What Are Human Rights? (33): Something More Than Goals

You can often hear the claim that economic rights such as the right to healthcare, food and work are not really rights but merely desirable goals. A first reply would be that all types of rights, not just economic rights, are also goals. Free speech is just as much a goal as healthcare, food and work. But not all goals are rights, so it’s reasonable to ask if economic rights are really rights. What is a right? It can be different things, but it should, minimally, impose a duty. A duty implies feasibility. Ought implies can. There’s no point imposing duties on people which they are unable to respect.

A typical objection against economic rights is that they impose precisely such duties, duties which are not and will not be feasible in many countries in the world. Imposing a right to healthcare, food and work in Somalia, for instance, is imposing an illusion. It’s just too expensive. Hence, because they impose impossible duties, economic rights can’t really be rights. They are merely goals.

Now, I did argue before that the relative expensiveness of economic rights compared to “freedom” rights is often very much exaggerated. Which is why Somalia and other countries have also failed to secure freedom rights successfully. Part of their lack of success is due to their unwillingness to leave people be – which they could at no expense – but another part is due to their unwillingness and inability to fund the institutions necessary to enforce people’s freedom. Yet, no one claims that these failures turn free speech into a mere goal or aspiration rather than a right.

Furthermore, the international treaties that impose respect for economic rights have taken the cost criticism into account. They often frame economic rights in terms of “progressive realization”. Countries don’t violate the treaties if they can show that they have taken all possible measures to ensure the progressive – as opposed to immediate – realization of economic rights.

If we turn rights into goals, we lose a lot. Goals are a lot weaker in terms of moral force than rights. Those who are without food can no longer demand that something is done, that they are the victims of an injustice, and that they have a right to food. All they can do is ask or beg that a certain social goal, one among probably thousands, is taken a bit more seriously.

Finally, is it really so farcical to impose duties that exceed people’s abilities to comply? Aren’t we doing that all the time? It’s common to view “telling the truth” as a moral duty, a very strong one even. And yet, we all know that this exceeds our abilities to comply. We lie all the time, and if you deny this, you’re lying. The best we can do, morally, is precisely “progressive realization”: trying to lie as little as we can, and less than we’re used to. The same progressive realization rescues economic rights as rights: rather than imposing a duty to realize the goal inherent in the rights, they impose a duty to try to realize that goal.

What Are Human Rights? (28): Or, in Other Words: When is Something a Human Right?

Human rights are exceptional, by definition. Not all rights or rules or aspirations can be human rights. A human right is a special kind of rule, right or aspiration, namely one that is particularly important. And if all rules or rights become human rights, or if all values, desires or possible improvements in people’s life are called “human rights”, then human rights are no longer important, because if everything is important, nothing is. Hence, the existence and utility of human rights depends on strong restrictions on the set of human rights.

However, that raises the obvious question: what are those restrictions, and how do we decide which rules or aspirations are properly called a human right, and which are not? When does a particular rule or aspiration become so important that it becomes a right? We can’t just simply claim that the “basic aspirations” or “basic values” of humanity, or those things that are especially valuable or necessary for a “real” human life should be protected by human rights. First, it will never be clear or uncontroversial what those basic things are, and secondly, it’s easy to come up with basic or important things that none of us would claim are human rights: love, kindness, longevity etc. Some things that are extremely valuable shouldn’t be human rights, and it’s often very unclear how and when to make – or not to make – the leap from “value” to “right”.

So it’s not just the importance of certain rules or aspirations that turn them into a human right. The fact that we all want our children to love us and that this kind of love is extremely important for human life is not enough to generate a right to filial love. So what other criteria besides importance should determine whether a rule or aspiration becomes a human right?

One could argue that something is a human right if the background aspiration or rule is extremely important, and if it is necessary, desirable and practically feasible to turn this rule or aspiration into a working human right. Remember that human rights should also and always be legal rights, so as to distinguish them from purely moral claims and make them enforceable. Among other things, it’s not practically feasible to have courts enforce a right to filial love (although there have been attempts). And it’s certainly not desirable. On the other hand, it’s relatively obvious that our aspiration to free speech, for example, is best protected when we have a legal right, courts and the like to help us protect this aspiration.

A related post is here. More on the link between human rights and values is here.

Economic Human Rights (34): The Cost of Human Rights, and of Economic Rights More Specifically

Human rights cost money. It’s often claimed that economic human rights aren’t really human rights because they are so expensive for many governments in the world that they can’t realistically impose duties: governments of poor countries can’t be expected to respect a duty to provide healthcare, housing, food, work etc. Ought implies can. You can’t be under an obligation if there’s no way you can honor that obligation. It’s claimed, therefore, that economic rights are mere aspirations rather than rights.

Yet, the same argument can be made about the supposedly more distinguished and respectable freedom rights. It’s strange, many countries in the world can’t manage to create the institutions and the governance to enforce freedom rights, simply because they don’t have the means (and sometimes the willingness), and yet this fact doesn’t make people think twice about the reality of freedom rights.

Providing effective and non-corrupt police forces and judiciaries is expensive. Probably just as expensive as providing a good public healthcare system. True, rights have to be enforceable, and duties shouldn’t be farcically unrealistic. But I fail to see the ontological difference here between freedom rights and economic rights.

We also shouldn’t overestimate the cost of economic rights. The purpose of these rights is not to have a government that gives healthcare, food, work etc. to every single citizen. That would destroy the economy. A system of economic rights will require that most people provide these goods for themselves through work and economic activity. It will also require that citizens show generosity and help each other. Economic rights also create duties for fellow-citizens. The government supplies the goods in the remaining cases, when self-help and mutual help are not enough.

As a result, the cost of economic rights isn’t as high as a cursory reading of these rights would imply. Conversely, the cost of freedom rights is often higher than one would conclude at first sight: true, these rights often require abstinence and forbearance (“don’t invade my privacy or inhibit my speech”) and that’s something cheap. But the enforcement and equal protection of those rights and the enforcement of forbearance requires an efficient government, which is expensive.

Something about another cost issue related to human rights, namely the relative cost of freedom and dictatorship, is here.