Empathic Reciprocity, Global Citizenship, and Human Rights

Have you noticed that, when it comes to venturing into questions of “right” and “wrong,” recent U.S. presidents lapse awkwardly and uncomfortably into a kindergarten-level of discourse? Obama: “We tortured some folks… that was wrong”–but then, after all, the torturer-criminals were doing a “tough job” and had “good” intentions! Obama often hastily drops such moral considerations, a realm of discourse and reasoning in which he is plainly uncomfortable and noticeably vague. Examples abound, even of his confusion, when it comes to alluding to even clear-cut moral transgressions (e.g., Guantanamo): “That’s not who we are” (his favorite, and glibly shallow, mantra on such matters).

Last September, in his speech to the UN General Assembly, Obama uttered some extraordinarily vacuous, infantile platitudes. He obliquely accused Russia of practicing “Might Makes Right” (annexation of Crimea), but insisted that the U.S. has been morally committed to a policy of “Right Makes Might” (whatever that is). And note: he was addressing assembled diplomats from all the world’s nations (and, by way of satellite, the peoples of the world)—not, say, simply talking-down to an audience of naïve, credulous middle-school students. Of course, echoing predecessors who flattered themselves (and American “group-narcissism”) by insisting that such a shining “exceptional” nation can do no wrong (Albright, Cheney, ad nauseam), Obama still expressed himself this time in notably juvenile terms (in startling contrast to Putin’s carefully measured, reasonable speech regarding growing military conflicts). Do such statements, when it comes to what’s “right” (and inferentially to international human rights), perhaps reveal a confused—or undeveloped–moral sense?

In a previous article on “Sociopathic Narcissism,” I suggested a “political syndrome” of lying, amoral, reckless and callous presidents (in recent times, Bush most brazenly fits the profile: see also my “Authoritarian Sadism”). Like his immediate predecessors, Obama routinely (and quite glibly) utters half-truths and outright lies, thereby cheapening an already degraded language of false “persuasion” rather than accurate explanation. And he often appears uncaring, even casually matter-of-fact, when referring to U.S./NATO-created casualties (which by now includes millions of refugees). And of course, the reigning moral rationale of Washington’s Power-Elitists is covertly (but occasionally openly) Machiavellian. Consequentialism: attaining the coveted “goals”—e.g., regime-change and/or capturing new markets—“justifies any means,” however cruel, murderous and/or genocidal.

Briefly, in the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. signed on to a framework of international law (UN Charter, conventions against torture and prohibited weapons, etc.). With the Nuremberg Charter and the UN Security Council, international mechanisms were instituted to curb aggressive warmaking and genocide. The very concept of international human rights, as codified in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, presumed the validity of an incipient concept of “global citizenship.”

The concept of “global citizen” in turn finds validity in the equivalence of a shared human nature (Homo sapiens)–and in the waning power of nation-states (globalized nexus of trade, production, communication, etc.). (To be sure, major initiatives to restrain multinational corporate “trade agreements,” guaranteeing comprehensive rights to all workers globally, are facing an uphill, long-term battle.) Contra Margaret Thatcher, human beings share normative/contractual obligations (“culture,” “society,” “citizenship”—both locally and globally). But Obama’s inadequate vagueness when faced with time-honored issues of the humanly “right” and “wrong” is merely symptomatic of the atrophy of humanitarian ethics—in a time of wars and unbridled global capitalism.

It is well to return to the ethical bedrock (as I see it) of universal human rights: the trans-human, inter-social moral equation of empathic reciprocity. Just as I, a human being (and citizen), would feel wronged if tortured (or cluster-bombed), so by extension I recognize that other (and all) human beings should be guaranteed protection against such violations of their rights. Sympathetic identification, as thinkers such as Proudhon and Gandhi maintained, is the psycho-spiritual foundation of mutually inclusive recognitions of shared human rights. (Ethicist Peter Singer, writing of an “expanding circle,” extends such sympathetic realization to animal rights.) All major religious-ethical systems, of course, have offered some variation to this formulation of the ancient Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not wish them to do to you.”

A long time ago, in describing the global class struggle, Karl Marx contemptuously dismissed such talk of universal rights and humanitarian “brotherhood” as sentimental “idealism.” And, by the mid-20th century, both left-vanguard Leninists and far-right fascists were in total agreement. But if, in our time, such an ethical foundation for global human rights is again dismissed as quaintly outmoded, then we will be left as always in the hands of the Machiavellian Power-Elitists—and their morally arrested spokesmen like Obama.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.