What Are Human Rights? (53): Have Human Rights Lost Their Meaning?

Human rights have started to look somewhat like a substance spread so far and wide that it has lost its depth. Some use rights to promote peace, while others take them to war against oppressive dictators. Some say that abortion is a right of the mother, while pro-lifers say that it’s about the right of the baby. Religious believers are urged to respect the rights of those they view as morally depraved, but the former answer that the way they treat the latter is a matter of religious liberty. Putin intervenes in Ukraine for the sake of the rights of Russians, while Ukraine counteracts because of the rights of Ukrainians. Almost every political or moral debate is now essentially two groups of people throwing rights at each other. And as with all things that are used for anything and everything, rights have lost their meaning. At best, their meaning has become very thin.

Part of the reason for this “thinness” is overinterpretation; another part is rights inflation. We should of course interpret rights. Their meaning isn’t obvious. The only thing that is more or less undisputed are a few lists with rights described in one or two sentences. As is clear from the examples given above, what these sentences imply for specific cases is hotly contested. We can try to give some substance to the meaning of different individual rights, as well as to the idea of rights in general. This is in fact what I try to do in this blog series, and what many others try as well. But success is far from guaranteed, if it’s even clear what success would mean in this case. At a minimum, some form of widely shared agreement, I guess, such that for instance religious believers accept that their rights do not warrant violations of the rights of non-believers.

Likewise, while we should allow rights to evolve – new wrongs may require new rights – we should also try to agree on some outer boundaries and perhaps make a division within the set of rights between fundamental or basic rights on the one hand and aspirational rights on the other. It would harm the practical effectiveness of rights if we can’t set limits on interpretation and evolution. We wouldn’t want to deal in empty promises.

But is there really a “thinness” to human rights? There is certainly overinterpretation and inflation, but the “spread substance” metaphor is somewhat misleading. Perhaps rights haven’t really lost their meaning. As with all fundamental philosophical concepts, there wasn’t an a priori meaning to begin with and hence no original content that has been squandered. Political and moral disputes, because they are increasingly framed in a language of rights – as opposed to the language of duty, honor and virtue – have made the concept of rights more complex and contested than it needs to be, and perhaps even murky and vague. But that is because there’s too much meaning rather than too little. Taking again the same example: the claim that religious liberty should include the freedom to discriminate is a claim to unwarranted “thickness”. We need to be clearer on the content and extent of human rights, but perhaps it’s wrong to say that rights are “lost”.

More on the causes of the increase in human rights talk is here. More posts in this series are here.


1 thought on “What Are Human Rights? (53): Have Human Rights Lost Their Meaning?”

  1. I think human rights can be expressed if they are in the context of a living system. These are living human rights, as living beings, like plants and microbes and trees. Insomuch that these entities persist over time we call them things. In the human body, eukaryote cells have become emergent systems that host organelles with a nucleus, but the nucleus of different cells do different things, and groups of similar cells can be separated into further aggregates called tissues, organs, systems, and the body, but the human body has a shitload of bacteria and things living in it that we depend on. The endosymbiotic nature of this arrangement gives rise to interactions that can affect one’s health, function, thought, abilities. Some scientists believe that mitochondria could be single cell organisms that evolved to call our cytoplasmic sea their home, to our mutual benefit.

    When I’m thinking of human rights, I am thinking of my rights in a value-system that is tied to living things inclusively. Human rights are, to an extent, the rights we share with clean air, the life-sustaining plants and animals we consume, the rights of the forest, the rights of the stars, a harmonious arrangement of things.

    Recognizing the deeper ecology in which we thrive and pass along our cultural memory is how I find a way to relate to the rights I might require.

    I like this declaration of universal life crafted by the indigenous people of Bolivia. A few years ago, being a majority still culturally active in a nation affected by Spanish colonialism, they declared the right to govern themselves. I like to imagine this spirit is alive, but buried in the troubles of disparity that have buried within these nation states histories of poverty, bloodshed and madness, and one day it will emerge again, and bring people back to earth where we all belong and share a sacred journey in this place.



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