On Human Rights Culture (PART I)

Mr. Joefer Maninang
University of Mindanao

In his celebrated essay Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality American philosopher Richard Mckay Rorty (1931-2007) uses a pragmatic approach to the subject of human rights. He claims that what really make people respect or deny human rights are their life circumstances . In attempting to elucidate this claim, I wish to accomplish three (3) things in this article: firstly, I will present a hopefully fair Rortian conception of human rights to introduce the culture of impunity as our indifferent, apathetic, and passive sort of response to the culture of the death squad. Secondly, I will try to demonstrate sentimentalism through the definite meaning of sympathy vis-à-vis security or the life circumstances which make us respect or deny human rights. Thirdly and finally, I will conclude by stressing sentimentalism as the practical or perhaps the only way of addressing the problem of human rights violations.


We open this human rights talk with Rorty proposing, “[w]e see our task as a matter of making our own culture-the human rights culture-more self-conscious and more powerful” by manipulating sentiments . This implies that the weaknesses of our human rights culture such as the prevalence of human rights violations or “cultural distinctions” can be addressed through sentimental education or sentimentalism. While sentimentalism is the necessary way of expanding the respect for human rights, it is also the starting point of achieving humanity’s hope of a better future. Sentimentalism simply teaches us to tell sad and touching stories of human rights violations to others in such a way that we imagine ourselves “in the shoes of the despised and oppressed” , the ‘despised and oppressed’ being deprived of security and sympathy. Sentimentalism is the Rortian mechanism to strengthen our human rights culture. But before this, we are faced with a curious question. How did human rights emerge as a culture of our own?

As the Argentinian jurist-philosopher Eduardo Rabossi states that the human rights culture is “a new, welcome fact of the post-Holocaust world” , we remember how the Holocaust as a historically contingent fact had triggered the coming of the human rights culture. The Holocaust can be considered as the worst period in history. The cultural ‘act of the Holocaust’ epitomized those acts that were dark, cruel and sad experiences, human rights violations. If only mankind can save himself from the factories of death, the gas chambers, and the crematorium in the Auschwitz concentration camps then I believe he would not hesitate to do so. What happened in Germany was an irrevocable reality. The Holocaust was the worst mistake that mankind did to himself. But this reality had triggered mankind to admit his responsibility. It was the ultimate human atrocity that should never happen again. The Holocaust therefore was a historically contingent fact of the world, a cultural fact that was the momentous turning point of mankind to change himself.

Indeed, the human rights culture is a new, welcome fact of the post-Holocaust world. It is the positive by-product of mankind’s moment of self-transformation during his finest hour in the Holocaust. Rorty justifies this idea of self-transformation when he employs Darwin in positing that human beings are “the flexible, protean, self-shaping, animals” which means that they are those living entities that can make themselves into whatever they are clever and courageous enough to imagine themselves becoming. Human beings are exceptionally talented animals, animals clever enough to take charge of their own future evolution . In this sense, the human rights culture is a positive reflection of mankind’s awareness of himself. This awareness constituted the denial of ‘who he was’, the cultural act of the Holocaust being who he was, and at the same time the affirmation of ‘who he is’, a human being worthy of his life as his fundamental from which all of his other rights are derived simply because he is human. The human rights culture represents the human being’s assertion of his dignity as a person. Rorty elaborates this Darwinian conception of the human being, “to say that we are clever animals is not to say something philosophical and pessimistic but something political and hopeful ”.

The human rights culture as the moral conscience of our political society characterizes the hope of democracy. This culture in other words can be argued as the fountainhead from which the ‘legitimacy’ of modern (liberal) democracy springs. It has even been institutionalized in many nation-states such as the Americas and European countries in the west, some Arab nations in the Middle East, and some southeastern countries like Thailand and the Philippines. These countries have incorporated ‘a set of human rights’ in their own respective laws. These laws speak for the human rights culture. All the more, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations which has been in existence for more than half a century since the most unforgettable crime committed against humanity during the Second World War-the Holocaust-loudly speaks for it. The human rights culture is a social product and a new human image, a political development, our globally-celebrated democratic achievement.

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