What Are Human Rights? (50): Rights and Roles

Before rights became human rights they were privileges: in feudal times, certain professions had certain rights, towns had rights, social classes had rights etc. Often only members of a so-called “guild” had a right to trade or to engage in a profession. The simple fact of being born into the aristocracy gave the members of that class rights that no one else had or could have.

When the development of the capitalist economy made it more likely that people born in one class, profession or town ended up in another one, it became more practical and wise to claim rights as human beings rather than rights as an aristocrat, a Venetian or a member of the wood worker guild. If a revolution were to destroy your status as a Lord or if an economic crisis were to force you to move to another town and enter another profession, at least you would still have your human rights.

A remnant of this is still visible in human rights as they are today. Although all human rights are explicitly the rights of all human beings, some rights at least are rights of human beings engaging in certain social roles and are unintelligible outside the context of those social roles. The right to political participation is a right of human beings as citizens and doesn’t make sense if you haven’t first made sense of the role of citizenship. The right to work, the right to a decent wage, the right to a certain standard of living and the right to unemployment benefits are rights of people as workers. The right to marry is a right of human beings as family members. The difference with the “rights as privileges” of before is that all human beings are free to engage in all roles if they want to.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (49): Universal Rights

Human rights are universal rights, rights that all human beings have for no other reason than being human. That’s almost a tautological statement, and one which has been repeated millions of times. Universality is implicit in the name. This sets human rights apart from other types of rights, such as legal rights which only matter to those subject to the particular jurisdiction in which these legal rights apply, or contract rights which apply only to the people bound by a particular contract.

Despite this definition of human rights, their universality is often contested. Does a person with Down Syndrome have the right to work? Does a newborn baby have the right to free speech? Does a criminal have a right to freedom of movement? Do all potential immigrants have a right to unemployment benefits? Does a terrorist who can order his colleagues to stop torturing three other people have the right not to be tortured? Questions like these are often rhetorical: the unstated but understood answer is “of course not”. People who ask these questions perhaps do so because they want to deny the universality of human rights, and this denial in turn may come in handy when they try to justify violating the rights of some.

There’s in fact an easy answer to this apparent paradox. The universality of human rights is, like human rights themselves not a fact but an aspiration. We have to work to make it a fact, all the time knowing that we’ll probably never get there. We have to work to improve people’s capacities so that they can more fully enjoy their rights. In the case of the disabled, we should recognize that disability, rather than an inborn or acquired lack of capacity, is in fact – in part at least – a capacity that is reduced as a result of the way in which we have chosen to organize society. In the case of criminals, we tend to assume rather too quickly that criminal punishment necessarily involves restrictions of people freedom of movement. And so on. None of the rhetorical questions cited above strikes a fatal blow to the ideal of universality.

More on universality is here. More posts in this series are here.

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.

Limiting Free Speech (43): The Consequences of Hate Speech

Some of the consequences of hate speech are human rights violations; others are not. Only the former are good reasons to criminalize hate speech and carve out an exception to the right to free speech. Rights can only be limited for the sake of other rights or the rights of others (more here). Let’s go over the different possible consequences of hate speech and see whether or not they imply rights violations.

Hate speech lowers self-esteem in the targets. People who are repeatedly subjected to hateful remarks or jokes about their race, gender, sexual orientation etc. tend to develop feelings of inferiority, stress, fear and depression. Of course, there’s no right not to be depressed, fearful, stressed etc. Therefore, we can say that hate speech should be protected speech when its consequences are limited to these. These are harmful and brutal consequences, but not harmful or brutal enough to be rights violations. We should be concerned about them and try to do something, but this “something” doesn’t include limiting free speech rights. However, people who are extremely intimidated and stressed and who have a deeply negative view of themselves tend to isolate themselves. Isolation isn’t a human rights violation, but couldn’t we argue that willfully isolating people means violating some of their rights? Isolated people don’t speak, assemble, associate etc. In that case, we could argue for limits on the rights of hate mongers.

Hate speech often has even more extreme consequences. Targets of hate speech may feel compelled to leave their homes and move elsewhere, to quit their jobs, and to avoid certain parts of town and public areas. This is a direct violation of their freedom of movement, freedom of residence, right to work and possibly even their right to a certain standard of living. It’s obvious that the free speech rights of the haters should in such cases be deemed less important than the many rights of their victims.

Hate speech can also means invasion of privacy, for example in the case of repeated phone calls, hate mail, or stalking.

Violations of property rights are another possible consequence of hate speech. Hate speech sometimes means vandalism, graffiti (sometimes even inside the homes of the targets), cross burning in someone’s front lawn etc. These cases of hate speech already start to resemble hate crime.

The line between hate speech and hate crime is even thinner when speech is not just hateful but an incitement to violence. For example, hate speech can provoke race riots; it can help hate groups with an existing tendency toward violence to attract new recruits etc. (a larger group will feel more confident to engage in hate violence). And what if hate speech allows hate groups to gain control of (local) government? That would probably lead to discriminating policies and laws.

This overview of possible and actual consequences of hate speech should concern those of us who care about more human rights than just freedom of speech, and who know that different human rights aren’t always in harmony with each other. In some circumstances, some rights need to give way in order to protect other rights. That’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the value pluralism inherent in the system of human rights.

Economic Human Rights (35): A Right to Unemployment Insurance?

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a right to work, as well as a right to “free choice of employment and to just and favorable conditions of work”. That right protects us against slavery, forced labor, unfair wages, and unsafe working conditions. The same article offers a right “to protection against unemployment”. That clause can be interpreted in two ways:

  • it can mean that if we’re out of work through no choice of our own, we should get help to find work (either from the state or from our fellow citizens)
  • or it can mean that if we’re involuntarily unemployed, we should get some monetary compensation for the loss of salary or income and the financial stress that we suffer as a result.

It’s the latter interpretation that is made more explicit in another article, number 25, of the Declaration which mentions “the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.

So it seems we have a right to unemployment insurance or unemployment benefits. The obvious justification for this right is material wellbeing: the absence of poverty is also a right.

However, there are some other types of justification of unemployment insurance. Some call UI an “automatic stabilizer” in times of economic hardship: Keynes taught us that both unemployment and falling wages lower consumer demand and can lead to even greater unemployment. Stingy or absent unemployment benefits lower demand even more. In that view, which does sound plausible, unemployment insurance isn’t just a good in itself and for the individuals concerned (as well as for those who may someday suffer unemployment and who can suffer some amount of stress because of the risk), but is necessary for the periodic regeneration of capitalism and for the smoothing of the business cycle. Benefits are also efficiency enhancing because of another reason:

One of the possible advantages that is touted for more generous UI (including by Mike Konczal) is the idea that it allows for better job matching—people can wait to find the right long-term job opportunity instead of taking the first job that becomes available. (source)

It’s better to have people perform the jobs they prefer because they’re likely to be most efficient there. Hence, it’s better to give them more time to find the right job, and to give them unemployment benefits so that they have the time.

Others, however, call this right a foolish invention because it destroys incentives to work at the level of individuals, and reduces incentives to create wealth at the level of companies (because of the relatively high tax rates that come with the welfare state, that in turn comes with benefits such as unemployment insurance). It doesn’t enhance efficiency at all, on the contrary. But the evidence for this view is not so strong:

Evidence suggests that individuals do prolong their job search when they receive unemployment benefits, partly because they are looking for the best possible job. But the magnitude of this effect is likely to be small.

A recent study … compared lengths of unemployment among those eligible for unemployment insurance with those who were not eligible. Their statistical analysis suggests that extended benefits accounted for only four-tenths of 1 percentage point of the nearly 6 percentage point increase in the national unemployment rate over the last few years. (source)

Still others call the right to unemployment benefits a foolish invention, not because of reasons that have to do with overall economic efficiency, but because they believe that the unemployed have no one else to blame but themselves for their misfortune, and therefore can’t demand help from others. Those others can voluntarily decide to help the unemployed, in a spirit of charity that extends even to self-inflicted misfortune, but the unemployed don’t have a right based on moral concerns to demand such help. And indeed, there may be some logic to such a view: if we all believe strongly that we deserve what happens to us, we are likely to work hard, show discipline and self-control and hence achieve success. Conversely, those who think that the causes of their misfortune are always outside of their control, are not likely to invest much effort in their lives. However, morality and life are much more complicated than that. The best efforts can lead to disaster, and apathy can lead to success. People who are not the sole authors of their success can be required to help those who are not the sole authors of their misfortune.