Pinker on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Related: Preview: ParetotopiaBook Notes: Moral Tribes

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Eleanor Roosevelt with the Declaration

In our (forthcoming) podcast interview for the Turing Test, Steven Pinker cites an interesting piece of history: how surprisingly easy it was to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 1940’s.

If you get people to try to lay down what’s important in a way that they have to agree with other people, you will converge on that. I give a couple examples. An obvious one is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by the UN in 1948. Now, it might seem like a crazy thing, the entire world agreeing on universal human rights? I mean, how are you going to … Everyone has these different philosophies, belief systems, and so on. I look back at the history of it, and it turned out that UNESCO convened a lot of the world’s intellectuals from different traditions, Muslim, Confucian, Christian, to try to suggest, if we were to have a universal declaration, what should go into it? The lists were the same, not that, of course, the world’s religions and political systems are the same, but as soon as you say, “What can you propose, that you can imagine other people might agree upon?” then, the list, it gets pretty obvious.

The people, the movers and shakers behind the Universal Declaration, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey, had an almost conscious realization that if we get bogged down in first principles, in philosophy, it’s not going to happen. If we just get agreement, then we can come up with something, and they did, and it’s aged pretty well after 70 years.

I think that, likewise, principles that are kind of utilitarian, no harm, no foul, if no one gets hurt, it can’t be wrong, what consenting adults do in private is no one else’s business, once that’s out on the table, it’s kind of hard to argue against them. I mean, you could thump the Bible and say, “But, you know, the Bible says it, and I believe it, and that ends it,” but the thing is, if you do that, you’re not going to get other people to agree with you. So, there’s a built in force that I think when debate is suitably democratized, it will go in the direction of humanism, utilitarianism, human flourishing of Enlightenment values. The question is, how do you get that conversation to happen?

Naively, I would expect this to be an incredibly laborious process mired in conflict over culturally specific values. In fact, the drafting process went quite smoothly, suggesting that Josh Greene’s idea of utlitarianism / deep pragmatism as a common currency for human values might be practically workable.

[…] The lists [of proposed items] were surprisingly similar. In his introduction to their deliverable, Maritain recounted:

At one of the meetings of a Unesco National Commission where Human Rights were being discussed, someone expressed astonishment that certain champions of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on a list of those rights. “Yes,” they said, “we agree about the rights but on condition that no one asks us why.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a humanist manifesto with thirty articles, was drafted in less than two years, thanks to the determination of Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the drafting committee, to avoid getting mired in ideology and move the project along. (When John Humphrey, author of the first draft, was asked on what principles the Declaration was based, he tactfully replied, “No philosophy whatsoever.”)

From my reading of the history of the European Coal and Steel Community (predecessor of the EU), it was also surprisingly easy to get age-old rivals Germany and France to come up with a reasonable coordination mechanism around the omniuse technologies of coal and steel, and frame their cooperation as one around public goods provisionOf course, the fact that Germany was defeated and de-militarized must have helped the negotiations significantly.

It seems that the lives of people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi or Robert Schuman could contain further interesting lessons for promoting global coordination in the future.

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