What does it mean to say ‘I have a right to do this…’? How can these rights be measured and what role do they play in the life of a human being? As Thomas Hobbs once stated that a right is the freedom to do whatever can preserve one’s nature. Nevertheless, the opposite point of view was widely supported. This paper represents the opinions of remarkable authorities, such as Judith Shklar and Hannah Arendt, on the issue of the primary aim of human rights. The main question discussed in this essay is whether human rights should be created to transform human beings or to protect them. According to the opinion of many political scholars and philosophers, human rights should not transform people, but show them the way in which to act, providing all the opportunities necessary. The discussion on this topic was widely popular before World War II and in the post-war times, because of the reasonable demand for genuine democracy, which was neglected in times of warfare. That is why it is preferable to observe the creation and development of human rights during this period of time. Although it was the time of imperialism and totalitarianism, it has also provided an essential basis for liberalism. Starting its history in the Antiquity, the notion of liberalism was developing by many great philosophers, including John Locke. Nevertheless, it was also frequently disregarded. The era of liberalism has already yielded many concrete results which mostly protect human beings of all kinds from being oppressed by such bad social, political and economical events and notions as slavery, nationalism, racism, imperialism, militarism, fascism, social Darwinism, and most types of socialism. This paper will discuss what the primary aim of the human rights should be: to protect human beings, to transform them, or any other.
World War I happened to be a total disaster for the European comity of nations. Despite the fact that previous wars were bloodier, more cruel, and larger in scale, this one was different and more global. Therefore, it was more difficult for the society to recover after it. To make things worse, inflation uprooted a whole group of small property owners, causing damage which no monetary crisis had been capable of doing previously. The complicated system of European civilization was destroyed by a few years of trench wars even before the attack of totalitarianism. Its severe consequences, such as instability and a partly demolished facade of the European political system, were making more and more social groups suffer from savage rules. As a Latin proverb says: ‘Inter arma tacent leges’. This means that no laws are active during warfare, so human rights are out of the question. At that time, governments were mainly interested in saving their countries’ economic states, not citizens’ lives. In addition, everyone was against everyone, so people’s natural rights were neglected. Governments demanded people to transform into military machines who would disregard the natural needs for safety and respect towards other people’s uniqueness.
The closest neighbors – the Slovaks and the Czechs, the Croats and the Serbs, the Ukrainians and the Polish – had to fight each other not because of the disagreements between nationalities, but because of the conflict between their sovereigns. At first, these quarrels in Europe seemed to be trivial. Many people thought that there would be no consequences for the world community. However, some regions. specifically Russia and Austria-Hungary, experienced troubles that were different from those of any other country. The dispossessed middle class, the pensioners, the unemployed, and other groups were suffering from the war. Their opportunities for work reduced; while their social status and everything defined by The Rights of Man were disdained (Arendt, pp. 267-269).
Of course, there were attempts to protect human beings in different societies from being oppressed by representatives of imperialism. For example, the League of Nations started working in the year 1919. Its aim was to provide collective security by disarming, improving global welfare, and settling debates between governments through discussions and diplomacy. The League of Nations had warranties to support many primary Western European colonies during their transfer from the status of colonies to the independent commonwealth. The International Labor Organization, created as one of the institutions of the League of Nations, had a warranty to promote and protect certain rights. Its primary goal was to guarantee opportunities for women and men to acquire productive work in conditions of security, freedom, equity, and human dignity. Nonetheless, it could not be achieved because of the beginning of World War II.
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Human rights transformed into vestiges of unattainable idealism for victims, onlookers, and persecutors at the same time. The persecution of Jews has shown how far people can go when inspired by a policy based on hatred and national inequity. Shortly after the November pogroms of 1938, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a circular letter to all German authorities abroad, stating:
The emigration movement of only about 100,000 Jews has already sufficed to awaken the interest of many countries in the Jewish danger. . . . Germany is very interested in maintaining the dispersal of Jewry . . . the influx of Jews in all parts of the world invokes the opposition of the native population and thereby forms the best propaganda for the German Jewish policy. . . . The poorer and therefore more burdensome the immigrating Jew is to the country absorbing him, the stronger the country will react. (Office of United States Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality 1946)
The issue of minorities, which was caused by the Peace Treaties and a constantly growing refugee movement, combined with the consequences of revolutions was the beginning of internal disintegration. Based on the pre-war era experiences, the Peace Treaties were inadequate in many issues. Unfortunately, they never considered the impact of the war after peace was achieved as something really significant. The best proof of this would be the attempt to establish nation-states and the introduction of minority treaties, which were supposed to regulate the nationality problem in Eastern and Southern Europe (Ripka 1939, p. 117). However, even in the countries with old and settled national traditions, the governments could not handle the new problems of world politics .In fact, it is highly doubtful that they could have been implemented in the area which lacked the necessary conditions for the rise of nation-states, which are rootedness in the soil and the homogeneity of population.
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World War II revealed a dreadful truth: The Rights of Man, which had to be independent of all governments, turned out to be ineffective. At the time when people relied on their minimum rights and should have been protected by their own governments, the ones in power had no desire to defend them. No agency was willing to protects them. Moreover, societies formed around the Rights of Man were sponsored by marginal figures without political experience. These groups and their statements showed a strange similarity in the way they were composed to that of committees for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Neither a political figure nor a statesman could take them seriously; and none of the liberal or radical parties in Europe were thinking about implementing a new declaration of human rights into their programs in the following years. The victims in both cases shared an ignorance of any attempt of marginal societies to secure human rights in any general sense. The Rights of Man, sacredly and ceremonially proclaimed during the French and the American revolutions as the new foundation for civilized societies, has never been a practical political issue.
One can come to an interesting conclusion by considering all the points mentioned in Hannah Arendt’s book: the policy of transforming human beings with the purpose of making society better organized causes the appearance of negative tendencies, such as totalitarianism, fascism, and antisemitism (Moravcsik 2000). However, the negative experience which nations all over the world suffered from for about 50 years resulted in the creation of pure liberalism, which is one of the main features of post-industrial society in well-developed countries.
So, what is liberalism itself? This notion is often misunderstood because of its overuse in all spheres of life. Still, it has a single definition. In her book The Liberalism of Fear Judith N. Shklar states that the aim of liberalism is ‘to secure the political conditions that are necessary for the exercise of personal freedom.’ Every adult should have an opportunity to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor as is compatible with the freedom of every other adult. This is what is known as equity. This belief is the original and only justifiable meaning of liberalism. It is a political notion, because the fear and favor that have always oppressed freedom are overwhelmingly generated by governments (Shklar, pp. 5-6).
The former standards of liberalism existed in Western philosophy for many ages, but nowadays we can observe the very first major signs of liberal politics. The first person to develop liberal philosophy was John Locke, an English physician and philosopher widely considered as one of the most influential figures of the era of Enlightenment and commonly named as the "Father of Liberalism". Locke established the basic notion that government gets compliance from the governed, which has to be permanently present for a government to stay legitimate. One of the most influential texts presenting Locke’s ideology is his ‘Two Treatises’ (1690). His opinion that legitimate governments do not have preternatural origins was a breakthrough in the governance of the time. Locke claimed that ‘a natural right to the liberty of conscience must stay protected from any government authority’ (Locke), using the social contract principle. Although most liberal teachings possess the same heritage, research scholars often assume that those teachings contain separate or even contradictory concepts. The multiplicity of liberalism can be understood by considering the large number of adjectives that theorists have added to the former term liberalism: democratic, classical, humanist, economic, welfare-state, social, ethical, perfectionist, deontological, egalitarian, and institutional.
John Gray – a political philosopher - named being meliorist, individualist, egalitarian, and universalist as the general reference points in liberal thought. The individualist factor asserts ‘the moral primacy of the human being against the oppressions of social collectivism’ (Gray 1995, p. 12), while the egalitarian element assigns the same moral value to all human beings. The meliorist factor maintains that the following generations can develop their sociopolitical treaties, and the universalist factor affirms ‘the moral unity of the human species and marginalizes local cultural distinctions’ (Gray 1995, p. 12). As for the liberal spirit, Gray (1995, p. 13) said that it "has been inspired by skepticism and by a fideistic certainty of divine revelation ... it has exalted the power of reason even as, in other contexts, it has sought to humble reason's claims."
The political and moral hypotheses of liberalism are based on the utilitarian theory and natural rights. According to numerous researchers, the major aspects of liberalism support the idea of constitutional government that is limited to a certain extent, individual liberty and equality, individual rights and private property, while recognizing the value of pluralism, bodily integrity, toleration, autonomy, and compliance at the same time.
Despite the great goals of liberalism, conservatives were never optimistic about liberalism. Known as the first major proponent of modern conservative thought, Edmund Burke is famous for his irate criticism of the French Revolution. He attacked the liberal pretensions to the power of rationality and to the equity of all humans. The Roman Catholic Church, however, was one of the most plain-spoken critics of liberalism. In the same field, conservatives attacked liberal pursuit of material gain and tangible progress.
Social democracy as a concept supporting progressive modification of capitalism appeared in the twentieth century and was influenced by socialism. However, unlike socialism, social democracy was neither anti-capitalist nor collectivist; it was extensively defined as an operation performed in order to reform the inherent defects of capitalism through decreasing the level of inequality.
Today’s democracy movement is strongly associated with Christian democracy that hopes to spread Catholic social ideas and has already gained a large number of followers in some European nations. The primary roots of Christian democracy developed as a reaction to urbanization and industrialization, which served as a contrast to the laissez-faire liberalism of the 19th century (Tollinton 1914, p. 5). Despite these complex relationships, some scholars and researchers have agreed that liberalism mainly rejects ideological thinking, mostly because such thinking could lead to improbable expectations for human beings.
To conclude, some major aspects of liberal thought are exactly what human beings believe in, when proclaiming ‘We have rights!’ These aspects are, first and foremost, equity and respect towards ethnical, religious, gender, age, ability, and social status differences. Unfortunately, these rights are frequently neglected, because governments need people adjusting to their increasingly mercenary demands. Analyzing the imperialistic and liberal attitudes to human rights, one can analyze the results achieved by these political strategies. The disaster caused by World War I negatively influenced the European comity of nations. As a result, the dispossessed middle class, the pensioners, and the unemployed had scanty work opportunities; their social status and rights were totally neglected. Although there were attempts to protect the society from being oppressed by imperialists’ attacks, nothing was achieved due to the beginning of World War II. World War II has demonstrated that The Rights of Man could not be a reliable protection for people as there was no one to protect them. Imperialistic thought itself forced citizens to change their lifestyle and essence to fulfill the demands of warfare. However, this policy was strongly condemned as something immoral and unnatural for human beings. That is why the society returned to the familiar liberalism, modernizing it and creating its new form. The most suitable definition and aim of liberalism were denoted by Judith N. Shklar in her essay ‘The Liberalism of Fear’. She highlighted that people should have opportunities to apply their natural rights without fear of any authorities. However, liberalism followers were often persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church and conservatives; this hindered the development of liberal thought. The liberal thought is much more effective and moral; however, there were more radical imperialists, totalitarians, and fascists that caused turnovers in world history than liberalists. This means that the human nature should not be changed completely. What should be reformed is people’s attitude to equity. As the world experience shows, each person wants to live in a state of utopia, but hardly anyone wants to create it. People want equity while remaining latent racists and homophobes. They want to be respected by authorities and be wealthy, but do not want to work. They forget that a high social status is not their natural right and that work is their natural duty. That is why human rights must not transform human beings, but rather show them a better way of living that would motivate people to improve and deal with cruelty better.