Why Do We Need Human Rights? (31): Or Maybe We Don’t? – Exploring the “Dark Side” of Human Rights

Do human rights have a “dark side“? There are some specific complaints about the nefarious or even evil consequences of certain particular human rights, and there are complaints about the harmful consequences of human rights in general. The former complaints are a lot easier to deal with, and I’ll start with those.

Complaints about particular human rights

Freedom of expression is believed to be harmful because it protects pornography, which in turn leads to gender based violence and gender discrimination. Furthermore, it implies the free dissemination and reproduction of hate and it therefore fosters violence, racism and different kinds of “phobias”. And, finally, it allows blasphemy and hence it encourages religious tensions and violence.

Those human rights that guarantee a fair trial, and more particularly the rights of defendants, make it more difficult to have an effective criminal justice system. As a result, it becomes more likely that dangerous criminals return to society. Also, the right to life makes it harder to justify capital punishment, with the same result.

The right to privacy can support gender subordination and make it more difficult to tackle domestic violence.

Some human rights can even bring us to the edge of destruction (a ban on torture makes it impossible to deal with ticking time bomb terrorists).

Such specific complaints against particular human rights can be countered rather easily. Most if not all of the harmful consequences of rights are violations of other rights. If we grant that rights are limited by other rights, then we can balance rights against each other. Or one can argue that the supposed harmful consequences of some rights will (almost) never occur, or that they aren’t really harmful at all. For example, if we don’t torture we won’t make terrorism more likely. And some forms of pornography or hate speech aren’t really very dangerous.

Complaints about human rights in general

A lot harder to answer is the challenge that there’s something wrong, not with particular human rights, but with human rights as such. This challenge can take different forms.

Human rights are supposed to be the fig leaf of international intervention and modern imperialism. The anti-Taliban intervention in Afghanistan, for instance, was partly a reaction to 9-11 but it was also justified by reference to the brutal rule of the Taliban. It may be a meager defense, but if we were to reject everything that can be abused we wouldn’t have much left. The question then becomes one of degree: are human rights more likely to be abused for imperialist reasons, or more likely to serve the beneficial goals for which they are intended? And what is the probable balance of good and bad that will result from those different uses of human rights? I think the good that comes from human rights clearly outweighs the bad, and that the bad will happen anyway, whether or not people use the excuse of human rights while making it happen.

There’s a similar claim about the inherent cultural imperialism in human rights. Human rights, even when they’re not used to justify war, military intervention or territorial occupation, are still imperialist because they imply the imposition of western values on other cultures. Human rights are then believed to be a form of cultural aggression and part of a neocolonial effort to extend the individualist, secular and modern culture of the West elsewhere in the world, destroying the indigenous cultures in the process. This claim, however, is based on some rather shaky foundations: that human rights can only be found in the West, that intercultural transmission is necessarily aggressive, one-sided and involuntary, that human rights express a culture, that human rights are individualist etc.

Then there’s the claim that the abstract nature of human rights removes the personal and the specific from cases, and removes therefore the things that make us care about cases. I dealt with this complaint before, so I won’t repeat myself. The core of the reply would be that one approach – an abstract one – doesn’t exclude a more contextualized and specific one. For instance, one can talk about the abstract desirability of the right not to be tortured and about the errors in reasoning of those arguing for exceptions to this right, and at the same time one can talk about specific cases of torture.

Another complaint is the classic marxist one: the individualism of human rights spills over into egoism and capitalist greed. Again, I refer to an older post for a detailed reply. Suffice it to say that human rights as claims on others can indeed lead to divisiveness and a lack of social harmony, and that human rights as claims for your rights can promote selfishness. These tendencies, however, are canceled by the more communitarian nature of other uses of rights (religious liberty, tolerance, freedom of association etc.).

Still another complaint is about the victimization inherent in human rights. Focusing on people’s human rights violations means focusing on their status as victims, and talking about people as victims is somewhat infantilizing. Human rights activists do indeed often view non-whites, non-males and non-westerners as passive victims, incapable of agency, waiting to be rescued by do-gooders. This obviously reinforces their subordination. (More on self-defeating human rights policies here). This complaint is more about the way people act when trying to promote human rights than about human rights as such.

A final complaint about human rights is that they give people false hope, at least those people in the poorest countries of the world. What is the point of having a right when you don’t have the means to realize that right, when there’s no way of securing the things you have a right to? For billions of people all over the world, the right not to suffer ill health, poverty or homelessness is just a sick joke. Why should we have rights when there’s no way to make them real? Good luck going to a judge in a famine infested country and asking him to respect your right to food. And even if we can make our rights real, it’s better to use politics, science and economics than abstract rights that don’t tell us how to move forward. The reply to this complaint would focus on the benefits of having rather ambitious goals, even if the complete realization of those goals is not yet possible. At least one can measure progress. And it would also focus on the realistic nature of most human rights goals. For example, it’s simply not true that poverty eradication is utopian.

More posts in this series here.

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