October 2007

Vol 7 - No. 4
 

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Guest Editorial | October 2007

 


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Reason, Sympathy and Human Relations

BY ISHTIAQ AHMED (IDN) *

Can one agree on a principle that can serve as the basis for the establishment of genuine peace and harmony in the world? Some people think that if the whole world became good Muslims or good Christians it would create true brotherhood and sisterhood. Now, considering that both groups comprise more than a billion each (Islam in its various sectarian forms is given as 1.3 billion and Christianity 1.9 billion) converting one to the other may take a very long time.

Also, we would still have 650 million Confucians (mainly Chinese), 700 million Hindus (including the upper castes, the other backward castes and the scheduled castes and tribes), 400 million Buddhists, 20 million Sikhs, 13 million Jews and then smaller groups such as the Bahais, Ahmadis, Jains, animists (if any have been allowed to survive) and others who have no specific religious affiliation or who choose to denounce their religious beliefs. To make humanity as a whole adhere to one comprehensive religious faith with its doctrines and dogmas is impossible.

 

One need not be very clever to realise that we will have to find a principle that does not require total conversion of people to a particular belief or detailed code of conduct in order to establish mutually respectful relations among all groups and individuals within them.

 

We very often tend to believe that within groups strong emotional bonds and ties of solidarity exist. This is a myth and has always been a myth. Except for very small communities comprising a few households close contact between people does not take place and when it does it is not always friendly and deeply loyal. We therefore need a principle which is simple and practical and one that everyone can accept as fair on the basis of which the foundations of mutual respect and peace can be laid.

 

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed the 'Categorical Imperative' as the overarching principle that can serve such a purpose. The categorical imperative says that one should act only on those rules of action that one wants to be made universal laws. It would declare as immoral a rule of conduct that implies that one person may do something but another, in similar circumstances, may not. In other words, it demands consistency. In other words, what's alright for me is alright for you if our relevant circumstances are similar.

 

Therefore, one cannot legitimately demand a ban on one religion without demanding the same for other religions, but one is perfectly justified in demanding that human rights violations should not occur in the name of religion and that should apply to all religions. Similarly if I can occupy someone's home then it is alright for the other bloke to try to do the same. But of course I would not want him to do that, so it would be wrong for me to do the same.

 

The categorical imperative also states that one should treat humanity or rational beings as an end and never as a means only. Human beings are uniquely capable of reasoning about their choices and therefore are inherently valuable and worthy of respect for this reason. For human beings to realise their inner worth it is important that they enjoy meaningful autonomy vis--vis state and society. Autonomy makes it possible for us to make rationally and morally correct choices, which according to Kant is all about protection of our basic interests.

 

If such a principle were to be made not only on the basis of conduct between human beings but also states then the occupation of Iraq by President Bush and his allies would not take place. On the other hand, it would be perfectly correct to wage war on those who are responsible for 9/11. The categorical imperative is not a one-sided application of a principle. It requires that everyone complies with it in their own interest.

 

But others argue against rationality alone as the basis for claiming and enjoying rights on grounds that there are human beings who are not able to reason in accordance with a conventional understanding of rationality. These include children and those suffering from impairment of their reasoning abilities. Also, not very long ago women, working people, and some ethnic and racial groups were also considered incapable of acting like rational human beings.

 

The emphasis on rationality is, therefore, not the true basis of rights. It can confine the right to enjoy rights arbitrarily to some groups or class of people. Therefore, it is asserted, that the true basis of peace among human beings has to be human sympathy and solidarity, or in other words, the human conscience.

 

Proceeding along such lines some argue that the right to rights should not be confined to the Homo sapiens: animals and nature should also be embraced because specie-ism (that is privileging one's own species) is irrational and immoral. Moreover, it is argued, from a practical point of view that humankind's supremacy over other forms of nature is untenable in the long run. We have to learn to live as part of nature and in communion with it.

 

Some people go further and urge that we have to start working on this principle now. Global warming is the wakeup call we must heed and change our lifestyles to recognise that human beings, animals and nature in general have to live in communion and harmony with each other. Thus, the age of rights has to be re-defined in the light of the objective reality around us.

 

The philosophers are extending the theoretical horizons and frontiers of discussion on rights in directions which are as yet unclear, but I would argue that concern for the rights of human beings and the organisations and institutions that represent their interests should remain of paramount concern because even if a paradigmatic shift from the rights of human beings to the all-inclusive idea of the rights of different forms of nature may be on the way, it need not be seen as a mutually exclusive arrangement.

 

Whatever we think about who should and who should not have rights is after all dependent on the human conscience because neither animals nor other forms of nature are burdened with the problem of being at ease with one's conscience. It is a human predicament and not a predicament of all living things or for that matter of nature.


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* This article was first published in the News International. The author is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore on leave from the University of Stockholm. Email: isasia@nus.edu.sg.

  

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