Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Limits of Human Rights

As the semester draws to a close, I have had to confront a growing uneasiness about the discourse of human rights as a whole. Week after week on the blog, I see entries promoting or questioning the "Human right to _____",  and the entire constellation of human rights claims is most assuredly extensive and varied. To speak of some end as a human right has now become a standard means of achieving its implementation, wrapping one's cause in an aura of moral necessity. The total effect of these myriad claims is to advance a moral and political order in which virtually all norms are conceived of in terms of human rights: hence we see the case in the Britain where shop clerks were forbidden to post pictures of a wanted thief for fear it would violate her human rights (as to which right was being violated, I am unclear). 

Part of the problem seems to lie in confusion over the source of such rights. The traditional Enlightenment view holds that certain rights are written in the natural order and evident in human nature. However, the more specific and extensive claims to human rights become, the less they can be plausibly grounded in such abstract terms. It may be instructive to compare the content of the Declaration of Independence with the UDHR; one can foresee some difficulty in asserting that all humans "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are protection against unemployment, periodic holidays with pay, and a share in scientific advancement and its benefits." To take the Universal Declaration at its word, these are rights just as innate in all people as are life and liberty. 

Perhaps, rather, what we mean by human rights is no longer natural rights, but rather rights that all humans ought to have, or that the United Nations (as the closet thing to a world government in existence) has established for them. Even here, however, any claim to universal validity must have some sort of universal moral basis to back it up. If the issue is merely general utility or happiness, there are countless political ends of pursuing these goals. Indeed, we read this telling caveat towards the end of the UDHR:

 In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

I agree with this passage, for what it's worth, but "just requirements morality, public order, and the general welfare" can be taken to mean anything whatsoever. In other words, all the rights listed above must be totally respected, except when they musn't. The key political issue, of course, is working out what "just requirements" means. Politics concerns itself with balancing moral and material interests, not with pursuit of absolute goals (the absolutist polities are generally the most terrible).

Yet this is not to deny that certain moral claims on the state are universal. No state has a right to arbitrary imprisonment or execution, to torture, to persecution. Human rights may be a useful concept for constraining such bestial practices. Claims to rights against these abuses can justifiably said to be applicable to all persons based on the principle of essential moral equality. But because these rights are so abstract in foundation (as they must be, to apply universally), they serve best as to mark limits of what is morally and politically permissible. They cannot determine the content of the social and political order, which as Burke puts it "vary with times and circumstances and admit to infinite modifications".

The first problem with a "human rights society", then, is political. The second is moral. Namely, the egocentric nature of rights as something held by the individual  independent of others degrades the moral life the more it is permitted to define our lives. Rights, human or otherwise, have their place in creating rules of the game in our interactions with one another in society. But in truth they are most useful in allowing individuals to make rectificatory claims for wrongs they have suffered. No one can have a particularly admirable or satisfying life by making it his goal only to respect the rights of others while upholding his own. The more we are conscious of our "rights", the more the concepts of duty and obligation seem to fade into the background. The moral implications are serious; because rights are something held by the individual, they are easier to violate and ignore if the victim is incapable of asserting them.

Obligations, conversely, apply first and foremost to the moral actor and fit into a moral framework which is larger than any individual. If I were seeking to dissuade one of the hapless guards at Abu Ghraib from torturing prisoners, I would not say "you are violating that man's human rights!" Rather I would simply point out the action is immoral, despicable, dishonorable and (if the potential torturer is inclined to such terminology) sinful. These are appeals to moral obligations that go beyond the individual whose rights are being violated, who after all may not be very sympathetic, despite our appeals to his essential humanity. Or consider more positive moral actions; the homeless man on the street has no right to my assistance, in the sense of an absolute claim. Nonetheless I have a moral obligation (albeit an imperfect obligation, in the Kantian sense) to help those less fortunate than myself, and on a broader societal level the same holds true (though the implementation and particulars of any efforts to aid the distressed of society is a political matter, and cannot be reduced to moral bromides). 

Human rights, then, have their limitations. Both a proper political order and any kind of meaningful inner life cannot be guided primarily by appeals to humanity in the abstract. I suspect the promiscuous proliferation of human rights claims tend to undermine both.

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