Bedales Jaw: are human rights, liberal rights?

By Emily Seeber, Head of Chemistry

On Wednesday I presented a Jaw to students on the ‘problem of multiculturalism’ for liberal political philosophy, with a focus on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). I began by introducing students to the key ideas of liberal thought, and focused on the ideas of John Rawls, whose theory has been hugely influential in contemporary political theory. I then suggested the challenge posed by multiculturalism for liberalism and gave three criteria for a liberal philosophy which was consistent with a pluralistic society, and in this case a global society.

Firstly, what constitutes human rights needs to be determined under conditions of fairness (behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance in which participants are unaware of their gender, religion, economic status, political views, etc). Secondly, any universal rights should represent values which deeply different cultures can accept and which do not contradict their own systems of value.

Thirdly, rights and restrictions given by the declaration should provide genuine opportunities for equality of human flourishing in culturally diverse societies. I demonstrated that, arguably, and in my opinion, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights fails to meet any of these criteria and, consequently, does not represent a multiculturalist form of liberalism.

Consequently, judging and measuring other societies using the Declaration is inherently illiberal. This does not mean that the values represented by the Declaration are not good values, or that the notion of human rights is conceptually flawed, but it does suggest that the Declaration needs to be reformulated into a document which is more tolerant and sensitive to other cultural values.

Big Dogs, Big Cats and the Power of Mice

By Rick Cross, Deputy Head, Staff and Co-curricular

There are more mobile phones on the planet than people. Facebook has 1.86 billion users. We can publish to billions of people. With such power at our fingertips, with the potential to use it for good or evil,  it is apt to consider the concept of ‘free speech’ and how this basic civil right has developed in our new ‘global city’. Who is in control? Do we need control? What are the consequences of ‘freedom’?

The assembly this week was inspired by reading the recently published book by Timothy Garton Ash on the subject, which breaks the world up into Big Dogs, Big Cats and Mice. The Big Dogs are nation states, who govern us and make the laws by which citizens exercise their rights. Some governments allow more freedom than others, and the biggest dog of all is the US, which has espoused its liberal ideals for much of the 20th Century. China, with a sixth of the world’s population, interprets ‘free speech’ in a very different way. As the number of users increases, each new dog adds their cultural imprint to the debate.

The Big Cats are the few corporations who can challenge nation states. Google is the online giant of advertising revenue, and their actions can either enable or limit our free speech, and crucially manipulate our view of the world.

Where does it leave the mice, the people, watching as the giants fight it out? Timothy Garton Ash suggests a number of fascinating routes still open to us all and his book is well worth a read. He reminds us of the age old advice, from Socrates to the Enlightenment, which I urged Bedales to hold true to…Think for yourself.