What Are Human Rights? (37): Do Human Rights Point Downwards or Upwards?

A common but, in my opinion, shortsighted view of human rights is the following: human rights are minimal standards. They serve to avoid the terrible rather than to achieve the best. Hence, they point downwards rather than upwards. They are the lower limits of tolerable human conduct, not high aims, ideals or utopian visions. They protect us against the worst things that can happen to us, but they don’t help us to achieve the best things that should happen to us. They limit the depths to which governments and our fellow human beings can sink, but they don’t promote the heights we can reach.

If we limit our understanding of human rights to all this, then it’s difficult to integrate the view that human rights are necessary for the search of truth, and that democracy – a human right – is a way of life. Human rights do in fact – also – point upwards. They set a lower limit of tolerable human conduct, and they also point towards higher possibilities and human perfection. This perfection, of course, they will never deliver like they never deliver full protection from horror, but they help us on the way.

More on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on human rights and progress is here. More on utopian thought is here.

What Are Human Rights? (35): Freedom of Expression is Freedom of What Exactly?

Another way to frame the question in the title of this post is: what falls under the header of “expression”, and what not? Only if something is justifiably called expression can it enjoy the protection of the right to free expression. I’ll argue below that “expression” covers more actions than the ones we intuitively classify under that concept. Hence, freedom of expression protects more than we think it protects.

And yet, it’s not because something is expression that it automatically enjoys protection. Some actions which we readily classify as “expression” are not and should not be protected by freedom of speech. In other words, freedom of expression covers more and at the same time less than we think.

The obvious type of action that is covered by the right to free speech, and the type that represents the large majority of expressive actions, is speaking and writing in day-to-day language. Such actions enjoy a prima facie protection by the right to free speech. Nothing special about that. However, the right also applies to other expressive actions, ones that do not involve speech or writing in ordinary language:

  • some non-linguistic means of expression, such as visual art
  • some forms of protest such as the burning of a draft card, a flag or a cross
  • pornography
  • the display of symbols (e.g. a swastika)
  • etc.

These types of expressive actions can also claim protection in certain circumstances.

So, some things which are not readily identified as speech are nevertheless considered as speech acts and receive some form of protection from the right to free speech.

On the other hand, some actions that are unmistakably speech – such as hate speech, incitement etc. – are often justifiably excluded from the protection of the right to free speech.

Free speech therefore covers at the same time more and less than a cursory examination would conclude. However, the broad definition of speech that expands speech beyond mere linguistic acts does create a problem. Non-linguistic expressive actions are hard to delineate. All actions can include an expressive component, and it’s often difficult to determine when an agent intended to convey a message through her actions. So the concept can become too broad, and we risk, as a result, that freedom of speech covers all actions and becomes indistinguishable from freedom tout court. That can’t be the purpose.

Notwithstanding this problem, it’s obvious that not all linguistic or non-linguistic expressive actions should enjoy protection by the right to free speech. Terrorism is certainly an expressive action, but no one would claim that it should be protected by freedom of speech.

Beside the “freedom of what?” question, there’s another interesting one: “freedom from what?” Usually, freedom of expression, like many other type of freedom, is believed to be primarily or exclusively a freedom from government interference with speech. While that’s an important dimension of freedom, it’s not the only one. Rights have a horizontal as well as a vertical dimension: citizens can also violate each others rights, and hence freedom of expression for example is also a freedom from interference by fellow-citizens. More on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on free speech here.

Economic Human Rights (31b): Certain Objections

Economic rights are a subset of human rights. Put very briefly and simplistically, they are what could be called anti-poverty rights: for example, there’s a right to a certain standard of living, to social security, to work, to fair wages, to healthcare, housing etc.

It’s an understatement to say that there’s no universal consensus on these rights. Some say that these aren’t “real” human rights (like Bill Easterly for example). Others say that these rights are useless or even harmful. Here are a few of the most common objections raised against economic rights.

The big state criticism

Economic rights are believed to require invasion of privacy and hence violations of an important freedom right (freedom rights such as free speech, privacy, habeas corpus etc. are usually distinguished from economic rights, political rights etc.). In order to verify whether people have a right to social security benefits or healthcare benefits, the state has to check people’s income (legal and illegal), their family composition, their health, their medical consumption, their lifestyle etc.

The assumption behind this criticism is that the state is the only or the main party responsible for the realization of economic rights. This is not the case. People in need can call on other people to help. And these other people have a moral responsibility to help. The duties of mutual assistance, charity and philanthropy point to a horizontal aspect of economic rights. People in need do not only have a vertical right to assistance, or a right directed at the state. Their economic rights can be addressed at their fellow citizens, and these have a duty to respect and protect these rights. It’s only when horizontal duties fail that the state should intervene. If we think of economic rights in this way, the dangers of an overbearing state don’t look that ominous anymore.

The rule that economic rights should – in part – be realized by citizens has another advantage as well: economic rights tend to foster community spirit and feelings of solidarity and belonging.

But this insistence on solidarity shouldn’t obscure the rule that people have a responsibility to help themselves and support themselves. This kind of independence is a part of freedom and an important good. Solidarity comes into play only when self-help is unsuccessful or impossible, and the state comes into play only when solidarity is unsuccessful or absent.

Different kinds of duties

Another objection: some say that economic rights, if they are rights at all, are radically different from “normal” human rights – also called freedom rights – and can therefore be given a lower priority (and maybe aren’t even real rights at all). Freedom rights imply duties of abstention or forbearance, whereas economic rights require duties of active help, involvement and intervention. In the case of violations of freedom rights, the remedy is easy: stop doing what you’re doing. In the case of violations of economic “rights”, the remedy is often very difficult if not impossible. If there is no work, no one can give it to me. If a country is poor, no one can raise the standard of living.

When freedom rights are violated, the victim can go to a court and a judge can force the violator to stop his or her actions. When economic rights are violated, it’s useless to go to a court. Not only isn’t there an obvious violator who can be stopped, there is often no one who can stop the violation from happening. Hence it looks like these rights are unenforceable and often have no remedy. Rather than rights, it seems that they are aspirations or policy goals, often long term policy goals.

However, there’s again an erroneous assumption underlying all of this. The distinction between the two types of duties – forbearance and active assistance – isn’t clean-cut. Freedom rights require active intervention by the state in order to enforce forbearance. They require an efficient judiciary and police force. For some states, this may be as unattainable as prosperity. In fact, it’s precisely because of a lack of prosperity that many states are unable to guarantee protection for freedom rights. Of course, the fact that economic rights are a prerequisite for freedom rights isn’t a sufficient reason to call them rights. But neither is it a reason not to call them rights.

Conversely, economic rights often require more forbearance than active intervention. Economic rights in China during the Great Leap Forward would have been better served by state forbearance. All types of human rights require forbearance and intervention. Perhaps economic rights generally need more intervention, but that is a difference in degree and not in essence, and it isn’t a sufficient reason to reject the label of “rights” for the aspirations inherent in economic rights.

Ought implies can

There’s another criticism of economic rights, related to the previous one. Economic rights are said to violate a general rule for rights: ought implies can; there can be no obligation to do something if there is no capability to do it. You cannot have a duty to help someone who’s drowning if you can’t swim yourself. Hence the person drowning doesn’t have a right to be assisted by you. The same is said to be true of economic rights which therefore aren’t real rights. If a poor country doesn’t have the resources to help its poor citizens, then these citizens don’t have a right to be helped.

However, we don’t follow the same logic in the case of freedom rights. Freedom rights also require resources, as we have seen. When a state doesn’t have the resources necessary to protect its citizens’ freedom rights, we usually don’t say that the citizens of such a state have lost their freedom rights. People have rights irrespective of the probability that they can be protected. Or better: the less people’s rights are protected, the more important it is that they have rights. And anyway, violations of economic rights don’t occur because there are insufficient resources but because of an unequal distribution of resource, nationally or internationally. So the “can” part of “ought implies can” isn’t as fanciful as the critics of economic rights believe.

Economic rights are superfluous and useless

This is supposed to be the case because free markets should automatically produce a certain standard of living for everyone that is high enough to realize the goals inherent in economic rights. Free trade, deregulated markets and low taxes cause profits to rise, which in turn means more investments, which in turn means more and better jobs and higher incomes. All boats rise on a rising tide.

Now, it’s my belief that history – and especially recent history – has shown that this isn’t enough. Free markets are beneficial, but they don’t automatically provide high standards of living for everyone.

Economic rights are harmful and counterproductive

This is a stronger version of the “useless” argument. Economic rights are believed to require a big state (see above), high taxes and intrusive regulation. All of this hinders the economy and the creation of wealth. As a result of economic rights, there is less wealth to redistribute, and economic rights therefore undo what they want to achieve.

They are also harmful in another way: they violate freedom rights, especially the right to privacy and the right to property (because of redistribution). We’ve already seen that we can mitigate this risk when we include horizontal duties. But even if this risk is real, why should property and privacy automatically rank higher than the absence of poverty? If we assume that economic rights are real rights, then it’s not surprising to see that they can contradict other rights. Contradictions between human rights are very common. The right to privacy is often in conflict with free speech for example. Sometimes one right has to be limited for the sake of another. So why should this be a problem when dealing with economic rights?

Of course, one shouldn’t dramatize. Economic rights and freedom rights are generally not incompatible. On the contrary, they are interdependent. Freedom for the poor often doesn’t mean a whole lot. But, on the other hand, the squeaky hinge gets the oil: poverty has to have a voice if it is to be eliminated.

What Are Human Rights? (21): Dimensions of Human Rights

It’s common to believe that human rights are rights that protect us against the state. Nothing wrong there, except that it’s a gross simplification. Human rights aren’t one-dimensional. For example, there’s a difference between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human rights: the former one describing the way rights regulate our relationship with our state/government, and the latter one pointing to the fact that it isn’t necessarily the state that violates our rights: our fellow-citizens can do the same, as can citizens of other countries. If rights had only a vertical dimension, it would be difficult, for example, to explain the mayhem caused by so-called failed states in terms of human rights violations.

With a bit of imagination, we can add a diagonal dimension: rights claims aren’t addressed only at the state and fellow human beings; corporations, cultures, associations and other groups can also violate our rights (think of corporate social responsibility, apostasy etc.). Since these entities are somewhere on a level between the levels of persons and the state, we can call this dimension diagonal.

To make things complete, we have to add a final dimension. Human rights are not bilateral, such as the rights created by a marriage contract or a commercial contract. They are omni-lateral, meaning that they are claims directed at all entities within the previous dimensions: every other human being, every state and every intermediary entity can violate our rights. That is what we mean when we say that rights are rights erga omnes.

If we put these dimensions together, we can present it graphically: every human being is situated in the center of a sphere, and the radius, wherever on the surface of the sphere it points, indicates a human rights claim.