Buddhism and human rights: the Kantian dhamma

opinion January 11, 2012 00:00

By Paisarn Likhitpreechakul

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Every time Thailand is under scrutiny for human rights violations, we always hear arguments from some quarters that human rights are a western concept and don't apply to Thai society with our Buddhist codes.

It’s no surprise, then, that the protest was loudest when the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights singled out Thailand’s harsh criminal sanctions under the laws on lese majeste as “neither necessary nor proportionate, and violate the country’s international human rights obligations”.  

The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) boldly declares, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” However, even this fundamental premise appears to be far from being universally accepted here. 
Some Thais would argue that humans are born unequal, like the digits on one’s hand, implying fixed roles and discriminating treatments. Although often attributed to the Buddha, this justification for a caste-like system was actually promoted by Phraya Anumanratchathon in the 1960s to support the Pibunsongkram nationalistic regime.  
In contrast, Buddhists elsewhere have long supported human rights. In his 1991 book on the subject, Sri Lankan scholar LPN Perera established that the UDHR is completely in agreement with Buddhism, by identifying parallels in the Buddhist canon to every UDHR article. However, in Are There Human Rights in Buddhism? Buddhist ethicist Damien Keown asked an important question on how to philosophically “ground” the concept of human rights in Buddhism. Here, the author would like to propose a preliminary answer by taking a step back to the origin of human rights. 
All Buddhists are familiar with the legend of how Prince Siddhartha was motivated to find the answer to human sufferings after journeying out of his comfort zone one day to see the spectrum of life: an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a renunciate. It can be said that, after witnessing the atrocities men inflicted on men in two devastating world wars, people as a whole went into a similar soul-searching and reached back to the common wisdom of humanity to produce the UDHR, with the aim of preventing and alleviating human suffering at the global level.
It’s perhaps the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant who did most of the groundwork: “Many of the central themes first expressed within Kant’s moral philosophy remain highly prominent in contemporary philosophical justifications of human rights. Foremost amongst these are the ideals of equality and the moral autonomy of rational human beings. Kant provides a means for justifying human rights as the basis for self-determination grounded within the authority of human reason.” 
In Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel wrote, “Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals appeared shortly after the American Revolution (1776) and just before the French Revolution (1789). In line with the spirit and moral thrust of those revolutions, it offers a powerful basis for what the 18th-century revolutionaries called the rights of man, and what we in the early 21st century call universal human rights.” 
Kant places human freedom at the heart of his philosophy. At first glance, Buddhists may counter that humans are not truly free because we’re ruled by desire. And Kant would completely agree and even add that we’re not free if we only act out of our own desires, preferences or interests because we did not choose them in the first place. Of the arbitrariness and tyranny of desire, the Buddha says, “Enwrapped in craving, beings run about; now here, now there, like a captive hare.”  
In Kantian philosophy, acts made out of our inclinations have no moral worth. A moral act must be done with a “motive of duty” which, in practical terms – as will be later elaborated – turns out to be very similar to the Dhamma (duty, righteousness, morality). The Buddha similarly says, “Though little he recites the sacred texts; but put the Dhamma into practice; forsaking lust, hatred and delusion; with right knowledge, with mind well freed; cling to nothing here or hereafter; he has a share in religious life.” 
Kant insists that we have the power to rise above our desire, because if there’s no such autonomy then there’s no moral responsibility. A flying rock cannot be held culpable for breaking someone’s skull, but its thrower can. In Mahabodhi Jataka, the Buddha made crushing arguments against theistic and karmic determinism on the same ground that they deprive humans of moral desert. 
The Buddha pointed out, “It is volition, monk, that I declare to be karma. Having willed, one performs an action by body, speech or mind.” Similarly it’s in human intention that Kant places the moral worth of an action. “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will. A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself it is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favour of any inclination, nay even of the sum total of all inclinations.”
In other words, for an action to be morally good in Kantian philosophy, it is not enough that it conforms to the moral law – it must also be done for the sake of the moral law, not for its results. Even in this respect, the Buddha agrees, “He who grasps at neither ‘I’ nor ‘mine’, neither in mentality nor in materiality; who grieves not for what is not; such a one indeed is called a Bhikkhu.” “He who is vigilant; He whose mind is not overcome by lust and hatred; He who has discarded both merits and demerits; for such a one there is no fear.”   
As the Buddha’s core teachings on non-self (anatta) require us to let go of all egoistic instincts, Buddhism – similar to Kantian philosophy – aims at altruism as the ultimate peace. It is, therefore, more in line with socially-engaged Buddhism and other justice movements that aspire to do what’s right. 
On the other hand, the popular rituals – mass chanting or meditation retreats that focus on expected individualistic results such as lottery wins, better rebirths, mental peace or even enlightenment – should be viewed with half-suspicion and vigilance, as these “self-love” projects often end up turning ego into super-ego rather than reducing its size.
For Kant, every human being’s autonomy to achieve morally worthy acts gives us equal dignity. As one of his epithets is purisadammasarathi (trainer of humans), the Buddha also shows an unwavering faith that all humans are capable of transcending desire to become enlightened. Contrary to popular belief, no human is a lost cause, often compared to a mud-buried lotus, in the Buddha’s eyes.
This is the kind of equality that matters in human rights as well as in Buddhism, as strongly reaffirmed in Vasettha Sutta. In this discourse, which should deservedly be called the Buddha’s Declaration of Human Dignity and Equality, the Buddha uncompromisingly rejected Brahmanist caste inequality and declared that no inherent characteristics set one human apart from another – not in the body, complexion, voice, sex organ or the way we mate. For the Buddha, the only thing that distinguishes humans is conduct.
This is part one of a two-part series to conclude tomorrow.