Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Clash of civilisations? Human rights? THE WEST AND THE REST: AN AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE

Submitted by Demaine Solomons

My intention with this piece is to attempt to connect two issues that still generates a fair amount of debate and controversy; Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations article and the idea or perhaps the possibility of the universality of human rights.

However, I do want to do this from another perspective, that of human nature. Since my knowledge of evolutionary theories is minimal and also due to the limited format of this piece, I chose to use an article by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer called A Darwinian left: Politics, evolution and cooperation.

Singer believes that what he refers to as the left should overcome the decades-long phobia from Darwin and ideas concerning evolutionist views of human nature. He believes the views should be taken into account when attempting to formulate policies for putting into practice moral principles engrained in human rights. The question of what is ethical will be of secondary importance in this piece, although I think it would not be hard for you, the reader, to get an idea of my own opinions.

Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations, published in 1993 as an article and later developed into a book, could be nothing short of controversial at a time when ideas concerning multiculturalism and the importance of acknowledging and respecting cultural differences were finding a positive response and getting much support in Western academic circles. Generally, it can be said that Huntington believes that after the end of the Cold War, the world entered a new phase in which conflicts between, what he describes as “civilisations” are going not only to be a common feature in the struggles between different people but also the most intense and crucial armed confrontations, basically superseding previous wars between nations and older wars between kingdoms.

According to the author, the interaction between the West and non-Western civilisations, which increased dramatically due to several factors, will inevitably lead to a clash of civilisations. He describes the major civilisations as being; Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and as he writes, also “possibly [a] African civilisation”.

For Huntington, cultural characteristics are less subject to change than political ones, and there we may find the root for much of modern conflicts. Furthermore, as people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely to adopt an “us vs them” position in the relation between and those from a different civilisation. In other words, belonging to the same civilisation replaces political ideology as a main consideration for cooperation sans coalitions. Despite (or maybe because) of its “political incorrectness”, Huntington’s idea of the clash of civilisations, had a relatively large appeal and was given much exposure in the West, especially after September 11. On the other side, his work was also subjected to a great deal of criticism.

I find many of Huntington’s arguments compatible and in line with social Darwinist thinking.

He emphasises the tendency of conflict in human beings (and in the civilisations to which they belong) while totally overlooking the cooperation between the different people on the planet and the innovations in practically every field. Unlike many of the politicians and the ideologues with whom he is affiliated, he does not even try to pay lip service to some high moral cause, but assumes the “might makes right” premise. As he clearly states: “The West [is required to] maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to these civilisations.”

I think it is safe to assume that Huntington found it irrelevant to address such questions as whether the interests of the West are justified or on which grounds and at what cost they were built upon. The powerful do not need justification for the strength. Or as Charles W Hedrick puts it: “The affinities of this line of thinking with earlier arguments of social Darwinists and the later arguments of Samuel Huntington should be patent: material prosperity justifies morality, and vice versa”.

Although human rights could be seen by Huntington and his followers as deeply rooted in Western civilisation, it is hard to imagine what use the leaders of the West will have for it, unless it can somehow support their civilisation’s sacred values. They could say that human rights are, at the most basic level, contradictory to human nature.

Peter Singer, in his contribution, believes that Darwin and the evolutionary theory are open to a radically different interpretation than that of social Darwinists. In his view, evolution is neither good nor bad and most importantly, it is fundamental to separate between the scientific and the moral realms and not to try and draw ethical implications from man’s [sic] biological nature.

In his opinion, since the 1960’s, evolutionary theorists neglected the role that cooperation can play in improving an organism’s prospect of survival and reproductive success. It should come as no surprise that the left was reluctant to turn to Darwin as a source for ideas and why the right was willing to adopt it.

So where does all this leave us with regards to the assumed universality of Human Rights? Maybe the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be used as an example. As I have tried to emphasise in this piece, my thinking is not to point at natural laws as a sources of inspiration — or as some will say, to institutionalise the law of the jungle like Singer. I completely believe that we should not draw ethical conclusions from biological facts. What I would like to point out is that there may be limitations and tendencies inherent to human beings and since that is the raw material we should work with and not abstractions such as those proposed by John Rawls (mentioned, if my memory serves me right, by Per Sundman and who, by the way, has an interesting vision that I do not totally reject).

One of the most important conclusions to be drawn from my brief overview could be to understand that documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do not stand above the political context in which they were drafted and, moreover, reinforce certain tendencies that may go totally against supposed goals. In this context, when the West tried to promote in Africa the view that we are defined by our common humanity and everything else is secondary, that was for the most just a meaningless abstraction. A person is also part of the social and natural environment he or she lives in and trying to renounce that while highlighting only Western liberal political rights reinforces the tendency for narrow self interest, which is not only immoral but also endangers the life of the planet and all living creatures.

In this regard my feelings steer me into line of thinking that human rights and distributor justice are different things that should be analysed differently. I would like to see the division with human rights, in its most wide sense, defining our ethics. This is perhaps not so far from the Kantian imperative, at least in the sense of treating humans as ends and not means. Distributive justice, on the other side, should be the frame where studying and understanding of human nature in the sense I previously discussed is relevant if we want to make a long-lasting impact. It should help us design the strategy for always strengthening our tendency to cooperation and altruism and correcting the wrongs of the past and those that will always arise. Struggle is inherent to human existence and to debate about whether that is good or bad is, in a sense, irrelevant.

But of course it is not only relevant but extremely important to argue that the tendency for human competition does not have to logically lead to the nightmarish clash put forward by people such as Huntington, with a clear political and social agenda disguised as academic research of a descriptive nature. I think in his case, it is not hard to guess which tendencies he would like to see exacerbated and which ones he would like to disappear. Unless, of course, they serve Western interests.

Demaine Solomons is a student of Theology reading towards his Masters at the University of the Western Cape.