Love, not rea­son, at heart of hu­man rights

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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