Humanity’s debate

Moral and legal philosopher John Tasioulas talks to Neos Kosmos on the importance of human rights and their ever growing landscape

Spotting the book Aristotle’s Politics in the window of a Melbourne newsagency at the age of 15 was the beginning of the end for Professor John Tasioulas.
Initially thinking the book would give him a bit of background to the ancient Greek thinkers he’d heard so much about, he soon became obsessed with the concepts.
“It was probably a point of no return,” Professor Tasioulas tells Neos Kosmos.
“My interest in philosophy and the philosophical foundations of law snowballed from then on.”
The Northcote boy is now making waves in London and has become one of the world’s most prolific and respected academics in moral and legal philosophy. As the Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College of London, his work in international human rights and law is seen as gospel in some circles, and he has become the go to professor for many philosophical and legal problems.
He was recently called upon to give evidence on media ethics at the Leveson Inquiry on the British phone hacking scandal, debating the rights to free speech and freedom of the press. His views on the culture, practices and ethics of the press intersecting with upholding the public interest gave a great third party view for the inquiry.
He has also been called upon to deliver a report on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the UN Secretary-General as part of the international philosopher’s committee.
This practical use of philosophy is something many would never have considered possible. So many philosophy students have been bombarded with the question, ‘what can you do with a philosophy degree?’.
Pursuing a love of philosophy and the law was always above the job prospects, Professor Tasioulas reveals.
“I did not give much thought to entering the academic world,” he explains.
“I carried on doing what I enjoyed and thought important – philosophy – and I kept doing it until I ended up being paid for it.”
Professor Tasioulas joins big names like Bill Clinton anwd even our own prime minister, Tony Abbott in the Rhodes Scholarship club, and was the first Greek Australian Neos Kosmos knows of to receive the prestigious scholarship.
At Oxford, he developed his voice in the human rights and law academic world, learning from the best while tackling big questions.
In his current research, Professor Tasioulas is looking at global justice and health and the role human rights should play in shaping global health policy.
He has bucked the trend and has disagreed with many assumptions widely held by people working on human rights and health. Many believe that global health policy should be exclusively concerned with human rights, but Professor Tasioulas thinks that the ultimatum needs room to move.
“We have to take on board values such as compassion and the common good, values that go beyond what any individual can claim as a matter of right,” he says.
This characterises Professor Tasioulas perfectly. His logic and reasoning is grounded in fact, and he addresses not just one philosophy but multiple at the one time to better understand a viewpoint and highlight his own. He is not a fiery debater, but one that looks at all the facts and doesn’t skew the truth to prove a point.
He will be the first to tell you that both philosophy and law are argument based fields, something he was drawn to from an early age.
He has his father to thank for that interest.
“He was a brilliant arguer, and I really admired the way he seemed to be able to defeat anyone in debate,” he remembers.
“I think it was through him that I discovered something of incomparable importance to my life, and not just as an academic: that human beings can use their reason to discover how they should live and what obligations they owe to others.”
His formative years definitely influenced the man he is today. His parents migrated to the ‘lucky country’ in the early 1960s from Northern Greece and always instilled in their son the idea that anything was possible.
“My father was always very keen that I should make ‘progress’, and that meant academic progress, not money-making,” Professor Tasioulas says.
Seeing his parents fight racism in their adopted country pushed him into the field of international human rights and law even more. He soon realised how prejudice was a global phenomenon, and how so many people lived without basic human rights.
“I saw myself as a fighter for justice for the oppressed, maybe in part because of a sensitivity to the prejudice often directed at Southern European migrants in Australia back in those days.”
That’s why his dialogue on human rights is always changing and adapting to current events.
Human rights and law have been working hand in hand for years, but they have not necessarily been on the same page. Think of how many time through history a human right took years to be protected by law. Slavery, genocide, apartheid have all just recently been criminalised.
Changing humanity’s view on a certain issue has a lot to do with social perseverance and an ethical government.
Professor Tasioulas thinks that “human rights are discovered by reason and argument” and does believe through those methods it is possible that “we discover there are human rights we did not previously acknowledge”.
He singles out the rights to same-sex marriage as a developing area of human rights.
As circumstances change and as people engage in an ethical discussion, we are starting to see the law catch up with new rights.
Professor Tasioulas believes the most important human rights at the moment affect two very distinct worlds, the developing world and the developed world.
“For the developing world, I think the biggest human rights issues concern the right to health and the right to be free from extreme poverty,” he says.
Those are all interlinked with the gender issue, where rights are only given to some while others do not get the same concessions. But these issues are not just exclusive to the developing world. The developed world still sees these abuses, but is dealing with more prevalent new issues.
“For the developed world, major preoccupations should be the violation of the right to work due to high unemployment levels, especially among young people, and the threat to the right to privacy posed by new techniques of mass surveillance.”
In tackling these issues, Professor Tasioulas says there is only so much philosophy and the law can do. Much of the onus has to be on good social science that will tell us what kind of reforms are feasible, while making sure the right policy and punishment is there.
This view is where you can draw similarities to Professor Tasioulas and the philosopher Aristotle.
The ancient philosopher always emphasised the importance of context and judgment, something all human rights law must uphold.
He sees philosophy as a tool, not just abstract theories and rules with no purpose. Professor Tasioulas models himself on that approach, and hopes to keep using his research in a practical way while always creating a discourse.
After all, without debate, you can’t philosophise.