Convergence and Frontiers

© The Author(s) 2015
Bruce K. FriesenMoral Systems and the Evolution of Human RightsSpringerBriefs in Sociology10.1007/978-94-017-9551-7_6

6. Convergence and Frontiers

Bruce K. Friesen 

University of Tampa, Tampa, FL, USA



Bruce K. Friesen

RealpolitikHuman rightsMoral systemsApplied sociologyConvergence

In this brief monograph I have tried to provide an outline of a theory of morality and illustrate its potential to explain moral paradigmatic shifts. In revising key concepts from Durkheim, I chose to shift focus from religion per se to underlying systems of morality. I also introduced the concept of the nonmoral to signify parts of the world that exist outside of the worldview shared by members of a society. Because they exist outside the moral system, people and things not assigned a moral status can be treated in cruel or inhumane ways.

I have purposely avoided the use of religious terms and metaphors, even in a redefined sociological sense, in an effort to clarify biological and social processes that collectively contribute to the development, maintenance, and evolution of moral systems. I also intentionally selected a definition of religion that has popular appeal and has the ability to more carefully distinguish religious versus non-religious phenomena. Doing so, I trust, helps to reveal the more intentional ways in which religious beliefs and practices emerged as societies increased in size and complexity. Focusing on morality also opens the possibility to better understand the small but persistent growth of nonbelief in modern societies, and illustrates that morals have, and do, exist outside the purview of religion. The analysis suggests that it is morality, and not necessarily religion, which emanates from the human condition. At the same time, religions have the potential to draw attention to and increase respect for innate tendencies which people so readily equate with morality.

A review of recent research into the “moral” behavior of non-human primates, as well as young children and adults, revealed fascinating behaviors that are near-universal and replicable. I use quotation marks to imply that the moral label is an attribution of a state of being. What we actually observe are consistent emotional responses to social stimuli. These responses are either pleasurable or uncomfortable, but assigning value or preference to such conditions is a separate, socially constructive process. Many would no doubt prefer the utilitarian vision of constructing a moral system which maximizes positive emotional states in the greatest number of people. Yet emotional states are remarkably unstable and rather temporal. Human needs, wants, and our willingness to exchange certain amounts of personal autonomy for the privilege of living in community or having more important needs met—are far more durable than an emotional state at any particular moment in time. Any moral philosophy will need to balance the pleasure induced in certain emotional states with other important concerns.

Modernity has witnessed the reorganization of human groups into a social form known as the nation-state. Though in part a backlash to the meddling of outsiders in local affairs, the formation of nation states sewed the seeds of a larger, more inclusive secular moral system. The global challenges of WWII, in turn, exposed the inherent shortcomings of such. By focusing on all people of the world, the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created an ethic more abstract than others and yet with intuitive appeal.

To be sure, the moral system of human rights has some decided advantages over those that have come before. For the first time in human history, humans have devised a way to live together which involves no “Them.” All members of the human species are included. Human beings have an affinity towards developing a tribal identity, but human history has shown just how pliable such identities are. Illustrative of this is the strong sense of patriotism among members of nation-states with populations numbering in the hundreds of millions. If the notion of homo-sapiens-as-tribe is realized, the moral system of human rights could potentially decrease violent intergroup conflicts and warfare. Similar to the more intuitive moral systems of hunting and gathering societies, membership in the human rights system is ascriptive. Unlike major world religions, no conversion or pledging is needed. Ascetic rituals, sacrifices, giving, or homage not required in order to maintain membership. The one thing required is to respect the rights of others; to live and let live. Human rights principles capitalize on the interdependence of human beings by qualifying the ways in which people should treat each other so as to realize optimum outcomes.

Yet if the theory of the evolution of moral systems has any merit, there is every reason to believe that moral evolution will continue. Societies continue to change. Human beings continue to evolve. Counter-movements can certainly occur in which older moral systems regain momentum. Conceptual systems too have a way of expanding. I thus conclude the discussion of human rights with two plausible future scenarios, and leave it to you to decide which is most prescient. Perhaps you can think of a third.

Scenario 1: Human Rights as Myth and Ceremony

Though the human rights initiatives mentioned above are observable, counter-forces which seek to disable human rights efforts are also real. These forces often originate among those who see themselves being disadvantaged by the human rights system; usually the most powerful. The failed experience with the League of Nations , a forerunner to the United Nations, is telling. In an effort to inhibit the possibility of another widespread war, global leaders created the League of Nations after WWI. Built on the principle of equality, all member nations received a single vote in the fledgling organization. Leaders of the more powerful nations soon found the mechanisms of the League wanting, however. It required them to defer to decisions made by a body apart from the sovereign nation-state; one in which the poorest and weakest nations of the world had as much political clout as the highly-industrialized nations. Many found the situation impalpable. As there were no mechanisms in place to hold countries accountable for failing to comply with decisions made by the League, the organization soon dissipated, and WWII occurred not long after. Learning from the past, architects of the present United Nations created the Security Council and other apparatuses to give additional powers and privileged status to first-world nations.

Membership in the United Nations is largely voluntary, as is the option of signing and ratifying human rights treaties. Enforcement mechanisms are weak for those that fail to live up to commitments, especially for first world actors. This is likely intentional as many global leaders resist being held accountable. Morsink (1999) details a telling moment regarding the inclusion of the following phrase in the preamble to the UDHR: 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. While members of the committee recognized that tyranny and oppression should be met with resistance, few wanted to legitimate rebellion of any kind. Even after several re-wordings, the item still was one that received a lower amount of support.

For many nations, signing human rights instruments still appears to be little more than myth and ceremony ; a phrase used by Meyer and Rowan (1977) to describe a situation where an institutional statement or practice is implemented in an organization to appear that they have addressed a situation. In reality, however, little if any change in real behavior occurs. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2002 as a way of holding global leaders accountable for violating human rights standards. A full forty-one nations have refused to endorse the ICC, including the United States. Cole (2012) found that compliance with human rights instruments is greater when it is accompanied by optional monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, but leaders of the Global South are frustrated with ways in which leaders of first-world nations continue to game the system; with human rights monitoring processes or other issues. In a show of solidarity, leaders of 132 nations walked out of the 2013 climate talks in Warsaw to protest the refusal of first-world nation leaders to engage in a dialogue regarding climate change recompense (Vidal 2013).