Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July Speech at Rochester, NY’s Old Corinthian Hall, 1852

Drawing of Corinthian Hall, image credit Rochester Public Library Local History Division (note it's also called The Atheaneum in the subtitle)

Drawing of Corinthian Hall, image credit Rochester Public Library Local History Division (note that it’s still titled The Athenaeum)

Excerpt from Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 1 published May 23, 2016

I head east on Main… to the site of the old Corinthian Hall, which, according to a couple of sources, was near the end of Corinthian Street behind the Reynolds Arcade, where the parking garage is now. Originally called The Athenaeum, as were so many public halls of the time, it was renamed Corinthian Hall after the style of the classical columns on its stage, and the building was widely famed for its beauty. Corinthian Street was also renamed, and most internet sources I find say it was originally named Exchange Place.  However, I discover that these two pieces of received internet wisdom appear to be a bit off. Poring over old maps in Rochester Library’s online images database, I find one published in 1851, two years after the hall was built in 1849. For one, I find that while the street was named Exchange Place before it was named Corinthian, it was named Work Street at the time the hall was built. Secondly, I find that it was not actually under the parking garage at the end of the street. It was actually directly across from the back entrance of the Reynolds Arcade, where a parking lot and a glassy midcentury office building now stand. The 1851 map was a little behind the times: Corinthian Hall and Exchange Place had already received their new names in 1850, but the map retains their original designations.

Douglass spoke frequently at what he referred to as ‘the beautiful Corinthian Hall’ in the 1850’s. In fact, he  ‘lectured [there] every Sunday evening during an entire winter’ as he wrote in his Life and Times. He delivered a speech here on Aug 21, 1852 at the Fugitive Slave Convention, in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act. Then in July 1853, Douglass presided over the National Convention of Colored Men in Rochester, which became a center for the antislavery movement; his biographer Philip S. Foner called this convention ‘the most important’. This is where the pressing problem of lack of unification between various factions of the antislavery movement were identified and discussed, as well as the relative lack of black leadership. Though this Rochester convention still failed to bring about a unified black political movement, like the previous one in Troy discussed in an earlier account, it sent a powerful message that all black Americans had a powerful champion in Douglass.

Corinthian St, north of Main, around the site of old Corinthian Hall

The rear of the Reynolds Arcade facing onto Corinthian St, north of Main, across from the site of old Corinthian Hall

View from west end of Corinthian St, showing site of old Corinthian Hall at right where the glassy midcentury building now stands, photo 2016 by Paige Sloan

View from west end of Corinthian St, showing site of old Corinthian Hall at right where the glassy midcentury building now stands, photo 2016 courtesy of Paige Sloan. Note the Corinthian columns on the First National Bank of Rochester-Old Monroe County Savings Bank Building, built in 1924, in the rear of the photo.

But the single most important Douglass moment in this hall happened on July 5, 1852, when he delivered his powerful ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?‘ speech for the first time. He delivered it on the 5th instead of the 4th, he said, because the latter was a day of mourning for himself and his people. This speech was Douglass’ Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural, his ‘To Be or Not to Be?’, where his powers of oratory and his eloquence were in full force. The speech is long, opening with a reflection on the history of the United States’ founding and its promise of renewed freedom for all. Then he pours out his lament:

‘I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn….

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.’

If what he had to say that day didn’t make people ashamed to celebrate liberty for themselves while denying it to others, no words could.

* Read the full story of this day following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration

33. Corinthian Hall / Academy of Music‘, The Freethought Trail website

Corinthian Hall (venue)‘, under ‘Charter Inductees’, Rochester Music Hall of Fame website

Cornell, Silas, ‘Map of the City of Rochester‘, 1863. From Rochester Library Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Freedom and my Bondage, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, July 5, 1852. Teaching American History (website)

The Era of Academies in Monroe County‘, From Rochester Library Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

First National Bank of Rochester-Old Monroe County Savings Bank Building. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

McKelvey, Blake. ‘Historic Antecedents from the Crossroads Project‘. From the Rochester History Journal, Oct 1864, Vol. 26, No. 4.

Happy Birthday, Grace Lee Boggs! Bio and Book Review by Ashley Farmer

Grace Lee Boggs, By Kyle McDonaldm creativecommons.orglicensesby2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped“The Power And Importance Of Ideas:” Grace Lee Boggs’s Revolutionary Vision”

In the opening lines of her autobiography, Living for Change, Grace Lee Boggs remarked: “Had I not been born female and Chinese American, I would not have realized from early on that fundamental changes were necessary in our society.”[1] A daughter of Chinese immigrants born in 1915, who, by her account, became a philosopher in her 20s and an activist in her 30s, Boggs remains one of the greatest radical theorists of the twentieth century.

Born in Rhode Island, Boggs spent her childhood in New York City, working in the two restaurants her father owned in Times Square. At the age of 16, she left home to attend Barnard College, and afterward, Bryn Mawr, where she earned a PhD in Philosophy in 1940. Philosophers like Hegel helped her “see [her] own struggle for meaning as part of the continuing struggle of the individual to become part of the universal struggle for Freedom.”[2] Boggs moved to Chicago in 1940. She began working with the South Side Tenants Organization set up by the Workers Party, a Trotskyist group that had split off from the Socialist Workers Party. Her time in the Windy City proved transformative. For the first time she was talking and working with the black community, getting a first-hand sense of what it meant to live within the confines of segregation and discrimination, and learning how to participate in grassroots organizing.[3]

It was also during her tenure with the Workers Party that she met Caribbean radical C.L.R. James, and began a “theoretical and practical collaboration that would last twenty years.”[4] As part of a small wing of the workers Party led by James and Raya Dunayevskaya, Boggs became a leading theoretician, co-authoring texts like State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950). Through James, she came into contact with a number of black writers and activists who expanded her perspective. She relocated to Detroit in 1953, where she would organize with, and marry, James (Jimmy) Boggs.

During the 1950s, Boggs, “mainly listened and learned” to the black activists around her in an effort to better understand the black condition. It would take several years before she decided that she had been “living in the black community long enough to play an active role in the Black Power Movement that was emerging organically in a Detroit where blacks were becoming the majority.”[5] Living and working in what was considered to be an epicenter of black radicalism, Boggs engaged in a combination of theorizing and protesting, authoring texts with James Boggs, meeting and organizing with Malcolm X, and mentoring young radicals like Muhammad Ahmad (Max Stanford), leader of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM).

Her liberation theory was grounded in her study of philosophy and honed through her experiences organizing with and for black communities. It was also constantly evolving. Boggs emphasized dialectical thinking, arguing that reality is ever changing and that we must “constantly be aware of the new and more challenging contradictions that drive change.”[6] This reciprocal process drove her expansive vision of revolution. In her final book, The Next American Revolution, she explained her latest concept of revolution:

The next American Revolution, at this stage in our history, is not principally about jobs or health insurance or making it possible for more people to realize the American Dream of upward mobility. It is about acknowledging that we as Americans have enjoyed middle-class comforts at the expense of other peoples all over the world. It is about living the kind of lives that will not only slow down global warming but also end the galloping inequality both inside this country and between the Global North and Global South. It is about creating a new American Dream whose goal is a higher Humanity instead of the higher standard of living dependent on Empire.[7]

Boggs consistently offered a holistic vision of revolution and concrete steps through which to build it. She argued that achieving this goal meant more than organizing or mobilizing to petition the state or “changing the color of political power,” but rather growing food, reinventing education, developing Peace Zones in local neighborhoods, and creating restorative justice programs. She saw the seeds of revolution everywhere and showed us how, by practicing dialectical thinking, breaking down divides and categories, and building on rather than replicating older political models, we might “grow our souls.” She mirrored this in her own life, constantly “combining activity and reflection.”[8] Her willingness to do the work, her ability to listen and learn from black activists, her commitment to living in the communities in which she organized, and her openness to revising her politics, and values, made her an effective life-long ally of the black community and theoretician of liberation and revolution.

As she noted, often, “in the excitement of an emerging movement, we tend to want to be part of the action, and we underestimate the power and importance of the ideas in our heads and hearts.”[9] Upon her death, it’s important to revisit the ideas in her head. She left us a roadmap for revolution through ideas and action, one that anyone could be a part of if they were clear about the stakes of the transformation and that fundamental change is necessary.

Originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog, republished under Creative Commons

~ Ashley Farmer is an historian of African-American women’s history. Her research interests include women’s history, gender history, radical politics, intellectual history, and black feminism. She earned a BA in French from Spelman College, an MA in History from Harvard University, and a PhD in African American Studies from Harvard University. She is currently a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Duke University. In August 2016, she will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the African American Studies Program at Boston University. This bio and more about Ms. Farmer are to be found at her personal website

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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[1] Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), xi.

[2] Ibid., 30-31.

[3] Ibid., 36.

[4] Ibid., 43. James and Boggs “went their separate ways in 1962.”

[5] Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 66.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] Ibid., 72.

[8] Ibid., 164.

[9] Ibid., 80.

Happy Birthday, Aimé Césaire!

Aimé Fernand David Césaire, photo credit manomerci.comAimé-Fernand-David Césaire was a poet, playwright, philosopher, and politician from Martinique. In his long life (1913-2008), Césaire accomplished much in each of these roles, a rare feat as they rarely coincide in one person!

In turn mayor of Fort-de-France, deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique, and President of the Regional Council of Martinique, this prolific writer and intellectual was also co-founder of Négritude, a ‘literary movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.’ (Encyclopædia Britannica). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Négritude as ‘the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of civilization of something defined as “the black world” as an answer to the question “what are we in this white world?”’. The term was chosen so as to be provocative, a way of re-claiming the word nègre, which had become a racial slur, while simultaneously shocking those who heard or read it into paying attention. Through his philosophy, political writing, and especially his poetry and plays, the world pays attention still.

Learn more about the great Aimé Césaire through the resources below; an excellent place to start is with Meredith Goldsmith’s article from The Poetry Foundation.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Aime Cesaire‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Chidi, Sylvia Lovina. The Greatest Black Achievers in History, chapter 1

Diagne, Souleymane Bachir, ‘Négritude‘. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Goldsmith, Meredith. ‘Aimé Fernand Césaire‘, 1913–2008. In The Poetry Foundation

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought, at the San Francisco Public Library

I just finished this book about Frederick Douglass by scholar Leigh Fought. I’m at the library right now, about to turn it back in, and have that feeling of afterglow which follows reading a fascinating story while gaining much deeper understanding of a subject that’s long inspired me.

Not only did I get to know the character and work of Douglass much better, his struggles, triumphs, mistakes, virtues, flaws, and motivations, I learned about the ways in which women shaped his life and ideas and made his work possible. I had uncovered pieces of this larger story when following his life and ideas last year, but Fought’s work tells this larger story fully and compellingly and then some. This not only a book about these personalities and how they met, fell in love, collaborated, clashed, helped, betrayed, and so on, but it’s about the real human side behind the various social movements Douglass and the women in his life were a part of. And for many, still a part of, through their memory and influence. It’s about the antislavery movement, the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movements, the worker’s rights movement, the Civil War, the formation of the Republican Party as a free soil, pro-Union party and its after-war (what I consider) devolution into the economy-above-all party, and many other potent movements shaping and reshaping American society.

I very highly recommend this book, and think you’ll love it as I do.

Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Why Shouldn’t We Compel Them to Come In? Locke, the Enlightenment, and the Debate over Religious Toleration, by Nicholas Jolley

Religious Liberty, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, 1876

Most people in the West today unreflectively accept the need for religious toleration. Of course, if pressed, they will admit that toleration, like freedom of speech, can’t be absolute; there must be some limits. Suppose, for example, that my religion calls for human sacrifice every Sunday; no one will think that such a religion should be tolerated. Again, if pressed, people will agree that there are difficult cases: to take an issue that troubled John Locke, suppose that my religion demands allegiance to a foreign power. We may think that reasonable people can disagree over such cases. But the fact that there are these problem cases doesn’t shake people’s commitment to the principle of religious toleration.

We tend to be so wedded to this principle that we can easily forget how seductive the case for intolerance can be. Consider, for instance, a person who says with an authoritative air: “I know that my religion is the true one and that yours is completely false. I also know you will go to hell if you don’t convert to my religion.” Wouldn’t it be an act of charity on his part to convert you, by force if necessary, to the religion that will ensure your happiness in the afterlife? Here one might adapt an example given by that champion of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, for another purpose. A police officer sees a person trying to cross a bridge that he knows to be unsafe. According to Mill, it’s not an unwarranted interference with the person’s liberty for the officer to use force to prevent him or her from stepping on to the bridge; he knows, after all, that the bridge is unsafe and he knows that the person doesn’t want to fall into the river. One might take a similar line in the religious case: I know that John’s religion is leading him to hell, and I know that that’s not where he wishes to end up. Theologians in the Western tradition such as Augustine have argued for intolerance along these lines, and they have buttressed their argument by appealing to the biblical text: “Compel them to come in.”

Modern liberals are likely to respond that the appeal to Mill’s example is unfair, for the analogy is far from exact. For one thing, Mill builds into his example the assumption that there is no time to warn the person about the danger of the bridge; presumably, if there were time to warn him, then other things being equal, Mill would admit that there was no case for coercion. More importantly, one might argue that no one really knows, or can know, that the doctrines of revealed religion are true; acceptance of such doctrines depends on accepting the accounts of witnesses who may be unreliable or whose words may have been misinterpreted down the ages.

The idea that no one can know the claims of revealed religion are true is the basis for one of Locke’s main strategies of argument for religious toleration. The strategy is a powerful one, but it is open to a couple of objections. First, Locke sets the bar for knowledge very high: he allows little to count as knowledge that isn’t on a par with mathematical demonstration. By his lights, in the bridge example, even the policeman doesn’t strictly know that the bridge is unsafe. Further, even if the champion of intolerance concedes that he doesn’t strictly know his religion to be true, he may still say that he has very strong support for his beliefs, and that this level of support justifies him in coercing others. So the kind of case that Locke makes here may not be conclusive.

Fortunately, Locke has other strings to his bow. One intriguing argument turns on the nature of belief and its relation to the will. Suppose that the champion of intolerance says to the unbeliever: “You ought to believe the articles of my faith” (e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity). It seems apt for the unbeliever to reply to such a claim by saying: “It’s not in my power to believe this doctrine. You misunderstand the nature of belief. Belief is not a voluntary action like switching on a light. Rather, belief is more like falling in love; it’s something that happens to you.” One might then plug in the Kantian principle implicitly accepted by Locke: ought implies can. If belief is not in my power, and ought implies can, then I can have no obligation to believe the proposition in question.

This can seem like a powerful reply to the advocate of intolerance, but again, unfortunately, it’s not conclusive. For the advocate may say: “I agree that belief is not directly under your voluntary control, but I maintain that it is indirectly so. True, you can’t just switch on belief, but it’s in your power to do things that will result, or are likely to result, in your coming to believe.” Pascal, for instance, thought that though we can’t just believe at will, we can do things such as going to Mass and mixing with the congregation of the faithful that will have the effect of producing belief; faith, he thought, is catching. And then the intolerant person is in a position to make a case for religious persecution on the part of the state: there should be penalties for non-attendance at church so that people are induced to attend and at least to give a hearing to the teachings of the state-approved religion. This was the argument put to Locke by his opponent, Jonas Proast. Locke seeks to reply to this argument by saying that sincere religious belief can’t be produced in this way, and that it’s only sincere religious belief that is acceptable to God. Whether this reply to Proast is successful is a controversial issue among philosophers who have studied the debate. And the issue isn’t a narrowly academic one: it should be of interest to all those who seek to defend the values of the Enlightenment today.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

~ Nicholas Jolley is Research Professor and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He has also taught at the University of California, San Diego, and Syracuse University. He is the author of a number of books for OUP, including Toleration and Understanding in Locke (2017), and Locke’s Touchy Subjects: Materialism and Immortality (2015).

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The “Woman’s Rights” Man: A New Book on Women in Frederick Douglass’s World, by Ibram X. Kendi

Left: Leigh Fought, image Le Moyne College; right, Anna Douglass, image Library of Congress

The author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass is Leigh Fought. Professor Fought is an associate professor of history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She was an associate editor on the first volume of Frederick Douglass’s correspondence at the Frederick Douglass Papers, published by Yale University Press in 2009. Her previous books includes Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa McCord (University of Missouri Press, 2003) and Mystic, Connecticut: From Pequot Village to Tourist Town (History Press, 2006). Professor Fought earned her Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Houston and a Master of Library Science degree from Simmons College in Boston.

In his extensive writings, Frederick Douglass revealed little about his private life. His famous autobiographies present him overcoming unimaginable trials to gain his freedom and establish his identity—all in service to his public role as an abolitionist. But in both the public and domestic spheres, Douglass relied on a complicated array of relationships with women: white and black, slave-mistresses and family, political collaborators and intellectual companions, wives and daughters. The great man needed them throughout a turbulent life that was never so linear and self-made as he often wished to portray it.In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass’s varied relationships with white women—including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing—who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women’s movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally. She also considers Douglass’s relationship with his daughter Rosetta, who symbolized her parents’ middle class prominence but was caught navigating between their public and private worlds. Late in life, Douglass remarried to a white woman, Helen Pitts, who preserved his papers, home, and legacy for history.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed “woman’s rights man.”

In this well-researched and richly textured book, Leigh Fought gives us a fascinating new view into the life and times of one our most famous and revered figures: Frederick Douglass. As he freely acknowledged, women helped make Douglass the man he became. So we, too, are in debt to the women whose stories come so vividly alive in these pages.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Ibram X. Kendi: What are the principle findings or arguments of the book? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?

Leigh Fought: Frederick Douglass would not have become one of the greatest black activists of the nineteenth century without the work of women. This was not the cliché “behind every great man is a woman.” Women played a central role in his intellectual development, his independence as a man and activist, his economic well-being, his challenge to racial stereotypes and prohibitions, and the persistence of his place in history.

When I started this project, I was simply interested in finding more about all of these women who seemed as fascinated by Douglass as I was, except that they actually knew him. I also thought that the project would be synthetic. As it turned out, others had expressed little curiosity about most of the women themselves, with the exception of those women who merited their own biographies. Then, as I began to reconstruct the lives of the women from original research in order to explain their interaction with Douglass, I began to see a feminine space around him, much like the concept of a “negative space” in art. That feminine space, like most feminine spaces, was where the real action took place. If you want to know about a life, that is the place you have to investigate.

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, readers will meet a host of fascinating, resourceful women, some of whom might otherwise remain footnotes. The women featured in this book had the most dramatic influence on Douglass’s life, but they also had their own agendas and contexts that explain the ebb and flow of their relationships with Douglass, as well as his respect for or sympathy with them. The abuse suffered by slave women and the capitulation of white women to the institution of slavery shaped his childhood, laying the foundation for the man he became. In his adulthood, each woman at some point formed a partnership with Douglass to advance a cause against racism that extended beyond abolition and the end of slavery. His relationships with all of these women exposed the variety of ways that gender and race were employed as tools of oppression. At the same time, he and they mobilized their resistance along those very same lines. While the story of women in Douglass’s world does not preclude other actors or influences in his life, by bringing them into focus their biographies add nuance and deeper understanding to his.

This piece was originally published at Black Perspectives, the blog of the AAIHS, on May 1st, 2017, the release date of Ms. Fought’s book

Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. He is the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In August, Kendi begins a new position as Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Are Human Rights Anything More than Legal Conventions? by John Tasioulas

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We live in an age of human rights. The language of human rights has become ubiquitous, a lingua franca used for expressing the most basic demands of justice. Some are old demands, such as the prohibition of torture and slavery. Others are newer, such as claims to internet access or same-sex marriage. But what are human rights, and where do they come from? This question is made urgent by a disquieting thought. Perhaps people with clashing values and convictions can so easily appeal to ‘human rights’ only because, ultimately, they don’t agree on what they are talking about? Maybe the apparently widespread consensus on the significance of human rights depends on the emptiness of that very notion? If this is true, then talk of human rights is rhetorical window-dressing, masking deeper ethical and political divisions.

Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation. Wherever there are philosophers, however, there is disagreement. Belief in human rights left open how we go about making the case for them – are they, for example, protections of human needs generally or only of freedom of choice? There were also disagreements about the correct list of human rights – should it include socio-economic rights, like the rights to health or work, in addition to civil and political rights, such as the rights to a fair trial and political participation?

But many now argue that we should set aside philosophical wrangles over the nature and origins of human rights. In the 21st century, they contend, human rights exist not in the nebulous ether of philosophical speculation, but in the black letter of law. Human rights are those laid down in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the various international and domestic laws that implement it. Some who adopt this line of thought might even invoke the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who contemptuously dismissed the idea of natural rights existing independently of human-made laws as ‘rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts’.

Now, it is true that since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. And for most practical purposes, it might be that we can simply appeal to these laws when we talk about human rights. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination – for example, prohibiting women from driving – because it made its acceptance of human-rights treaties subject to an override in the case of conflict with Islamic law.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities. When manufacturers such as Nike use 12-year-olds to stitch soccer balls in Pakistan, or internet service providers such as Yahoo secretly hand over the emails of dissidents to the Chinese government, many critics decry not just corporate malfeasance but human-rights violations. And this is so even if the corporation has complied with the laws of the country in which it is operating.

It is precisely in response to the threat to human rights posed by corporations that the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ (2011), the brainchild of the Harvard political scientist John Ruggie, were established. Endorsed by the UN, the principles are not legally binding either on states or corporations. Instead, they aim to provide an authoritative statement of human-rights responsibilities that apply directly to corporations, quite apart from any legal obligations they might also bear. Ruggie’s ambition is that the principles will eventually inform corporate decision-making at all levels, illustrating the fact that human rights go beyond law and its enforcement.

Yet there is a deeper problem with identifying human rights with existing laws. Laws are the creations of fallible human beings. They might be good or bad, and so are always subject to interpretation and criticism in terms of independent moral principles. The international law of human rights, on this view, does not establish which human rights exist; instead, its goal is to implement moral rights we already possess, simply by virtue of our humanity. Slavery, torture and racial discrimination did not suddenly become human-rights violations only when they were legally prohibited. It is the other way round: we have human-rights law in order to give force to human rights that in some sense pre-exist their legal recognition. Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths, independent of law.

The late American philosopher Richard Rorty sought a way out of this impasse. Although a staunch liberal, he turned his back on the philosophical enterprise of attempting to give a rational justification for human rights. He judged that activity to be pointless now that human rights are a deeply embedded fact of our culture, not just our law. How can we justify human rights when they seem more compelling to us liberal Westerners than any other idea we might use to justify them? The real task that confronts us, Rorty thought, was the practical one of enhancing compliance with human rights worldwide, not the intellectual one of grounding rights in the fabric of reality.

A similarly dismissive attitude is adopted by Ruggie, who conceives of his Guiding Principles not as reflecting ‘true’ moral demands, but as rooted in empirically measurable ‘social norms and expectations’. At a more sophisticated level, the late American political philosopher John Rawls, in his last work The Law of Peoples (1999), insisted that in a pluralistic world we cannot build our public commitment to human rights on any controversial account of the ‘truth’ about humanity or the good. We have to return, instead, to shared ideas embedded in the culture of a liberal democracy.

But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a liberal democratic culture? Or do we need to be able to step back from that culture and offer an objective justification for the principles embedded in it, as the philosophers have long supposed? The problem is that social expectations and cultural assumptions not only vary significantly across societies, but that they are fragile: various forces ranging from globalisation to propaganda can cause them to change dramatically or even wither away. Would rights against gender or racial discrimination disappear if sexist or racist attitudes come to predominate?

The question is not fanciful. Once apparently settled beliefs about the impermissibility of torture or the rights of refugees have recently suffered a backlash. There can be backsliding as well as progress, with no guarantees either way. Social expectations and deep cultural assumptions are no more a sufficient basis for human rights than the law is. There is a fatal contradiction in defending human rights against the rising authoritarianism of a ‘post-truth’ era while simultaneously abandoning the belief that our commitment to those rights is itself grounded in the truth, and being prepared to defend it on that basis.

My own view is that human rights are rooted in the universal interests of human beings, each and every one of whom possesses an equal moral status arising from their common humanity. In other words, in defending human rights, we will need to appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species and, in addition, the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship, knowledge, achievement, play, and so on. And we will need to ask whether these considerations generate duties that are owed to each and every human being. This proposal is hardly uncontroversial. The appeal to the inherent value of humanity will be contested by some as a brute prejudice – a ‘speciesism’ on a par with racism. Similarly, the appeal to universal interests will be contested by those who think that human rights are ultimately about respecting individual freedom regardless of whether it advances the right-holder’s well-being.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place. This has precisely been the aim of philosophical defences of human rights from the 12th century up until very recent times. To keep our human rights culture in good order, we cannot avoid engaging with the question of justification. And we should think of this not as the exclusive domain of professional philosophers, but as a process of public reasoning to which all citizens are called to contribute.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ John Tasioulas is the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy and Law, and director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. He is working on his latest book, Human Rights: From Morality to Law (forthcoming, OUP). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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