The idea that human rights are equal rights is trivial at first sight. However, it becomes problematic after some reflection, and only regains its persuasiveness after even further reflection. When you think about it, equal rights for everyone is a strange idea. Why should all people have the same rights? Why should a preacher of violence and hate have the same right to speak freely as the world’s best poet? Why should a religion that oppresses women have the same right to exist as a religion that loves peace and equality? Why should people who haven’t finished primary school have the same right to vote as experts in government matters?
Agreed, they are all human beings and human rights are the rights of human beings, but that’s a tautology, not an argument. A somewhat more promising foundation for the notion of equal rights goes like this: one can argue that people need human rights in order to realize certain of their most fundamental and commonly shared values. If that is true, then rights should be equal rights.
Most people value the ability to express themselves, to belong to groups, to share a common identity (e.g. a religious one), to govern their own affairs, to enjoy peace and prosperity etc. And we know that they need human rights to realize these (and other) values. Agreed, some of us may not want any of this, but then they can waive their rights. And only THEY can. People should decide for themselves whether they need rights and need them equally; others shouldn’t decide for them. That is probably the only morally sound way to treat people.
We can also justify equality of rights on the following grounds: we don’t want rights just for ourselves and for the things we value for ourselves; we also want other people to have rights and to have them equally – or at least we should want this if we are to reason coherently. This is not a requirement of morality or altruism – although it can be, obviously – but simply one of logic and coherence. The right to express myself, to belong, to live in peace and prosperity, to vote etc. makes no sense if I’m the only one to have those rights. Even if others use their expression or their votes or whatever in a stupid way, they should have the right to do so – as long as this use doesn’t imply rights violations of course. Hence, equality of rights is a logical requirement in the system of rights.
More posts in this series are here.