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close this bookThe Impact of Technology on Human Rights: Global Case-studies (UNU, 1993, 322 pages)
close this folder1. Technological impacts on human rights: Models of development, science and technology, and human rights
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe definition of the concept of technology
View the documentThe origins of the western technological culture
View the documentEnlightenment, the open industrial society, and human rights
View the documentThe enlightenment model of industrial development
View the documentA critical analysis of the enlightenment model of industrial development (technological imperialism)
View the documentModels of development and the technological factor
View the documentDevelopment, choice, and human rights
View the documentThe ''deconstruction'' of deterministic models of development
View the documentNotes

Enlightenment, the open industrial society, and human rights

In the preceding section we have offered a brief description of some developments in Western Europe that gave rise to the Enlightenment, in which scientific positivism played such a pivotal role. The Enlightenment made a profound impact on both the industrial development of Western Europe - also causing the sharp opposition between tradition and modernity - and on the development of the idea of human rights. As Herrera put it succinctly,

For Enlightenment, all things in nature are disposed in harmonious order, regulated by a few simple laws, in such a way that everything contributes to the equilibrium of the Universe. The same rational order is the basis of the human world and manifests itself through the instincts and tendencies of men. The main obstacle to this linear unending human progress is, for the Enlightenment, ignorance and the education of all strata of society in the light of reason and science will finally lead to a perfect and happy society.21

Indeed, the rational analysis of the physical and social world will gradually show many ideas of the established traditional order to be errors, which will be replaced by scientific truth. Moreover, in connection with these ideas, a new type of society evolved and conscious attempts were made to change political and social orders in the direction of a "rational society." It was, as Eisenstadt phrased it, the birth of "the civilization of modernity," which is, among other things, characterized by growing structural differentiation and specialization, the establishment of universalistic organizational frameworks, and the articulation of relatively open, non-traditional systems of stratification and mobility in which criteria of achievement are dominant.22

The rise of this industrial, open society, based on a specific set of values of the Enlightenment, is closely connected to the birth of human rights. Although the idea of human rights has deep historical roots - and not exclusively in the Western world -human rights, as formulated in documents such as the Bill of Rights and the Declaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen, are very much the product of both the Enlightenment and the rise of industrial society. As such the concept of human rights is strongly associated with individualism, rationalism, and universalism. Dumont states that the adoption of the Declaration marks in a certain sense the triumph of the individual.23

Because of the great importance of the connection between the rise of industrial society and the birth of human rights for our understanding of the present-day debate concerning the impact of technology on human rights, we will say a little more about this link. Some observers assume a causal link between human rights and the rise of an industrial, individualized society that is based on contractual relationships. So Sorokin states that human rights play a more prominent role in societies characterized by a high frequency of individual social mobility than in stable, closed societies. Mobility facilitates an increase of individualism, because it destroys the seclusion of life in one social niche, as is typical in a traditional society. In Sorokin's words,

Mobility awakens his personality, transforms him from the component of a group to an individual person. As he is shifting from group to group, he must now receive rights and privileges for himself, not for a specific group, because he himself does not know in what group he will be tomorrow. Hence the "Declaration of the Rights of Man," but not that of a group, the demands for liberty of speech, religion, self-realisation for a man, not for a group Hence the equality of all individuals before the law, and individual responsibility instead of that of a group, as in the case of an immobile society. A mobile society inevitably must "invest" all rights and responsibilities in an individual but not in a group.24

This seems to be a rather restricted view of the origin of human rights. Are these rights - as liberties - primarily a functional alternative in a modern world, for the security that is provided in an organic way within traditional structures? In European history we can observe several periods which bear witness to the disintegration of established social structures and the concomitant rise of individualism - for example, the period after the downfall of the Greek city-states and the Renaissance period in which the individual emerged from the communal order of the Middle Ages - without the development of a concept of human rights that is comparable to the concept as it emerged in the eighteenth century.

In the historical documents to which we referred earlier, the idea of human rights is associated with a very positive image of individualism. In the period when these documents were being produced, individualism was considered by many advocates of social change to be a pivotal characteristic of the emerging social order. It referred not only to respect for the intrinsic value or dignity of the individual human being in relation to privacy, but also to individual autonomy, the capacity of the individual to think independently, to decide for himself or herself, to control the conditions under which he - or she - lived and worked. As such, autonomy was - and is - the reverse of alienation and powerlessness. The coming social order was contrasted with the traditional order of feudal society in which an individual's opportunities in life were strongly determined by his or her position in the social order, based on birth, and the rights to which his or her estate entitled the individual.

The emerging social order was interpreted in terms of social progress, development in the direction of a better society, in which the position of every person is based, ideally, on individual qualifications and achievements, and on his or her position within a new division of labour. In this new ordering, everybody contributes according to his or her talents or skills and receives a remuneration according to the (market) value of this contribution. The development in this direction was thought to be contingent on the rise of industrial society, in which economic growth is dependent on industrial production, propelled by science and technology. It is dependent on the development of open, worldwide markets and on the adequate use of individual talents. This image of society implies increased individual occupational and social mobility together with a growing equality of educational opportunities, a fading away of traditional class differences, a concomitant growth of the middle classes as a consequence of the increasing demand for skilled and professional workers, and, consequently, a decrease in collective types of antagonism, especially class struggle. It is important to note that in this perspective of societal development, the exigencies of industrialization will generate everywhere - in the long run - this same type of social order, which will finally merge into an encompassing world system.

This connection between the birth of human rights and the rise of a new liberal, democratic order produced consequences for the contents of human rights as individual, universal rights. The origin of human rights, and the subsequent development of socio-economic rights, shed some light on the model of man that is traditionally associated with those who favour civil rights. This model is, as Campbell says, of a person somewhat beyond the "norm" in the sense of the normal: an active, rational, and entrepreneurial person for whom the life which is claimed is one in which there is a degree of self-expression, self-help, and self-defence. It is of a person who has the opportunity to have and manage property, to communicate views and pursue happiness along individually chosen lines, to share in government and freely go about day-to-day activities without the interference of officials and prohibitions of the state beyond those strictly necessary for the defence of the rights of others.25

Human rights are, as we explained, tied to an individualistic view of society and man. In this view individualism is combined with rationalism, universalism, and cosmopolitanism, and as such they stand in opposition to particularism, collectivism, and traditionalism. Human rights refer to the individual and are beyond his or her particular social relationships or roots. This primacy of reason, universalism, and the individual over the group appears to be essential in solving problems related to human rights as it develops in international law today.26