Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

Date: Tue, 03 Oct 1995 19:44:16 -0400
From: "John Buescher" [email protected]
Subject: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

I can't accept the idea that Buddhism might need to make human rights secondary to ecclesiastical authority or that rights might be set aside out of deference to a ruler's 'discriminating wisdom.' I also can't accept the idea that human rights are contingent on a metaphysics of "self", or that they are simply an epiphenomenon of the European Enlightenment or the symptom of some Western cultural disease of 'private property,' or even 'hyperconsumerism.' Does there really need to be a debate on whether 'rights are wrong'? If rights are merely "skillful means", I would like to hear about a human society anywhere short of nirvana that might profitably "set these aside."

Rights protect people against arbitrary power, whether the power is baldly asserted by the State or by a majority against a minority. Simply put, rights protect the weaker from the stronger. So, a Buddhist might connect rights with compassion. But rights are not declared in a vacuum, or, as one correspondent put it, rights aren't articulated for an ideal world. They're elaborated for a world of suffering. As Madison explained it, "The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity." (Federalist 10) Rights are set out in the face of authority, which would otherwise be unchecked. Rights weave together a magic circle (pardon me the use of a figure from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Xanadu") into which this authority may not cross. But if the powers, authorities, and conventions are not within this magic circle, what is? Certainly not a hard knot of substance, a self. What's circumscribed is simply a place of freedom and liberty, where worldly structures and claims don't apply. Although some people have in fact described this realm of rights in a positive way (i.e., as having a positive being or substance), I think those who are trying to see how Buddhism might be amenable to the notion of rights should recognize human rights' fundamentally negative (and by that, I mean exclusionary) aspect. Rights define a realm of privacy, but they do it not directly but by exclusion: They define a place where public authority and power has no purchase, a place empty of worldly convention. That austere place can't be filled up with the bricabrac of substance. Rights point, not to substance, but to the liberty of emptiness, an acid that melts away power and pretension and exposes the insufficiency, impermanence, and contingency of worldly structures.

This definition of rights is consonant with the negative language of emptiness, impermanence, and selflessness, and with a critique of authority, ritual, convention, and language. Like Buddhism itself, it centers the moral point on the individual and indefinable--because wholly contingent--private moment, not on untested hearsay or arbitrary authority or tradition. That's the realm of liberty protected or marked off by 'inalienable' human rights. There is an unfortunate confluence of terms here, perhaps: 'inherent existence' and 'inherent rights.' Rights may 'inhere' in the individual, but they're not 'inherently existent.' They are 'areas' of action proper to--or located in--the individual.

Human rights are, at bottom, most emphatically not 'justified by an appeal to Christian authorities and traditions,' although, of course, many have tried to do this; I object to repeating the mistake by justifying rights by an appeal to Buddhist authorities and traditions, although I believe it's nice that Buddhism can in fact accomodate the notion in pointing to what is "beyond". Without acknowledging such rights, human individuals and factions are effectively unchecked in their subjugation of one another, and will often cite the benefits they are bringing to others as they smilingly club them into submission. Buddhists will do this, too. And they will justify their actions through an appeal to the 'discriminating wisdom' and the "skillful means" of the "unfathomable enlightened mind" of the one wielding the club.

Rights, then, are not the bloated bag of earthly powers, prerogatives, honors, riches, and substances of which some of the correspondents are rightly suspicious. Thinking of rights in that expanded and 'generous' way is what has weakened the notion of rights to the extent that people believe they have 'rights' to a certain level of material success or even to specific material goods. The magic circle of rights is stronger the smaller it is. Here's a short list of rights--the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or add in the protection of property, security, and the right to resist oppression. Or another group--protection from the arbitrary authority of the State over matters of conscience--freedom of religion, expression, speech, and press, freedom of assembly and association-- protection against unreasonable constraint by authorities, such as in search and seizure, arrest, punishment, and a fair judgement.

These have nothing to do with specific social guarantees of prosperity, with positive things the government or society should give the individual. Contrary to what the Communist government of the PRC says about fundamental human rights being economic ones, the rights contract I propose is spare. It's not surprising that totalitarian apologists should believe that benevolent authority is the source of people's happiness, even their material happiness, but I believe a more reasonable understanding of human rights presupposes that authority's proper role is not to guarantee society's members their happiness, but only (at most) to insure the conditions under which individuals can seek their own happiness.

But you can't expect a government, without constraint, to seek anyone's happiness but its own, even if it's headed by an 'enlightened Buddhist ruler.' Again, Madison: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, nether external or internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself". (Federalist 51). I see no reason why Buddhism shouldn't welcome this insight. It knows well how dysfunctional the world is, how little we can trust it to give us happiness.

John Buescher
Voice of America
[email protected]


Date: Wed, 04 Oct 1995 01:43:20 -0700
From: "Scott LB Henderson" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

Surely there is no argument that rights are somehow "bad" or "wrong". But it seems to me there is somewhat of a consensus in this conference (?) that they [rights] are not concepts from any traditional discourse of Buddhism. They are new, they are introduced - from a Western style of ethical/political discourse. The question then becomes, is the idea of rights, as understood in the West, compatible with Buddhism? And if so, are they useful and productive from a Buddhist perspective?

I would answer the first question "yes", the second, I'm still considering.

It seems that rights are looked at from at least 2 angles: from within the individual or group: ("I/We have rights!") and from without: ("peasants/political prisoners/all humans, etc. should be accorded certain rights...[add list here]"). I would think that the Buddhist position would tend to resonate better with the latter, which fits nicely with ideals of loving-kindness, compassion, etc. (If such terms are too soft for a discourse on political relationships, then perhaps we could either 1) stop thinking in terms of political relationships, or 2) substitute something like "respect", etc.

Very often it seems the discourse of "rights" lends itself to a focus on the former perspective, i.e. emphasis on individuals/groups engaging in confrontations with other individuals/groups as a means of establishing moral boundaries. While certain boundaries must exist, it is the idea of battling for one's moral territory that doesn't strike me as particularly Buddhist. It is this tendency of "rights talk" to paint an adversarial picture which causes me to look for language better suited to developing the Buddhist ideals of metta/karuna. In other words, I think the end driven at by "rights" is wonderful, but the conceptual means, problematic.

Without acknowledging such rights, human individuals and factions are effectively unchecked in their subjugation of one another, and will often cite the benefits they are bringing to others as they smilingly club them into submission. Buddhists will do this, too. And they will justify their actions through an appeal to the 'discriminating wisdom' and the "skillful means" of the "unfathomable enlightened mind" of the one wielding the club.

While these are real problems, again, I don't think the only solution is the approach of "rights". It doesn't seem to me necessary, or even best, to generate a list of rights in order to stop such activity. I am not totally against such lists, however, if the result is the reduction of suffering. But generating these lists (even the " short" one you submitted) would take a lot of time away from discussion of how to actually stop sowing the seeds, and reaping the fruits of hatred, greed, and ignorance.

Scott L.B. Henderson
Religious Studies, Arizona State University


Date: Wed, 04 Oct 1995 21:24:47 -0800
From: "Craig K. Ihara" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

My apologies for entering into the discussion at this relativly late date. I'm finding that one of the drawbacks of a virtual conference is that one is still embroiled in classes, committees, etc. In an case on the issue of defining human rights I have a comment for Damian Keown and one for Prof. Jamar. (By the way, of all the comments I have read so far, I most agree with those by Scott Henderson).

In one communication Damien wrote: "The Buddha respected the rights of others (..by his observance of the precepts he refrained from doing them any injustice, which is basically what rights seek to secure.) and since he represents the ideal in Buddhism, then respeting rights is part of the ideal." This argument begs the question by conceptualizing what the Buddha did in terms of rights. Certainly we can interprete his actions in this way, but the question remains whether doing so is compatible with a Buddhist understanding of what he did.

Further on he says that "whether we use the terminology of rights or human rights is not in the end important" if (I think the rest of it was) we treat each other with respect. I fully agree that we can conceptualize our moral relationships with one another in terms of rights and thereby pay resepect to each other, what I contest is that it is the only way we can pay such respect. It seems to me that many cultures have paid respect to its members without using or thinking in terms of rights, and that interpreting what they do or how they see things in terms of rights is to distort and misrepresent the perspective they have on the world (or at least to run the serious risk of so doing.) One other comment for Damien: At one point you define "human rights" as "rights a person possesses by virtue of being human." As a definition of human rights it leaves open the important issue of what a right is. I took it that in you paper you had fundamentally adopted the definitionof a right as an entitlement, and tried to point out why such a notion might not be found in classical Buddhism. (See my paper, "Why There are No Rights in Buddhism: A Response to Damien Keown.)

With regard to Prof. Jamar I would like to question the definition of human rights you provide - "A human right is any claim, interest, demand or need which is cognizable at law and whcih proceeds from moral precepts necessary for human dignity." I take it that the necessary moral precepts would be something like the ten commandments, or a subset thereof. But such precepts are put in terms of what not to do, i.e. what our responsibilities are, not in terms of our rights. And such duties need not be put in terms of rights. If so, the question is in what sensedo rights "proceed" from these precepts? They might in deed be compatible with them, but so might systems of morality which do not invoke rights. Human rights are usually grounded on human dignity, as you say, but I do not believe they are deduceable from it.

Craig K. Ihara
Philosophy Dept.
California State U. Fullerton


Date: Fri, 06 Oct 1995 03:35:07 -0400
From: "Steven D. Jamar" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

With regard to Prof. Jamar I would like to question the definition of human rights you provide - "A human right is any claim, interest, demand or need which is cognizable at law and which proceeds from moral precepts necessary for human dignity." I take it that the necessary moral precepts would be something like the ten commandments, or a subset thereof. But such precepts are put in terms of what not to do, i.e. what our responsibilities are, not in terms of our rights. And such duties need not be put in terms of rights. If so, the question is in what sense do rights "proceed" from these precepts? They might in deed be compatible with them, but so might systems of morality which do not invoke rights. Human rights are usually grounded on human dignity, as you say, but I do not believe they are deduceable from it.

Even though as a lawyer I make a living using words, it is with great trepidation that I engage a philosopher in a debate about words and in particular ones relating to deduction. ;-) But here goes . . .

I don't think moral precepts are necessarily or even always negative or what not to do - the golden rule comes to mind. And I certainly would not limit moral precepts to any particular religious tradition or any religious tradition.

I don't really understand Prof. Ihara's chain of reasoning about responsibilities and rights and duties so it is hard to respond, but I will try. Generally, a right has a correlative duty and vice versa. This being so in the practical world of the law, the point raised by Prof. Ihara is not really a practical problem. But there certainly are duties which do not correlate to rights and rights which one is hard pressed to find the duty holder. So if one accepts (which I don't) Prof. Ihara's point that moral precepts are all variants of "thou shalt not" and one cannot find a correlative right, then perhaps his concern about the term "proceeds" is well taken. But it seems to me that "thou shalt not kill" has a correlative right to life - and that this is a moral precept and a right. Or perhaps the moral precept is broader - have compassion, respect one another, do not injure others unjustly, etc. - in which case the right to life becomes just one subset of a broader moral precept. It is in this sense that the right "proceeds" from it. Not in the sense that it is imperatively deducible from it. Though in this particular case, I think that once one accepts the moral precept, the right is deducible, if one adds in a few other major premises regarding the proper domain of the law, etc.

I think that the difference between being "grounded in human dignity" and "deducible from it" is too nice a distinction by half. I will welcome a substitute word for proceeds if it is truly that bothersome and means the sort of logical deduction you attribute to it. I think of it as more along the lines of arising out of or following from - the connotation should be more like I proceed to the airport along a road in a car. The car and the road do not cause the airport - but they are a way of getting there. - an imperfect analogy - but it conveys a corrective to the degree of causality I previously had not intended.

Cheers
Steve Jamar
Howard Law


Date: Fri, 06 Oct 1995 07:49:44 -0400
From: "Damien Keown" [email protected]
Subject: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

In one communication Damien wrote: "The Buddha respected the rights of others (..by his observance of the precepts he refrained from doing them any injustice, which is basically what rights seek to secure.) and since he represents the ideal in Buddhism, then respeting rights is part of the ideal." This argument begs the question by conceptualizing what the Buddha did in terms of rights. Certainly we can interprete his actions in this way, but the question remains whether doing so is compatible with a Buddhist understanding of what he did.

Hello Craig -- I can't do justice here to the many good points you make in your paper, and will hope to write a fuller reply when time allows. In the meantime...

Naturally, I think that interpreting the Buddha's actions in this way is perfectly compatible with a Buddhist understanding of what he did. Let's take the first precept. Why did the Buddha not go round killing people? This could be explained in various ways (bad karma, greed and hatred), but at bottom they come down to the fact he recognised it would be unjust (talk about karma and motivation is a roundabout way of saying the same thing and pointing out that such acts are bad for oneself also). There are many complex and interrelated issues here, which I've dealt with more fully elsewhere, but it seems to me we can say in a shorthand way that killing is wrong is because it does not treat people in a way which is their DUE -- by virtue (I would say) of their inherent human dignity which derives ultimately from their "Buddha nature" (I am not forgetting animals here -- they may also possess the Buddha nature -- just trying to clarify the issue with respect to humans first). In other words, the Buddha recognised that individuals were owed RESPECT and that it would be wrong (unjust) to treat them in ways incompatible with that respect (such as by injuring or killing them).

The next step is where rights come in. If we accept that individual X is OWED respect by individual Y, then individual X has a RIGHT to respect from individual X. In saying this nothing new is being added or smuggled in: all we are doing is shifting our perspective to look at things from X's point of view rather than Y's. It's really little more than shifting your weight from one foot to the other, and this shift of perspective is in keeping with the Buddhist notion of interdependency. Everyone is interlinked, and that interlinking gives rise to duties on the one hand and rights on the other depending on the different hats we wear as individuals.

Craig suggests there is another way to look at things, and that society can (should?) be regarded as a ballet or game of soccer, and that these are contexts in which the notion of rights is inapplicable. There is a lot that could be said about this. For now I would just say that society does not appear to fit this model very well. It is more like a ballet where everyone wants to be the lead ballerina, or where different members of the cast want to put on different ballets, or where someone marches in to try to close the performance down ( as the Chinese did in Tibet). Rights are necessary because everyone is NOT playing their part. Even in soccer there are rules, which give rise to duties (not to handle the ball) and rights (the right to a penalty if the ball is handled). The Dalai Lama is now screaming FOUL! against the Chinese and saying specifically that they are infringing "human rights." In other words, I think Craig's analogy of the ballet and so forth doesn't really work in practice and doesn't represent the Buddhist concept of society in which (I would say) justice (the requirements of which can be analysed into rights and duties) is the key concept (I accept it is implicit in Buddhist teachings rather than explicit).

A quick point is that I do concede (as Hohfeld did) that the strict correllation between rights and duties is sometimes problematic. In other words, not EVERY right has a duty on the other end of it. Theory is always neat, life is untidy. However, the theory seems to hold good in the majority of cases, and specifically to the examples I gave (husband and wife, ruler subject, and so forth).

further on he says that "whether we use the terminology of rights or human rights is not in the end important" if (I think the rest of it was) we treat each other with respect. I fully agree that we can conceptualize our moral relationships with one another in terms of rights and thereby pay resepect to each other, what I contest is that it is the only way we can pay such respect. It seems to me that many cultures have paid respect to its members without using or thinking in terms of rights, and that interpreting what they do or how they see things in terms of rights is to distort and misrepresent the perspective they have on the world (or at least to run the serious risk of so doing.)

I wonder if there is any real disagreement here. I accept that Buddhist sources do not speak of rights, but then again neither did Western sources until comparatively recently. My position is that the concept of rights does not IN ITSELF distort or misrepresent the Buddhist perspective on the world. I do accept there is a danger of people developing an obsession with rights, particularly in view of the fact that rights give prominence to the individual, but there is a danger with everything if it is taken to extremes (even Buddhism!).

One other comment for Damien: At one point you define "human rights" as "rights a person possesses by virtue of being human." As a definition of human rights it leaves open the important issue of what a right is. I took it that in you paper you had fundamentally adopted the definitionof a right as an entitlement, and tried to point out why such a notion might not be found in classical Buddhism. (See my paper, "Why There are No Rights in Buddhism: A Response to Damien Keown.)

The above definition relates more to the "human" bit of "human rights". A right in itself is a claim or entitlement of some kind. Some very good definitions of "human rights" have been offered which I have no quarrel with. I accept that the word and the concept are not found in traditional Buddhism, but Buddhism is a flexible and evolving tradition. So long as the notion of "human rights" is consistent with its fundamental principles (which I think it is, and perhaps even fleshes them out a little) there is no reason why it should not incorporate the idea and talk explicitly in these terms (note: this is not as a "skilful means" but as part of its core teachings).

Damien Keown


Date: Fri, 06 Oct 1995 17:51:12 -0400
From: "Jamie HUBBARD" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

One of the most difficult questions that keeps returning to us is just *why* are humans beings *owed* something as their due (since Buddhists cannot attribute it to something that granted by a Creator). Damien Keown answers this with:

Why did the Buddha not go round killing people?

killing is wrong is because it does not treat people in a way which is their DUE -- by virtue (I would say) of their inherent human dignity which derives ultimately from their "Buddha nature" (I am not forgetting animals here -- they may also possess the Buddha nature -- just trying to clarify the issue with respect to humans first). In other words, the Buddha recognised that individuals were owed RESPECT and that it would be wrong (unjust) to treat them in ways incompatible with that respect (such as by injuring or killing them).

If Buddha nature is the reason, this illustrates the problem nicely, as Buddha nature is problematic in the extreme: most schools dismiss it as but an upaya, and others denounce it outright as a smuggled essence.

Jamie


Date: Sun, 08 Oct 1995 00:18:23 -0400
From: "M. Jinavamsa" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

Which schools are we talking about here? thank you Jinavamsa


Date: Sun, 08 Oct 1995 06:37:09 -0400
From: "Damien Keown" [email protected]
Subject: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

If Buddha nature is the reason, this illustrates the problem nicely, as Buddha nature is problematic in the extreme: most schools dismiss it as but an upaya, and others denounce it outright as a smuggled essence.

I was attempting to present the issue in Buddhist terms, but perhaps using "Buddha nature" as an analogue for "human dignity" creates more problems than it solves!

I don't think we need introduce the metaphysics of the self into the argument for human rights at all, so if "Buddha nature" as a technical concept creates problems I will happily drop it and say that individuals are owed respect because everyone is a potential Buddha. I think most schools of Buddhism would be comfortable with this.

Cheers,
Damien Keown


Date: Sun, 08 Oct 1995 16:59:49 -0400
From: "Jamie HUBBARD" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

I was attempting to present the issue in Buddhist terms, but perhaps using "Buddha nature" as an analogue for "human dignity" creates more problems than it solves!

I don't think we need introduce the metaphysics of the self into the argument for human rights at all, so if "Buddha nature" as a technical concept creates problems I will happily drop it and say that individuals are owed respect because everyone is a potential Buddha. I think most schools of Buddhism would be comfortable with this.

I agree. Now the question is how we get from "owing individuals respect" (which seems like a) responsiblity talk and/or b) well-grounded in the teleological nature of Buddhist ethics, i.e., I am doing it because it is an action that takes me closer to liberation and to do otherwise would take me further) to "rights" that I can claim. I am re-reading the statements that you and Jay made on these topics and maybe I'll figure it out...

Jamie


Date: Mon, 09 Oct 1995 09:54:57 -0400
From: "HOLLY, BRIAN" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

I don't think we need introduce the metaphysics of the self into the argument for human rights at all, so if "Buddha nature" as a technical concept creates problems I will happily drop it and say that individuals are owed respect because everyone is a potential Buddha. I think most schools of Buddhism would be comfortable with this.

Once again, D.K. makes a tremendous amount of sense. The last thing we need is to go off on one of those other-empty versus self-empty debates that so often makes Buddha-L into an avici hell of unpronounecable Tibetan terms, self-righteous pronouncements, and strong-arm hermeneutics. I suggest that we follow the eminent nominalist tradition that allows us to bypass the issue analyzing what it is in a being that grounds the potential for buddhahood (whether it is just empitness or some more positively characterized buddha matrix). We can simply use the term Buddha nature to refer to whatever it is in a being that makes it possible for it to become a Buddha. - Brian Holly



Date: Wed, 11 Oct 1995 01:34:12 -0700
From: "Ken O'Neill" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

I don't think we need introduce the metaphysics of the self into the argument for human rights at all, so if "Buddha nature" as a technical concept creates problems I will happily drop it and say that individuals aare "owed respect because everyone is a potential Buddha. I think most schools of "Buddhism would be comfortable with this.

The matter of "Buddha nature" (again harkening back to 19th century renderings) as a "metaphysical category" makes no sense whatsoever. But Conze did say Buddhism becomes philosophy when explained to outsiders, or engaged in by outsiders. Busshin is a key experiential matter of Buddhadharma gnosis. Those who would render it metaphysical show a paucity of understanding. Sorry, guys, but when the rubber hits the road you know whose blowing smoke.

Ken O'Neill


Date: Thu, 12 Oct 1995 20:11:37 -0700
From: "Ken O'Neill" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Buddhism and the Rights of the Individual

If Buddha nature is the reason, this illustrates the problem nicely, as Buddha nature is problematic in the extreme: most schools dismiss it as but an upaya, and others denounce it outright as a smuggled essence.

I was attempting to present the issue in Buddhist terms, but perhaps using "Buddha nature" as an analogue for "human dignity" creates more problems than it solves!

I don't think we need introduce the metaphysics of the self into the argument for human rights at all, so if "Buddha nature" as a technical concept creates problems I will happily drop it and say that individuals are owed respect because everyone is a potential Buddha. I think most schools of Buddhism would be comfortable with this.

How in hell does buddha-ness relate to metaphysics of the self in buddhadharma? I hate to be a killjoy but this sort of characterization makes utterly no sense in buddhism, and definitely adds weight to MP Hall's warnings about not trusting unenlightened scholarship.

Ken O'Neill