What Are Human Rights? (16): Limited Rights That Need to be Balanced Against Each Other

Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Some rights can cause violations of other rights or of the rights of others, which is why rights have to be balanced against each other.

In specific instances of rights that come into conflict ’97 for example the right to free speech and the right to privacy ’97 a judgment has to be made about the priority of one right or the other. The decision can be made by a judge, but also by the legislator. There can be laws that limit one right for the sake of another. The phrasing of human rights articles in constitutions and treaties often provides the possibility of such legal limits.

These limits are an almost daily occurrence, even in a perfect system. The system of human rights is not a coherent and harmonious whole.

Libel or expressions of racial hatred, for instance, are often illegal, and with good reason. Expressions of hatred are not only insulting (people should be able to live with insults); they can also lead to discrimination or even physical harm. It is a thin line between aggressive words and aggressive actions.

The problem of course is how to decide between rights. On what grounds do we give priority to one right or the other? Only if we have a rule for this can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate limits on rights, or better between limits and violations. Part of the rule could be that some rights are clearly absolute. It seems unacceptable to kill someone, even if doing so would allow us to protect some other right of some other person. Limits on the right to life will then never be legitimate and this right should always have priority and can in turn limit other rights.

However, this rule leaves most problems of conflicts between rights unsolved because most rights are not absolute. One cannot always avoid moral, philosophical and hence contestable reasoning when taking a decision between rights. Some subjective judgment on the harm we would inflict when limiting one right or the other might help. In the case of a journalist who divulges intimate details about the private life of an actor, what would be the harm inflicted on the journalist when we limit his or her right to free speech? Probably less then the harm he or she inflicts when limiting the right to privacy of the actor.

Again, a judgment may not always be as easy as in this example. Deciding between rights remains a difficult matter and one that is better left to professional judges.

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