What Are Human Rights? (42): Individual, Not Individualistic Rights

Opponents of human rights often define them as expressions of the individualism and antagonism that is typical of the West. Human rights are viewed as claims against society made by individuals who want to be left alone and who need rights in order to live their peculiar kind of lives free from the intolerance and interference of the larger community. As such, human rights are believed to be incompatible with, detrimental to or at least utterly useless in non-Western societies that are more collectivist, more communitarian, more focused on harmony and less interested in protecting and fostering peculiar lifestyles.

I don’t want to argue for or against these characterizations of Western and non-Western societies, although I do believe that they are wrong and simplistic. I’m also not expressing myself about the relative moral value of individualism and antagonism as opposed to community. What I want to do here is object to the portrayal of human rights as individualistic rights or as rights that promote individualism. Although human rights are the rights of individuals and not the rights of groups, there’s nothing in human rights that makes societies necessarily more individualistic or antagonistic. Many human rights are designed to protect communities, bind them together, and allow them to co-exist with other communities. That’s the case for the right to religious freedom and the assembly and association rights, but also, perhaps less obviously, for freedom of speech. A major function of speech is persuasion. People speak in order to persuade and bring outsiders into a group that holds certain beliefs. This is even more evident in the case of the right to political participation. I don’t understand how anyone can fail to see the importance of community in the system of human rights.

Human rights even have a collectivist side to them. Collectivism is

any philosophic, political, religious, economic, or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human being. (source)

Indeed, everyone’s rights are dependent on everyone else’s rights. Few if any of my rights make sense if I’m the only one having them or the only one being able to exercise them. If I can speak but nobody else can, then what is the point of me speaking? I will just be talking to walls. If I have freedom of religion but nobody else has, then with whom will I worship and congregate? If I have a right to a fair trial but everyone else is forced to give false testimony or no testimony at all, then I won’t have a fair trial. Etc. The effectiveness of my rights depends on everyone else having equally effective rights. Individualistic rights are therefore nonsensical.

A remark that’s probably superfluous: I’m in no way defending collectivist politics or disparaging the value of individualism. My point is limited to the proper definition of human rights. Calling them individualistic rights or tools for the promotion of individualism at the expense of community, harmony and belonging is just plain wrong and betrays a lack of understanding of their true nature. On the other hand, pointing to the collectivist strand in the system of human rights doesn’t imply a value judgment about collectivism vis-à-vis individualism. It’s just one strand among many, and one that should be mentioned in order to counter some common mischaracterizations of human rights.

(By the way, Marx as well was guilty of these mischaracterizations).

More posts in this series are here.


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