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Rights and Aspirations

By Matthieu Ricard on January 04, 2011

Thorbjorn Jagland, the Chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee said at the recent ceremony in Norway: ‟People like Liu Xiaobo are not dissidents, they represents the world's common values and standards.” Pointing to Liu Xiaobo's empty chair, Jagland said: ‟This fact alone suggests that the Price was necessary and appropriate.” He also reminded us of past Nobel Peace Laureates who were not allowed by their oppressive government to come and receive their prize.

Jagland strongly emphasized the parallel of democracy and human rights. The definition and the very meaning of ‟human rights” continue to raise much controversy.  Western democracies focus on the unalienable rights of the individual and, on the other side, some eastern cultures stress either group values (the family/the village community) or state values (law and order as defined by a particular form of government, often authoritarian). From these differences arise countless arguments and both sides want to impose their views on the other.

Is the individual sacred or should the benefit of a larger group matter more? Utilitarians and defenders of Kantian ethics have been endlessly debating this question.
These arguments could be simplified by keeping in mind our common goals. Fundamentally no one wants to suffer and everyone aspires to achieve a state of wellbeing. Are those who are fighting for a particular form of ‟rights” honestly and genuinely considering the interest of others? The interest of the smaller or the greater number of people? Are they doing it for their short or long-term benefit?

In the real world, both of these ideas of ‟human rights” fail when they are biased by selfishness. The concept of ‟individual rights” easily leads to the triumph of self-centeredness and ignores the fact that we are all interdependent. The idea of ‟collective well-being” more than often leads to the oppression of the masses by an authoritarian elite that defines how people should live, usually for the chief purpose of remaining in control.
What both sides disregard is simply that every member of society wants to avoid suffering and experience happiness.

Rather than using the dogmatic word ‟rights” it would be more accurate to focus on the aspirations of each individual and of the community as a whole to avoid suffering and to flourish in life. Acknowledging and respecting these aspirations is much more likely to bring about genuine satisfaction both at the level of the individual and of society. Such respect leads to the notion of ‟duties”, or more exactly the sense ‟responsibility” that we should feel towards others. The principle of ‟universal responsibility” to which the Dalai Lama often refers to, is another way to express the interdependent nature of all beings and phenomena.