The Role of Sentiment in Grounding Human Rights

Hillary Fleenor

In the United States in the antebellum South, the overseer of a slave plantation was recorded as saying, “some negroes are determined never to let a white man whip them and will resist you, when you attempt it; of course you must kill them in that case” (Zinn 171). In August of 1945 the United States dropped two atomic bombs on populated Japanese cities, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki, killing over 150,000 people and poisoning tens of thousands more with the radiation (Zinn 413). They did this even though the U.S. had reliable evidence that the Japanese were ready to consider peace negotiations (Zinn 414). During the Vietnam War in the 1960s American soldiers were ordered to kill women and children; entire villages were destroyed. When one such officer, Lieutenant William Calley, was put on trial and found guilty for giving such orders in the My Lai massacre, his life sentence was reduced as thousands of Americans rallied to his defense, calling his actions justified in the war against Communism (Zinn 470). Human history is full of such stories in every civilization in every part of the world; violations of human rights in every imaginable way. In our modern Western culture that professes to value the rights that human beings have to life and freedom in the very document upon which our society is founded, the United States Constitution, how is it that human rights violations are still perpetuated and tolerated at home and abroad? In a broader sense, what is it that brings some human beings to violate and justify the violation of the rights of other human beings? What is it that brings some human beings to denounce atrocities and to honor the rights of others who are different? Richard Rorty in his essay, “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,” claims that what makes people respect or deny human rights is their life circumstances. In this paper I shall discuss why I both agree and disagree with Rorty’s claim and what I think that the barriers are to people embracing the notion of human rights for all.

Rorty believes that violators of human rights, specifically those violators who are not sociopaths, are deprived of life’s necessities in both security and sympathy (128). These, Rorty claims, are what is needed in order for people to be able to look past the differences that allow one person to dehumanize another; or one group to dehumanize another. Rorty defines security as “conditions of life sufficiently risk-free as to make one’s difference from others inessential to one’s self-respect, one’s sense of worth” and sympathy as the opportunity to see the predicaments of others from their point of view (128). Rorty states that without security people are unable to have sympathy because fear and self-preservation would disallow “the time or effort to think about what things might be like for people with whom you do not immediately identity” (128). In other words, Rorty thinks that the only way to expand people’s perception of humanity and human rights to include all human beings, is to improve the quality of life for everyone in order that they will be in a mindset that will permit them to look past superficial differences and see the common bond that all humans share. If you cannot dehumanize a person or group of people, then you cannot help but be sympathetic and outraged when you hear stories of the violation of their rights as human beings. Through sympathy we achieve awareness of the experience of another as if it were happening inside our own realm of existence; it necessarily brings others, who are different from us, into our definition of humanity.

Rorty’s claim makes logical sense. Rorty argues that it is sentimentality and sympathy that will bring people to value human rights for everyone and that security is required for the development of sympathy. “Sentimental education only works on people who can relax long enough to listen” (128). One could also argue that valuing human rights by means of rational thought also requires security. It is this idea that a great many things of value in human culture, such as music and theatre, also require some safety and material means in order to come to fruition that gives support to Rorty’s claim. It seems reasonable that people whose lives and wellbeing are threatened would be mostly likely compelled to pursuits that ensure the survival of themselves and their loved ones, leaving little time and energy to spare on the greater good for humankind. When the hive is threatened, the bees are consumed with its protection; is it not the time for making honey or visiting flowers.

Rorty’s ideas are very powerful, especially when thought of from the perspective of the unwitting violators of human rights. People who live in countries with famine, poor sanitation and virtually no health care would find it immensely difficult to acquire the education and time for reflection and growth required to see life from the perspective of a different culture. When you are ill and hungry and know very little about the world outside your own small sphere of group conflict over extremely limited resources; it would be difficult to lead your thoughts down a path that would give another group equal rights to resources that your group requires for survival, especially if there is only enough for one group. And, I think this is essentially Rorty’s point. It is unfair for Americans, and Western Europeans, who are not consumed every moment with the basic survival of defending and nourishing your person and, perhaps, those persons of your family, to judge human rights violations in third world countries, where people are dealing with famine, sickness and war. It is a skewed judgment that comes from those living in a luxurious castle upon those living in cardboard boxes. For many peoples living in places where existence is precarious at best, sometimes survival depends on the ability to cast other groups as non-human since acquiring resources for maintaining life may require depriving another group of those same resources. Rather than make harsh judgments of these people as evil, Rorty urges us to realize that “these bad people are no less rational, no less clearheaded, no more prejudiced, than we good people who respect otherness. The bad people’s problem is that they were not so lucky in the circumstances of their upbringing as we were” (128).

Some historical facts lend further support to Rorty’s claim that respecting human rights requires a secure life circumstance. Many prominent leaders in the struggle for human rights came from circumstances in which their personal health and safety was not in immediate jeopardy; this was not the case for the people they sought to help. Mother Theresa and Mahatma Ghandi exemplify this. Both of these individuals came from comfortable circumstances and were willing to sacrifice the assuredness of personal wellbeing in order to help people whose human rights were being violated; people who were very different from themselves. Most white abolitionists and, later, civil rights advocates came from the middle and uppers classes. If these individuals had been born in less fortunate circumstances, would they have developed such a keen sense of sympathy for others so different from themselves that they would be willing to risk their lives demanding basic rights for them? Rorty says they would not have. But, I am not so sure that I agree.

What of those individuals who, in the worst of life circumstances, are still able to have respect for the rights of all humans, even those who are very different from themselves? Mother Theresa in her book, Reaching Out in Love, related a story about the generosity of a very poor Hindu family.

‘A gentleman came to our house and said: “Mother Teresa, there is a family with eight children who have not eaten for some time. Do something for them.” So I took some rice and went there immediately. And I saw the children—their eyes shining with hunger. I don’t know if you have ever seen hunger. It is a terrible thing—the look on the face of a hungry person—but I have seen it very often. The mother of that family took the rice from my hands and divided it in two. She took half of it and went out of the house. When she came back, I asked her: “Where did you go? What did you do?” And she gave me a very simple answer: “They are hungry also.” What struck me was that she knew that the next door neighbors were hungry, too. And who were they? A Muslim family. I was not surprised that she gave, but I was very much surprised that she knew, because as a rule when we are suffering, when we are in trouble, we have no time for others. Yet this mother knew and has the courage of her love to give’ (32-33).

Rorty would say that this individual must have had circumstances of security in her upbringing that allowed her to develop empathy for her fellow humans, especially ones different from herself. But, how would he explain this story if he found out that this woman had never known safety and stability; if she had developed the capacity for sympathy is the absence of security? Rorty’s circumstance theory leaves out those non-sociopath exceptions on both ends of the extremes. It leaves out those individuals who develop compassion even as they are threatened. And, it leaves out those raised in material and emotional comfort who still find reasons to deny others their human rights. How would Rorty explain liberally educated youth in abundant life circumstances, who have no mental or psychological defects, who are able to dehumanize those they see as unlike themselves? How would he explain the loved and nurtured child exposed to sentimental accounts of the suffering of others who grows up with a deep belief that human rights are anti-evolutionary and harmful to human society? How would he explain the child who is brutally abused who grows up to be the kindest of humanitarians? Some individuals have an innate ability for compassion while others, who are not mentally ill or sociopathic, seem to have little instinct for sympathy. Psychologists might claim that Rorty does not account for innate individual temperament. I think that this native individuality shaped by each person’s unique life experiences is the first barrier to the realization of a world where all people embrace human rights for all.

The second barrier has to do with the variety of human culture. Some cultures will not incorporate a notion of human rights for all, even with a comfortable, secure standard of life for all its members. Rorty himself acknowledges this in his discussion that issues and beliefs of human rights are contingent on the history and circumstances of the people in question (116). There are other reasons besides poverty and fear for the violation of human rights by normal, non-pathological individuals. Traditional religious beliefs may keep individuals raised in comfortable circumstances from being able to properly sympathize with other individuals. As a world endeavoring toward human rights for all, how should we deal with such a culture? In our own culture, traditional economic values of consumerism hinder the journey towards human rights for everyone. The near worship of the accumulation of material wealth supports the propagation of human rights violations. The rich require the exploitation of both people and resources to get and stay that way. Many of the violations of human rights in the world today support the higher standard of living that Americans desire. Someone deeply committed to his or her right to consumable material goods may be willing to accept unacceptable treatment of others in order to accomplish this. Such a person, even in secure life circumstances, could find ways to be unsympathetic to the exploited even when exposed to sentimental stories of their plight.

Although I like the practical aspect of Rorty’s approach in terms of pursuing ideas that will work, I cannot completely agree that it is only a lack of the security necessary for the development of sympathy that makes people deny human rights. I think that in some cases, this is certainly the case. However, there are additional individual and cultural factors at work that impede our creation of a world where the human rights of every individual would be respected. Getting each and every individual to a minimum standard of living would be an important first step; and the encouragement of sympathy for all humans by all humans would be the second. However difficult this may be; it may prove equally or more difficult to change entrenched religious and cultural ideals, as well as individual inborn temperaments that affect the way individuals react to and internalize environmental circumstances, that may prevent some from being able to sympathize with the troubles of others.

I know a couple who live near me. They have very comfortable life circumstances that exceed what Rorty defines as security. They both came from loving middle and upper middle class families and appear to be a well-adjusted and loving couple. They are both university educated from a liberal arts college, thoughtful and kind individuals. They volunteer at the humane society and are pleasant to be around. They believe in helping those less fortunate. And yet, they believe that it was acceptable that Iraqi civilians were killed in a war against a government they had no part in choosing. They also believe that the atomic bombs saved more lives than it destroyed even though they are aware of the traumatic results of the bombing, the fact that the Japanese were ready to negotiate for peace and that the U.S. government could have chosen military targets, but instead choose to target civilians. These types of common individual idiosyncrasies coupled with entrenched cultural ideals are what may be the downfall of the elegant simplicity and logic of Rorty’s idea; humans are not very simple and not very predictable and, at times, make very little sense at all.

I agree with Rorty that sympathy is a key component to realizing universal human rights. An Iraqi artist, Nuha Al-Radi wrote in her personal account of the Persian Gulf War that began in 1991 concerning the large number of Iraqi civilians who were being killed, “The West seems to have only three images of Arabs-terrorists, oil sheikhs, and women covered in black from head to toe. I’m not even sure if they know that there are ordinary human beings here” (40). Perhaps if Americans were more aware of our common humanity, there might have been more collective protest to the war. And, security is also a key component; lack of security promotes fear, a powerful emotion that tends to circumvent logic. However, I think that a workable solution to the expansion of human rights will address more than the issues of sympathy and security. It will explore those factors of individuality and cultural beliefs that contribute to or detract from respect of human rights for all human beings. It will take into account the complexity of being human; the plethora of individual and group characteristics that combine synergistically to determine understanding and action; to include those individual and cultural factors that influence sympathetic development beyond security, or lack of security, in life circumstances. With these intricacies of humanness in mind, maybe then we can begin to achieve a commitment to human rights that will stop slavery, wars and other atrocities before they begin and not after there are victims with which to generate sympathy.

Works Cited

  • Al-Radi, Nuha. Baghdad Diaries: A Woman’s Chronicle of War and Exile. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
  • Bojaxhiu, Agnes. Mother Teresa’s Reaching Out in Love. Ed. Edward Le Joly and Jaya Chaliha. New York: Barnes & Nobles Books, 2002.
  • Rorty, Richard. “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures, 1993. Ed. Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley. New York: Basic Books, 1993. 111-134.Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
  • Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York : Harper Perennial, 1995.