Universal human rights are more important in a globalised world

Thousands of years ago, Judaism introduced a new and enduring concept to human civilization: the idea that every human was made in the image of God. On the sixth day of creation, they said, God made man in His image. For the first time in human history, there was a people who believed that a man’s right to dignity was universal.

Obviously that right has not been honoured everywhere or at every time – and it is certainly not honoured everywhere today. While there is still a long way to go, we are closer than ever before to protecting the dignity of every human. It is obvious that humans are more free, and their rights more equal, and their dignity more protected today than in the past. We still have a long way to go, but this much is obvious .

Magna Carta

For much of the last few thousand years, it was only honoured rarely and sparingly, with the British and Manx peoples leading the way with the Magna Carta in 1215, to the English Bill of Rights and the Claim of Right in 1689, and the Isle of Man’s Act of Settlement in 1704 which protected the private property rights of the Manx people. These developments, along with the rise of liberalism and the Scottish enlightenment, leading the British peoples to fight to eradicate slavery across the world, giving women the vote and increasingly judging people on the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.

In many years of campaigning last century, Martin Luther King identified the failure of the western world to deliver on the lofty words of both the religious texts (such as the Bible) and non-religious texts (such as the American Declaration of Independence). Luther King spoke of a promissory note, “a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He spoke of an effort to cash that cheque – to bring about a future:

Martin Luther King

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

I have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr; August 28, 1963

The successful civil rights campaigns of the twentieth century of Luther King and others have had a common pattern: Western liberalism promised X, but X has been denied to a certain group. Time and time again, successful civil rights campaigns have identified a right (voting; marriage; education; etc) and then identified a group who was denied that right (women; gay people; black people; etc).

The Anglo world, in the United Kingdom, in the USA, and in Australia and elsewhere recognised that there were injustices being done, and have gradually extended more civil rights to more people. We can see that clearly in different areas: women being allowed to vote more than a hundred years ago, through to homosexual couples being allowed to marry more recently. Similarly, we have seen the repudiation of the evil and dumb trope ‘you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre‘ which was used to imprison anti-war Jewish protestors in the USA, and we now count all citizens as full members of our communities. This progress has benefited the groups which gained the rights, but it has also benefited the broader society. Our Anglo-society is more just and our people are better able to flourish as a result of these improvements.

Denying rights to one human denies rights to all humans

Denying rights to one human is a denial of rights to all humans – even from a simply utilitarian point of view. The universality of human rights is core to the concept: my freedom of speech is dependent on your freedom of speech (because I benefit from your ideas). My freedom of religion is dependent on your freedom of religion (because I benefit from your preaching). My freedom to sell my labour is dependent on your freedom to buy it, and so on. Denying civil rights to women is, therefore, a denial of rights to all humans, and thus, women’s rights are human rights.

In many cases where those freedoms are denied, the loss is “only” theoretical: we do not know what great ideas the billion people in China might have had if they were free to express those ideas. We do not know what great innovations the enslaved peoples of the Soviet Union, or Cuba, or Cambodia might have created if they had been allowed to live a life based on free enterprise. We do not know what better Government’s would have been elected if civilizations had received the benefit of votes from women earlier – we can only imagine.

Along similar lines as the utilitarian argument, the human flourishing ethical argument for the universality of human rights is similarly strong: a human is less likely to flourish if they are denied the full suite of human rights. Few humans will fully flourish in a cage, or if they are denied any other modern liberal rights.

Banning wet markets for safety is only a half-measure

In an inter-connected world, keeping humans in cages are now harming people elsewhere: whether those cages are a few metres across, or the size of entire countries like China or North Korea. The products and errors of totalitarian systems are harming people from other nations as they fly thousands of metres above, or merely come into contact with disease-carrying travellers.

A wet market in Wuhan

Some credible people have argued in favour of changes to administrative laws and mechanics, saying “markets at which live animals are sold and slaughtered should be banned not only in China, but all over the world.” In the case of Singer and Cavalieri, or the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, this is their effort to shoe-horn the latest crisis into their pre-existing prejudices in favour of protecting animals. Their arguments might be right, I have no judgment on that, except to be impressed at the ability of their media representatives to hijack today’s news story to fit into their existing arguments. Some people update their beliefs to reflect new facts – these people have been good at updating the news to reflect their beliefs. I cannot plead innocence on this issue: this article is itself a form of me doing exactly that.

Others have argued in favour of banning wet markets on the basis of their biological risk, “warning that the sale of sometimes endangered species for human consumption is the cause both of the new coronavirus outbreak and other past epidemics.” These advocates are almost certainly right, especially when weighing this cost of wet markets (horrific diseases killing thousands or more) against the benefits of wet markets (wealthy people being able to eat exotic meat that is incredibly fresh).

Ultimately, though banning wet markets is backward-facing security: it is a “cover your ass” security change so that politicians can say they have done something, when really, they have only locked the barn door after the horse has already bolted. This disease is already out, and the next terrible virus crossing over from the animal world family might well come from food being contaminated by animal droppings, or it might be deliberate. Indeed, the next disaster might not even be a virus: it might be a chemical, biological, nuclear or even electronic threat. Chernobyl wasn’t just a great TV series, it was a real-life warning of the evil of subverting truth to the interests of the state.

Thus, banning wet markets is only going to be – at best – a band-aid solution to a civilization-wide problem. Even if it would have prevented the last disaster, it might not prevent the next one (which might not even be viral). The more sustainable response in the long-term is to for more people to be able to live in societies which are anti-fragile: free societies which can quickly respond to terrible events and prevent the contagion spreading.

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

For a society to be anti-fragile and resillient, it must be able to handle a huge variety of challenges: not just viral outbreaks of a biological nature, but viral outbreaks of a social and economic nature too. They need to be open and responsive to challenges: instead of trying to lock up and detain doctors who discover new diseases, we need societies which celebrate the achievements of such doctors. Sure, the evil societies of totalitarian states can impose big quarantines – but they need to lock up tens of millions of people only because they tried to lock up less than a dozen in the first place. There’s a very real chance that if the Chinese Government had acted on the early warnings rather than suppress those warnings, the more dire, later, responses might not have been necessary.

If there is to be a silver lining in the horrific cloud of mass disease and mass death, then I hope it will be the peoples or Iran and China and elsewhere being able to throw off the yolk of their illegitimate despots. Whether their evil regimes are run by communist party hacks or Islamic religious mullahs, both regimes tried to suppress the initial discovery of disease to suit their political agendas.

Both China and Iran have tried to run parallel wars on truth by hiding the disease from their peoples, and fortunately, the truth is stronger than the transience of short-term political power – but unfortunately, huge numbers of people are dying as collateral damage. Black swan events have a habit of shattering pre-existing expectations, because these rigid societies are fundamentally fragile. Their error-correction is weak, and they have no ‘outlet valve’ like an election to reform society without changing the underlying regime.

Now that these closed societies are literally infecting the rest of us, it is important that the Western world do what it can to uphold human rights – and hope that any spark of freedom in those communities becomes a fully fledged fire of opportunity. It would be beautiful if the consequence of this disease was a different sort of contagion: a contagion of ideas and liberty. Let us hope that the Chinese and Iranian peoples see the shining city on a hill, or even a blazing lighthouse in the sea, and tear down their evil regimes which have caused so much suffering in building a system which subjugates their people and allows terrible diseases to spread.

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