What Are Human Rights? (40): Properties & Characteristics of Human Rights

I imagine readers are faced with a “haystack” problem when searching this blog for an overview of properties of human rights. I did write about this many times before, but usually one property at a time, and the respective posts are probably buried underneath a load of other posts (there are literally thousands here). So I thought to myself, why not give a summary, and link to some of those older posts. Here goes.

Human rights are moral claims (and hence part of morality, but only part of), that

  • have a very high if not an absolute priority compared to other moral or non-moral claims (such as claims based on honordisgust, utility etc.)
  • require mandatory (as opposed to discretionary) compliance (more here)
  • are therefore more than mere aspirations (more here)
  • are necessary for the protection and realization of certain fundamental, basic and universal human values and interests (more here)
  • are therefore instrumental principles in the sense that we don’t want them for their own sake; in other words, they are means and not goals (more here and here)
  • are universal: all human beings have certain rights, for no other reason than their humanity and the values attached to humanity; this means that human rights precede and trump considerations of national sovereignty and that national sovereignty therefore does not provide a means to escape human rights obligations (more here)
  • are pre-political: they are a moral order that has a legitimacy and existence preceding contingent social, legal, political, cultural and historical conditions and that can be used to assess and question those conditions (more here)
  • are independent from legal/social/cultural/religious recognition: human beings have human rights even if the laws and customs of their country/group do not recognize or perhaps even violate these rights – although people’s rights are obviously much more secure when they are translated into law and custom (more here and here)
  • are unconditional: people have rights without conditions; respect for rights is not conditional upon fulfillment of duties, status, legal recognition of rights or persons etc. (more here)
  • are inalienable: since rights are owned by human beings because of their humanity, these rights aren’t given and hence can’t be taken away; people still have rights when those rights are violated (more here)
  • are not forfeitable: people can’t give their rights away for the same reason that these rights can’t be taken away; however, people can decide that they don’t want their rights enforced (more here)
  • are equal rights: rights are equal in two meanings of the word; they are equal between people (because all people are equally human) and they are equal to other human rights (there are no “basic” and “less urgent/important” human rights) (more here)
  • are interdependent: different rights need each other, violations of one right most likely lead to violations of other rights (which is one reason why there can’t be a core of “basic” rights) (more here)
  • are limited: rights have to be balanced against each other because respect for one right can imply a violation of another right; balancing means imposing limitations on some rights for the benefit of other rights (or of the rights of others); the fact that there are no basic rights makes this balancing a lot more difficult but not impossible – conflicting rights then have to be balanced taking into account the way in which the two conflicting rights realize the values they are supposed to realize
  • are not politically neutral: not all forms of government can equally respect human rights; there’s a close link between human rights and democracy (more here)
  • are multidimensional: human rights aren’t just a matter between citizens and the state; they are addressed at everyone and impose duties on everyone (which means that they are also transnational and transgenerational) (more here)
  • are simultaneously positive and negative: they always and everywhere require both forbearance and active intervention (although in different degrees according to the circumstances) (more here and here).

And I’ll put in an “etc.”, just to be sure. Related posts are here, here and here.

What Are Human Rights? (23): Alienable Rights?

One of the most commonly cited characteristics of human rights is their inalienability. Human rights aren’t granted to people by a sovereign, a law or a tradition, and hence can’t be taken away. They can of course be violated, but violating rights doesn’t mean taking them away. If you’re tortured you still have a right not to be tortured. In a sense, you only have rights – or, in other words, your rights are only real – when they are violated. When rights aren’t violated they move to the background, as self-evident facts not even worthy of being mentioned.

The question here is not whether rights can or cannot be taken away, but whether people can give them away. I think people can’t give away their rights – people are human and hence they have certain rights – but what they can do is waive their rights, meaning that they insist that they don’t want others or the state to intervene in order to enforce respect for their rights. If someone wants to sell herself into slavery, submit herself to cruel treatment, sell her organs, let herself be cannibalized or used in a dwarf-throwing competition, then that person should be free to do so, even if it means that her rights are violated. If those rights violations are her free, conscious and informed choice, we’ll have to respect that choice. She still has her rights but chooses to allow violations of her rights.

Rights are important because they are important to people. They aren’t important as such. If certain people no longer deem them important, then they are no longer important for them. We can’t force people to have their rights respected. That would be a lack of respect for people’s moral autonomy, their dignity and freedom, even if their choices imply giving up their dignity and freedom.

The assumption here is of course that people have a real choice in the matter. If they are forced in some way to renounce their rights, then society and the state still have a duty and a right to intervene in order to enforce respect for people’s rights, even if these people explicitly state that they don’t want this intervention. A masochist who freely chooses to be a masochist – and isn’t suffering from a mental illness or from sadistic pressure – should be free to have her rights violated. A dwarf or a prostitute who has no other means of income than dwarf-throwing or commercial sex respectively is clearly forced and didn’t freely choose to have her rights violated, in which case society has a right to intervene, even if that person opposes such intervention. But of course she will only oppose the intervention if it is merely a prohibition: if the state merely prohibits dwarf-throwing or commercial sex it will make things worse. The person in question loses her income on top of her rights and dignity. Hence, intervention should also mean the provision of an alternative income not implying rights violations. Lack of income is also a rights violation, and you can’t solve one rights violation by violating another right. You can’t free someone from sexual slavery by taking away her income.

The obvious difficulty here is to ascertain whether people’s renunciation of their rights is a free choice.