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Human Rights & Wrongs

by Rick Lewis

For over forty years the human rights organisation Amnesty International has coordinated a vast worldwide network of volunteers called the Urgent Action Network. If they hear of anybody anywhere in the world who has been arrested for the peaceful expression of their political views and who they consider to be in imminent danger of execution or torture, they immediately alert members of the network, who respond en masse with swift, courteous letters and emails to the responsible officials urging that the detainee be released or at least that their rights in custody be fully respected. I was a member of this network many years ago. If you’ve ever tried to get a response from me to an urgent email you’ll realise that I probably wasn’t the ideal person for this, but I did my best. I found that one problem you face when writing such letters is that you are writing to officials who may not be remotely enthused by the notion of human rights. How then to convince them to treat their prisoner well? You can point to the detainee’s legal rights under the laws of their country; you can remind the officials of their country’s signature on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights; you can appeal to their sense of compassion, or fair play, but in the end you know that none of these things can really restrain their behaviour. How then to convince them? By appeals to Kant or John Stuart Mill? Few functionaries of authoritarian regimes really care. Yet there is considerable evidence that such letter-writing campaigns do indeed work. Amnesty International certainly believe that, and in support of this belief sometimes circulate thank you letters from recently released prisoners. The main reason for the effectiveness of such campaigns appears to be this: the officials receiving the letters become aware that people around the world are watching their actions. Even the nastiest little dictatorship generally has some regard for its international image. When the letters and emails start rolling in, they tread more carefully.

All this started me wondering about the foundations and justifications of human rights, which is the theme of this issue. What exactly are human rights, and what underpins them? Where do they come from? Are they invented or discovered? Are they local to different cultures, or truly universal? This is philosophy at the sharp end. Philosophy of mind and aesthetics pose fascinating and important questions, but lives do not generally depend on the answers. Yet every day innocent men, women and children suffer dreadful wrongs, often at the hands of their own governments, and the question is what we should do about it. So I’ve wanted for a long time to put together an issue of Philosophy Now exploring human rights from a range of angles and perspectives, and this, finally, is it. I was delighted by the number of philosophers who volunteered to contribute – far more than we could print – and I’m very grateful to all of them.

Jesse Tomalty begins our special section by asking whether there’s a human right to internet access. She uses this question to explore the nature and justification of human rights in general, and in particular the important distinction between natural rights and legal rights. Tim Dare delves into the nature of human rights claims and obligations, and urges us to resist ‘human rights inflation’ which carries the risk of all rights being taken less seriously.

Some say that human rights reflect the values of the West rather than being truly universal, and that this undermines their applicability in a country like China. Vittorio Bufacchi and Xiao Ouyang respond to this in their article looking at the way the UN Declaration was translated and interpreted in China. Hamid Anishan’s article on Sartre examines a related suspicion: that the rhetoric of human rights is a tool of colonialism or at best is blind to the injustices of colonialism and the need to correct those injustices. Is this suspicion justified? Sartre, it seems, never fully made up his mind, and it exposed a conflict between his existentialist commitment to individualism and his political sympathy for collectivism.

Trump said during his election campaign that he was in favour of waterboarding “and worse.” Nonetheless, if there is one human right that most would consider essential and absolute, it is the right not to suffer torture. During his time as a serving US Army officer, Ian Fishback took a public stand against the use of torture during interrogations. Writing for this issue he argues that while justifications for torture can be put forward relating to farfetched hypothetical situations, in practice the arguments against torture are unassailable.

Patrícia Fernandes examines what the American pragmatist Richard Rorty had to say about human rights. Rorty believed that trying to rationally justify human rights is impossible so we should concentrate on what he called ‘sentimental education’. This sounds defeatist, but on reflection it reminds me of David Hume’s idea of sympathy as the basis of morality. If enough of us feel a normal human concern for other people then this can be the justification – and is in fact the only justification required – for attempts to ensure their wellbeing through the structure of international human rights agreements.

The most famous such agreement – and nearly all of the articles in our special section refer to it – is the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its adoption by most of the world’s nations in 1946, in a period riven by paranoia and ideological conflict, is surely one of the most astonishing and impressive achievements in the entire history of world diplomacy. We have printed the text of that Declaration in full. It is very short, and everyone on this planet should read it. Know your Declaration rights!

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