Human rights and human obligations

Human rights and human obligations

Lecture at the International PEN Congress in Tromsø, Norway, Friday 10 September 2004

By Jostein Gaarder

This year sees the bicentenary of the death of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  Towards the end of his life he pointed out that it was a necessary moral imperative for every country to join together in a «league of nations» whose job would be to ensure their peaceful co-existence.  As such, this German philosopher would seem to have first fathered the idea of the United Nations.  A few years ago we were able to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  And there was good reason to celebrate this milestone, as human rights still need to be protected against infringements and brutal violations.  The only difference now is that, for more than fifty years, we have had an institution and an instrument with which to defend these rights.

Perhaps the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents the greatest triumph of philosophy and literature so far.  For human rights were not bestowed on us by higher powers, nor were they plucked from thin air, but rather they represent the culmination of a thousand-year maturing process, a process which to a large extent was carried forward by the written word, by English and French literature of the Enlightenment, by Italian Renaissance writing, by the literary heritage of ancient Greece and Rome, and of course by a clutch of religious tracts as well.  Behind this humanistic tradition were flesh and blood individuals who, at certain times of their lives, sat down to think and write – and they thought on behalf of the whole of humanity.  The very notion of a person’s «natural rights» has had a long and tortuous development; women’s political rights are, for example, hardly more than a century old, and they still need to be fought for – proof in itself of our slow development from tyranny and arbitrariness towards freedom and humanity.

The question that faces us at the start of a new millennium is how long we can go on talking about rights without simultaneously focusing on the individual’s obligations.  Maybe we need a new universal declaration.  Perhaps the time is ripe for a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations.  It is simply no longer meaningful to talk about rights without simultaneously stressing the individual state’s, or person’s, obligations.

Currently there are hundreds of organisations throughout the world which protect human rights, but only a handful that are concerned with human obligations – like, for example, the responsibility of looking after the rights of future generations.  Despite its very modest first showing, the Kyoto Protocol provides a preview of what must be achieved through international commitments aimed at rescuing the environment, the earth’s resources and the basis of human and animal life.

My question is: what role does art and literature play in all this?  We often see examples of artists, writers or people in the international entertainment industry disclaiming responsibility by pointing to freedom of expression or «artistic freedom».  But what do we mean by artistic freedom?

An important bedrock of all ethics has been «the golden rule «: you should do to others as you would be done to yourself.  Immanuel Kant defined this reciprocal principle by pointing out that the right action is the one we would wish everyone to perform in a similar situation.  Two hundred years after Kant’s death we have just about begun to get used to the idea that the reciprocal principle must also apply between rich and poor countries.  In addition, it must include the relationship between the generations.

The question is whether we would have wanted the people who lived on this planet before us – a hundred, a thousand or a hundred thousand years ago – to have deposited large quantities of atomic waste on the bed of the sea or in caves or mountain ravines.  If not, we have no right to do the same.  It’s as simple as that.  Or we can turn the question round and ask: how much does it cost to rent a security company for half a million years?  And who will pay the bill?  Or: how many geologists would dare to guarantee plutonium-free playgrounds in a hundred, or a hundred thousand years time?  Or: who will clean up after us?  Who will clear up after our party?

The question is whether we would have wanted previous generations to cut down more forests and rain forests.  Would we have preferred it if our ancestors had exterminated even more plant and animal species?  If not, we are duty bound to preserve biological diversity.  We cannot even be sure that Kant would have tolerated our high consumption of non-renewable energy sources.  We must first make sure that we would have wanted our ancestors to burn the same amount of coal and oil per head as we do.

We are the first generation to affect the climate on earth – and perhaps the last that won’t have to pay the price for it.

It has been pointed out that we have not inherited this planet from our ancestors, but have it on loan from our descendants.  But we are leaving a planet that it worth less than the one we borrowed.  And so we are eating into a capital that we really ought to have repaid with interest.

We can use the following simple idea borrowed from the American moral philosopher John Rawls: imagine you were a member of a formal committee whose job was to work out all the laws of a future society.  The committee members need to think of absolutely every eventuality because, once they have reached agreement and ratified all the legislation, they will all drop dead.  But after that they will all immediately wake up again in the very society whose laws they have written.  But – they would have no prior knowledge of what position in society they would occupy.  Nor would they know their ethnic or religious background, or if they were going to be born a boy or a girl.  A society like that would be a just society – simply because it had been formed by equals.

To make this notion more relevant to a modern global community, it would however be necessary to add one other important criterion: the members of this legislative body would also not know when they would be living in this society that everyone was equally responsible for.  It might be straight away.  But it might also be five hundred or five thousand years in the future.

Is today’s society a similarly just – and sustainable – one?  In other words, would we dare to be born in the middle of this millennium, for example?  The question boils down to whether we would risk sharing the fate of our own grandchildren?

How wide are our ethical horizons?  How wide are the ethical horizons of literature and art? In the final analysis it comes down to a question of identity.  What is a human being?  And who am I?  If I were nothing more than myself, I would be a creature without hope.  At least in the long term.  But I possess a deeper identity than my own body and my own short span on earth.  I am part of – and take part in – something greater and more important than myself.

Radhakrishnan, the former President of India said: You must love your neighbour as yourself because you are your neighbour.  The belief that your neighbour is anything other than you is merely an illusion.  And we might possibly add: isn’t it also an illusion that makes us believe that life on this planet is something different from ourselves?

But we don’t need to travel to India to encounter this more profound sense of identity.  We simply need to restore the old farming ethic.  It was an unwritten rule that the farmer would hand on his land in a better state and in better heart than he’d inherited it.  When the old farmer was on his death bed it was, of course, a time of melancholy and sadness.  But it would have been a greater and more irreparable tragedy if the farm itself had burnt down.

It has been said that the problem with Spaceship Earth is that it didn’t come with any instructions.  But in that case, why don’t we get on and write an instruction manual!  For that we need authors and philosophers.  We know that things are going wrong, and we know that we need to change course.  Don’t we also understand that something in our very system of economics is on a collision course with what the planet can tolerate?  Far too many decisions give priority to short-term profit of small groups rather than considering what is a fair distribution of the earth’s resources.

We are often told that ideologies are dead.  But isn’t the consumer ideology also an ideology?  And is it really the only model?

The question for writers and artists at the start of the third millennium must be: what shift in consciousness do we need?  What is a sustainable wisdom?  Which qualities of life are the most important?  Which values are the true values?  What is the good life?  And importantly: what kind of mobilisation is possible in the global village?

I have met people in small local communities who have expressed profound sorrow about the enormous cultural loss suffered in their area as a result of what many regard as colonialism or neo-colonialism.  But the cultural sphere is not the only thing that suffers in this so called «globalisation».  The effects on the environment have been even more serious and irreversible, for example a total or partial extermination of native flora and fauna.  Some of these species still survive in traditional folk songs and folklore.  It’s just that they have been eradicated from the face of the earth.

A threat to ancient habitats is naturally also a threat to art and culture.  Even an attack on traditional economy can be an attack on a traditional culture.  Nature forms the basis of culture.  This can be easy to forget in an international consumer society in which the distance between producer and consumer can seem enormous.  But plundering a people’s natural surroundings is simultaneously to misappropriate that people’s culture  – and their soul.  It’s fruitless to discuss which is the greater loss.  It would be rather like asking what someone would hate to lose most: body or soul.

This «body and soul» perspective – or nature and culture – is clearly relevant to the whole of our planet.  If our very economic system is on a collision course with what nature can endure, it is also a threat to all cultural life.  For a playful, inventive and vain primate it is easy to forget that, at root, we are a part of nature.  But are we really so playful, inventive and vain that the game itself, the inventions and the art are given pre-eminence over our responsibility for the planet’s future?

Today, many of us well understand the challenges facing the planet.  But we feel paralysed by political and economic systems.  Politicians, too, have a far greater insight than might appear in practice.  And this is the paradox: we have sufficient insight – and we know that time is short – but we aren’t able to turn things round before it’s too late.  But if we do manage it, I am convinced that art and literature will play a decisive part.  In the same way that authors and artists have constituted an avant-garde in the fight for human rights, so they may form a vanguard, too, in the struggle for human obligations.

When Churchill was appointed Prime Minister in May 1940 – as German forces were advancing on the English Channel – he told the House of Commons: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, sweat and tears.  The amazing thing was that he managed to mobilise his people – in spite of what was, to put it mildly, a depressing political message.  But the message was a necessary one.  Today we are perhaps facing an even greater and more imminent danger – by which I mean a fatal collapse of the earth’s environments, including all artistic and cultural values.  But where is that political courage now?  Where is the political decisiveness?  Where are the politicians who dare to ask for a little sweat and tears to bring about a new and necessary political direction simply to save our children’s futures, human civilisation – and the very dignity of the human race itself?  Perhaps it is we poets, essayists and novelists, who must raise our banners and make our politicians toe the line.  We have done it before.

Perhaps the most important question of all in relation to literature’s importance in a post-modern world is this: how can the written word inspire a young generation to believe in – and so fight for – a more just and sustainable future?  What visions can art give the younger generation in a world where half the population lives below the poverty line and the other half practically drowns in materialism and excessive consumption?

According to an old parable a frog that is dropped into boiling water will immediately jump out again and so save its skin.  But if the frog is placed in a pan of cold water which is gradually brought to boiling point, it will be unaware of the danger and be boiled to death.

Is our generation like that frog?  Is modern art and culture such a frog?  Or the modern entertainment industry?  I don’t know, but it really is down to us to decide.  We can’t count on any outside help.  We’re not likely to be saved in the final second before boiling point – either from outer space or by some form of supernatural intervention.

Human beings are largely social creatures, and authors are no exception.  But we can’t continue only to relate to each other.  We also belong to the earth we live on.  That, too, is a significant part of our identity.

To a large extent we modern human beings have been shaped by our cultural history, by the actual civilisation that has nurtured us.  We say that we have a cultural heritage.  But we have also been formed by the biological history of the planet.  We also pass on a genetic inheritance.  We are primates.  We are vertebrates.

It took several billion years to create us.  But will we survive the third millennium?

Human beings are possibly the only living creatures in the universe with a universal consciousness.  And so it is not only a global responsibility to preserve the living environment of this planet.  It is a cosmic responsibility.

Literature is nothing less than a celebration of mankind’s consciousness.  So shouldn’t an author be the first to defend human consciousness against annihilation?

Jostein Gaarder