Love, not reason, at heart of human rights
THE study of human rights in the academic world has many strands these days, not that you’d know it from the outside. Instead of various and nuanced lines of thought to ponder, the public gets only the simplistic arguments pushed by politicians. We’re left with labels such as ‘‘ bleeding heart’’ and ‘‘ warmonger’’, and mind-bending rebranding, such as the anodyne word ‘‘ contractor’’ for the amoral ‘‘ mercenary’’.
Meanwhile philosophers and political scientists are working hard to define terms and think through options. What are the minimum human rights, beyond the right to breathe and to food and shelter? What exactly do we owe distant others? How do we extend the rights that citizens of functioning and free nationstates take for granted to more parlous places? What limits should we place on waging asymmetrical war?
This discussion began after the horrors of World War I. Leave aside the futility of the League of Nations that resulted, with its domination by the victors and its neglect of colonised peoples. Instead, let’s home in on one of its founders, French philosopher Henri Bergson, who worked with US president Woodrow Wilson to create the supranational body intended to prevent future wars.
Bergson was born in 1859 and lived just long enough to see Europe return to war. He is under-recognised now in the Anglophone world, though his first visit to the US in 1913 caused the first traffic jam on Broadway as people flocked to hear him speak. Active in politics, he also wrote influential, though not uncontested, philosophy. In 1927, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and, in 1932, came back from retirement with The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, a brief and urgent assessment that is as easy to read as it is difficult to plumb.
‘‘ Unexpected in its arrival, misunderstood in its reception, and by and large ignored, what interest can this text have for us now?’’ asks Alexandre Lefebvre, a Canadian political theorist working at the University of Sydney. Plenty, it seems.
Lefebvre’s new book, called Human Rights as a Way of Life, is a fascinating interpretation of Bergson’s last work. Bergson is not considered a political philosopher, but Lefebvre teases out the political implications of The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, with its equally lovely and confronting description of open and closed societies, and of open and closed souls, and extends them to show how a concern for distant others — the ideal of human rights — can be a vehicle for selftransformation and self-care.
As the cover has it: ‘‘ For Bergson, the main purpose of human rights is to initiate all human beings into love.’’ It’s a far cry from the usual demands, the insistent claims and counter-claims, of the human rights discourse. In Lefebvre’s take on it, love can nurture not only those in need of protection but those who extend the protection too.
Bergson argued that reason, beloved of Enlightenment thinkers and Kant in particular, is not the real motor of our doing good. In reality, ethical actions are conditioned; we do them without thinking because we have been taught to do them. They are habitual, and we only stop to question them when an unusual situation or a conflict arises.
Kant’s famous categorical imperatives and his wielding of words such as duty and constraint sound tough: ‘‘ chilling’’, as Bergson puts it. More effective and more creative than reason could ever be, ‘‘ the impetus of love’’ readily expands beyond the habitual. While morality closes down our options, love opens them and banishes outcomes dictated by selfinterest and hate.
Conventional wisdom has it that morality radiates outwards, from family to neighbours, community, nation, to humanity as a whole. Not for Bergson. ‘‘ He is sceptical that a morality inclusive of all human beings has grown out of our attachment to exclusive groups,’’ Lefebvre writes.
Every bounded group fights for survival: against internal disruption, against the challenges of nature and other groups of humans. From the beginning, people have fought over