Sat, Dec 10, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Individualism a basic human right

By Herbert Hanreich

Each year, the world community commemorates the anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly, which was ratified on Dec. 10, 1948 — Human Rights Day — with the exception, of course, of governments who ignore, defy and violate human rights. These are exclusively governments without any democratic legitimation.

This simple fact makes it obvious that democracy and human rights are interdependent.

Democracies, unlike dictatorships or authoritarian regimes, grant citizens (through their elected representatives) the basic right to pass laws, which permits sufficient individual freedom to live in accordance with their ideas of a “good” life. The common laws, together with the institutions that help to enforce them, safeguard this and other basic rights; they guarantee individual freedom and at the same time, limit this very freedom in case the freedom of others is ignored. Basic rights, therefore, need legal protection and in democracies they are granted this protection through laws citizens give themselves. However, there is more to basic rights — there is also a moral dimension.

Basic rights are rights people have not only as citizens, but also as human beings or as persons — ie, regardless of their cultural, social, ethnic, religious or national background. As persons, each individual is equal and endowed with equal rights. This surplus of validity, which is legally protected by the basic laws, but which, at the same time, transcends their legal scope, is the (moral) essence of human rights.

Article 1 of the declaration reflects this surplus: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

This moral dimension of the basic laws, unlike common legal provisions that change with history, can be rationally and universally justified and hence functions as a critical tool against manipulation and corruption of laws and people for cultural, national or other purposes. That all human beings are equally free can be morally legitimized.

There is no conceivable rational argument that would not support this equal freedom. All objections against universal human rights lack legitimacy; they oppress the moral dimension. They are ideologically corrupt, no matter whether they are presented in the name of culture, religion or national interests.

The moral value of human rights consists of the idea that individuals should be equally free to define and determine their own life plans for which they can be held responsible. It is in the genuine interest of citizens to mutually grant this very freedom to anybody else, for one’s own freedom depends on the freedom of others. Individuals, therefore, should never be defined or identified by cultural, religious or national values, especially if these values deny the freedom of self-determination. They are derivative, secondary values vis-a-vis the human right to self-determination; they always can be misused. The human right to self-determination can never be misused.

This is also why individuals cannot be defined at all, for definitions are easily exploited by putting the defined into the perspective of the definer’s purpose. Philosophically, individuals are indefinable.

We have seen enough terror and crimes against individuals in the name of anti-individual identities, committed in the name of communal (communism in all forms), national (Japan’s imperialism), religious (Sept. 11, 2001, attacks), cultural (female genital mutilation) or ethnic identity (Nazi Germany).

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