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Do Rights Exist?

February 16, 2011

I bought a book on human rights yesterday, but before I even opened it an important question occurred to me. We talk about rights, but do they exist? Fine, there are laws in place that say I should not be stopped from exercising what we call human rights. But that is not the same as saying that those rights exist independent of the institutions that impose them. If they don’t, then what is to stop one group of people saying that our rights are different, possibly in an incompatible way? How do we decide between the two?

So, before opening the book I thought I’d have a go at proposing a method by which human rights can be derived. It’s a simplistic first pass that needs some refining.

The fundamental point is that we are defining human rights. We may be very different people, but what we share is our humanness. We are both thinking, feeling, individual human agents who value ourselves and our lives. The moment I think of myself in these terms, I have to attribute the same to you. By thinking of myself as a moral agent, free to make decisions, I have to treat you as a moral agent free to make your decisions. We are social individuals, and it is through the links that we automatically form with other people that our rights are formed.

As a free agent, I can think what I want to think. Therefore so do you. You therefore don’t have the right to be told what to think. We are vocal animals, and I want to be free to express my thoughts. Therefore you should be as well, and we have freedom of expression. Of course, I don’t want to be harmed, and therefore I have to hold that you don’t want to be. My freedom of expression therefore shouldn’t lead to you being harmed. So, while I can shock, offend and disturb you in my speech, I can’t encourage violence against you. And so on.

Of course, all this is premised on the idea that all people should be treated equally. By considering how I want (reasonably) to be treated and how I act, I can infer rights that ensure that everyone is treated as fairly as possible. The moment we take equality out of the picture this falls apart. I start from the idea that we are all human, all equal.

There are some pretty major flaws with this sketch. What rights does someone who isn’t capable of the same thinking and feeling as me, someone in a coma say, have? If it was part of human nature to want to kill others, would this make it an acceptable right to protect? That is, ow do we adjudicate between conflicting rights, the right to life and the (hypothetical) right to kill?

The more I think about it the more important a question it seems. I don’t want to live in a relativist world where we make our own rights depending on where we are, what culture we’re in. I want to live in a world where everyone is equal based on their shared humanity. That needs rights to exist.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2011 10:01 AM

    Nice post. As you said in the last paragraph, human rights should be culturally neutral (as opposed to culturally relative). But human rights as per the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) are often criticised as being a Western construct and not taking into account important aspects of other cultures, making the UDHR less relevant to these cultures. I’m not talking about things as extreme as female genital mutilation in some Islamic communities, but the conception of individual vs. shared or collective rights.

    As you know, the UDHR outlines the rights of the individual. Some communities value the rights and culture of the collective/community over purely individual, personal imperatives. From a Western perspective (like mine) it’s not an easy perspective to accept, but there has been a lot of criticism of the individual or selfish mentality of Western societies (excessive lawsuits/ competitiveness at the expense of anyone but yourself etc) that lack some of the respect for others and general acknowledgement of everyone’s humanness that you mentioned and that societies organised around an understanding of collective rights can exhibit.

    Can there be a human rights charter that encompasses what is maybe, in some ways this Eastern/Western difference in mentalities? I’m playing Devil’s advocate a bit here…

  2. February 17, 2011 11:25 AM

    That’s a good question. I have to admit that I haven’t really considered group rights much at all – there’s an entire section in the book that I mentioned briefly in my post, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. But again, it’s a good idea to think about these things for myself first. So…

    What exactly do we mean by “group” rights, or “shared” rights? The right of a group to… what? I think I can see how we can derive individual rights, and understand what those rights might be, but I can’t off the top of my head think what rights a group might lay claim to that aren’t extensions of individual rights. The only examples I can think of are when states or groups with some form of power (be it secular or religious) want to lay claim to the “right” to enforce a particular doctrine or way of life on people unchallenged. The first example that springs to mind here in the UK is the recent attempt by Anglican clergy to insist that they keep their group “right” to discriminate against women – that is, not allow them to become priests.

    The question of rights is distinct from the question of the selfish mentality of (some!) “Westerners”. I agree that the excessive materialism on display in some aspects of our society is a bad thing, but it has no bearing on whether or not human rights exist, or are worth pursuing. If societies want to avoid this, they can’t do so at the expense of human rights, if those rights exist. The question then becomes (once we define group rights), can group rights override human, individual, rights? That’s not a question I can answer until I know what a group right is.

  3. February 18, 2011 9:38 AM

    Having thought about this overnight, I still can’t see what we’re talking about when we say “group rights”. What is a group other than a collection of individuals with a shared interest/trait/goal? Does the group exist independent of it’s members, is it something that can have a right? Surely if individual rights exist then anything that needs protecting for the group can be protected via rights for the individual?

  4. February 19, 2011 1:35 AM

    I’ve been mulling over this too, and can’t actually think of a decent answer to your question, hence the delay! I think maybe the problem with collective rights comes into play when we’re talking about more than ‘basic’ (which isn’t so clear cut) rights and not those higher up on the hierarchy of needs…

    I think maybe where this issue has become controversial in the past is when certain things are called ‘rights’ when in some cultures they are seen as duties, or expected roles. (Maybe jobs are an example here?)

    Re: group rights, I was thinking generally about societies where it is seen as perfectly acceptable to perhaps forfeit/sacrifice some of your ‘rights’ to better your family/community/nation.

    However, this still doesn’t answer your very significant question about what it is exactly that groups may have rights to…and I’m not sure I do have an answer to that…! But I would be interested to hear an explanation from someone who does.

  5. February 19, 2011 8:29 AM

    You’re right when you say that this is often an issue in societies where a “duty” is imposed to place the society, or culture, or state, above the individual. That’s one of the reasons that I can’t see group rights existing independently of th institutions that impose them or call for them.

    One person who it would appear argues for group rights is James Griffin, who wrote On Human Rights. There’s a section on group rights, with a subtitle “no quick way of dismissing group rights”, and two arguments for them. Alas, it’s a couple of hundred pages further on that I’ve got so far. I’ll make sure to do a post about it once I get ther

  6. February 19, 2011 10:23 AM

    It turns out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry for group rights. Worth a read.

  7. Justin permalink
    March 12, 2011 7:03 AM

    George Carlin has the answer:

    Skip to 4:24 for rights. Watch the whole thing if you’re not in a hurry.

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