Diogenes: Human Rights and the State

In Sophocles’ Antigone, we hear the chorus of wise men say: “Many wonders there be, but naught more wondrous than man.”

Indeed, human beings are marvelous creatures. Over the course of history, people have learned how to build comfortable houses, bridges to cross rivers safely, and ships to travel the world. Today, they construct miraculous machines that fly at breathtaking speeds and electronic devices that perform millions of complicated mathematical operations within a fraction of a second. Humans can even engineer molecules with the desired characteristics to help cure certain diseases. But of all the wonders we know, humankind itself remains the greatest enigma, and one particular question lingers: Why are humans, despite their incredible intelligence and capability, unable to conduct their lives in such a manner that no other being is threatened, exploited, or harmed?

The greatest and most complicated systems created by man are not aircraft carriers, supercomputers, or nuclear power plants, but states. States are the ‘cages’ in which our human ancestors found themselves when they began to change and control their environment and flourish beyond smaller familial or tribal units. These cages are the epitome of civilization, and yet they are prisons — for the occupants cannot imagine life outside the cage, a life without hierarchy and laws.

Every institution is organized on the basis of a hierarchical framework. Hierarchy provides order and structure and, within that, an illusion of security. Even so, hierarchy is inherently fragile and unstable, with perpetual tension existing between the social strata and the elements thereof. The state thrives on the unfolding of this tension in society; however, at the same time, it makes all individuals dependent on one another by assigning them ranks within a social structure. Within this system of ranking and classification, all elements have some scope, albeit some more and others less.

Those individuals who are ranked further down dream of a higher ranking, of being closer to the top, with more possibilities and more freedom. Those in higher positions, conversely, seek to preserve their own status and freedom, and may even deliberately thwart the upward progression of those below them.

Analogous to the struggle within every state is the global struggle for survival in which every country is engaged. By seeking advantage over others, some go so far as to occupy foreign territories and absorb their resources. Thus, animosities and wars are inevitable and will never cease for as long as states function as entities struggling for survival, their citizens trapped within their cages.

Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that the concept of human rights is particularly absurd. The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. One could argue that they should be, but are they really if they are born into a hierarchical society? The hierarchy system is pervasive — it permeates religion, education, gender, and organizations the world over.

One simply cannot argue that any two individuals of different nationality, cultural heritage, or economic status have equal rights. Capital punishment is just one example: In some countries, a woman who has extramarital relations with a man can lawfully be beheaded or stoned to death. In others, such a woman will not be punished at all.

Here a question arises: Is a universally acceptable rule that could ensure that all people live together without hatred, fear, or exploitation conceivable? Yes, it is: Do not do to others what you don’t want done to you.

Unfortunately, many institutions and states will not endorse this instruction. Reliant on the existence of its citizens, yet an entity for its own sake, the state must expect its citizens to obey and do what the state authorities view best for their survival. The state purports to foster and feed us; perhaps we dare not look beyond into the unknown.

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