Understanding Dignity as the foundation for human rights, through literature.
Human rights as we know it today, is a result of centuries of philosophical debates. These debates revolved around issues like morality and ethical standards that can be applied to leadership or political structures of all forms, as well as individual human beings, all over the world. When one delves into the historical background of human rights, the magnitude of the struggle that led to the universal declaration of human rights becomes very evident. Nevertheless, human rights in general continues to deal with its fair share of criticisms. As critical reasoning on human rights progressed, especially in the 17th and 18th century, two clear paths were formed. While some thinkers argued that human rights are inherent in all human beings and so can be applied everywhere, others opined that human rights are a result of laws established by society and that there is nothing ‘inherent’ about them. The American declaration of independence in 1776, the French declaration of the rights of man and citizen in 1789 and the universal declaration of human rights in 1948, propelled the argument that all human beings are born free and equal and human rights is a result of dignity, which all human beings possess. The inherent dignity of the human being has now become the foundation for human rights laws. The focus of this paper is on the intellectual and philosophical road that led to the dignity of the human person as the foundation for human rights: in what way did the literature and debates regarding practices that we now consider to be against human rights, help reinforce the concept of the inherent dignity of human beings? Is the concept of dignity universalistic enough to use it as a foundation for human rights? To answer this, the paper picks the example of the phasing out of the practice of torture and cruel punishment. The paper has been divided into three parts; the first part deals with understanding the concept of dignity and the philosophical debate surrounding it. the second part covers the meaning and historical application of torture, and the campaigns for and against the use of torture as a form of criminal punishment. The third part focuses on the French declarations and the abolition of torture in France and the growing awareness of dignity that resulted from literature and other forms of art.
Understanding the Concept of Dignity: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an international instrument that codifies the basic and common standards that should be achieved by all countries in the world. In its preamble, it refers to the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all human beings. This shows that the concept of dignity is the foundation for all the rights that the document seeks to protect. “Dignity” entered English discourse during the thirteenth century, via the Latin word dignus, which refers to merit, worth, honor, and distinction” (Wallach, 2014). Dignity was used in historic times to refer to high officials in the Roman empire or nobles and royalty. As discourse around the rights of man and dismantling of monarchical systems of government in favor of democracy began to grow, the word dignity was not just reserved for certain members of the society. The concept of dignity can also be traced back to religious beliefs centered on the idea that human beings are created in the Image and likeness of God and so there is a sense of respect and integrity attached to human beings and there is also the sacredness of life, regardless of culture, ethnicity, race or creed. One would think that it would be a given that human beings recognize their self-worth and respect and integrity, but this was not the case. Some Philosophers did not agree with the idea of the inherent dignity of the human body. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche regarded the proclamation of rights and human dignity as “a secular myth born of weakness…such phantoms as the dignity of man or the dignity of labour are the needy products of slave-dom hiding from itself” (Shah & Hertzke, 2016). He believed that human beings came to possess dignity out of the creation of their hands not that they were born with it. According to Thomas Hobbes, “a man’s worth” is the same as his “price,” or the “amount that would be paid for the use of his power” (Shell, 2008). For Hobbes, anybody that manages to get any form of power can be ascribed dignity and this dignity is tradeable. Like almost every philosopher whose theories or ideas are greatly influenced by their personal experiences, this theory is very reflective of the background of Hobbes himself. He grew up in a situation where he moved through the social classes at different stages of his life. Immanuel Kant on the other hand, believed that “human beings have “an intrinsic worth, i.e., dignity,” which makes them valuable’ “above all price” (Rachels, 1986). Kant’s views about humanity were born out of his moralistic nature.
Meaning and Historical Application of Torture: Article 1 of the United Nations declaration against torture defined torture as “any act where severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession…” (Rodley, 2002). The use of torture and cruel punishment dates back to Ancient Greek history: “as early as the 13th century, judicially supervised torture to extract confessions had been reintroduced into most European countries” (Hunt, 2008). Torture constituted of such acts like public whipping, burning at the stake and ‘breaking on the wheel’- a process whereby an individual is tied up with legs and arms apart, and the execution slowly breaks the joints, midsection and finally the neck. Before the campaign against it began, Public torture was used as a form of deterrent to the general public. The acts were carried out in public with huge crowds present to witness the effectiveness of existing laws. It was believed that pain inflicted on the individual would cleanse the society of the crime that the individual had committed. Overtime, public torture began to be marked by celebrations and huge crowds. The number of women who were considered as the most delicate of the human species, began to grow in leaps and bounds. The act had lost its initial ‘shock factor’. The feeling of fear that was supposed to prevent future crimes was lost. The collective reverence of the human body, especially under religion, began to ebb away due to overexposure to these public executions. This attitude began to change in the second half of the 17th century.
Philosophical Debate Regarding the use of Torture: According to Lyn Hunt, Author of ‘Inventing Human Rights’, once debates and arguments against torture and cruel punishment began to be commonplace, there was a complete change in societal views regarding the human body and this view rested on the autonomy and inviolability of the human body In England, the use of torture in criminal procedures was always in contradiction of the English Common laws but it was still practiced. The British bill of rights, (1689) formally abolished the use of torture, however, “despite the illegality of torture under common Law, torture was in fact used with approval in cases of treason and serious offenses against the state” (Friedman, 2006). The ‘De Laudibus Legum Angliae’ written by Sir John Fortescue in 1470, put forth the argument that torture is not an effective way of gaining truth as it is possible for innocent men to confess to a crime just for the suffering to end: “But who is so hardy that, having once passed through this atrocious torment, would not rather, though innocent confess to every kind of crime, than submit to the agony of torture..” (Fortescue, 1470). Naturally, the use of torture was also practiced in the colonies. In America, “one-third of all sentences in the Massachusetts Superior Court even in the last half of the eighteenth century called for public humiliations ranging from wearing signs to cutting off an ear, (Hunt, 2008). In France, the Number of torture and cruel punishment cases was astounding. In addition to torture and cruel punishment, there was also death penalty. The administration of the death penalty also showcased classicism and inequality of the society, even in death as decapitation was reserved just for the nobles.
It was not until the second half of the 17th century that dissenting views regarding torture began to emerge in full force. The most notable case of torture that prompted this new wave was that of Jean Calas, a man who was sentenced to ‘breaking on wheel’ for allegedly murdering his son. The French Philosopher, Francois- Marie Arouet, commonly known as Voltaire championed the campaign against this sentence by writing ‘the treatise on tolerance on the occasion of the death of Jean Calas.’ In this letter, he argued against religious intolerance but not against torture. He stated that “it is in the interest of mankind to examine whether the true religious spirit is more consistent with charity or with cruelty” (Voltaire, Masters, & Harvey, 2004). However, over time Voltaire began to publicly condemn Torture and a new wave of intellectual debates began. The Italian Philosopher, Cesar Beccaria, in his essay on crimes and punishment, limited criminal punishment to “what is absolutely necessary to defend the public wellbeing” (Harcourt, 2013). Beccaria opposed torture and punishment that was carried out in private. He opined that privacy made punishments lose their deterrent value. William Blackstone, following in Beccaria’s footsteps, made a resounding statement that has transcended its time. He states that criminal should always be “conformable to the dictates of truth and justice, the feelings of humanity, and the indelible rights of mankind.” (Hunt, 2008). Published works and discussion against torture began to increase in the 1760’s however, there were also philosophers who did not oppose the use of torture. Mouyart De Voulgans defended torture by saying “The example of one innocent falsely convicted paled in comparison to the “million others” who were guilty but could never have been convicted without the use of torture. It is justified by the antiquity and universality of its use” (Hunt, 2008). This means that the fact that torture was able to help in the conviction of a lot of criminals that were actually guilty, it is a completely justified form of punishment regardless of the few innocent people that were unjustly subjected to it. Nevertheless, despite the arguments against the abolition of torture as a form of punishment, the wave of publications against the use of torture completely drowned out the dissenting opinions and a new movement began.
The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (Declaration des droit de l’homme et du citoyen): The French declaration of the rights of man and citizen has been hailed as a revolutionary document for its time and it has clear and huge influence on the present-day universal declaration of human rights. It was passed by the French National Assembly in 1789 after a series of discussions regarding what rights to include and whom the rights should be applied to. It was inspired by the American declaration of independence, but it took on a universalistic approach which changed the game entirely. It provided that “the law should be the same for everyone, it should not permit arbitrary imprisonment or punishments other than those “strictly and obviously necessary” (Hunt, 2008). This put an end to the use of torture, even before an accused person is charged to court. In 1789, the French government abolished the use of judicial torture as a form of punishment. Jacques- Pierre Brissot de Warville compared the French authority’s use of judicial torture as characteristics of cannibals and this did not go down well the French authorities. The declaration galvanized the discussions regarding the rights of man and the honor of man in relation to judicial torture regarding the members of the criminal’s family. The word honor began to take on new meaning and became associated with the respect of the human person, human life, and human body. Regarding dignity “all of the dignities” (toutes dignités) was guaranteed to be equal and publicly accessible in Article 6 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the of 1789” (Wallach, 2014). This means that the definition of dignity by the church or society in general could now be ascribed to the common man. In just a short time after the French declaration was passed, Judicial torture was abolished in France.
The Growing Awareness of Dignity of Human Beings: As the wave of debates against torture as a form of punishment was increasing, so always was the reference to the dignity of the human body. The Jean Calas case had clearly sparked something in the society that had previously celebrated torture and were numb to any feelings that should have resulted from seeing a burnt or mutilated body in the streets. Prior to this, “boundaries between bodies became more sharply defined after the fourteenth century” (Hunt, 2008). This means that there was a growing awareness of discipline and autonomy that accompanied social interactions. Art like paintings, music and literature further defined this awareness further and elicited emotions wherewith, individuals began to identify with characters and situations but also see differences that characterize people as unique. Also, literature on the experiences of torture, discriminations, tragedies etc began to spark waves of empathy among people. Discussions regarding the rights of man raised several questions as to whom rights were for and how to implement these rights. Ultimately, the former disregard for human life and bodily worth began to shift in a manner that was not spurred on by religion, but by deep feelings, emotions and thoughts that were awakened by literature, art and debates. Literature and art are still used to this day, to bring awareness of dire situations by eliciting emotions of empathy and sympathy eg. The Amnesty international campaign demanding dignity, which showcased photographs of poverty in countries like Nigeria, Mexico and India. However, dignity as a concept has had different meanings to different people. Under the Roman empire, it was ascribed to officials of high ranking. In the church, it was ascribed in a hierarchical order. The British at one point, considered themselves to be the only people worthy of the term. Then it became just Europeans during the era of slavery and colonization. In America dignity was ascribed to white people alone until racial discrimination was outlawed. All over the world, different tribes, communities and nations consider themselves to be superior to others and this negates the idea that we all believe in the inherent dignity of human beings.
Promoting human rights based on the inherent dignity of human beings is very appealing to the common man. Who doesn’t want to be ascribed a sense of self-worth and value? However, dignity is a very loose word to base a concept as fundamental as human rights on. It could be interpreted in many ways. For example, under the British empire, it was a concept that was used to ascribe freedom to ‘some’ people hence, colonization. It was ascribed to Europeans hence, slavery. Only Christians, according to John Locke, excluding people who didn’t believe in God and who did not follow Christian doctrines. The word is subject to various interpretations based on the beliefs of the person wielding it. Dignity for a slave owner will not be applicable to slaves and dignity for a person who believes in the superiority of certain races, will never be ascribed to races that he or she considers as inferior. Human rights as we know it today did not happen because there was a sudden epiphany about the dignity of the human being but rather it was the literary and philosophical debates that led to the phasing out of practices that we consider to be repugnant to natural justice, that brings awareness and sheds more light on the concept. The progress of human rights from the abolition of torture to decolonization and the elimination of racial discrimination has given the word new dynamics and meaning. So, while it’s an ideal concept, until the whole world has a common understanding of the word, using it as the ultimate goal of human rights hinders its universal application.
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