Why Do We Need Human Rights? (42): Agency

A human being is an “agent” in the sense of a person able to act in the world. The words “agent”, “act” and “agency” all come from the Latin “agere”, “to set in motion, drive, lead, conduct etc.” Human agents have goals in life and pursue them through their purposeful actions.

Now, if a human being is an agent or has agency, then we should give her rights because we have to define the range of activities that she is allowed to engage in. We have to decide what she can do without obstruction and defend her against obstruction if necessary. Otherwise her agency will be largely ineffective. It’s constitutive of human beings to pursue goals and hence we owe it to them to create a framework in which they can reliably do so. Whether or not they actually realize their goals is another matter, dependent upon lots of things – circumstances, luck, resources, ambition etc. We can’t and shouldn’t promise people that they’ll get what they’re after, but making it impossible for them to try is a denial of their humanity. The point is that we can only make it possible for them to try if we give them rights. Of course, people without rights or people suffering rights violations can sometimes act purposefully. But they’ll always be precarious agents. A predictable and reliable form of agency depends on respect for rights.

This kind of justification of human rights is by definition a limited one. It isn’t complete. There are people who have no agency in the relevant sense of the word – for example babies or the severely handicapped – but who still have rights. So we’ll have to look for additional justifications, which is what I’ve tried to do in the other posts in this series.

4 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Human Rights? (42): Agency”

  1. I haven’t seen human rights tied to agency till now. Don’t lots of other creatures have agency too? And then don’t we have *huge* sets of obligations — to whole species as well as to individual animals?


  2. Some things to consider: How do you determine who has the rights to “define the range of activities she is allowed to engage in”? What gives us the right to limit or obstruct her course of actions in the first place? Isn’t such power over people a violation of their rights? Perhaps not when we’re talking about obstructing aggression against others. But certainly government has enacted considerably more restrictions and regulations than just those protecting against aggression.

    I’d argue that every regulation which takes away your power to choose, and gives that power to someone else, lessens your ability to provide for your family and diminishes your agency. Consider taxation. Isn’t this a violation of one’s right to choose? Why should another person or committee or government have more right to chose how your money is spent than you do? Doesn’t that obstruct your ability to attain your goals, while perhaps easing the path for others? And in the end, isn’t this one of the biggest enablers of corruption and cronyism?

    I believe we should keep the power of choice decentralized in the hands of the people, and not concentrate that power in the hands of the few. And freedom is the best way to achieve that. The free market is the only structure that perfectly empowers each individual with the right of self-determination.


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