Why do we need the qualifier “human” when we talk about human rights? Why is the word “rights” not enough? The obvious reason is that we want to broaden the class of protected persons to cover the whole of humanity. Traditionally, rights were accorded only to specific groups of persons, e.g. the nobility, guilds, citizens etc. The essence of human rights is their universality, which means that they are rights that belong to human beings whatever group they are part of and wherever they happen to live. People have certain rights for the simple reason that they are human; there’s no need for any other reason such as group affiliation, nationality, form of government, legal system etc.
Human rights can thus be seen as the end state of a long expansionary evolution during which ever broader groups of people acquired certain rights. However, the inclusiveness of human rights has often been countered by exclusionary movements. If some want to include a maximum number of people under the protection of rights, others have an interest in the continuation of rights violations. The latter have two options: challenge human rights directly (e.g. by claiming that they are western rights, godless rights etc.), or take the more indirect route: maintain the notion of human rights but at the same time exclude some categories of people from humanity.
Many rights violations are explicitly or implicitly justified by reference to an absence of humanity on the part of the targets of those violations. The terror inflicted by Al-Qaida, the televised beheadings of innocent hostages etc. proves that these people are less than human. They are “animals” and can’t therefore claim that their “human” rights are respected when they are executed extra-judicially, eliminated by way of targeted killing, tortured, or arrested indefinitely in Guantanamo. Perhaps people don’t mean it literally when they say that terrorists are animals. Perhaps they do accept that they are human – they look human after all – but at least they are lesser humans, and hence not deserving the same rights as the rest of humanity. Perhaps they are merely barbarians, a separate and inferior class of humans.
The same attitude is evident in certain non-consequentialist justifications of capital punishment: the people who are executed are “the worst of the worst”, “animals” that have proven their inhumanity by way of their crimes. Also the native populations of colonized territories were considered to be non-human or at least lesser humans. There was a time when westerners weren’t sure that these people had a “soul”, a classic if currently somewhat outmoded distinguishing mark of humans. For those who believed they didn’t have a soul, their enslavement and murder was as acceptable as keeping and slaughtering animals. It took a Papal Bull to attempt to reign in the more extreme colonizers, without much success by the way.
This raises the fundamental question: what is “human”, what does it mean to be human, what is humanity? Respect for human rights depends on the type of answer we can agree on. Ideally, we would like to have a broad definition that makes it difficult if not impossible to exclude large portions of homo sapiens from the category of humanity and to violate their rights as a result of this exclusion. Claiming that someone is human because of his or her “good behavior”, e.g. non-terrorist and non-murderous behavior, is not the right way forward. “Good behavior” is a moralistic notion that can be defined in lots of different ways. Hence we potentially exclude the large majority if not the totality of people from humanity if we go along that road.
On the other hand, a non-moralistic definition, for instance a naturalistic or biological one, isn’t necessarily better. Given the way in which we treat animals, it’s probably best to avoid a definition of humanity as a distinct animal species (in Plato’s phrase, the “featherless biped“). An animal species, however distinct from other species, still consists of animals that are in some sense like other animals belonging to other species. We don’t have moral rules that tell us to treat cats differently from dogs, so a definition of humanity as a distinct animal species is unlikely to yield moral rules that tell us to treat humans differently from cats or dogs.
However, biology can be a useful element in the definition of humanity since it’s biology that justifies some human rights. Some of the biological vulnerabilities that are distinctive of us featherless bipeds, and perhaps even some of the vulnerabilities we share with some non-human species (e.g. the ability to suffer) can be seen as reasons to respect certain human rights. (Although in the latter case the price to pay would be to grant the same rights to non-human species that have the same vulnerabilities; those human rights would then no longer be strictly “human” rights. But perhaps that’s a price we should be willing to pay).
However, for the reasons given above biology is hardly sufficient for the definition of humanity. I guess we also don’t want to use the concept of “soul” to define humanity, given its association with religion. Ideally, we want to be persuasive to the non-religious violators of human rights as well, and those won’t be swayed by soul talk (perhaps they won’t be swayed at all but at least we can try). “Human nature” is a discredited concept, dignity is excessively vague, and moral agency seems to be less typical of humanity than we once believed.
So what can we use? I’ve argued elsewhere that some values that are typical of and in certain cases exclusive to human beings – or homo sapiens – can be seen as adequate justifications of human rights, since these rights serve the realization of those values (examples of those values are the importance of thinking, of social and cultural life, of religion, of prosperity, peace etc.). Excluding certain specimen of homo sapiens from the category of humanity or “real humanity” is then an attack on values that are shared by all specimens; rights violators then unwillingly attack their own values.
However, one problem remains. People’s rights aren’t necessarily safe, not even if we can settle the question of humanity and define the concept in such a way that it becomes difficult to exclude people from humanity. Humanity itself can be the problem. If human rights can be violated when a person’s humanity is denied, it’s also the case that a person who’s merely human runs the same risk. Hannah Arendt has often cited the plight of stateless persons before and after WWII, people whose nationality had been taken away from them by their racist, fascist or xenophobic governments, and who therefore only had their “humanity” left. In the best of cases, they were refugees in foreign countries where their rights were far from safe given that many countries only protected the rights of their own citizens.
The notion of humanity inherent in human rights is also incompatible with widespread feelings of partiality: most of us care more for our family and friends than for the rest of humanity, and some of us also care more for fellow-citizens. Somehow that’s inevitable: not only is it psychologically impossible to care for all the misery in the world – there’s simply too much of it – but it also seems morally right to care more for those who are closer.
In all those examples, we see that human rights have to come back to partiality. Inherent in human rights is universal inclusiveness, but at the same time we see that human rights can only be adequately protected when they are at the same time rights of very specific subgroups of humans: citizens, soldiers, family etc.
More on dehumanization and universality.