We live in the age of the unquestioned assumption of human rights — that is, the assumption that all human beings are entitled to certain “basic human rights”. This is accepted as normal, or setting the norm, and this is unquestionably correct, at least in the sense of being an accepted convention. However, the discipline of psychoanalytic theory has some rather surprising things to teach us about some of those vaunted human rights, which lifts the curtain usually obscuring our real reasons for appealing to them. In brief, one might say that we posit human rights to have a clear conscience when it comes to transgressing something even more basic than human rights, namely, what used to be thought of as the (moral) Law.

No one would dispute the claim that human rights are not only there to safeguard your own rights, but from your own point of view, also — and perhaps especially — to guarantee the rights of others. What psychoanalytic theory allows one to grasp, is that it is actually all about the other, or what Jacques Lacan sometimes spells with a capital letter: the (big) Other. This seems straightforward; after all, it stands to reason that you cannot claim rights that you don’t, by the same token, grant others; although this happens more often than one thinks, with regard to stealing, for example. But I’m jumping ahead.

To understand what is at stake here one can approach the issue from the meaning of the “other/Other” in relation to one’s desire, and then you are confronted with the puzzling statement from Lacan (in Écrits) — which brings these concepts together — that the desire of human beings “is the Other’s desire”. Or, as he also puts it: “ … it is qua/as Other” that humans desire. Slavoj Žižek (in How to Read Lacan, Chapter 3) rightly points out that this statement is highly ambiguous. On the one hand it could mean that one only desires insofar as you experience the other person as desiring, but at the same time without ever being certain what he or she desires; in short, the other’s desire here is opaque, or unfathomable.

In this respect Lacan, like Sigmund Freud before him, is acutely aware of what Žižek calls the “abyssal dimension of another human being”, the fact that, in the final analysis, every person’s motives are utterly impenetrable (as Arthur Schopenhauer had already argued before Freud, followed by a host of thinkers that include Henri Bergson, Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett). Some of you might recall Stanley Kubrick’s film (based on the novel by Stephen King), The Shining. As Žižek reminds us, the father in this film, memorably played by Jack Nicholson, is the very incarnation of the “other” whose desire is utterly impenetrable, as shown when he turns from an apparently harmless, failed writer into someone who incrementally metamorphoses into a monster that relentlessly hunts down his family and butchers them all.

This enigmatic character of the other person’s desire explains why both Freud and Lacan believed that the commandment, to “love your neighbour as yourself” is fundamentally problematic because, as highlighted by Žižek, we only see that face of the neighbour that resembles my own, and with whom I can identify. The hidden face of the neighbour harbours an “I don’t know what”, however, and this puts a different complexion on the commandment, to love your neighbour.

This law exists for a reason, which is precisely, according to Žižek, to “regulate[s] relations between people: the Law is strictly correlative to the emergence of the neighbour as inhuman Thing”, and therefore “love your neighbour as yourself” is actually meant to “keep the neighbour at a proper distance”. It is not difficult to infer from this that the “as yourself” part of the injunction is meant to remind us that something unfathomable lurks in yourself, too, and should be kept safely at bay precisely because you “love yourself”.

What about the other meaning of humans desiring “as Other”? The reason why a capital “O” is used here is because it is not the other person that is denoted, but the so-called “big Other” in the sense of what Lacan calls the symbolic order of discourse. All this means, therefore, is that every desire that one can articulate (or even those one finds difficult to formulate) are determined by, or dependent on, the big Other as the symbolic sphere according to which one should do certain things and avoid doing others.

This is inescapable, because even when you oppose the existing big Other or normative symbolic space (as a revolutionary, for instance) you still act (negatively) in terms as defined by it. Žižek puts it like this: “Even when my desires are transgressive, even when they violate social norms, this very transgression relies on what it transgresses.” It is in this sense that we cannot escape the “Other’s desire”, which holds us in thrall. Most people do not act transgressively towards it, of course, as the conventional behaviour of the vast majority of people testifies, although this does not mean that they do not secretly desire to do so.

This brings me back to where I started, to wit, with the question concerning the real, hidden reasons for appealing to universal human rights, and my suggestion that it has something to do with keeping a clear conscience. What I was hinting at is that without appealing to human rights to justify our actions, we would probably not have such a clear conscience, because we would become aware, sooner or later, that in many instances we are actually transgressing the Law as formulated by the Ten Commandments. Surprisingly, indications are that St Paul knew this, and understood the connection between desire and the big Other (in this case as symbolised by divine Law). I cannot improve on Žižek’s terse formulation here:

“Paul knows this very well when, in the famous passage in Romans, he describes how the law gives rise to the desire to violate it. Since the moral edifice of our societies still revolves around the Ten Commandments — the law that Paul referred to — the experience of our liberal-permissive society confirms Paul’s insight: it continually demonstrates that our cherished human rights are, at their core, simply rights to break the Ten Commandments. ‘The right to privacy’ — the right to adultery, committed in secret, when no one sees me or has the right to meddle in my life. ‘The right to pursue happiness and to possess private property’ – the right to steal (to exploit others). ‘Freedom of the press and of the expression of opinion’ – the right to lie. ‘The right of free citizens to possess weapons’ – the right to kill. And, ultimately, ‘freedom of religious belief’ – the right to worship false gods.”

Žižek’s clarification of the meaning of the Other’s desire determining our desire (to transgress it), and what this implies regarding the culture of human rights will undoubtedly be unpalatable to many, but if one thinks carefully about what he says in the passage quoted above, it is difficult to fault him. And perhaps one way of understanding the provenance of a human rights culture as a means to a clear conscience in the face of the (moral) Law, is that the society in which we live is so far removed from that of the ancient Israelites, for whom the (divine, moral) Law was formulated, that the only possible way in which we can justify our own liberal-permissive way of living, is by glorifying these “human rights”.

In the meantime we conveniently forget that they don’t sit so well with the Law (the big Other) that still underpins the (dormant?) sense of morality in our society. Or is it simply that human rights have come to define what the big Other means today?


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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