Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ishay and Whig History

One of the conceptual issues Micheline Ishay touches upon in her History of Human Rights is the notion of progress; i.e., whether history reliably moves in a positive direction, with more rational or humane ways of being unfolding in a cumulative process. While somewhat circumspect about her personal viewpoint, the author clearly accepts this basic philosophical credo. For Ishay's purposes, this means a gradual extension of human rights to cover more and more spheres of human life and more and more categories of people. While there is nothing illegitimate about the progressive historical paradigm, this vision of the development of human rights heavily colors Ishay's historical overview in ways that sometimes less than conducive to a genuine understanding of the past. This skewed perpspective is particularly evident in the author's treatment of the "Ethical Contributions" of ancient cultures which were dramatically different than Enlightenment Europe, which as Ishay freely admits, is the birthplace of the human rights discourse in which her work is grounded.

There's an old saw that "the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." Unfortunately, rather than approaching each culture or religion on its own terms and than determining to what extent their characteristics may have influenced modern concepts of human rights, Ishay tends merely to evaluate the ancients in terms of their agreeableness to a laundry list of latter-day human rights concerns. Hence, each group is alternately commended or implicitly condemned for its views on female equality, slavery, homsexuality, economic justice, and so forth. In doing so, Ishay tells us more about the consensuses of the modern human rights community than about what made these societies tick, or more to her point, how they truly may have contributed to the later development of human rights discourse. 

Ishay seems to assume that any congruence between ancient ethical precepts and post-Enlightenment views of human rights may be counted as an "early ethical contribution", regardless of any evidence of historical ideological connection to the latter, or even basis on a similar set of moral concepts. She astutely notes that ancient cultures did not have a concept of individual rights so much as of indivudal obligations, but then proceeds to fill out the scorecard for each ethical system based on whether its dictates happen to correspond to modern notions of the former. This explains the artificially even-handed representation of  Islam and Eastern religion and philosophy in her historical overview, despite the fact that the Enlightenment Europe which produced "the rights of man" as a concept was overwhelmingly indebted to the classical and Judeo-Christian heritage.

This is not to suggest that other cultures and values systems had no effect on thinkers of the period (Voltaire was a great student of the Hindu scriptures, for example), but Ishay gives us little evidence to suggest the importance for her purposes of knowing what Confucius thought about the equality of the sexes, since there is little evidence that modern feminism (a Western invention) bears much, if any, imprint of his philosophy. In the same manner, the relative acceptance of lesbianism in ancient Israel is thought worth mentioning, presumably because of its correspondence to modern gay rights concerns. Yet the development of modern human rights discourse towards favoring the acceptance of homosexuals has little or nothing to do with this fact; furthermore, the ancient Israelite view had nothing to do with anachronistic notions of tolerance for various sexual orientations (a modern concept in of itself), and everything to do with the intracacies of a code of sexual ethics whose presuppositions are in large part alien to our own time.  Without an appreciation of the radically different worldviews of the cultures she examines, Ishay's observations of similarities or differences with human rights discourse is ultimately superficial.

Ishay best reveals the weakness of this approach in several counterfactuals she posits towards the end of the chapter: wasn't Buddhism a better candidate to advance human rights than the west, "given its greater tolerance for women and homosexuals and its criticism of any form of rigid social hierarchy"? Or what about Islam; why did it not "become a leading force in the advancement of human rights against the exclusionary moral crusade of the Christian church?" These questions have no answer. They are absurd, because the constellation of truth claims constituting Ishay's concept of human rights are the result of a historical process of development which ocurred primarily in the West, not anywhere else. The author takes these propositions (female equality, gay rights, equality before the law, social justice, etc.) as manifestly correct and then retroactively attempts to locate them in any ancient ethical precept which happens to cooincide with them. This is not to argue they may not be correct, even universally correct. They are simply not helpful or accurate in explaining the systems of thought and values of societies which did not share them. 

Ultimately, Ishay's view of the progressive direction of history privileges the present as the ultimate telological outcome of all that came before. Modern human rights discourse, itself a product of historical forces, is taken as a fixed object to serve as a yardstick by which to measure the "contributions" of vastly different civilizations.  It is in some ways a comforting view of history, but it does a disservice to any deep understanding of past societies while propping up an uncritical view of whatever set of agenda happen to be the current consensus.

1 comment:

  1. One important thing to keep in mind is that Ishay is coming from a position that human rights are universal. As such, they should transcend time, location, and culture. Given this universality, Ishay’s project of looking for these universal rights in ancient cultures is useful insofar as it shows the genealogy of such beliefs. While it may be true that Eastern ideas haven’t had as much impact on the modern conversation as Greek or Jewish/Christian ideas, the influences are still visible. You say that “Ishay's view of the progressive direction of history privileges the present as the ultimate telological outcome of all that came before.” I would argue that this is an uncharitable reading of her. Saying that the past influences and to some extent directs the future is not an admission of teleological historical forces.
    You touch on the idea of human rights not necessarily being universal. This critique seems more plausible to me. Once you grant the universality of human rights, historical teleology does not necessarily ensue. However, denying the initial universality allows you to critique the usefulness of looking at past cultures for insight into the current debate.


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