Human rights vs the Commandments

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…

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16 Responses to Human rights vs the Commandments

  1. Phil Walker says:

    The right to private property is the right to steal? Only from a ‘Property is theft’ Proudhonist, surely? I think I’ll chalk that one up as a ‘less successful’ one.

    More broadly, I think your inner Ellul is more nearly right than your inner Zizek. Give someone the authority to prevent liars from speaking, and before long we’ll find that only permissible ‘truth’ is that the authority loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. (The plan normally involves lots of exercise, fresh air, time for contemplation and a free trip to Siberia.)

    I suspect, though, that your inner Luther, as long as he’s still playing the ‘Two Kingdoms’ track, might be even nearer the mark. Human rights are a useful political concept, although I still prefer freedom; what they definitely are not is a moral concept. They help us to rub along together in the here and now, rather than fitting us for heaven.

  2. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Luther, as long as he’s still playing the ‘Two Kingdoms’ track

    He never did. Not in the way people say he did at any rate. It’s a modern German Lutheran construct now quite popular in America.

  3. Phil Walker says:

    Well, John’s inner Luther-as-we-or-at-least-some-of-us-might-have-liked-him-to-have-been, then. 😉

  4. John H says:

    Phil: the clue on “the right to steal” is in the subsequent comment: “to exploit others”.

    In other words, this is Zizek’s Marxism showing: “bourgeois” private property being founded on the exploitation of others, hence constituting a form of theft. I’ve not read enough Marx or Proudhon to know how close that is to what Proudhon had in mind.

  5. Ralph says:

    “human rights are ultimately, at their core, simply Rights to violate the Ten Commandments.”

    This is the view that liberty is license, rather than the freedom to do what is right.

    “Error has no rights,” Orestes Brownson once said, “but the man who errs has equal rights with him who errs not.” Seamus Hasson called it “The Right to Be Wrong” in his book by that title about religious liberty.

  6. J Random Hermeneut says:

    This is the view that liberty is license, rather than the freedom to do what is right.

    Indeed. As Erasmus also once argued. For an alternative view of the matter see Luther, “Bondage of the Will.”

    (I’m lolling here. ok? Not interested in an actual dialogue. My bad.)

  7. John H says:

    Ralph: it would be a mistake to read Zizek as celebrating human-rights-as-licence. More accurate to say he is taking a poke at contemporary pieties about human rights, and in doing so exposing the tension our society feels between the individualism of human rights and social cohesion/”the good life”: a tension demonstrated by the United Citizens case, where the price for freedom of speech appears to be the loss of any ability to control the corrupting influence of money in politics.

  8. JDart says:

    I take issue with a couple of Zizek’s connections you quoted in the original post, some of which you have pointed out. For example, not all killing is murder, and it is murder against which the Commandment is chiefly directed. And to be fair, while I support the rights of the citizenry to arm themselves, I would not term the right to bear arms as a basic human right. I would identify the right to self-defense as the human right. Arming oneself simply enables the exercise of that right. Certainly if one uses arms to exploit one’s neighbor his right to possess those weapons could be removed without impeding his human right to legitimate self defense.

    With regard to the United Citizens case, it seems a bit simplistic to imagine that the “corrupting influence of money in politics” was effected one bit by McCain-Feingold. If anything it made for sanctioned monetary corruption. There were enough loopholes in the bill to enable the savvy campaign financer to funnel whatever corrupting cash he wished into the warchest of whichever candidate he chose. What I think we see currently happening is that those who are most vocally upset with the outcome of the United Citizens case tend to be those who until very recently had possessed the most control/influence over the campaign finance system.

  9. Ralph says:


    I know you didn’t want to discuss the details of the United Citizens case, but a few things should be noted:

    Incumbents always have the advantage because they have power, they have press coverage, they may be influenced by money. It is always the challenger who needs more money, more press interest, more assistance. So restrictions on fund raising hurts challengers the most.

    Rich individuals can (and some do) spend large sums of money on politics. The only way ordinary citizens can match them is by pooling their resources. Remember that “corporation” is just another way of saying a group of people.

    Regulation of political contributions is regulation of speech because access to mass media is not free. Again, “grass roots” citizen groups are hurt the most by onerous regulations.

    Beware of “over the top” political rhetoric. Discount claims that the sky is falling.

    If you’re curious about my view, it’s simply “full and swift disclosure”. As long as the public knows who is funding whom, they can take that into account when they vote.

  10. Rick Ritchie says:

    Nobody is supposed to notice the corresponding rights Žižek will offer the state. The right to voyeurism, where parasitical state functionaries will be watching innocent people on cameras lest they do anything wrong. The right to keep people dependent on the state so that they must do whatever the state bids. The right of the state to forbid any communication that makes incumbents uncomfortable. The right to disarm citizens as governments often do before committing genocides. The right to compel worship of false gods.

  11. John H says:

    Rick: indeed. As ever with Zizek, it’s not entirely clear what alternative he proposes, and what is clear is unattractive (“revolutionary terror” and all that).

  12. kieran says:

    John, the more you quote Zizek the more intrguing I find him. I’m tempted to read some of his works – I suspect they will be thought-provoking and laughter-provoking in equal measure.

    Personally I don’t see any serious problem in drawing a distinction between moral and legal transgressions, particularly when there will not be consensus on what constitutes the former. It also allows space for the exercise of individual conscience. It’s one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia, for example, appears to me to be such a dismal society. But perhaps I’m taking Zizek too seriously in making this point.

  13. I’m with Rick on this one. I never liked this Campaign Finance Reform as it was called, and took a bit of pleasure in noting how it worked agains McCain in the last election. I think that is properly called irony.
    But I do have another question. Do you see the supreme courts decision as having an influence on the way things are done in Britain?
    Europeans always get on us Americans for not knowing what is going on in the rest of the world, but sometimes I just feel that is somehow just jealousy or something for the attention they need to pay to what is happening in the U.S. And sometimes I wonder just why they are so interested in what is happening here. At the same time Americans for the last decade I think have cared too much about what other nations think. Do Brits take polls concerning the American opinion of who should be prime minister?
    To be fair though most Americans wouldn’t know who is running. But I wonder if Brits would take umbrage to that, the same way I take umbrage to them voicing their opinions on my news channels.

  14. John H says:

    Bror: what happens in the US has more of an impact on Britain than vice versa. (I’m guessing the inhabitants of Rome’s vassal states took more of an interest in who became emperor than the inhabitants of Rome took of who became king of Outer Wherever…)

    And what happens in the US has always been of interest to Europeans, ever since the American Revolution did so much to inspire the French Revolution.

    Americans for the last decade I think have cared too much about what other nations think.

    Didn’t stop you voting for the “wrong” guy for two of the three presidential elections during that time!

    More seriously: I read a fascinating article the other day in the Spectator (not online yet, alas) about America having lost some of its optimism since the 1970s, some of its outgoing confidence. To say “why are you so interested in what is happening here?” sounds uncharacteristically defensive, almost “chippy”. Whatever happened to the “city upon a hill”?

  15. Perhaps we have lost some of our optimism, more so when we have a president as incompetent as the one currently in office. I liked Bush, uninspiring as a speaker, but he knew what needed to be done. You sort of have the opposite happening now. Though he has even lost it seems his rhetorical capabilities.

  16. kieran says:


    To add to John’s point – I would point out that the US is still the most powerful nation economically, militarily and culturally. Technology and the global economic architecture mean that we are living in an increasingly interconnected world. The impact that humans have on our environment means that actions in one country can have consequences elsewhere. So American policy decisions – and not just foreign policy decisions have an impact on the rest of the world. Hence the rest of the world cares to an extent about American politics. We should also care increasingly about, say, Chinese politics, but American politics is a lot more accessible, because it’s democratic, there’s a free media, and the media is primarily in English.

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