What Are Human Rights? (28): Or, in Other Words: When is Something a Human Right?

Human rights are exceptional, by definition. Not all rights or rules or aspirations can be human rights. A human right is a special kind of rule, right or aspiration, namely one that is particularly important. And if all rules or rights become human rights, or if all values, desires or possible improvements in people’s life are called “human rights”, then human rights are no longer important, because if everything is important, nothing is. Hence, the existence and utility of human rights depends on strong restrictions on the set of human rights.

However, that raises the obvious question: what are those restrictions, and how do we decide which rules or aspirations are properly called a human right, and which are not? When does a particular rule or aspiration become so important that it becomes a right? We can’t just simply claim that the “basic aspirations” or “basic values” of humanity, or those things that are especially valuable or necessary for a “real” human life should be protected by human rights. First, it will never be clear or uncontroversial what those basic things are, and secondly, it’s easy to come up with basic or important things that none of us would claim are human rights: love, kindness, longevity etc. Some things that are extremely valuable shouldn’t be human rights, and it’s often very unclear how and when to make – or not to make – the leap from “value” to “right”.

So it’s not just the importance of certain rules or aspirations that turn them into a human right. The fact that we all want our children to love us and that this kind of love is extremely important for human life is not enough to generate a right to filial love. So what other criteria besides importance should determine whether a rule or aspiration becomes a human right?

One could argue that something is a human right if the background aspiration or rule is extremely important, and if it is necessary, desirable and practically feasible to turn this rule or aspiration into a working human right. Remember that human rights should also and always be legal rights, so as to distinguish them from purely moral claims and make them enforceable. Among other things, it’s not practically feasible to have courts enforce a right to filial love (although there have been attempts). And it’s certainly not desirable. On the other hand, it’s relatively obvious that our aspiration to free speech, for example, is best protected when we have a legal right, courts and the like to help us protect this aspiration.

A related post is here. More on the link between human rights and values is here.

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