What Are Human Rights? (5): A Limited Set

The struggle for human rights is a noble one. But sometimes this struggle goes astray. People tend to claim more and more rights. Let us not forget that rights cost money. The more rights we have, the less money we can spend on each. If we say that a couple, which has problems to beget a child, has a “right” to a child, then the effort to realize this right may cost so much that there is not enough left for starving children in Africa.

New rights also create new duties, first of all for those who have the duty to respect this new right. Is it not likely that there is a certain level above which it becomes difficult for people to shoulder their duties? And is it not unfair to force people above this threshold? Moreover, states which habitually violate human rights, can use the number of human rights as a convenient excuse, and perhaps not without good reason. If there are many rights, then there are many duties, and some of these states can point to a lack of resources. “We can’t do all at once; give us time; first things first; the West has also taken its time to realize all rights”, etc. It is in the interest of rights violators that the number of rights increases and that, as a consequence, the significance of the concept of “rights” diminishes.

But rights can also create duties for those who hold the rights. Take the example of two prisoners who claim the “right” to marry and have sexual intercourse. What happens with the baby?

There are already enough rights violations, so let us first try to enforce respect for the existing rights, before creating new rights and hence new violations. However, new rights may become necessary. Again the middle ground, now between excessive conservatism and the exaggerated creation of new rights, seems to be the best position.


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