As many of you know, the GlobeMed chapter at Rhodes had a call for photo submissions in February, asking students and faculty/staff to complete the phrase, “Everyone has the right to ____,” and take a picture with their responses written on their hands. The purpose of the project was not for GlobeMed to weed through the submissions and pick out the ones that we thought reflected “proper” or “worthy” rights, but to spark discussion among the campus community around February 20th, the World Day of Social Justice.
After collecting the pictures and organizing them in an online gallery, along with the 31 other GlobeMed chapters that participated in similar projects on their campuses, we decided to put together an informal, video slideshow of the photos. The video caught the attention of Ben O’Neill, a formerly practicing lawyer and current statistics professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia. In his article, “The Injustice of Social Justice,” O’Neill critiques the video’s portrayal of rights in order to argue that social justice campaigns are “intellectually bankrupt movements.”
I wanted to open this to discussion on the blog for a couple of reasons. Not only is the debate relevant to our class, but O’Neill claims that “most young people, at the age of undergraduate university students, have not been exposed to serious philosophical argument about the nature of rights...” That may be true, but we certainly have.
O’Neill argues that social justice organizations conflate desires with rights, and use the language of human rights to force governments to meet the needs of others. In retrospect, perhaps GlobeMed should have asked “everyone deserves ___” to avoid such misunderstandings. Yes, I agree that some of the “rights” depicted in the video are silly, such as the right to ice-cream. “An actual right is a moral prerogative derived from the application of moral philosophy to the nature of man,” O’Neill states. However, where I take issue with O’Neill’s argument is the claim that “it is actually no sillier to assert the right to rock-and-roll or ice cream than to assert the right to healthcare or education.” He argues that the differences between claiming a right to ice cream and a right to healthcare or education are “differences in degree, not in kind” because both are positive rights assertions that forcibly require someone else to provide a good for another person who is incapable of doing so by his or her own means. I think that the assertion for a right to health stems from a notion of fundamental human dignity, placing the right to a decent standard of health (Article 25, UDHR) in a completely different category from the "right" to ice cream.
Furthermore, O’Neill adds, “We see on the video an asserted right to ‘free education.’ We do not see the far more honest assertion of the right to ‘forcibly take money from others to pay for one’s own costly education.” Social justice organizations are not making this stuff up as they please. Article 26 of the UDHR states that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages...” Most social justice organizations are not arbitrarily inventing so-called rights as O’Neill argues in the article, but simply drawing attention to the already existing discourse and legislation on human rights.
O’Neill also argues that “there can be no such thing as a right to shoes, ice cream, or rock-and-roll, things that were once absent entirely from human invention.” One of many counter examples that stands out is from Article 15 of the UDHR, which states that “everyone has the right to a nationality.” In the scope of history, the concept of the nation-state, and thus the identity of nationality, is a relatively recent "invention." So, should we scrap Article 15 from the declaration because it asserts a right to an invented concept that has not existed from the very beginning of humanity?