In recent centuries, one of the most important concepts shaping humanity has been that of human progress. The idea of inevitable progress was accepted as so obviously true that for most people it was beyond doubt. Now however, many people are beginning to question the notion
World problems are piling on thick and fast, and there is already the beginnings of a scramble for the remains of diminishing fossil fuel and other material resources, not to mention fresh water and food. This is not to belittle much of the material progress we have made. Enormous strides have been taken in medicine and science. Smallpox has been eradicated, polio almost entirely so, and with further financial backing and effort malaria could also be eliminated – a disease that kills nearly a million people every year.
But for all its enormous benefits, material progress has also often meant, and continues to mean, that we have been able to develop more manipulative ways to build empires, to destructively exploit the environment and to invent more terrible ways to kill each other. Material progress is threatening the integrity of the entire biosphere of the planet and in some minds, this brings into question the future progress and even continuance of the human race.
Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that we have put too much store on material progress and have neglected progress of a spiritual nature. The answer to this lies in a much less trumpeted feature of human progress, but one that has been quietly gaining momentum. This is the sense of social responsibility among individuals, groups and communities of people all around the world.
If we think about it, all the social reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries were brought about by groups of enlightened men and women whose hearts could no longer bear the appalling institutional cruelties of the times. They accepted responsibility and, usually fighting against powerful vested interests, they took action. Slavery was abolished for example, the lives of children in the developed world have been safeguarded from abusive labour practices and primary education is now widespread internationally.
A crucially important milestone in human betterment was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Its 30 articles provide the architecture for a global observation of basic rights to which all people – female and male, young and old everywhere in the world – are entitled just by virtue of the fact that they are living human beings. And every year on 10 December, Human Rights Day gives us all the opportunity to remind ourselves of these rights.
But despite having rights codified in international law over 60 years ago and hence in the domestic laws of most countries, there is a growing recognition that for these rights to be universally observed, we are going to have to accept the responsibility to act and make it happen.
From this point of view there has been an interesting development in recent years. A number of people and groups – some very eminent – have been inspired by the idea of fostering the development of an ethic of human responsibility and have produced various charters in which these responsibilities are outlined. Perhaps the most prominent charter is the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, which has many former heads of state among its drafters, such as Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev.
This charter points out that there is no need for a complex system of ethics to guide human action and there is one ancient rule that, if truly followed, would ensure human relations that are just. This is the ‘golden rule’: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For example, if we have a right to life, then we have the obligation to respect life; if we have a right to liberty, then we have the obligation to respect other people’s liberty; if we have a right to benefit from the Earth’s bounty, then we have the obligation to respect, care for and restore the Earth and its natural resources.
It is heartening to see evidence of this in the work of people such as those highlighted in every issue of Positive News. Perhaps the promotion of the idea of a Human Responsibilities Day to parallel that of Human Rights Day, would help keep the idea alive and visible in human consciousness?
Photo title: Children of the United Nations International Nursery School look at a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Photo credit: © United Nations, New York