Thursday, September 3, 2009

a few thoughts on human rights

It’s often said that human rights have no grounding, no empirical backing, that it’s rather amazing how much they’ve caught on in the last few decades, especially since the second world war, so now everybody talks about their rights even in the most dubious circumstances. People have become obsessed about their rights. The concept has become reified, even taken for granted. Yet it has nonetheless become one of the most useful concepts of the last century or so, not only in ethics, but also in jurisprudence. It has been of enormous practical value.

Of course the idea of anyone having a right to something – say, sufficient food or water to survive – is quite artificial, but we all understand where it’s coming from. We recognise that not having sufficient food and water causes suffering, and we don’t want people to suffer, and we don’t want to suffer ourselves. In order to eliminate this suffering, we argue that people should have the right not to suffer, and that therefore the rest of us have the responsibility to prevent such suffering, by ensuring that others have sufficient food and water. In fact, if we take this human right seriously, we have a collective responsibility to ensure that we all have sufficient food and water. So the development and enforcement of human rights should bring us together as a community and as a species, right?

But what of those who don’t play the human rights game in quite the usual way? Imagine a person who decides, all I want to do is surf. I love surfing, its great fun, it beats working for a living, it has its poetry, it’s deeply satisfying. I love the summer, I’ll follow the summer around, from beach to beach around the world if necessary, hitching rides from strangers, whatever it takes.

This person doesn’t earn money, she’s too busy surfing. So what about her right to sufficient food and water? Generally the water’s not a problem for her, but getting sufficient food may well be. Is she therefore entitled to knock on the nearest door and say [politely of course], look, my basic human right to sufficient food to survive is not currently being met, so I’m afraid you have a responsibility to provide food for me.

It’s certainly sounds like an ingenious ploy, and if beggars started using it when accosting people in the street, some people might well be impressed enough to open purses that might otherwise remain firmly closed, but the point I really intend to make here is that the human rights concept contains all sorts of hidden assumptions that need to be brought to light.

In the case of the surfer, most of us wouldn’t want to put ourselves in the position of asking for food, even if we felt it was our right to make such demands. But essentially our discomfort would spring from the feeling that we have no such right. Most of us don’t feel the world owes us a living. In fact, many a libertarian would reject the whole concept of rights because they would reject the implied obligations that go with rights. We don’t owe anyone anything, excepting our children until they reach maturity, and nobody owes anything to us.

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