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”.