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Question of the Month

What & Why Are Human Rights?

Our readers give their thoughts, each winning the right to a random book.

I believe that human rights can be defined as those inalienable rights one should have on the basis of being a human, regardless of faith, ethnicity or political views. They include the right to life, freedom of the self and of speech, and the right to preserve personal space from external interference. Of course, human rights are not absolute; they are defined and redefined continuously. Yet those I’ve mentioned are universally agreed upon, at least among the member states of the United Nations.

Human rights stem essentially from what the Greek philosopher Thales (c.624 BC - c.546 BC) said about treating others as one expects to be treated. This principle is now known as the Golden Rule. Every human being must enjoy a certain set of rights for life to be tolerable. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) saw the state as based on a kind of concession people made, which he called the Social Contract, in which they ceded some of their rights to a government in exchange for it giving them safety and preserving their other rights. So, in a sense, Rousseau saw the Social Contract as an acknowledgement of human rights. I agree with him on that. Another source of credibility of the concept of human rights is the numerous international accords and declarations issued by governments, and international bodies such as the UN, from the Bill of Rights and Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in the eighteenth century, to the Declarations of the UN in the latter half of the twentieth century.

A. M. Fathallah, Alexandria, Egypt

Human rights are those rights we have simply by being human. Essential to the idea of human rights is that they command utmost respect and consideration for each person. Hopefully, universal recognition that all human beings have the same basic rights will reduce our oppression and killing of our own kind.

It is not clear if anyone grants us human rights. Who could grant them? Not every one who believes in human rights believes in a supreme being; and those who believe in one do not all believe in the same one. So it seems easier and more pragmatic to just agree that we have human rights, and then seek to agree on what they are. For example, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 9, ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile’, seems derivable from the right to liberty.

Although praiseworthy, the UN Declaration goes beyond basic human rights. For sake of rigor, we need a consensus on the set of human rights regarded as basic. Basic human rights should be limited to those we would need within a mode of existence without the advantage of civilization. Our ancestors lived in a primitive condition for most of our species’ existence: back then they could not have had a right to scientific health care or to a college education. Still, as humans, they had human rights.

I suggest the question determining a basic human right to be: What is required of an adult in society such that both the individual and the society are in a state of well-being? A fundamental good for humanity and society is survival. This requires adults. A society of children is unsustainable. And the adults must be self-directing and give more than they receive, the surplus of their energies going to the children and the adults in need. In a word, the adults must be autonomous. So they must have the rights required for autonomy. For starters, these rights would be the Lockean rights of life, liberty, and property, and the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

We are social beings. When I decide to respond to other human beings, and they in turn respond to my behaviour, we facilitate the mutual development of our self-consciousnesses, enabling us to develop more nuanced consciousnesses of our selves. So a first right would be the right to choose what to do or how to respond. But, being conscious of others who are similar to me in essential aspects, I realise that I have to restrict the right to choose, because all people have a similar right to choose. Otherwise someone could choose to prevent me from choosing what I want to do, even to the extent of killing me; and, being similar to me, they must realise that I and others could prevent them from choosing what they want to do, even to the extent of killing them. Therefore, the right to choose is conditional on respecting the right of each to choose to the same extent as everyone else. Thus a second right would be the right of each person to be given such respect from others. This has the potential for stalemate, unless in small ways and usually for short periods of time I have some leeway to do things which curtail the freedom of others to choose. I must also accept a similar cost to myself. However, seeking such leeway requires that I and others negotiate how much leeway is permissible. This leads to a system of laws, which we agree, after reasonable discourse, to honour. A third right, consequently, is the right to equal treatment for all under the law. All subsequent rights will be derived from these three.

Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow

The question of human rights is an aspect of the question of justice. If human rights matter, it’s because justice matters.

In his superb book The Idea of Justice (1967), Otto Bird argues that theories of justice (and so of rights) fall into three categories: theories of ‘positive law’; of the ‘social good’; and of ‘natural right’. ‘Positive law’ theories hold that justice exists only within the context of laws in a state; ‘social good’ theories hold that justice is whatever conduces to the overall good of a society; and ‘natural right’ theories hold that justice consists in ensuring that each person gets what’s owed him. What is owed him arises, in the first place, from his nature as a human being. Natural right theory holds that in the name of justice we are all entitled to identical consideration in view of our shared human nature. We all have a fundamental duty not to infringe each other’s human rights, and each of us has a just claim for redress if our rights have been violated. This claim is prior to any law or notion of public welfare. So ‘natural right’ theories see human rights as fundamental, and prior to either enacted laws or the supposed good of society. Natural right theories offer, in my view, the best account of justice, and therefore the strongest support for human rights.

What these rights specifically are is less clear. I disagree with those who favor a large number of them, hoping to achieve social justice goals under the guise of human rights. I don’t believe there can be, for example, a human right to housing or to clothing, because this would amount to a right to other people’s labor. I don’t think there can even be a human right to food – only a right to being left free to seek it. For human rights are, at bottom, rights to certain freedoms: freedom from being harmed; freedom from being unjustly restricted in one’s movements; freedom from deliberate injuries to one’s dignity. They can’t be rights to others’ goods.

Paul Vitols, North Vancouver

Even where human rights conventions are incorporated into national law they’re easily ignored by dictators or by short-sighted electorates exercising their rights to vote for parties which consider rights to have gone too far. So unfortunately, the fight for international standards of behaviour is far from over. As a consequence, we have to be very careful how we frame the justification for human rights law. We should not play into the hands of those opposing human rights by our pretending that these rights have some (easily ridiculed) justification arising from nature, human or otherwise. We should instead be very clear that the need for such rights is a pragmatic response to the wish to avoid seeing a revival of the horrors of our past.

Sir Hersch Lauterpacht QC, British lawyer and a leading figure in the drive to create a post-war charter of human rights, based human rights on ‘natural law’. He wrote: “In a wider sense, the binding force… of international law… is based on the law of nature as expressive of the social nature of man.” However, the appalling conduct in Nazi Germany, which had driven so many to want to codify a set of human rights, is arguably just as expressive of ‘the social nature of man’ – one feeding off resentment. So we cannot rely on ‘natural law’ as justification for human rights.

The Nazi party had altered the law to enable their horrors to be carried out lawfully. And so, after WWII there was a desire to say that complying with the law of a state could not be used to justify barbaric acts. State law itself had to be judged against an internationally recognised standard, which defined the limits on state actions to try to prevent any repeat of those dreadful things. Their genesis means, however, that human rights are not really any different in kind to the other laws we choose to accept, although we may like to think otherwise. They do not have a sacred source, but are the expression of a wish for self-protection.

Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France

Many people assert that rights are fictions. What follows from this view? That the UN Declaration of Rights is imperialism; that Martin Luther King, Jr. was mistaken for believing rights are grounded in something higher than positive law; and that Jews in Nazi Germany did not actually have a right to life. If rights don’t exist, how can they be violated? If rights don’t exist, it seems only personal preferences and power struggles remain.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘a faith and respect for rights is necessary to prevent barbarism.’ If so, perhaps the most important thing a philosopher can do is strengthen an understanding of rights.

First, rights are ultimately moral, not legal. If rights were only legal then governments could take yours away, because they gave them to you in the first place. Rights must be grounded in something deeper than legislation. They are what we use to judge legislation. Nor can rights be grounded in self-interest, for self-interest sometimes supports violating the rights of the weak. So we do not derive rights from self-interest either, but instead use our concept of rights to judge self-interested acts as permissible or wrong.

Natural law is more inspirational. Rights are somehow grounded in nature, or the God of nature, and so there is a higher law by which we can judge any positive law. Unfortunately, this idea presents metaphysical problems. We can see acorns in Nature, so why not rights? Are rights metaphysical things attached to humans? Must God ground rights?

A clearer way to understand rights is as the axioms that arise from a loving way of being. Just as objectively better and worse moves arise in chess when people agree to rules, so the deepest understanding of rights arises when loving people describe their fundamental ways of being. Simply put, rights flow from a community who wish the good of others. So rights are not so much a fiction as they are a loving way of being and seeing. When push comes to shove, your appeal to ‘rights’ will best work for people running on the moral software that enables them to love or intrinsically value other persons. That community of people is the deepest source of rights.

Paul Stearns, Blinn College, Texas

Although such analyses have their place, I do not want to explain human rights in terms of mutual obligations, legal or social contracts, or what distinguishes humans from nonhumans. This would be like defining colour conceptually – in terms of wavelength or reflectance – without pointing to the blue of the sky. The latter definition is more primal, and pertains to the essence of colour.

Unlike colour, we do not find the presence of human rights in the world. Yet it is my contention that human rights are presented to us precisely when they are absent. If that sounds like doublespeak, here’s my meaning: when I stop my debating and theorising about the existence, foundation, or justification of human rights, go out into society in India, and chance upon a man scavenging for his survival, or encounter a child lying beaten up and struggling for life, there’s an almost perceptible cry of alarm in the air – something feels deeply wrong in this state of affairs: not just wrong, but degrading, dehumanising.

There may appear to be a conflict between rationally philosophising about human rights and my attempts to stir your empathy by picturing these scenes. However, I believe that our ‘moral sentiments’, as David Hume might describe them, are a reality. Irrational, perhaps, but unmistakably real. And Richard Rorty would say that philosophy’s job is ‘to summarise our culturally influenced intuitions’, that is, our sentiments.

I also propose that it is wrong to speak of ‘depriving a person of their rights’. This conceives of rights as distinct from people, rather than as intrinsic to their being, as they are. You cannot deprive someone of their rights, then; but you can fail to recognise their humanity, and so fail to implement their rights. According to Rorty, the perpetrators of human rights violations, nay, human violations, are simply insecure and lacking in sympathy. How can sympathy be cultivated in a person? By telling them stories and stirring their sentiments, as Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for American whites.

So why are human rights? Because people have the ability to imagine, empathise, and share stories, and, in doing so, we encounter all the ways we are alike. Our feelings are at the heart of our aspiration for human rights.

Swithin Thomas, Bengaluru, India

The most basic human right is the right not to be murdered. This is a so-called negative right – a protection against harm. Rights may also be positive. They include the right to vote, given to certain people.

Rights are tied to laws, both moral and civil. In the United States, American citizens who are at least eighteen years old have the right to vote, which is granted by law. Before 1920, women in American did not have the legal right to vote. However, before women got the legal right to vote they already possessed the moral right to vote. Thus, the law needed to be squared with the extant objective moral reality that women should join the franchise.

But why are human rights real?

When teaching an ethics class at a state college, I asked my class if female genital mutilation was wrong. They all agreed that it was. I then asked, “What if the majority of the population where it occurred supported it, it was legal, and even the women who experienced it supported it? Would it then be right?” They all still said, “No.” I continued, “What then makes it wrong?” Silence filled the room. I let them stew a bit; as I will you. If a culture agrees with a practice and it is encoded in the laws of a nation, what is it that makes that practice morally wrong?

True statements need truth-makers. The statement ‘trees exist’ is true if and only if there are trees. Female genital mutilation is practically wrong because it benefits no one – it’s certainly not medically necessary – and is not conducive to human thriving. It also denies woman a fundamental negative right not to be mutilated.

But what makes the statement, ‘Female genital mutilation is morally wrong’ true? In a word, God. God’s character is the only basis for universal, objective, and absolute human rights. That is, without an objective personal moral absolute, human rights dissolve into relative and contingent arrangements which cannot support objective human value.

Douglas Groothuis, Denver Seminary, Colorado

‘Rights’ has become the most overused and misunderstood word in political discourse. Consider this familiar statement (capitalizations in the original): “WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” As much as I revere Thomas Jefferson, his statement confronts me with a couple of troubling obstacles not easily ignored.

First, my rejection of the concept of a Creator yanks the foundation from under the statement and leaves it insecurely resting on an opinion – a venerable opinion to be sure, but still an opinion. If Nature replaces Creator, then when and by what means were our rights secured? Does the terminal cancer victim have a right to life and happiness? Who or what will guarantee it? Do animals have natural – that is, Nature-endowed – rights? Does the lion respect the impala’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Does the neighbor’s cat respect the rights of the birds that come and go in my back yard?

And are we not animals? Humans evolved from a remote ancestor we share with other great apes, unarguably animals. When during the six million years or however long since that creature lived did our ancestors acquire human rights? From whom? By what means? The short answer is: they didn’t. We have no inalienable rights endowed by any entity or thing other than ourselves; and that’s a very unreliable endower.

“Ah!” declares the collectivist: “We give rights to ourselves through the democratic process.”

Oh really? We can’t seem to agree on what these rights might be, and they proliferate like mosquitos. Voters have proven capable of rationalizing their rights to the treasury, to compensate themselves for the burdens and expenses of life. The democratic process elected Hitler and Hugo Chavez, which brought catastrophe to Germany and Venezuela respectively. In the US, the democratic process elects Republicans that the lefties hate (Trump a notable exception), and elects Democrats the righties hate. Lenin and Castro were not elected at all, but rose to power on huge waves of savior worship in two variants of the democratic process. The great majority seems to love democracy until they don’t like the results it brings.

Michael H. Davison, Denver, Colorado, Author of America’s Suicide

From the ashes of war
Rose a bird with gold wings,
A declaration of words
The phoenix sings:
Articles, promises,
Concepts of honour and hope;
Mere gestures on paper
For men to emote
Because politics eternally overrides
The good, the just, the reasoned right.
And it’s true that power curtails
That beautiful bird in exalted flight.
For there is nothing on earth –
No law, no moral, no measure –
To control man’s will
Beyond power and pleasure.
There is only this: the arbitrary,
And the acts that determine history.
No rights, no reasons, no words in stone
Like ‘dignity’, ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ –
Just a bird of gold, a phoenix, that sings alone
Testament to the tyranny of being free.

Bianca Laleh, Totnes, Devon

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: How Do We Understand Each Other? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 8th June 2020. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer.

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