Friday, May 25, 2012

Hammurabi's Code Versus The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: How Attaining Justice Has Changed

Both Hammurabi’s code and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are sets of laws written with the purpose of protecting individuals and maintaining order. They share common intentions, yet differ in the values they address.  Hammurabi’s code was a set of laws written in the 1700’s BCE my Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, and was influential in developing later systems of laws including the Mosaic Code. The basic tenets directed individuals on how to protect their possessions, keep safe, and how the judicial system should punish wrongdoers.  More than 3,000 years later, on December 10th, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly. It represented a global promise to ensure the rights of all individuals, as a vow to never again allow atrocities like the Holocaust to occur.  The Declaration of Human Rights consists of a preamble and thirty articles that describe the fundamental and judicial rights of all human beings. 
            Hammurabi’s Code and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights share the overarching goal of obtaining fairness, justice, and protection for the people the laws pertained to.  While Hammurabi’s code focused largely on outlining a system of justice to victims of crimes, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid out rules to prevent future violations rights within countries and between countries. Numerous laws throughout Hammurabi’s Code focused on delivering rightful punishment to wrongdoers.  For example, a common trend that reappears in the laws is the value “an eye for an eye. ” For every transgression one commits, one is to be punished in the same way. One law states that “if a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. If he break another man's bone, his bone shall be broken” (laws 196 – 197). This law demonstrates the value of order in society, and that justice is defined in part by the reciprocation of deeds. I believe it also proves that Hammurabi understood the importance of protecting his citizens.  His strict system of law and order was meant to frighten individuals from committing crimes, which in turn would protect his citizens from being victimized.
            Similarly, the purpose of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to protect human lives.  The laws written in this document tend to focus on basic rights that all humans have and that cannot be abused.  For instance, Article 19 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” This law is not based mainly on maintaining order in society, as in Hammurabi’s code, but rather on recognizing a fundamental dignity that humans are thought to deserve. This shows that the purpose of the Declaration of Human Rights is to acknowledge that people have a certain dignity as human beings that needs to be respected.  
            Even though these two documents share the common goal of defining basic rights and laws, they differ in the respect of the values they describe as being crucial to maintaining order and morality. In Hammurabi’s code, the overarching value has to do with the importance of attainting justice through fair punishments to wrong-doers, and resolving smaller-scale social conflicts fairly.  The first goal of Hammurabi’s code, to achieve justice by dealing out fair penalty, is a reoccurring theme throughout his laws.  For example, the 3rd law states “if a man has borne false witness in a trial, or has not established the statement that he has made, if that case be a capital trial, that man shall be put to death.” 
The law made clear to how the justice and court system was supposed to work, but also how wrong-doers were supposed to be punished. Hammurabi’s code also instructed citizens on more mundane conflicts such as marriage disputes.  For example, law 138 states that “if a man has divorced his wife, who has not borne him children, he shall pay over to her as much money as was given for her bride-price and the marriage-portion…and so shall divorce her.”  In other words, a man could not simply leave his wife if she did not get pregnant, but had to pay back the money that was given to him when they married.  All in all, Hammurabi’s code, consisted of instructions on how to resolve judicial, criminal, and social conflict, and emphasized the value of justice in order to live in a fair and orderly society.
The values embedded in the Declaration of Human Rights have to do with attaining a sense of global morality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes rights and privileges that all individuals are entitled to and that should not be violated. These include protection against torture and inhumane punishment (Article 5), the freedom to practice religion (Article 18), and the right to education (Article 26). The Declaration of Human Rights does not focus on how to resolve specific conflicts, but rather on how to avoid conflict.  In other words, the laws and rights described are for the purpose of averting possible clashes by insisting on a level of respect for all citizens of the world.  The Declaration of Human Rights does not specify how to punish individuals who violate the rights described, but rather makes the case that these rights are morally correct and therefore should never be broken. The reason why they shouldn’t be broken is because it would degrade humanity and undermine respect for the human race.
So what does this difference mean?  I believe that the distinct values described in Hammurabi’s code versus those explained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights demonstrates how our world has evolved since the times of Hammurabi and ancient Babylon.  Hammurabi’s code reflects the mindset that individuals needed guidance on how to live in every aspect of their lives.  From judicial to social conflicts, the laws explained how to resolve very specific problems.  In contrast, the Declaration of Human Rights, which is a code to the world, focuses not on conflicts or resolutions for specific cases, but rather on creating a common moral mindset. This shift in focus reflects the idea that in addition to laws and rules, morality is also an important part of a just society. Today, the world needs to be reminded on how to treat others respectfully and morally because the most serious conflicts that face humanity are not small problems between citizens that have to do with an unfair business deal or a dead ox that was stolen by a neighbor, but wars, genocides, and persecutions. The laws described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights illustrate the causes for the most pressing conflicts that face our world today. 
The differences in values between Hammurabi’s code and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflect the development of the concepts of justice and morality.  It is now not enough to base fairness solely on following rules, but also upon morality.  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Declaration of the Right to High-Quality Education For All

The Statement of Human Rights in the Declaration of Independence claims that all citizens of the United States deserve equal human rights and treatment.  It states that humans are “endowed by their creator with….unalienable rights….[such as] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The ideal that the United States was established upon was a nation where all citizens had equal human rights that would allow them to accomplish their goals and live happily.   
Despite these values that our government is supposed so support, I strongly believe that citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are violated daily, as many student are denied access to high-quality education. In other words, individuals who do not have access to a good education are put at a disadvantage in terms of their opportunities later in life to pursue happiness.  
In our country, it is common that the least strong schools are located in the lowest-income neighborhoods, despite the particular need for a good education when people require a way to overcome poverty. Many families often times do not have the ability to send their children to good quality schools.  Why is this? Does our society discriminate against those without wealth? Does our country not believe that children from all socio-economic backgrounds should be able to capitalize on a great education if they have access to one?
I am not attempting to make the generalization that without a great education, no one can make money or be happy. Instead, I am making the point that the lack of a good quality education can make it more difficult for one to find a job, earn a living, dwell in a safe environment, and stay healthy. The benefits of a first-rate education are not by any means the only ways to acquire happiness. But I believe that they have the ability to make life a lot more enjoyable.
So what can be done? I believe that our country should ratify a “Declaration of the Right to High-Quality Education For All.” This declaration of rights would ensure that rigorous and well-funded schools would be established in all neighborhoods and give families access to good teachers, adequate educational materials, and a safe environment to learn in. This declaration would ensure that all kids in America would have the opportunity to attend a school that could supply them with the tools they need to graduate and succeed in college and later in life.  This declaration would give Americans from all socio-economic backgrounds an opportunity to get better jobs and earn higher salaries. Ideally, this declaration would give more Americans the ability to take advantage of their natural right to pursue happiness. 

Hamilton's Short-Sighted Argument

Congress proposed the Bill of Rights in 1789 to convince the States to abide by the federal Constitution.  The States had been reluctant to give up power to the federal government because they had traditionally functioned with under the leadership and laws of their own governments.  In order to gain support from each individual State, the founding fathers (such as Benjamin Franklin and James Madison) wrote a list of protections that included specific acknowledgements of citizens’ and States’ rights, rather than leaving all power to the federal government.  The proposed compromise was the creation of a federalist government, a structure where power was shared between States and a national government.
            When the Congress proposed writing the Bill of Rights, Alexander Hamilton argued harshly against it. He complained that the entitlements that the Bill of Rights described were already given in the Constitution.  For example, Article IV of the Constitution said that “each State must honor the laws and authority of other States, as well as the rights of their citizens.” This section explains the rights of States concerning the treatment of their citizens.  
I believe that Alexander Hamilton’s argument that there was no need for an additional Bill of Rights was made with good intentions, but may not have been best for the country in the long run. He did not want to establish a code of laws that promised States and citizens very specific rights that the government could not violate (not necessarily that Hamilton had the intention of violating natural rights) because it was important to provide the federal government with power and flexibility in order to make decisions.  He most likely believed that the Bill of Rights impinged on the federal government’s ability to make appropriate decisions for the good of the country because of the additional constraints that it posed.
            Hamilton’s argument was logical at the time.  Following the War of Independence, the government was attempting to establish a national identity among the States and prove its ability to govern the country. However, I believe that Hamilton’s argument was made without taking into account the possible negative consequences of a government with too much power.  Even though the founding fathers were highly focused on guaranteeing liberty, and would not have imagined violating citizens’ rights, they could not be held accountable for the actions of future leaders.  Not ratifying the Bill of Rights, as Hamilton wanted, may have led to a system of leadership similar to the one colonists had fought to disassociate themselves from.  The colonists fought the revolution in the first place because they felt that their government was impinging on their rights as citizens to have representation in government.  So wouldn’t giving power to a federal government without strict limits on how to treat citizens have the potential to undo everything that the colonists dreamed of?
            Furthermore, the Bill of Rights was vital in bringing together the historically separate States under a national government. Besides promising each citizen certain specific rights, the Bill of Rights explicitly said that States had the right to make laws concerning anything that the federal government was not in charge of. For example, the tenth amendment explained that any “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively.” This ensured that States still had power and the ability to govern their citizens even though there was a federal government. It is possible that without the creation of the Bill of Rights, there would be no federal government with the power to govern the whole country.
            Alexander Hamilton did not want the Constitution to be ratified because he felt that in order for the federal government to be most effective, it needed to have fewer constraints.  To him, the Constitution sufficiently described the guidelines that the government had to follow and therefore there was no need for an additional Bill of Rights. Though Hamilton may have had positive intentions for arguing against the ratification of the Bill of Rights, I believe that he did not realize the possible repercussions of a government with too much power. I believe that it was the right decision to ratify the Bill of Rights because it helped create national unity and ensured the protection of citizens’ rights. The Bill of Rights went into affect in 1791 and has been the basis for protecting the rights of citizens and States ever since.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness: An Empty Promise

Over the past few weeks, our class has examined documents that describe fundamental human rights to which all individuals are entitled. An example of a document that acknowledges human rights is the United States’ Declaration of Independence. In the Statement of Human Rights in the Declaration of Independence, it affirms that all humans deserve the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As I analyze the meaning of these human rights, I realize that the third of these rights, the right to pursue happiness, seems extremely difficult to enforce. Isn’t what constitutes happiness different for all humans?
I have identified three main reasons to support my position:
1) There is no way for the government to enforce that every citizen will have opportunities to be happy.
2) In a capitalist society where we are competing and working for the best lifestyle we can live, and it is not the government’s role to create an equal socio-economic playing field.
3) The world-wide problems that have affected past generations, and continue to affect our generation, make it difficult to prioritize the pursuit of happiness.

The first point described above means that defending everyone’s right to pursue happiness is essentially an empty promise. In my opinion, it does not seem possible that a legal system can monitor citizens’ opportunities to pursue happiness. In a country with over 300 million citizens, it is impossible for the government to make sure that every individual person has an opportunity to be happy.  To make matters more complicated, there is no way to tell what makes someone happy (without personally knowing them). What may make one happy might not make another happy.  For this reason, the government has no way of knowing if one’s right to pursue happiness is being violated or not.
My second problem with the “pursuit of happiness” is that our society thrives and progresses based on a competitive mindset.  For good or for bad, the government is not set up to makes sure that everyone has the same opportunities and choices. By the same token, citizens don’t work to make everyone equally happy. We work to make ourselves happy.  I do not mean to say that Americans are selfish and live only for their own pleasure, but the motivation behind making money is usually for personal gain.  It is not to give everyone the same set of opportunities. In our capitalist society, most people work to live the most comfortable lives they can, not to create a society where every single citizen is content. 
My third reason for why this “human right” is not enforceable is that the problems in our world often demand our government’s more immediate attention than citizens’ happiness. For example, how could the government promise citizens the right to pursue happiness while drafting men to the battlefields of Vietnam of Afghanistan? My generation is experiencing a problem that I fear may impinge on our pursuit of happiness as well. Generations before us have been exploiting the world’s natural resources, ruining ecosystems, producing harmful greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change, and ultimately endangering the future of human existence.  Now it is my generation’s responsibility to clean up the mess that previous generations created.  The need to confront these problems seems to impede my right to pursue happiness.  Does this mean that our generation does not have the opportunity to live for fun and excitement, but rather must dedicate our lives to fixing the problems created before us?
All in all, I strongly believe that the pursuit of happiness should not be classified as a human right.  The idea that all citizens deserve to pursue happiness seems morally desirable, but there is no way for a government to enforce it. 

King Asoka's Righteous Empire

Many leaders of early empires, such as the Hammurabi of Babylon, created codes of laws to help citizens survive and maintain order in society. In other words, laws tended to focus on the basic rules for maintaining individuals’ well being. They directed individuals on how to grow food, protect their money, and keep safe. For example, agricultural laws in the Mosaic Code regulated how often farmers could harvest crops in order to prevent soil erosion.
            During the mid-second century B.C.E, King Asoka, the third monarch of the Indian Mauryan dynasty, took a different approach to establishing order. He compiled a code of laws called the “Pillar Edicts of Asoka.” Rather than writing laws to guide followers on how to survive and prosper, Asoka chose to add laws that taught values and morals based on the Buddhist religion. These laws focused on the difference between good and evil, just and unjust, and righteousness versus immorality through a religious lens.  For example, the third Rock Edict stated that “respect for mother and father is good, generosity to friends, acquaintances, relatives…not killing living beings is good, moderation in spending and moderation in saving is good.” This law focused on how to act righteously, a theme that previously not many codes of laws had touched on.
I believe that by writing laws that promoted morality, Asoka’s goal was to create a sense of collective morality within Indian society. Collective morality is a shared belief and understanding in certain morals and values.  By establishing a common morality within the citizens of India based on shared values and understanding of right versus wrong, Asoka was attempting to maintain a greater sense of order within the empire. By establishing “an empire on the foundation of righteousness,” citizens were less likely to break laws and defy norms because they were familiar with the ideas of morality and immorality. 
Writing a code of laws based on religious values, legitimized by a religious justification, could have led to conflicts. I would argue that it could have been difficult for citizens of the empire to follow this code of laws if their cultures (not Buddhist) promoted contrasting morals and values.  
But history shows us that this problem did not arise in India under Asoka’s rule. How was Asoka able to avoid conflict within his empire? It was simple. Asoka promoted religious tolerance. In his seventh Rock Pillar, it states that “beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart…they may practice all of what they should or only a part of it.” This law exemplifies Asoka’s understanding that to maintain internal order within the empire and respect between cultures, he needed to show that he, and his laws, supported religious freedom.  By opening his arms to a wide range of cultures, Asoka was able to maintain peace within his empire and spread collective morality to his citizens.
            I believe that we can learn a lot of Asoka’s rule. He encouraged a sense of righteousness throughout his empire, allowing different cultures to prosper during his reign. Today’s leaders and legislators may be able to govern our country more effectively if they could learn how to create a greater sense of shared values and demonstrate respect for a range of cultural traditions.

 See The Edicts of King Ashoka:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Incentives for Following Ancient Laws

Hammurabi’s Code and the Mosaic Code are two sets of laws and rules written in Babylon and Ancient Israel that were designed to guide the populations on how to live their lives.  These two codes consist of laws and punishments concerning crimes, agricultural life, social conflicts, and business ethics. Like codes of laws today, the purposes of Hammurabi’s Code and the Mosaic Code were to create organization and maintain order in society.  The two codes shared many themes and values, but differed in their means of achieving societal order.
One of the common themes in Hammurabi’s Code and the Mosaic Code is the value of “an eye for an eye. ” For every transgression one commits, one is to be punished in the same way.  If one is to murder, he shall be killed. If one is to steal, he is to give up money. In Hammurabi’s code, “if a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. If he break another man's bone, his bone shall be broken” (laws 196 – 197). Similarly, a quote in the Mosaic code that reflects this value is, “show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Deut. 19:16-21). Both Hammurabi’s Code and the Mosaic Code state that punishments should be equally as serious as the crimes committed. One deserves to pay in the same way he harmed another.
Is the similarity of values between these two codes of laws coincidental? I believe not. Evidence exists that at some point in time, Jews living in Babylon immigrated to Israel and brought values that they had been exposed to in Babylon with them.  Hammurabi lived in the 1700’s BCE.  The Mosaic Code was established in the late 1400’s BCE. The values derived from Hammurabi’s code, such as “an eye for an eye,” likely influenced the way that the Mosaic Code was written.  This is an example of cultural diffusion that affected the ways the laws for the Ancient Israelites were written.
Although similar in many values and punishments, Hammurabi’s code and the Mosaic Code differed in an important respect. Hammurabi’s code was focused on punishing wrong-doers as a way to keep people from breaking these laws.  Almost all transgressions noted in Hammurabi’s code were supposed to be punished with death. The purpose was to frighten the Babylonians from committing crimes. This way, society could remain organized.
Rather than solely emphasizing harsh punishments as the motivation for following laws, the Mosaic code gave an explanation for why its laws were beneficial to society. In other words, as opposed to threats alone, the Mosaic Code established a set of moral behaviors for followers that supported the adherence to the laws themselves.  For example, one law stated thatif the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you.” The first part of this quote taught the importance of honor and truth in society.  This is a value that the Mosaic Code attempted to teach all of its followers.  Although the second part of the quote gave a punishment for the crime, the last part of the quote suggested that if these rules were to be followed, society will rid itself evil.  The purpose of this was to supply society with a common moral code and understanding of good and evil. In other words, the laws in the Mosaic Code taught its followers how to live moral lives and therefore respect why the laws were in place. Because society would then understand why these laws were written, they would be more respected and followed.  
Cultural diffusion blended values from Babylonian society into the legal structure of Ancient Israel.   Both Hammurabi’s code and the Mosaic Code contain laws and punishments that cover all aspects of society.  However, while Hammurabi’s code strictly used fear of death to demonstrate the importance of its laws, the Mosaic Code attempted to establish a common morality among its followers that would result in a greater appreciation and respect for its rules.  

Socrates' Respect for the Justice System

This past week, we read a document titled The Last Days of Socrates (Crito) that described a conversation between Socrates and Crito in prison the day before Socrates was to be killed.  In his conversation, Crito begs Socrates to escape prison and to continue teaching Athenians despite his conviction for corrupting the youth. However, Socrates refuses and is too stubborn to leave with Crito.
Socrates’ decision to remain in jail is primarily based on his respect for law and the judicial system in Athens.  He believes that he should not undermine the justice system by despite his disagreement with his sentence. Crito believes that Socrates is wrongfully convicted and would better serve society as a teacher rather than as a martyr on behalf of the judicial system. He explains that it is only fair that Socrates should have the right to escape.
I believe that both of these arguments are extremely logical and the conflict is not easy to solve.  So, I pose the question, if one disagrees with a judicial judgment, is it right for him/her to ignore the judgment (and to escape as in the case of Socrates), or is it better as a believer in an accountable government to demonstrate respect for the justice system? In other words, do the ends of helping society (by teaching) and escaping punishment like Socrates could have done justify the means of undermining the justice system and in turn challenging its legitimacy?  
I cannot deny the fact that Socrates deserved to escape, raise his children, continue teaching, and question the ideas of powerful men in Athens who did not support his thinking.  It makes perfect sense for Crito, a close friend of Socrates, to beg him to escape prison because his conviction is unfair and cruel.  However, I believe that Socrates, a man whose priority is to approve Athenian society, makes the right choice by remaining in prison.
I feel strongly about this point because in the long run, it seems most honorable and beneficial to society to comply with how the Athenian justice system had decided Socrates’ fate.  By publically undermining the decision to convict him, he would have shown that any imprisoned individual who felt he/she was innocent, deserved the right to escape. This sounds like quite the un-Socrates-ish thing to do.  If Socrates had the best interests of Athens in mind, he certainly would not jeopardize its justice system.
In a broader perspective, if a respected role model and teacher in society were to spread the belief that the justice system did not need to be strictly followed, this could lead to major chaos within society.  Crime rates could shoot up and faith in the justice system would drop. If people no longer believed that the justice system served and protected the citizens of a society properly, it is likely that not many would abide by its rules. 
It may be righteous and selfless to remain in prison to improve trust and faith in the justice system, but it is easier said than done. If one were to be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, I believe that it would be very likely that he/she would escape prison given the opportunity.  It is not a selfish decision for an individual to believe that he/she deserves to be free if he/she is innocent.  It is not inhumane for one to put his/her own health before that of the justice system.
This goes to show how unique of a man Socrates was.  Throughout his life, he worked and taught with the intention of improving life in Athens. Until the day he was killed, he was dedicated to strengthening organization and morality in Athenian life.