Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Human Rights in the 21st Century

Happy birthday to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which turns 60 today.

It's truly a remarkable document. Despite the countless cases of human rights abuses that have transpired since its inception, it's a testament to fact that humanity appears to be on a path towards betterment. Not a smooth or well signposted highway by any means - more a rugged track carved through the wilderness of our fears, mistrust and folly.

And even though the 20th century was by far the most violent in the planet's history, it also saw immeasurable improvements to the liberty, wealth and standard of living of billions of people - more than any other century in our history.

My question, as a philosopher, is whether the Universal Declaration is robust enough to see us through the 21st century. For it is not just threatened by the same avarice and malice that have challenged it in the 20th century, nor the rising tensions of a world pitted in competition over diminishing resources. But the Declaration may be threatened by science itself.

Article 1 states:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
As we learn more about the role that genes and heredity play on behaviour, the more we realise we may not all be created equal in ability. This, for some, will challenge the notion that we're also born equal in dignity (whatever that means) and rights.

The issue of the biology and genetics of ability, and how this crosses so-called 'racial' and gender lines, is one of the most important topics to be actively ignored by the vast majority of academics and intellectuals in the 20th century. Instead, it is left up to extremist groups with radical agendas to fill the void. This can't go on. We must engage this topic actively, and explore the potential ramifications of biology and ability, and ensure that we can build a solid bridge between the facts, and a notion of equality of rights in the Declaration.

The other primary challenge that may face the Declaration comes from a seemingly unlikely source: artificial intelligence and transhumanists. The current declaration explicitly focusses on 'human' rights. There's already concern that it doesn't give adequate concern to animal rights. But what of transhumans or artificial life?

Not only would we expect sentient non-humans to demand rights of their own, it would be naive to think they would have the same values we do. Or that they would not compete with us for resources. If evolution has taught us anything, it's that genes (or their artificial equivalents) are geared towards survival, and if that survival (or flourishing) sees humanity as a barrier, then there may be conflict. Possibly mortal conflict.

So what should we do? I consider the Universal Declaration to already be a superb document, but it needs critical analysis in anticipation of a number of scientific advances. We needn't modify the document, or create any new ones, until such time as it's necessary to do so, but we should anticipate the impact various changes might make - such as if there is a breakthrough in longevity treatment that might extend life to 500 years or more, but it's available only to the very rich. Such a shift could have significant ramifications on morality and human rights.

We should be equipped if not with answers, then with the right questions ready to ask when the time comes. For on the 160th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are sure to be living in a very different world.


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