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Being Progressive: the universal declaration of human rights v the ten commandments

By James Moylan

Ignorance is our default setting

Ever since the enlightenment the various religious and totalitarian forces scattered about the globe have fought a constant rearguard action in defence of their turf. ‘Yes’, they argue, ‘these new-fangled scientific ideas might explain how things work, but we remain the final custodians of why things are the way they are’. ‘You anti-theists and heretics can have the physical world, but the spiritual among us will retain control of all things moral and political’.

In a world of simple questions, small populations, and limited technologies, this mixture of rational physical technologies and irrational social systems did suffice to keep society chugging along. Even if many aspects of our living arrangements were not working in everyone’s interests, when we were small scattered communities and there were still wide open horizons available, then irrational decisions and motivations were only really consequential to just that particular small grouping of humanity. But now not so much.

It is becoming ever more apparent that our ways of understanding ‘who’ we are – as individuals and as a society as a whole – have simply failed to keep pace with our scientific and industrial progress. Where we have cleared away the detritus of our mythologies and irrationalities when it comes to our discussions regarding the natural world, our political and cultural realms remain littered with medieval ideas and outright bigotries.

When our society was at a much smaller scale this habit of irrationality was of no great consequence. When we were only a small population any idiosyncrasies of thought cultivated by any individual group tended to impact only the members of that group. So by the dawn of the modern scientific age, while there were lots and lots of weird ideas about, they generally only caused discomfort for a very few individuals in each grouping. All of human history is nothing else if not a chronicle of many wildly diverse and whacky communities with all sorts of crazy ideas.

However the general consensus among the better educated was that as our various societies continued to mature, then the wackiness would likely decrease. That our growing sophistication in science and philosophy would eventually act to supplement and inform the development of our social sciences. That the many irrationalities embedded within our many cultures would simply fade away, allowing us to jointly and peaceably address the problems we face as a multitudinous mass inhabiting a finite globe.

Unfortunately it appears that even the pessimists in our midst were being a tad over-optimistic.

The more that we come to consider culture in detail, and so contemplate the ways in which we talk about things and communicate with each other, the more we begin to understand that we do not communicate in rational or probabilistic terms at all: rather we tell stories to each other. We know lots and lots of disjointed and often mutually incongruous stories that explain why things are the way that things are. The more that social scientists work to unpick ‘culture’ the more it becomes apparent that the cultural import of any idea or concept rarely has much of a relationship with its scientific veracity, logical consistency, or probability.

We are illogical and irrational because to be otherwise requires self doubt, self discipline and self awareness. Rationality requires a constant re-ordering of the apparent messages available. So the more rational you become the less certainty you enjoy. And we all let our guard down when we are enjoying ‘cultural’ pursuits.

Yet in the modern world many of the imperatives and obvious outcomes which are dictated as being culturally appropriate are no longer of any ultimate benefit to either a particular culture or the species as a whole. To be wise in the modern age now requires that our politicians and leaders be able to think in a counter-intuitive manner – because our cultural commonsense can no longer lead us in a mutually beneficial direction. Our cultural common-sense is what has got our species into this global warming pickle in the first place.

The cultural common-sense of each of the countries on our earth indicates that they should wrest both military and financial control of their region from all others. Whereas a modern global perspective indicates that cooperation is far more advantageous. The cultural common-sense of countries indicates that, in the main, global warming is not a problem of great import. Cultural and spiritual domination are the most important aspects of society. Whereas the modern global perspective regards this focus on belief systems to be arcane and entirely unhelpful.

So we come to an odd juncture in history where the cultural conceits of our many groupings of citizens across our globe are continually arguing against the best interests of the majority of the human beings on the globe. For while many citizens do not share the prejudices and bigotries enshrined in their own particular cultural grouping – they do share in the benefits accruing to the ruling class in these cultures. They know how to manipulate and inflame local prejudice for their own benefit. So the majority of the ruling politicians in our world are also happy to engage in the hypocritical manipulation of the views of an ignorant majority whose beliefs and values they do not share.

So now we come to a fork in the road. Either our modes of organising ourselves politically and socially undergo a revolution or we fail as a species. We have become scientifically and technologically sophisticated. Now we either learn to become socially sophisticated as well or we will cook the planet and destroy our incipient global community in a matter of decades.

Our continued obsession with a range of outmoded and sometimes positively harmful medieval mentalities is simply getting in the way. Christianity, Islam, Séances, Astrology, Bigfoot, UFO’s, Miracles, Magic and Homeopathy still explain the world for the majority. Ghosts and ghouls, witches and fairies, saints and demons, angels and devils, still walk the earth in the minds of the mainstream consumer. It might seem merely interesting and odd if it weren’t so very dangerous.

All around the globe conservative forces work hard to continue to oppress minorities on behalf of the majority. They do not believe that these minorities have any rights worth considering. And our habit of authorising a range of medieval mentalities allows these vested interests across the globe to continue to usurp the authority of the many. Under the banner of ‘ religious’, ‘traditional’, ‘sectarian’, or ‘commercial’ rights they continue to engage in bigoted and discriminatory practices against particular segments of their own population in a particularly self-aware manner. Yes sometimes the populace might be described as being deluded – but rarely the leaders. The leaders generally engage in their demonising and discrimination in a very wide-eyed and considered manner.

The modern national political ambition is to retain power and gain further influence, not on behalf of the good of the many, but rather on behalf of the good of a deserving majority at the expense of an obviously evil few. These same people also continually seek to monopolise scarce resources and pollute to such an extent as is legally permissible. Always without regard to the rights of the many nor the needs of the environment. For neither of these ambitions are likely to be shared by any self-interested ruler of an individual nation state.

These are not ‘evil’ people. They are just self-interested and misguided. They are thinking like cave-men because they are encouraged at every turn, by all their social peers, and all the social pressures they ever experience, to continue to think like a cave-man.

They might be driving a Lexus and talking on a mobile phone but they are still knowingly focussed on how they might best pander to the bigotries of the many so as to enrich the few. Manipulation rather than education is the order of their day. This applies in virtually all of the nation states across our planet. So even while we aspire to being a global culture, virtually every element in our societies still actively endorse arcane belief systems and traditional bigotries. There is also a false equivalence constantly being asserted by reactionary conservative forces that equates ‘religious and traditional practice’ with leading a morally wholesome and socially desirable lifestyle. Thinking individuals know this is bunk. Yet still the mythology persists.

The shortest time spent considering the many conflicts and oppressive behaviours that are motivated and authorised by religious and ideological obsession demonstrates that there is no equivalence. In fact, traditional cultural practices and theologies almost always incorporate and promote unacceptable inequities. Moreover, they usually promote the idea that the environment itself is a simple by-product of the human experience. After all; why worry about a dying planet when you will live forever in an everlasting paradise with a loving and forgiving god?

So thinking individuals from time immemorial have argued that arcane religious beliefs and inequitable traditional practices need to be replaced by considerations relating to human rights – not supplemented by them. As a result, over the last two centuries, wise people have come together to define not only the universal properties of nature but also to work out what are the minimum acceptable ways for treating human beings. By drawing on the traditions of all of the cultures on our earth the universal declaration of human rights seeks to distil this wisdom. It lists in a very straightforward way the behaviours which are acceptable and those that are not – universally.

Yet despite this, in the vast majority of countries, various bigotries continue to be enshrined in law and supposedly ‘moral’ and ‘conservative’ voices continue to argue in favour of retaining these ongoing discriminations. Right now many millions of human beings are being woefully oppressed on behalf of religion and tradition. Yet still in our politics it seems that professing a belief in the mystical and impossible is perfectly acceptable. In our contemporary age the modern political creed seems to be exactly the same as the ancient one: as long as my discrimination is the same as the one my father employed then it is not only acceptable – it is desirable.

Until it is no longer satisfactory for our politicians to argue on behalf of irrational beliefs or continued discrimination then it is unlikely we will be able to address the great challenges that face our global community in any effective manner. Until we match our scientific enlightenment with a corresponding social enlightenment we will continue to march, eyes open, towards environmental disaster. We must banish magical thinking from our social discourse and punish our leaders whenever they pander to irrational and bigoted elements in our society. We must begin to think like global citizens.

Becoming a global citizen

What is the difference between being a national and a global citizen? The former believes they are a member of a culture, first and foremost, and so their primary allegiance is to ‘god and country’. Whereas a global citizen understands their principal allegiance must always lie with the environment and the wider public interest. Instead of ordering their priorities to accord with the dictates of a particular culture, the global citizen considers the individual and corporate human rights of those involved in any interrelationship. Where the national citizen thinks traditionally and patriotically, the global citizen thinks rationally and globally. So for the global citizen the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acts as the fundamental guide for how we might best order our cultural interactions. Not tradition, pragmatism, majority opinion, or religious dictate.

In the same way as science does not entertain different sorts of ‘gravity’ for different parts of the globe, human rights are conceived of as being universal. Tradition, pragmatism, majority opinion, and religious dictate simply have no bearing. The rights listed in the declaration contemplate our cultural interrelationships in the light of the experience of all the different cultures across the entire face of the globe. They distil our joint experience as a species across the span of our joint remembering.

This global perspective is significant. For as certainly as the arcane beliefs of a distant region will likely appear foreign to your own cultural understandings, so your traditional beliefs are likely to be considered by others in distant parts to be decidedly odd. So if we are to ever forge a modern global consensus, then we need global and universal rules for how we should treat each other. The universal declaration of human rights lays bare the phoney aspirations of ‘religious moralities’ to being universal by listing only those aspects of cultural behaviour that really are acceptable to all persons at all times.

A believer in a particular theological perspective, a non-believer, and all those who are unconcerned, are similarly protected. The declaration is designed as much to protect people from the impositions of other people’s arbitrary and illogical belief systems as it is to allow the right to profess a particular belief. This is why ‘Freedom of Belief and Religion’ and ‘Freedom of Opinion and Information’ are listed as being significant but minor elements of a much more comprehensive set of rights.

A right to equality of treatment, freedom from discrimination, life, liberty, personal security, recognition before the law, freedom from slavery, and arbitrary arrest. Also the freedom to marry, and travel, or change nationality or religion, are all considered far more significant and pressing requirements than any right to profess a belief in a religious or ideological supposition. In this manner the universal declaration of human rights reflects the ‘big picture’ thoughts that might run through the mind of any human viewing the earth through the porthole of a spaceship.

The preamble begins:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.

Who could possibly disagree? Unfortunately most of our politicians and almost all of the inhabitants of our globe disagree with the idea that we must forgo all forms of discrimination.

Despite these fine sentiments creationism based non-rational theological explanations still rule in all of our political and cultural discourses. Who will deny that the vast majority of the world’s population, and all our politicians, still cling to arcane theological explanations for ‘why’ we are here on this earth and how we got here? The sorry reality is that just because we live in a world chock-full of modern marvels, nobody should remain blind to the fact that most of our governments are still run by people who profess a belief in quaint medieval notions about the nature of the world and also the likely fate of all of its inhabitants.

Even in the largest (supposedly) secular democracy on the earth – America – the majority still firmly believe in a world created by an interested god, especially for human beings, and that everything will be pretty soon wrapped up again in accord with the divine wishes of a mystical creator. In the US this view is predicated on a Christian form of deity. In other parts of the globe it is a variant on the Christian God, or a Judaic one, or an Islamic one, or the population believes in a range of different gods. However regardless of the particular brand of theological devotion these forces are all united in their defence of bigotry and social exclusion. They just happen to advocate for different types of bigotry and exclusion.

So while rational and humane forces are constantly fighting on behalf of public rights and environmental concerns, we schizophrenically also entertain a widespread conviction that if your personal belief system encompasses socially indefensible ideas then you are still allowed to argue in favour of these ideas. Moreover, when a secular humanist points out that an argument is bigoted and indefensible – they are very likely to be accused of being intolerant!

Until we all aspire to be global citizens and also demand the same level of ethical sophistication from our leaders, we will continue to fail in our attempts to craft a global response to the pressing existential threat that is posed by climate change. We must abandon our old nationalistic and patriotic habits. They no longer assist in fulfilling our joint aspirations. The biggest challenge we face is whether or not we can learn to govern ourselves effectively before we destroy the environment irreparably.

When we see the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights instead of the ten commandments of the Bible, chiselled into stone monuments across our planet, then we will likely be on the right track. It is hard to be pessimistic about the prospects of any species that can craft such a noble set of guidelines.

The next time someone advocates to you on behalf of a Medieval or Stone Age concept then just point them towards the Universal Declaration and ask them to just read the index. Then ask if they disagree with any of these rights.

This might only prompt an interesting conversation. But then you might just end up sitting next to yet another global citizen, viewing the earth as if from a space station, as a fragile blue globe spinning in the inky vastness of space.

The articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1 Right to Equality

2 Freedom from Discrimination

3 Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security

4 Freedom from Slavery

5 Freedom from Torture and Degrading Treatment

6 Right to Recognition as a Person before the Law

7 Right to Equality before the Law

8 Right to Remedy by Competent Tribunal

9 Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Exile

10 Right to Fair Public Hearing

11 Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty

12 Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence

13 Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country

14 Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution

15 Right to a Nationality and the Freedom to Change It

16 Right to Marriage and Family

17 Right to Own Property

18 Freedom of Belief and Religion

19 Freedom of Opinion and Information

20 Right of Peaceful Assembly and Association

21 Right to Participate in Government and in Free Elections

22 Right to Social Security

23 Right to Desirable Work and to Join Trade Unions

24 Right to Rest and Leisure

25 Right to Adequate Living Standard

26 Right to Education

27 Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of Community

28 Right to a Social Order that Articulates this Document

29 Community Duties Essential to Free and Full Development

30 Freedom from State or Personal Interference in the above Rights



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  1. stephentardrew

    What a wonderful essay that speaks for itself in no uncertain terms. Thank you Michael for bringing it to my attention.

  2. kasch2014

    Hi – a great list of wishes, with built – in contradictions and an enormous gap in clear thinking which assumes that someone will actually ENFORCE this – who and how? Perhaps an alien civilisation will stand guard and monitor our lives in detail, and give instant here and now reprisals, warnings, punishments, prizes, etc. This sounds like another socialist manifesto. Mind you, I believe that political theory is very inferior religion. Religions are long-term culturally based, geographically etc. sets of values and rules that are in many ways are very much like a viable listing of rights AND responsibilities, fitted into their time and circumstances. In the case of Christianity and other faiths, the creation myths and the mysteries are generally explained via metaphors and are used to explain mysteries which are always accepted as mysteries. And religions generally acknowledge the creation of life, nature, humans, etc., by some force or entity or God and that means that the rules of life, death, the universe and all are not made by humans, but humans are subject to these rules no matter what delusions we indulge ourselves in. If you look at our track record of self destruction since science and reason became dominant, the above is a list of soft-option dreams and wishes which ignore so much of the real drama and pressure humanity has to deal with. But if we get the chance, no doubt we will try to make the “dark side” illegal and practice the most subtle barbarities yet to make it happen. No matter what, the shit will hit the fan in the end, but that goes for each and all of us, so we must keep trying and enjoy the ride! In the Revelations, New testament I think, it says that “the devil will be in chains for a thousand years” after which earth will be destroyed with fire and only the chosen (genetically viable?) will be taken to the new city of Jerusalem (on the other side of time in a vessel?) until the earth is healed and another personal development workshop will start. Who knows, but I believe we have no long term physical presence to hope for here. We are too materially minded, and we don’t acknowledge generally that we are just creations, not creators. Fear, greed and ignorance rule.

  3. Ken Wolff


    Not entirely in agreement with the argument. As a trained social anthropologist I put a lot of store by social rules, particularly the informal rules that help hold communities together. There may at times be local rules that create problems but a lot more of the problems come from the government, the markets and competitive capitalism.

    The economic argument about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (which supports private ownership) ignores that ‘commons’ were not open access but controlled by local social and cultural rules. In Iceland, the common resource of the fisheries was traditionally controlled by limiting access to launching places on the beach for fishing boats — the spaces were allocated to families according to traditional kinship rules. It was only when the fisheries were opened to all (by leadership giving in to ‘market’ pressures) that other forms of regulation had to be found, either by the leadership/government or pseudo-market mechanisms (tradeable quotas have become common and are also proposed for CO2 emissions).

    The industrialists, capitalists, call them what you will, have been, in economic terms, ‘free-riding’ on the rest of us by pouring their waste into the commons of the rivers, oceans and atmosphere for the past 200 years. They could only do that as they progressively destroyed the people’s control of the commons and, indeed, the very concept of the ‘commons’.

    I don’t disagree entirely with what you are sayng but I do have a little more faith in the ability of ordinary people to control things through local social and cultural rules that may sometimes appear irrational but in many athropological studies have been found to have a solid basis in scientific fact — even if not fully understood by the locals ( a bit like a farmer having as good an understanding of the local weather, if not better, than a meteorologist, even though he has less scientific understanding).

    Your essay deserves a much longer reply (almost another essay) but I do not have the time or space for a fully detailed response. I hope you accept this short comment in the manner it is intended, not as an assault on your piece.

  4. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Thanks again James,

    for caring and writing about what we need to do to get people on board to fight our biggest challenge: Climate Change.

    Nonetheless, all people need hope to think it is worth fighting for, as opposed to the Earth being too far gone to work to reverse the destruction.

    If ordinary people can see there’s a reason to stir themselves out of their lethargy, they can be encouraged.

    So can the politicians who can institute epic policy reforms.

    Furthermore, industrialists will be brought along by the progressive mood and expectations of the people.

  5. Kyran

    “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”
    All 30 of them are ‘Desiderata’, desired things, for us mere mortals. The new gods sell human rights, as their new universal declaration.
    There is a case in WA about a lad who is dying. Oshin Kiszko. A comment by the judge brings an old, but new, perspective to the conversation.
    “STEPHEN THACKRAY: It seems to me that there are two social, moral or ethical questions involved. The first is whether greater emphasis should be placed on life itself or on the quality of the life.
    The second question is whether the first question should be answered by me as representative of the state or by the parents.”


    It seems to me, the new gods are trying to find a new argument to sell the old gods arguments.
    If Mr Thackray’s judgement is valid, he has, indeed, made a declaration of human rights. Should the ‘value of life’ be ‘life itself’ or the ‘quality of that life’. It’s a very old argument, apparently not yet destroyed.
    Thank you, Mr Moylan. Take care

  6. Matters Not

    Great ‘essay’ and great responses, particularly by Ken Wolff.

  7. Geoff Andrews

    When I was reading your excellent essay, I thought: “Boy, this is going to flush out a lot of ratbags.”
    And it didn’t take long.
    Anyone who quotes Revelations as a response to an essay of this nature, has not only patently missed the point, but out of his/her own mouth, provided a magnificent example of someone who would rather “enjoy the ride” than think and act globally.

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