Why Do We Need Human Rights? (28): Protection, or Something More?

The standard answer to this question is protection: human rights offer people protection against other people or the state. People need rights because they want to protect their interests, their freedom, their equal status, their opportunities, their values and their projects in life against attacks by those more powerful. (There’s a more elaborate version of this standard thesis here).

However, there’s a sense in which we need rights even if no one harms anyone else. Immanuel Kant has made this claim in a very convincing manner. Suppose that all those people who are powerful and strong enough to frustrate our interests, projects, opportunities and values and to harm our freedom, independence and equal status refrain from doing so in a coherent, systematic and predictable manner. Hence, there is no harm imposed by people on each other, and one could assume that human rights retreat to the background. In fact, they would seem to become totally useless.

And yet, such a social setting would imply that the weak are able to enjoy their rights, their freedom and their equal status and to pursue their goals and values only “on the sufferance of the strong” and with their explicit or implicit permission and indulgence. Kant thinks, rightly I believe, that it is wrong for people to be dependent on others for their freedom and equality in this manner. And if we understand the “weak” to be almost everyone – even the strong have to sleep – then this dependence on indulgence will be a general phenomenon. Hence, even in such a seemingly idyllic society awash with benevolent and self-restrained power we need human rights.

More on the reasons why we need human rights here and here.

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14 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Human Rights? (28): Protection, or Something More?”

  1. We need human rights for the simple reason that we need protection from the
    evil deeds of men. History repeats itself however , we have a habit of not learning from it. if certain human right laws are put in place against certain governments that have no regard for human life, we stand a chance of rewriting history but most important of all preventing the next genocide or ethnic cleansing.

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  2. I am a hiv drug addicit,whom has not use any drugs over one & half years.
    I BELEAVE MY COUNSELOR WAS TO HARD ON MY AS IF I AM THE BWROST PERSON IN THE DRUG PROGRAM.CAN SOMEONE GIVE ME THE RIGHT PERSON TO TALK WITH PLEASE

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  3. I surely agree that in most cases, it is the vulnerable groups of people in society who suffer violation of human rights. Laws are being put in place to favour such people but the question is that how are these laws being effectively enforced. In most cases those who claim to be protecting the rights of people are the violators bcause they take advantage of ignorant populations and later justify their actions using the same laws or rights they claim to be protecting.

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  4. […] I’m guessing many of us are horrified by this. But what is it exactly that puts us off? Perhaps it’s the fact that the mother is used as a mere means for the fetus and that the doctors ignore her wishes. We find it disrespectful and we think she has a right to be respected and to be treated as a human being rather than just a means without a will, even after death. However, the mother is indeed dead and therefore can’t be harmed in any meaningful way. Perhaps there’s a solution if we recognize that rights aren’t just about the avoidance of harm. […]

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