts within a society reveals that portion of human attitudes, beliefs and behavior that can be modified and/or are supported by innate tendencies. Failure of moral authority reveals the extent to which innate negative tendencies prevail no matter how diligent the effort to modify or suppress them.

    Human destiny as a species still lies with the programs in the old brain that offer only limited empathy and understanding and insist on the priority of survival at any cost. Individuals can transcend the old programs by diligent learning and practice but individual effort and learning does not change the genome, so that their can be no enduring human rights without the persistent and relentless initiation of new humans into a rational and compassionate world order. This, of course, is so far an impossible goal to achieve. You can then argue that if only 5% of the human population is not properly initiated they will have the power to destroy the civil order accomplished by the more reasonable 95% unless they are vigorously constrained, depriving them of their human rights.


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      The author is Stephen Gislason MD The book is available in print and eBook version ( for download.) 362 Pages

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