Celebration of Human Rights
A Humanist contribution to an inter-faith Celebration of Human Rights hosted by the Ipswich & District Bahá’í community at Ipswich Central Library, 10 December 2010. The theme was Article 26:2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Spiritual Education”: Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
The Article we’re celebrating today refers to “Spiritual Education”. I have a problem with this, because I don’t know what “spiritual” means. I know what other people say it means, but there are several definitions, some of them religious, and I find them mostly too vague to agree with them. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll ignore that part of the Article and talk about the rest: about education, and about understanding and tolerance. These are things without which no civil society can function properly, and without which there is endless scope for disharmony and conflict.
I don’t think that understanding, tolerance and friendship can be achieved by osmosis, while reciting lovely, cuddly sentiments about loving everyone. They must be learned, partly through example. Human beings have a natural tendency towards altruism. We’re also inclined to favour the well-being of those closest to us, but we’re not unique in this. Our cousins the apes set an example that many humans would do well to follow. However, it can be more difficult to behave well towards those who are different from us. I’ve observed just how easy it is for people to adopt a “Them and Us” position. It may be politically motivated, or religiously motivated, or atheistically motivated, or tribally motivated. Whatever the reasons, it happens a lot. The main consequence of such postures is that they dehumanise those who fall into the “them” category, while conferring a false sense of righteousness on those in the “us” category, completely ignoring the Golden Rule, which is not to do to others what you wouldn’t like done to you.
Today I shall quote two leading thinkers; Professor Anthony Grayling, a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, and Baroness Mary Warnock. Firstly, Grayling, from an essay on education, which he defines much more widely than studying for academic or vocational qualifications. I’m sure we can all think of people who’ve been good at passing exams, but whose outlook in life is narrow and prejudiced. Grayling is describing what he terms “liberal education”. He writes:
By “liberal education” is meant education that includes literature, history and appreciation of the arts, and gives them equal weight with scientific and practical subjects. Education in these pursuits opens the possibility for us to live more reflectively and knowledgeably, especially about the range of human experience and sentiment, as it exists in the now and here, and in the past and elsewhere. That, in turn, makes us better understand the interests, needs and desires of others, so that we can treat them with respect and sympathy, however different the choices they make or the experiences that have shaped their lives. When respect and sympathy is returned, rendering it mutual, the result is that the gaps which can promote friction between people, and even war in the end, come to be bridged or at least tolerated. The latter is enough.
The vision is utopian; no doubt there were SS officers who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven, and then went to work in the gas chambers; so liberal education does not automatically produce better people. But it does so far more than the stupidity and selfishness which arise from lack of knowledge and impoverishment of insight.
Baroness Warnock addressed a more basic question of how we might learn moral behaviour in an interview she gave to Laurie Taylor recently, for New Humanist magazine. She’d been asked where she derived her moral standpoint from. She said,
I think I derive my position almost entirely from my husband Geoffrey, who wrote a book called The Object of Morality. His account of origins of morality starts from the view that the world is pretty awful place filled with human beings who don’t get on with another very well because they’re always terribly greedy. This means that if society is to grow, then we all have to realise that other people are of the same importance as we are. Once you start realising that, you recognise that you can’t do what you like as far as other people are concerned. That’s the beginning of morality. So when you have a small child who’s behaving badly, being nasty to another child, then what you have to get into his head is the simple point, “How would like it if you were the object of this?” Then you’ve got him on the road to morality. Hume was absolutely right when he said that it’s only when you think of things from a steady and general point of view that that particular pleasure we call moral pleasure comes into operation. There’s a generality about what one thinks is right or wrong, a capacity to think not only how you’d feel if this or that happened to you, but what society would be like if this was generally done and permitted.
Couldn’t be more simple, could it? But it requires much more than a feeling of goodwill towards one’s fellow human beings to behave well towards them. It can be extremely difficult.
The other contributors were: Siva Cooper and Richard Togher (Ipswich & District Bahá’ís), Rev. Andrew Kleissner (Christ Church, Ipswich), Robin Herne (Pagan), Bishop Paulo Pereira (Ipswich Ward, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints), Martin Spettigue (follower of Sri Chimnoy), Shirley Smith (Christian Scientists), Richard Stewart (The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers), Anna-Marie Allbones (Resource Officer, Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource), Rev. Cliff Reed and Paulette Reed (Ipswich Unitarians), and Charles Croydon (Ipswich & District UN Association).