What Are Human Rights? (30): Three Views on Human Rights

1.

The standard view of human rights is that they are intended as regulators of conflicting norms and practices. And, indeed, they seem quite useless and out of place in settings in which people agree, hold the same religious convictions and aren’t intent on attacking each others’ lives and possessions.

“Regulators” in this sense doesn’t mean that rights solve conflicts between norms and practices. They can’t do that because then they would have to change those norms and practices, and they don’t. What they do is pacify and civilize conflicts: they force conflicting parties to extend some measure of respect to the opposing norm or practice, and to refrain from physical or legal attacks, violence and suppression. For example, when different forms of speech come into conflict with each other, neither side in the conflict has a right to suppress the speech of the other side or to violently attack the other speakers.

2.

A somewhat less simplistic view of human rights, but also a less common one, is that these rights don’t just regulate conflict but actively promote it. By taking the sting out of conflict, one obviously encourages conflict. Usually, when an activity becomes less risky, it becomes more common.

Why would there be a need to encourage conflict? One reason has to do with the notion of the marketplace of ideas: only an idea that has survived the onslaught of a large number of opposing arguments can be a good idea.

3.

And then there’s another, even more sophisticated – some say perverted – view of human rights, one that sees beyond the conflicts that these rights are supposed to regulate and/or promote, and that focuses on the role of rights in providing the prerequisites for the appearance and development of conflicting norms and practices. Without this understanding of rights it’s difficult to make sense of rights such as the right to healthcare, the right to a certain standard of living and the right to education. Those are all rights that don’t regulate conflict but instead allow people to acquire and develop norms and practices.

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