Adventures in Meta-Blogging: What is the Truth Value of Writing About Rights?

Some words about the epistemological status – or the truth value – of the narrative contained in this blog. I argue that all writing about human rights and democracy is a mere proposal and an attempt at truth. Whenever I say something about those topics I do not pretend to proclaim the truth. If there is any truth in the world at all, then probably not in the domain of political theory, morality and values. Perhaps there is, but we won’t know. It’s likely that all we can say about such subjects is mere opinion.

However, even if in political theory or morality we cannot prove anything or be certain about anything, this doesn’t mean that all opinions are equivalent. There can be good and bad opinions because opinions are – or should be – based on arguments and reasons, and arguments and reasons can be good or bad. If all opinions were of the same quality then no one would ever try to convince anyone.

Opinions are, by nature, non-despotic: they can’t be forced on you. The truth can. No one can escape the truth. The laws of physics for example have a despotic character. You have to accept them. Opinions can be accepted or rejected, depending on the (perceived) force of the arguments for or against, on your personal disposition, your intellectual powers of understanding etc. Another characteristic of opinions is that they are part of a contradictory world of different opinions. An opinion exists only as long as its contrary also exists. If the latter ceases to exist, then the former becomes what we may call some form of truth, at least to the extent that

  1. opposite opinions disappear as a result of free discussion and persuasion rather than force and coercion
  2. an opinion that is the object of a worldwide consensus resulting from free discussion and persuasion can reasonably be called a truth.

Truth implies consensus. Who dares to resist the truth? Only a fool or a moron. Truth eliminates debate because no one contradicts the truth. As long as someone who is neither a fool nor a moron contradicts the truth and gives good reasons for doing so, we have not yet attained the level of truth and remain in the world of opinion. This world is one of plurality and contradiction; the world of truth is one of uniformity. Only when everyone is convinced and when there remain no good reasons or arguments against a claim do we have something like the truth. Even when some opinions are predominant, they remain mere opinions as long as good arguments against them are available, or, in other words, as long as contradictory opinions based on good arguments—and not mere prejudices—are available.

As everyone who expresses an opinion, I also would like to see my opinions, expressed throughout this blog, elevated to the status of truth. But that depends on many things: the force of my arguments, the disposition of my readers etc. It’s not a result that I can determine or even predict. If I would force this elevation—on the condition that I would have the power to do so—then I wouldn’t be acting democratically and I would therefore be incoherent. Democratic politics does not take place in the world of truth or the world of uniformity and despotism. Opinions are the fabric of democracy. Democracy is the game of different and contradictory opinions, some of which become temporarily predominant because they are backed by the better arguments or the arguments that can convince a majority, on the condition that we speak about a perfect democracy unhindered by manipulation. The predominant opinions then inform government policy, but non-predominant ones continue to exist and continue to make their case in an effort to become predominant themselves. If these other opinions no longer exist, then it is not opinion but truth that informs government policy. Which can and does happen, even in the case of perfectly democratic governments. But it’s not typical of a democracy and not its essence. One can even say that the job of a democracy is finished when it happens.

For example, the fight against inflation is no longer an opinion. There are no longer good arguments for the opposite policy and everyone is convinced that it’s a good policy. Hence, there is no democratic debate for or against the fight against inflation. The policies of all governments, including democracies, are inspired by this truth, but this has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy can only enter the stage when different actors present different and contradictory opinions, for example opinions regarding the maximum or minimum amount of inflation, or opinions regarding topics such as abortion, equality, justice etc. There is intense debate about those topics. The predominance of opinions regarding those topics, and hence also government policies, shift from one side to another.

But what we see in topics such as abortion and many others, is that democracy does not only stop when an opinion is elevated to the level of truth. It also stops when contradictory opinions continue to exist but are no longer argued. Proponents and opponents of abortion have practically stopped giving reasons and arguments. They just throw citations from the Bible or general and vague claims of rights at one another. In fact, their opinions have not been elevated to the level of truth but have rather descended to the level of prejudices or “feelings” or beliefs. Democracy requires opinions, not something more or less. Opinions are based on arguments and reasons, not on evidence, proof, certainty, prejudices, feelings or beliefs. Democracy only has a function when there can be debate and there can only be debate when there are opinions, not when there is more or less, not when everything is either truth or belief. Of course, beliefs should not be excluded from democratic politics, just as truth should not be excluded. Beliefs can be a powerful force behind debates. They can inspire thinking and discussion, but they will never be the essence of democracy. If there is nothing more than beliefs, then there is no democracy.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (41): Our Interests or Our Autonomy?

Two competing answers to a fundamental question about rights are doing the rounds: why do we need rights anyway? There’s an interest theory of rights which gives one answer, and then there’s a will theory of rights which gives another, incompatible answer. (There are other theories but most of the discussion is between these two). Very, very simplistically, the answers are these:

  • Will theory (WT), otherwise known as choice theory, argues that the purpose of rights is to protect and foster individual autonomy. An individual who has rights is a small-scale sovereign. WT attempts to establish the validity of human rights based on the unique human capacity for freedom. Rights help to protect and realize this capacity. This implies that the rights holder has the moral power to waive or annul his or her rights. All rights are derived from the essential right of all human beings to be free.
  • Interest theory (IT) argues that the principal function of human rights is to protect and promote certain essential human interests. This is another way of saying that rights protect what is beneficial to individuals:

Necessary though insufficient for the holding of a legal right by X is that the duty correlative to the right, when actual, normatively protects some aspect of X’s situation that on balance is typically beneficial for a being like X. (source)

Both theories have appealing and somewhat less appealing features. One appealing aspect of WT is that it wants to offer equal freedom to all. People want things, face choices – good and bad – and need opportunities to do things. Rights offer the ability to make preferred choices and provide the opportunities to do things. The understanding that most rights are alienable is also positive, in my view.

However, more problematic – and some say fatal – is the fact that WT rules out the holding of rights by animals, dead people, future persons, infants, comatose people, severely mentally disabled people, senile people and fetuses. In WT, people only have rights when they are competent to claim rights, and members of the cited groups can’t typically claim rights. If they don’t have rights, we can do whatever we want to them. Not a good conclusion.

Personally, I think the most appealing feature of IT is that it more or less corresponds to my own value theory of rights (which I argued for here). Also not to be frowned upon is the fact that IT avoids the problem of the rights of non-autonomous beings.

One problem with IT is the vagueness of the term “interests”. What is an interest? Should it be the case that an individual understands an interest as an interest (in other words, should an interest be a felt interest)? Or is it enough that the interest is objectively a human interest? In the former case, IT replicates the problem of the comatose and others who can’t be said to understand their interests. In the latter case, we’ll quickly end up with paternalism and we’ll also have to enter the treacherous domain of human nature.

Another problem is that most versions of IT don’t define which specific interests we’re talking about, and which interests create rights. Consequently, IT also remains vague about the exact rights people have. In one sense, that may be positive. Rights have to evolve. But I think that the vagueness here is to be deplored.

Also, rights don’t only exist to benefit the rights holder. Your freedom of speech is in my interest as well (more on that here). Again, IT can’t deal with this very well.

To conclude, if we have to choose between IT and WT, I guess the problems faced by IT are less deep. The exclusion of large groups of beings in WT is very hard to solve. Compared to that, one can at least see some possible solutions to the problems raised by IT.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (52): Not Enough Bias

If I count correctly, I have blogged about at least 12 ways in which our psychological or mental biases can lead us to violate other people’s rights:

  1. spurious reasoning justifying our actions to ourselves post hoc
  2. the role distance plays in our regard for fellow human beings
  3. the notion that what comes first is also best
  4. a preference for the status quo
  5. the anchoring effect
  6. last place aversion
  7. learned helplessness
  8. the just world fallacy
  9. adaptive preferences
  10. the bystander effect
  11. inattentional blindness, and
  12. stereotype threat

So it may come as a surprise that rationality – in the sense of the absence of biases that distort our proper thinking – can also cause rights violations. But when you think about it, it’s just plain obvious: whatever the irrational basis of Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was an example of rational planning; many people argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki made perfect military sense; and others say the same about torture in the ticking bomb scenario.

However, the point is not just that rationality can be harmful, but that biases can be helpful. For example:

Take crime. The rational person weighs the benefit of mugging someone – the financial reward and the buzz of the violence netted off against the feeling of guilt afterwards – against the cost; the probability of being caught multiplied by the punishment.

But we don’t really want people to think so rationally because it would lead them to actually mug someone occasionally. It would be better if they had the heuristic “don’t mug people.” Such a heuristic is, however, irrational in the narrow economistic sense, as it would cause people to reject occasionally profitable actions. (source)

Given the low probability of getting caught for any crime, we would encourage crime if we would favor rationality over bias. If, on the other hand we could adopt a bias that people like us are highly likely to get caught (or, for that matter, another bias, such as the one that rich people deserve their wealth), then crime would go down.

All this is related to the question of whether false beliefs are useful for human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (29): Human Rights as Expressions of Human Duties in Early Protestant Thinking

Rights are often described as correlates of duties: if you have a right to something, someone else – or maybe everyone else – has a duty to respect your right. However,  it’s also possible to conceptualize your right as a means for you to execute your own duties. So, rather than your rights being my duties, your rights are your duties. This may sound weird but bear with me for a second.

Many early Protestants conceived of their rights exactly in this way. And if you know that Protestant thinking was one of the main driving forces behind the human rights revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, then you also know that it’s important to understand the early Protestant mindset.

How exactly did they view human rights? The individual, according to early Protestants, has certain duties towards God: to exercise his or her religion, to honor God, to worship, to rest on Sunday, to proselytize, and to treat neighbors with care and love. These duties were then transformed into rights, not the rights of others but the rights of the duty bearers. A right became the expression of a duty. If it’s a duty to proselytize, then Protestants should have the right to free speech as a means to proselytize. If it’s a duty to worship God, then Protestants have a right to religious liberty. Etc. Protestants didn’t demand their rights and their freedom from government in order to pursue their desires and private wants, but in order to better be able to perform their religious duties.

Why do I mention this? It’s ancient history by now. These days, hardly anyone conceives of their rights in this way, and Protestants – especially American Protestants – are no longer at the frontline of the battle for human rights (if anything, they oppose many contemporary interpretations of human rights, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, social security etc.).

I mention it because it’s interesting to see how different people belonging to different traditions and cultures can account for human rights in different ways, using the resources available in their own heritage. I don’t think this particular Protestant interpretation of human rights is a convincing account – neither for me personally (I’m an agnostic) nor for present-day Protestants. But I do think that it can inspire others, and particularly those who belong to traditions that contain strong anti-rights strands, to have another look at their heritage and try to find an account of human rights that can be supported by other strands of the same tradition. I mean, if what we would now call fundamentalist Protestants could do it centuries ago, why not pious Muslims today?

All this boils down to the problem of the justification of human rights. Why do we need human rights? Even if you share Richard Rorty’s skepticism about foundationalism – as I do – you’ll still have to answer the question “but why?” if you talk about respecting rights to those who are hostile to them. There’s no way around that question. A particularly powerful answer is one that uses the resources available in the traditions of those who are hostile. An even more powerful answer is one that those people can come up with themselves. Seeing how others did it may inspire them. And I have no problem with different people coming up with totally different and even incompatible justifications of human rights. To put some words into the mouth of Jacques Maritain: I don’t care why people adhere to and respect human rights, as long as they do.

More on the justifications of human rights here, here and here.

What is Freedom? (2): A Right to Self-Ownership?

Libertarians stress the importance of the right to self-ownership. I would argue that it’s an interesting and useful right in the context of human rights more generally, but also one that is a bit of a problem. When we say that people have a right to self-ownership we mean that they own themselves in just the same way that they can own objects. It follows that people have the same rights over themselves and their bodies as they have over objects:

  • they are free to use their bodies as they please
  • they can claim that others, including the government, refrain from using it
  • they can use the government to protect themselves against others trying to use it
  • and they can transfer property rights to others.

Self-ownership rights understood in this sense are the core of libertarian philosophy and are believed to justify standard libertarian policy recommendations such as the elimination or reduction of taxation, the freedom to sell organs, use drugs, engage in all forms of consensual sex etc. And indeed, self-ownership can be an attractive right to non-libertarians as well: it can be used to justify the prohibition of slavery and rape, to protect people’s rights to euthanasia and assisted suicide, to solve the forced transplant dilemma, to support the rejection of capital punishment on the basis of a theory of non-instrumentalization etc.

However, useful as the right to self-ownership can be, it’s not without drawbacks. The right can, and in the minds of most libertarians does imply a denial of the obligation to help others in need (apart from an obligation based on prior wrongdoing and assistance based on voluntary agreement). Such an obligation would be a form of slavery. It would mean the forced use of our bodies and labor power for the benefit of others. Libertarians often reject taxation for the same reason. All this seems needlessly selfish and contrary to moral intuition.

It also seems incoherent. Most if not all libertarians accept taxation for the funding of some collective goods such as highways and the police force. It’s not clear how they can accept a limitation of the right to self-ownership for the sake of some types of taxation but not others. Taxation is always the non-consensual use of persons for the benefit of others, whatever its purpose.

If you view the right to self-ownership as an absolute right – or axiomatic – you may wind up accepting some absurd conclusions: you’ll have to claim that it’s impermissible to gently push the arm of a driver holding his steering wheel and heading towards of group of school children, because that would mean using the body of the driver without his consent to aid others in need. Self-ownership therefore can’t be an absolute right, at least not in a non-solipsistic world. Minimally, it should be limited for the sake of the self-ownership rights of others: imprisoning murderers or slave holders means limiting their self-ownership rights for the sake of the same rights of their potential victims. And, on top of that, it’s probably also necessary to limit self-ownership rights for the sake of certain other values. The problem is that it’s difficult to think about a limited right to self-ownership: every limit to that right seems to destroy it completely. Either you own yourself or you don’t.

There are, I think, three ways to react to these problems with the right to self-ownership.

  • You can bite the bullet and maintain that the right to self-ownership is the fundamental right and should be absolute whatever the consequences.
  • Or you can hold on to the right but only as one value amidst others, and to be balanced against others.
  • Or you can abandon it, claiming that it only has a rhetorical value, and that it’s better to focus on the “derivative” rights – such a the right not to suffer slavery – and try to justify those derivative rights independently (e.g. an anti-slavery movement doesn’t need the concept of self-ownership in order to be effective).

As a good value pluralist, I prefer the second option. The rhetorical and unifying force of the right to self-ownership should not be underestimated. If we manage to prune its extreme libertarian outgrowths (such as selfishness and extreme marketization in the form of organ sales or the “right” to sell yourself into slavery), we’re left with a powerful concept that can be of great value in the struggle for individual liberty (which isn’t a libertarian monopoly by the way). But it can’t guarantee liberty by itself. It depends on and is only meaningful together with a theory of ownership of the rest of the world. Imagine that one other person owns the entirety of the world, minus yourself (i.e. you only have self-ownership). That means that when you want to eat you’re a thief, and when you want to move about you’re trespassing. That’s hardly freedom. Self-ownership without a theory about how the rest of the world is owned can be utterly meaningless.

So the question then turns to the way in which nonhuman things and beings should be owned and distributed. Who can own what? Libertarians would claim that self-ownership provides a basis for ownership in general, and they use Locke’s theory of property to argue for that claim (I own myself, therefore also my labor, therefore also the fruits of my labor – since hardly anything in the world today hasn’t been touched by human labor, almost everything can be said to be owned by someone).

However, I argued elsewhere that this is a difficult if not impossible move. Hence, ownership should be justified independently from self-ownership, and should probably include the notion of a “fair share”, whatever that means. Perhaps this notion can be based on another element in Locke’s theory, namely the “Lockean proviso” that we should leave enough and as good for others, or on some form of sufficientarianism (meaning that all should have enough resources for basic subsistence, for a decent life, for a life worth living etc.). Or it could be based on the persuasive claim that the earth is the common ownership of all, regardless of the labor some have put into it. But I’ve already discussed those issues here and here respectively.

The Ethics of Human Rights (45): Is There A Right To Do Wrong?

Absolutely, there is. People have a right to vote for incompetent politicians; to express hatred; to organize hate groups; to insult and mock people; to burn books etc. All of these things are wrong in most plausible conceptions of morality, and yet they are part and parcel of human rights, and should be, to the extent that they don’t cause rights violations. Does this make human rights wrong? Objectionable? No it doesn’t, at least not necessarily. Human rights are objectionable if they have bad consequences, but only bad consequences in the sense of rights violations. Hence human rights are objectionable if they produce violations of other rights or the rights of others.

Some of the examples I just gave of the use of human rights may result in bad consequences. Hate speech can harm people’s rights. However, it’s often extremely difficult to measure the consequences of rights. For example, bad consequences can produce good consequences: e.g. allowing people to produce hate speech can convince a lot of people of the unattractiveness or disadvantages of certain ideologies.

Still, no matter what the consequences of the human rights are, we’ll still be stuck with differences between human rights and morality because some of the consequences of some rights will be clearly immoral. The two will probably never completely overlap. Some of the uses of human rights will produce outcomes that are a net negative from a moral point of view, even in the long run. So how should we react to people exercising their rights in an immoral way and in a way that produces immoral outcomes? It’s difficult, at first sight, to contemplate the use of morality to tell them to stop, since they are exercising their rights. However, rights are seldom absolute and can be limited if necessary. It depends on the nature of the immoral outcomes of the use of human rights. When we’re talking about an outcome that is immoral because it offends or hurts the feelings of people, the justification to do something about it is a lot less strong than when we’re talking about an outcome that is immoral because it violates the rights of people. In the latter case we should act and try to find a balance between the rights of different people, namely those people exercising their rights in an immoral way and those suffering the consequences of this exercise. In the former case, our actions should probably be limited to persuasion, education etc.

Another argument in favor of a right to do wrong does not focus on consequences. Rights entitle us to make our own choices, and making your own choices is a moral good in itself. If this moral good leads to immoral choices and these choices are immoral because of the negative consequences for other people, then it’s not necessarily those consequences that are most important. If we force people to do the right thing, we’re taking away their right to make their own choices, and we’d also be acting immorally. Hence, there’s a conflict between two moral maxims, and it’s not obvious that the maxim that says we should limit negative consequences for others is always the most important of the two. It depends on the harm done by those consequences, and the degree of choice limitation that would result from trying to avoid those consequences.

No matter what we do, there will always be cases of rights that result in wrongs, just as there are moral wrongs without corresponding rights (keeping promises is moral but not a right; the same is true for telling the truth, helping friends, being faithful to your spouse etc.). Of course, many actions are both morally wrong and a violation of rights, or both morally right and respectful of rights, so we shouldn’t make too much of an issue of the right to do wrong. But still, it is an issue and it’s good to know that it’s an issue.

Does the existence of a right to do wrong imply that rights are divorced from morality? Well, it makes it a bit harder to argue that rights are merely a subset of morality. But it doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and say that rights are an exclusively legal matter separated from moral concerns. That extreme would land us squarely in the territory of legal positivism, or the theory that states that we only have those rights that are recognized in law. And that’s not a pleasant territory since it makes it impossible to challenge deficiencies in the rights recognized by the law. In order to challenge those deficiencies, you need a notion of moral rights, rights that are not yet (fully) recognized by the law (there wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King in the land of legal positivism for example). But in order to have moral rights, rights have to belong to morality, and it seems that a right to do wrong makes this belonging problematic. However, we can anchor rights in morality by arguing that morality is more than the teaching of what we should or shouldn’t do. We just stipulate that rights talk belongs to morality, and conflicts between elements of morality – in this case rights and wrongs – are nothing unusual.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (27): What Does It Mean To Have Rights?

When thinking about what it means to have a right it’s sometimes useful to replace the word “right” with another and similar word. Let’s review a few of those words and see how far they get us. You’ll notice immediately that those words only describe part of what we usually understand by the word “right”. Hence, they’ll allow us to clarify only part of the meaning of the phrase “to have a right”. Perhaps taken together they’ll provide an overall definition. (Some of the definitions are based on the famous work by Hohfeld).

Rights as privileges

Formally this can be stated as follows:

A has a privilege to do X if A doesn’t have a duty not to do X.
A has a privilege not to do Y if A doesn’t have a duty to do Y.

For example, in the U.S. I have the privilege to speak my mind, because I don’t have a duty to keep silent. Or, I have the privilege not to vote for our Dear Leader because I don’t have a duty to do so.

Rights as permissions

Similarly, one could say that rights are permissions. That sounds somewhat weaker than “privilege” but formally, this way of talking about rights has the same structure as “rights as privileges”:

A has a permission to do X if A doesn’t have a duty not to do X etc.

It’s about what a rights bearer is at liberty to do, not what he has to do or shouldn’t do. Hence, rights as liberties is again another way of saying the same thing. The fact that I have the privilege, the permission or the freedom to speak my mind doesn’t imply that I must speak my mind.

Rights as claims

A more relational understanding of rights focuses on the claims we may have on others. Having a right then means having a claim on someone.

A has a claim that B does X if B has a duty to A to do X.
A has a claim that B doesn’t do Y if B has a duty to A not to do Y.

For example, I have a claim that my employer pays me a fair wage because my employer has a duty to do that (see article 23 of the UDHR). I also have a claim that he doesn’t impose slave-like or dangerous working conditions on me because he has a duty not to do that.

Usually, and at least in the case of human rights, I have such claims vis-à-vis every other human being.

Rights as immunities

This is similar to rights as claims but it’s a bit stronger.

A has an immunity if B doesn’t have the legal, moral or political ability or power to do X to A.

For example, I have immunity against self-incrimination because a judge does not have the power to force me to testify against myself.

Rights as limits

Again, similar if not identical to immunities:

A has a right to X if B doesn’t have the legal, moral or political ability or power to interfere with A doing X.

For example, I have to right to practice my religion because no one else is allowed to interfere with me practicing my religion.

Rights as provisions

Having a right can mean more than the ability to limit interference it can also mean being entitled to the provision of some goods or services.

A has a right to X if B has the legal, moral or political duty to provide A with X.

For example, I have the right to an amount of food that guarantees my decent survival. The state, among others, has a duty to provide this food if I can’t acquire it independently. But also so-called non-interference rights or negative rights fall under this heading: I have a right to be protected by Courts and the police force – to be provided with protection – if people impose a religion on me, harm my bodily integrity etc.

Rights as properties

You could say that all rights are in essence property rights. We have a right to have rights; our rights are our property. In the words of John Stuart Mill:

When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it. … To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. (source)

Formally:

A has a right to X if society has a duty to protect A’s possession of X.

Again, very similar to the formulation of rights as provisions. For example, I have a right to free speech if I can call on judges and Courts to assist me in my struggle against those who want to take this right away from me.

Rights as sovereignty

Very similar to the notions of rights as claims, immunities, limits and properties is the notion of rights as sovereignty. My right to freedom of opinion or my right to property make me a small scale sovereign over my mind or my possessions, in the sense that others aren’t allowed to interfere, invade, dispossess or modify. All these notions of rights focus on the rights bearer’s ability to control whether others must or must not act in certain ways.

Rights as interests

Conversely, rights as interests focus on what rights do to the rights bearer. Rights serve to further the rights bearer’s interests. People have rights because rights make them better off. What these rights imply for others is of secondary importance. Formally:

A has a right to X if X makes A better off.

Rights as abilities

Another way to focus on the rights bearer rather than the duty bearer is to view rights as abilities. That allows us to see that rights as liberties, privileges or permissions only describe part of what we understand by rights. Indeed, I have a right if I have the freedom, privilege or permission to act in a certain way. And rights as claims, immunities and limits protect me against others who would interfere with my freedom, privilege or permission to act in a certain way. And yet I can be free to do X because 1) I’m free from a duty not to do X and 2) I’m free from the interference of others, but at the same time I may be unable to do X. For example, I may have the permission and freedom to practice whatever religion I choose, and others don’t interfere, but I lack the education or mental capacities to choose and practice a religion. Rights as abilities would then provide me with the necessary education, rather than only the freedom, privilege, permission or limits on interference.

Rights as trumps

Following Ronald Dworkin, we can view rights as trumps. Rights are norms with a special force. They provide particularly weighty reasons to do or not to do something, reasons that are weighty enough to override other reasons or concerns. Rights give reasons to treat people in certain ways or permit them to act in certain ways, even if certain other goals or objectives would be better served by violating their rights. Within the system of rights, it’s possible to give some rights a higher trump value and hence a higher priority than others, perhaps depending on the circumstances (meaning that one right only trumps another when certain conditions are met, and not systematically).

Formally:

A has a right to X if X overrides all other concerns.

Only if we combine all these different definitions of rights can we perhaps have an overall understanding of them.

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.