Rights and the Self
By Tibor Machan - October 13, 2010

The human self gets all kinds of abuse from intellectuals, poets, artists and entertainers. Hubris and selfishness are roundly condemned whereas selflessness and unselfishness are widely praised. This rank misanthropy is fatal to the assertion of human rights!

Even as the Nobel Prize goes to the jailed Chinese champion of individual rights in opposition of the Communist Chinese government's unabashed affirmation of its placing such a person in jail for more than a decade and even as the more pragmatic Western commentators lament the fact, the connection between altruism and the violation of individual rights is rarely being made. Yet it is a major source of the age long abuse of human beings and their liberty since, of course, free men and women are not bound to always overlook themselves as they pursue their various tasks in their lives.

What is the source of this awful paradox? How come so many demean human beings while also champion their liberty to do as they judge fit when the latter clearly runs the risk that they will look out for themselves first and foremost in numerous realms of their lives?

One main reason is that over the centuries very often human nature has either been completely annihilated or utterly derided as nasty and brutish and anti-social. Not only did some versions of Christianity – although by no means all – affirm and vigorously defend the doctrine of original sin, such that every person is born laden with evil from which he or she needs to be saved by baptism and other rituals. But secular philosophies, such as that of the very influential English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, declared people to be fundamentally ill-willed, brutal to their fellows and rapacious in all manner of human endeavors, especially the economic. This idea that we are all ruthless, amoral profit maximizers is very fashionable, especially in Hollywood where Oliver Stone makes millions depicting economic agents as nothing but vicious cads.

Why did this view become so credible even while people, especially those in the business world, are routinely pursuing a course of conduct that advances not just their but everyone else's profit with whom they trade? Why will the silly zero sum game vision of human economic life not go away even while nearly all trade actually advances the economic interest of all the traders?

A source of this very hostile view of humanity comes from the belief that we are automatically driven to charge ahead with no regard for anything else but power and wealth. Where this vision gained its plausibility is in classical physics which Hobbes used as his model for explaining everything, including human life and politics. All of us are like atoms, like matter-in-motion moving forward blindly, ineluctably and whoever we meet we are inclined to mow down mercilessly, just as are the physical bits and pieces of which the material world is made crush anything in their path that's weak. And for those who championed original sin what stands out about us is our animal nature, the element of us that places us at home in the wilds or the jungle. Only when we focus on the spiritual are we saved from being insufferably mean and nasty.

None of this makes much sense of our actual lives in which the great majority of us are focused on both, our own flourishing and on the well being of those close to us and even quite far! Only a small portion of humanity fits the picture that depicts us as heartless brutes. Even when we are indeed selfish – or as the ancient thinkers would have it, properly prudent – we are by no means anti-social. Mostly we realize that the company of our fellows is a great plus in our lives whether we cooperate or compete with them.

Unless people wish to give up on fighting for their rights not to be oppressed and tyrannized by the worst among us, they will need to stop denigrating themselves and assert their own value. That way, also, lies their full acknowledgement of the value of other human beings and their basic rights.