For the past two weeks, I’ve been in France, the birthplace of the famous—or infamous—slogan: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Given that I’ve been beset on all sides by it, I can’t help but think about the particular accomplishments of the period of history during which the motto was born. Between the French Revolution and ours, the late eighteenth century saw what were some of the most radical experiments in applied political philosophy in the history of the human race. Crucially, it was the first time individual human rights were truly championed. Though rights aren’t the last word on political philosophy, they capture some of the features that are essential to the way we think about ethics now. Perhaps the most relevant of these features is universality—in the French and American revolutionary contexts, rights applied to all men equally.
The language is familiar to everybody: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” There are enough nuances in this one sentence to engage an entire nation in debate for several centuries, but what is essential here is the idea that one person’s interests matter in the same way another’s do. In other words, humans are similar in a fundamental enough way that each person’s rights demand equal protection.
Admittedly, when the founding fathers said “all men,” they really meant “all white men,” and, though there was a lot of debate about the subject, our founding documents ironically excluded an entire race of people while simultaneously claiming the rights enumerated within to be universal. But the principle of universality was there from the outset, and some of the greatest strides in our collective ethical consciousness have essentially been in fulfilling the true demands of universality. Race and sex, for example, are two frontiers to which universality has been extended.
It seems reasonable to ask, therefore, to what extent we have carried out this universality to its logical conclusion. As I said above, we’ve definitely realized that race and sex aren’t reasons to deny rights, and it seems that (I’m painting in rather broad brush strokes here) sexuality is the next forum for such a debate. But there are a few questions that, for some reason, don’t get enough attention. First of all, why are we more interested in the protection of American rights than the rights of non-Americans? If we really follow the logic of universality to its end, whatever rights we think Americans should have simply by virtue of being humans should be extended to non-Americans. But we hardly hold ourselves as responsible for the protection of non-Americans’ rights as we do for the protection of Americans’. At the very least, we should have some well-thought-out reason why this should be the case.
Another overlooked extension of the universality of rights is to animal rights. Even if we ultimately decide that animal rights don’t matter to any appreciable degree (which I personally don’t believe), the question of animal rights has been brushed almost entirely under the rug in our ethical discussion. This probably happens because we focus on supposedly fundamental differences between animals and humans while remaining in the dark about the things that make us similar. Indeed, a lot of the things that make human suffering worth caring about and, therefore, justify the need for human rights also apply to the case of animal suffering and animal rights. We haven’t really given these thoughts full consideration, though, and the matter remains largely ignored in our collective ethical consciousness.
The common theme that seems to emerge from both the history of universality and thoughts about its future is that we’re often tempted to exclude a group from the language of rights based on some perceived difference between “us” and “them.” On the contrary, we often remain blind to the similarities between “us” and “them” that would give us reason to include rather than to exclude. Granted, to really begin to discuss these matters, we need to sort out the many nuances that surround the concept of rights, but the goal here is not to answer questions. Instead, I just wanted to point out that the great accomplishment of the idea of human rights—namely, the acknowledgement of the moral importance of every human—provides fertile soil for discussions of the future of ethics. Indeed, some of the most pressing ethical issues can be construed as debates over our proper understanding of the universality of rights. The road ahead is definitely a long one, but we’ll never be able to have “liberty and justice for all” until we figure out what we mean when we say “for all.”
Eugene Rabinovich is a Trinity senior. This is his final column in a biweekly series during the summer.