Hungarian Conservative

A Classical Conceptualization of Human Rights as the Antidote to Psychological Suffering: The Dominance of Western Progressive Human Rights in Practice

The Good Samaritan by Edward Stott (1910)
The Good Samaritan by Edward Stott (1910)
Wikimedia Commons
‘The flaw in the progressive hyper focus on moral rights is that it removes the ability of reality testing outside the subjective experience. Therefore, it feeds our narcissistic tendencies, which in turn enhances destructive behaviour, anxiety, depression, and above all, undermines mental resilience. Psychologically speaking, focusing only on our moral beliefs gives rise to many problems. First and foremost, human identity can only be stable if it is embedded in an external world.’

Last April, history was made when a group of Swiss elderly women won the first ever climate case in the European Court of Human Rights. The women argued that due to their age and gender, they are extra vulnerable to global warming. Therefore, Switzerland is argued not to have taken enough action to reduce emissions, violating the human rights of these women. This court case is likely to trigger many more across Europe, including Hungary. Many conservative commentators have reacted negatively to the court’s decision due to its political impact on the climate debate. Although this is definitely the case, the more fundamental point underlying this court decision is the principal understanding of human rights. With new generations focusing wholeheartedly on human rights across the Western world, one must ask themselves what these rights are to begin with.

Modern human rights have become the pride possession of the progressive enterprise. Thereby, they have become the quintessential focus point of progressive institutions such as our universities. The result has been that

a progressive understanding of human rights has shaped the minds of new generations.

Underlying the progressive viewpoint is a narrative of the dialectic of oppressor and victim, which is rarely criticized in the institutions that argue its case. These modern archetypes have presented the old as oppressive and the modern as the glorious emancipative force of the victim. On the surface, with the evil doings of humanity throughout history, this seems not only like a plausible outlook, but even an admirable one. Yet, the problem with abstract ideas is most of the time in the practical application and details. Instead of only focusing on the wrong assumptions of this dichotomy of oppressor and victim per se, it is also important to see the perhaps unintentional yet destructive force which such ideas bring into the word.

The Current State of Mental Health Among Adolescents in Relation to Human Right Perception

To demonstrate the mental shift, one only has to compare the older generations with a more classical understanding of human rights to the new generations with a modern one. The old generations, with all their flaws, were still able to resist and face injustice with strength and mental resilience. One has only to look at examples such as the civil rights movement in the US or the anti-communism movement in Hungary. Nowadays, the ones who claim human rights activism as their own are increasingly unstable and mentally vulnerable. Unless one seriously wants to argue that the situation in the Western world is more challenging than the challenges that the old generations faced, one must look at other explanations to explain the decline in mental resilience. The underlying cause can be partly explained by much of the different excesses of modernity (see my other essays on this topic) among which the modern outlook on human rights is a crucial one to explore.

It is understandable that when one reduces human cooperation to oppressor⁠⁠victim power dynamics, this puts adolescents in a psychologically impossible situation. One does not want to be an oppressor, but that only leaves becoming a victim as the alternative. The consequence of this victim mentality is the youth with a reduced sense of control over their lives as their beliefs in an unjust and incontrollable world shape itself. In turn this increases demoralization, demotivation, anxiety, and depression. A progressive might argue that this is due to the fact that the new generation is overly compassionate and radically wants to outgrow and make up for the wrongdoing of the past generations. Although some part of this might be true as there are many young people who aspire to do good, we are also simultaneously dealing with one if not the most mentally vulnerable generations in modern times. This is very important, as the adolescent years are characterized by developing autonomy, identity formation, and relationship and life skill development. Moreover, 75 per cent of mental illnesses emerge in adolescence (10 to 24 years old). The result of mental decline contributes to a staggering increase in anxiety, depression, mental health ER visits, and youth suicide. Worldwide, mental health disorder prevalence among adolescents ranges between 10 and 20 per cent. Hungary has a relatively high prevalence of psychiatric disorders concerning children and young adolescents at 15.8 per cent. Many organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the World Health Organization have declared the state of mental health among adolescents a state of emergency. So, if we are to see a prosperous generation and many to follow, we need to re-evaluate the modern paradigm surrounding human rights to see where a shift is desirable.

The Rise of Enlightenment and Human Rights

During the Pre-Enlightenment era, the status quo contained an understanding of human rights based on natural rights as part of natural law. Natural law, according to ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero entail rights based on the natural order and human nature. The natural order dictates how humans are as beings and therefore how are they able to flourish. When radical changes to this worldview were made during the Enlightenment by philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and events such as the French revolution, the proponents of classical natural rights, most famously Edmund Burke, became known as conservatives.

Although it is hard to understate the radical nature and consequences of the Enlightenment’s view of human rights, it is even more important to understand why these ideas were able to become dominant to begin with. The philosophy of the Enlightenment regarding human rights (eg the social contract by Rousseau) derives from a purely intellectual and abstract conceptualization of what human rights and nature as a whole ought to be. Psychologically, these ideas are very attractive as they

reduce the limitations of human nature and allow for the rise of utopian visions of a paradise on earth.

Therefore, progressivism has a clear psychological pull, which conservatism lacks. Whereas progressivism allows for the endless promise of a better tomorrow, conservative human rights based on natural law have to deal with the imperfect nature of humanity. When one loses sight of this, one is unable to truly understand which natural order gave rise to flourishing societies to begin with.

In his famous work The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Roger Scruton demonstrates the gap between abstract idealism and conservative realism in a simple yet effective way. Progressivism views society based upon a contractual relationship between individual citizens and the state. The civil society gives a mandate to the state to defend its abstract human rights. Conservatives, contrary to this abstract view, realize that in practice, rights are given to us by the society we belong to instead of being abstractly made up. Therefore, individuals are dependent on their society and as such, society should be defended from the destabilization by the individual. The progressives, on the contrary, believe that the individual needs to be emancipated and protected from society. Nowadays, this shapes most of progressive political policies.

A Misinterpretation of Human Rights

The tension between conservative and progressive ideas, moreover, is maybe best demonstrated in the philosophy of right by G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel has been criticized by the likes of Karl Popper for the undermining of the individual right and the missing link between Plato and totalitarianism. This is a tragically selective and superficial reading of the complex text that Hegel presented. Hegel views rights as the rational self-determination of free will, also called the idea. This process cannot exist without the freedom to self-determination. Therefore, according to Hegel, one must obtain the freedom for the idea to shape itself. Thus, according to Hegel the right one must foster is legitimized by the freedom of the idea.

Not all rights are created equally, as Hegel differentiates three categories of rights with an increasing amount of true freedom: abstract, moral, and ethical rights. The lowest form of rights is the abstract one. The abstract rights start with negative freedom, which entails the freedom to free myself from anything that limits or defines me and see myself as a pure I. According to Hegel, one has negative freedom because we are rational and thinking beings and therefore automatically have the ability to rationally self-determinate. This concept has been used by some progressive thinkers to legitimize the waves of emancipation that followed. Yet, by doing so, they have taken out the other fundamental parts of Hegel’s theory and possible rights that followed.

Additional to negative freedom, Hegel argues for the existence of positive freedom. This contains the ability to affirm a specific impulse of desire as mine. Hegel crucially points here to the fact that the affirmation of some desires leaves other desires not affirmed. For example, I can desire to eat either a piece of cake or pie. I can desire both but if I decide to only eat one of the two, I thereby affirm only one of my desires. This leaves the potential to have chosen the other desire. Thus, the underlying freedom is the freedom of choice. One of the most important consequential rights is the right to own and exchange property.

The story does not end here as this description of freedom of choice problematically depends on that which is given to us (by our surroundings, nature or God). Consequentially, we can choose which desire we affirm but we cannot choose what we desire. Therefore, abstract freedom consists of a dialectic between freedom and dependence. Hence, when I choose to do something, I am also implicitly affirming my freedom of choice itself. This means that by making a choice, free will is making itself the explicit object of its own affirmation. Hegel calls this the free will which wills the free will. When putting this into the perspective of rights, one understands that in Hegel’s view, rights are our freedom as the object of our will. Thus, free will has its own freedom as its object, and it must will and affirm its freedom for it to be truly free, must regard its freedom as its right. Thus, the fundamental weakness in abstract rights is that they only need the possibility of choice whereas to be truly free, one must actively choose it.

Another problem that arises with abstract rights is that they are not earned or merited through virtue or good behaviour. Merely by being aware of being a free being, one is able to gain abstract rights. This, according to Hegel, leads to immoral behaviour and crime. Therefore, the punishment of immoral behaviour is needed to restore the authority of rights. Thus, one has to recognize that rights have a priority over the individual will itself. When an individual recognizes this, one acts out of moral will and gains moral freedom and rights. These rights entail the right to consider as its own actions only what it has undertaken knowingly and deliberately, or as Hegel calls it: the right to know. Out of moral will one gains moral rights, such as the right to be held accountable only for the action I intended and the right to fulfil my intentions in my action and to recognize as valid only what I judge to be good.

True Freedom through Our Ethical Will

The dialectic problem of moral rights is that it is captured by one’s own subjectivity as the absolute validating entity. This obviously brings forth many problems. Most importantly, that I am legitimized to do evil acts if my conscious tells me that these actions are good and righteous. Therefore, Hegel introduced the concept of ethical will. Ethical will does not only take one’s own conscious into account; it also understands that freedom and good can only be realized in the external world. Thus, laws and institutions are needed: we are ethically only free when we are law-abiding individuals participating in our family, civil society, and the state.

Some thinkers have misunderstood this claim of the ethical will to mean that every society consisting of laws and a state should be blindly followed. Yet, Hegel clearly emphasizes that one should only be loyal to constitutions which actualize the conceptualization of freedom in the external world. Thus, the state which deserves our allegiance incorporates abstract rights (eg property rights), moral rights (eg right of one’s consciousness) and ethical rights (the acceptance of the validity of the good of its constitutions).

In conclusion, Hegel explains how ethical will sees the recipe of true freedom in the social institutions. This does not mean that one cannot question or debate the goodness of one’s institutions to find improvement or that the state should solve problems such as poverty while individual citizens stay passive. It means that a society wherein abstract, moral and ethical rights are established has a self-correcting mechanism through the will of the people to determine the goodness of its institutions.

The Restoration of the Classical Conceptualization of Rights: An Antidote to Mental Suffering

Progressive thinkers first and foremost fixate on abstract and moral rights. Both have their own psychological issues. To start with abstract rights, as Hegel points out, they require no moral effort. By simply existing, one is able to obtain abstract rights. Thus, they provide no focus point which is embedded in our own actions and they are therefore out of our own control. Consequentially, this brings forth nihilism, demoralization, and despair, which we currently see wreaking havoc in the younger generations. Conservative thinkers such as Russell Kirk already warned us decades ago of this nihilism underlying a lack of individual moral effort.

Additionally, although abstract human rights may sound fair and just, they become problematic in practice. A famous example can be found in the abstract rights of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. He described freedom as the ability to do whatever one wants as long as the individual’s actions do not harm others. Although admirable in principle,

without moral and ethical conceptualization, one is unable to even grasp what harm entails.

What might be harmful for you might not be harmful for me and vice versa. Thus, the tension between abstract beliefs and an undermining reality can create tremendous psychological pressure. This tension is known to cause mental discomfort and distress, which either leads to doubling down on the abstract paradigm, which causes a suppression of emotions and thoughts, or to a shattering of one’s own sense of reality when one realizes the flaws in the abstract paradigm, which also increases mental discomfort and distress.

The flaw in the progressive hyper focus on moral rights is that it removes the ability of reality testing outside the subjective experience. Therefore, it feeds our narcissistic tendencies, which in turn enhances destructive behaviour, anxiety, depression, and above all, undermines mental resilience. Psychologically speaking, focusing only on our moral beliefs gives rise to many problems. First and foremost, human identity can only be stable if it is embedded in an external world. Otherwise, one may find something just today and unjust tomorrow and therefore no stability can be created. Furthermore, it leaves the door open to an individual perception of justice, which leads to destructive behaviour. Thus, from a psychological perspective, Hegel was right in putting the freedom of the ethical will at the top of the hierarchy of rights. This imbeds the great power of human flexibility in a stable variety of institutions, which in turn allows for the freedom of self-actualization to be realized in a productive and mentally fruitful way.

In conclusion, as both Scruton and Hegel demonstrate, freedom can only fulfil its full potential in negotiation with the external world. Fixation on either abstract or moral rights does not only derail society as a whole, but it creates psychological challenges for the individual. As Western institutions such as our universities have been captured by radical progressive thought, it has removed tools from our new generations to truly live freely and embedded in ethical rights. Therefore, a healthy balance of abstract, moral and ethical rights is required, which re-embraces responsibility, moderation and a (rightful) trust in the institutions which gave rise to prosperity in Hungary and other Western societies alike. That is a right I wish for our children and the generations to come.

‘The flaw in the progressive hyper focus on moral rights is that it removes the ability of reality testing outside the subjective experience. Therefore, it feeds our narcissistic tendencies, which in turn enhances destructive behaviour, anxiety, depression, and above all, undermines mental resilience. Psychologically speaking, focusing only on our moral beliefs gives rise to many problems. First and foremost, human identity can only be stable if it is embedded in an external world.’