A Life without Ideals and Principles isn’t worthy of contemplation


November 29, 2012

A Life without Ideals and Principles isn’t worthy of contemplation

by Azmi Sharom (11-28-12)@http://www.thestar.com.my

Declarations look good at first glance, but read between the lines and one will find escape routes to shirk the very responsibilities spelt out for those in power.

IN the last couple of weeks I have been told that I am really quite a pathetic fellow; out of touch, overly idealistic and generally quite sad.

This is quite a common accusation, one that has been thrown at me in the past, and added to the fact that I work in a university, that old chestnut of making my living quarters in an ivory tower often comes into play as well.

My comments on university rankings not being the be all and end all when selecting where to study was dismissed as wishful thinking.

I was told in no uncertain terms that parents will look at rankings to choose a university for their children.Oh, incidentally, for the sake of accuracy, in my last column, I should not have said Leeds was higher ranked than Nottingham. They are not. I should have said Sheffield, or Manchester or Durham instead.

And at a talk where I said “meaningful public participation should occur in developmental and environmental issues”, again I was painted as some trippy hippy freak who really should just sit quietly in a VW van listening to Hendrix and burning incense. Frankly, this sounds like a very enticing idea.

However, all these barbs (admittedly they were thrown at me in a gentle and humorous manner) got me thinking. Why do I bother with these ideals? No one seems to care any way. The world is a hard, calculative and oft times, a cruel place. Pragmatism, not idealism, will ensure survival, both literally and metaphorically.

I guess this is true, if mere survival is what one aspires for. I can’t buy into this thinking though. Yes, when one is floating in the clouds of principles and ideals, one may lose track of the realities of the world and one’s ideas become no more substantive and useful as “insignificant fluff”. But pragmatism without the overarching and necessary restraints of idealism is dangerous, too.

If we live our lives without aspirations, then what is to prevent the strong and the crass to rule? Without a higher ideal, then so many things become utterly pointless.

A case in point is the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Personally, I view this document as something positive. It has its problems, and I shall deal with them later, but within the context of ASEAN.

It is important because for decades the issue of human rights was not really part of the ASEAN agenda. It was only in the ASEAN Charter of 2007 did the countries of ASEAN formally recognise human rights as an essential value. And now, we have this declaration which spells out the human rights that in principle Asean agrees has to be protected.

I say “in principle” because the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration is, in international law parlance, a “soft law”. By this, it is meant that it is merely a statement of principle, it is not a binding law as say a treaty is. Therefore, legally it would be rather difficult to insist that the ASEAN governments comply with this declaration.

This does not mean that they do not have a moral responsibility and it is up to the people of ASEAN to keep pressing their governments to respect the Declaration and to make the necessary domestic legislation to give legal weight to these “soft law” principles and make them hard.

Surely our erstwhile leaders did not sign the declaration for fun.They agreed to these principles, so let’s make sure they live up to them. Aside from the lack of legal obligation, another criticism of the Declaration is that it appears to provide loopholes for its signatories.

For example, Article 7 begins with the emphatic statement that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated”.

So far so good, but it closes with “the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds”.

The following article continues in this vein and states “the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition for the human rights and fundamental freedom of others, and to meet the just requirements of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, as well as the general welfare of the peoples in a democratic society”.

Suspicious, is it not? Signatories of this document have left themselves a method of avoiding their responsibilities.All they have to say is: “Oh, we are restricting your rights for the reason of national security/public morality/general public welfare … take your pick.”

Now, only an idiot would think that human rights mean the rights to do anything at all. I may have freedom of speech but I do not have the right to defame someone; my freedom of assembly does not mean I can trespass on another’s property.

So, naturally there will be restrictions on rights, but the issue here is that there must be restrictions on the restrictions.

And that is the crux of the matter. What prevents those in power from using the excuse of morality or security or whatever else to place so many restrictions on our rights that they become utterly meaningless?

The answer I submit is aspirations, idealism and principle. Only when we have people in power, and by this I mean the legislature, executive and judiciary, can we aspire to protect the rights of others as far as possible.

Who believes that human rights are an ideal, not an imposition on governments. And, who has the conviction to live and make decisions according to these principles; only then can the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration have any meaning.

Maybe I am not being pragmatic; perhaps the thin air in my ivory tower has made me light headed and foolish; but I don’t care, because the alternative to living without aspirations, ideals and principles is not worth contemplating.

2 thoughts on “A Life without Ideals and Principles isn’t worthy of contemplation

  1. I think putting idealism and pragmatism on opposing ends of a continuous spectrum, is a much better way of looking at this. They are not opposites or a zero sum game. It up to the conscience of an individual to choose the side of the spectrum he or she rather be.

    Time is linear, but ideas aren’t. Take the example of population control. It is not the simplistic idea of legislating something so fundamental as procreation. All it needs is emancipation, education and empowerment of the female gender, and population growth rates will fall in tandem. All mechanistic explanations fail in the face of ‘pragmatism’.

    Conscious choice is made every waking moment of our lives, but it has been found that all decisions are made in the subconscious – way before we even become aware of it. This has been validated by several neuro-scientific researches. Such a ‘phenomenon’ is due to the genetics followed by massive conditioning, learning from life’s experiences and subsequent formal education. No environment can be the same, which explains the diversity and complexity of human behavior and interaction.

    Thus some of us are ‘prone’ to fall on either side of the spectrum. Idealism is an inward out process, while the reverse happens in pragmatism. The twain will meet up as the ‘personality’ of the person. Normally, a mish-mash like a fish-head curry. Comprendo?

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