The US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v FEC on corporate political funding has raised the question of “human rights” for corporations. I don’t particularly want to get into the debate over this decision, but Slavoj Žižek has some interesting thoughts on the relationship between human rights and the Ten Commandments, in his book The Fragile Absolute (see previous post)
The connection between the two is, he suggests, this:
As the experience of our post-political liberal-permissive society amply demonstrates, human rights are ultimately, at their core, simply Rights to violate the Ten Commandments.
Žižek gives examples of this (some more successful than others, perhaps):
“The right to privacy” – the right to adultery, in secret, where no one sees me or has the right to probe into my life. “The right to pursue happiness and to possess private property” – the right to steal (to exploit others). “Freedom of the press and of the expression of opinion” – the right to lie. “The right of free citizens to possess weapons” – the right to kill. And, ultimately, “freedom of religious belief” – the right to worship false gods.
(Of these, the most relevant to this week’s discussion is of course “the right to lie”.)
It’s not that human rights are opposed to the Commandments, just that they make it impossible for the state to impose obedience to the Commandments:
Of course, human Rights do not directly condone the violation of the Ten Commandments – the point is simply that they keep open a marginal “grey zone” which should remain out of reach of (religious or secular) power: in this shady zone, I can violate these commandments, and if power probes into it, catching me with my pants down and trying to prevent my violations, I can cry: “Assault on my basic human Rights!”.
This highlights the general problem of the relationship between the state and individual rights, a problem that underlies the issues under discussion in the Citizens United case:
The point is thus that it is structurally impossible, for Power, to draw a clear line of separation and prevent only the “misuse” of a Right, while not encroaching upon the proper use, that is, the use that does not violate the Commandments.
A paragraph that could almost have come from Jacques Ellul: the difference being that, while for Ellul this would be further confirmation of the need to eschew political power, I suspect Žižek would be more inclined to say we need to “sin boldly” by exercising power without being too squeamish over any “encroachments” upon the “proper use” of individual rights…