A few thoughts on human 'rights'

When we hear activists talk about how we or they or some particular people have 'a right' to something, it can sound a little perplexing.

On one hand, it sounds nice that people have a right to the good things of life, like security, freedom, material reward and the rest. But on the other the word, 'right', serves rather like a hammer, nailing down something, making it secure, which means taking away elements of doubt, of contest - of politics in other words.

After all, a right is an entitlement. It moves the situation from one where the good things of life are up for grabs based on such things as hard work, ethical behaviour, greed, ambition and political power - and secures those goods from such contingencies. Political power is entrenched in a right. Any hard work can be considered done, ethical behaviour is put to one side and the human, all too human qualities of greed and ambition no longer need to be considered.

In other words a human right accords a legal basis to the allocation of rewards. A right might be encoded in statute law, but it remains a form of legality even without that. Failure to accord someone their right means breaking a law. The idea serves in a similar way to that of 'social justice', in bringing an account of justice to cover political life. Failure to do what social justice activists demand means breaking a law, which is to say committing a crime, a political crime - and this deserves punishment in the court of political life.

One of the most interesting aspects to this - and something that I have seen David Goodhart refer to a few times in talking about 'judicial activism' - is the relationship of rights to democracy. A right secures the allocation of resources (including existential resources like protection from criticism), and puts it beyond contest, which means putting it beyond democratic contest.

With a right, the matter has already been decided and no amount of democratic decision-making can change the decision.

If you start to look carefully, you might see that this way of approaching politics is all around us. It is a powerful way of removing political opposition. It is therefore a clear and present danger to democratic political life.

This is not to say that the things that come to us through our 'rights' are bad things. On the contrary. such things as 'rights at work' and 'the right to vote' are obviously good things. Our problem is how the language of rights is reaching out and extending its dominion, so closing off more and more political space.


  1. Very thoughtful

    A friend who lives in Africa has long said he thought Western conceptions of Human Rights were being used to undermine African society.

  2. And I could also add that I couldn't help but notice an overrepresentation of Islamists on Human Rights courses at my old University...

  3. Rights don't create just entitlements: they are also create obligations on others to ensure that those rights are met. This creates tension and friction when those who decide who and how many have a right are able to impose by law on others the consequences and costs of their no doubt virtuous decisions - while very often taking great care to avoid these very costs and consequences themselves.


Post a Comment

All comments, however critical, will be accepted as long as they are not personal and/or abusive.

Popular posts from this blog

Schopenhauer on Hegel: "A flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan."

Karl Popper and the fight against nonsense ideology. Part I

Immigration: our public debate misses the main point