Again, I feel the need to rewrite an older post. Not a good sign. Still, here we go.
One way to look for an answer to the question in the title of this post is to focus on the kind of life we can achieve with the help of human rights. Ideally, most of us want a life that isn’t just mere existence or survival. Not even decent survival or a successful struggle for life is enough. We want a full human life. However, a full human life has a different meaning for different people. It’s a controversial notion, and we probably will never agree on the definition of a full human life.
Human rights won’t be able to help achieve all visions of the good life, and rightly so because some visions are destructive and harmful. However, they do give us the freedom and capabilities to try to achieve a very wide range of visions of the good life. Perhaps part of the good life is precisely this ability to make a free choice between a wide set of visions of the good life, to pursue that choice, to have the capabilities to do so and to have a reasonable chance of success whatever our choice. It’s now widely accepted that “a full human life” should be left to individual choice and can’t logically mean something that would be imposed on people.
Human rights give us the choice of a good life, the capabilities to pursue it, and a good chance to do it successfully. But how exactly do they do that? In order to pursue our self-chosen vision of the good life, we need some degree of freedom so that our life plans aren’t dominated, controlled or imposed by others, by governments, religious leaders, etc. For example, we need to be able to decide freely which kind of religion we want to practice, where to live, what job to do etc. Also, if we are to be able to plan our life freely, our choice of plan must be a real choice. Hence, we need a minimum of education, information and physical resources and capabilities (e.g. good health) in order to make an informed choice from a wide range of options, and in order to try to realize our choice. All these resources and capabilities are protected by human rights.
However, this thin and at the same time all-encompassing vision of a full human life may already be too specific and controversial. Some cultures or individuals may not want to give their female members the choice of deciding to shape their own vision of the good life. So how do we reply to that concern?
Perhaps we may get somewhere if we rephrase the question in the title of this post so that it states “why do I need human rights?” instead of “why do we need human rights?”. People usually are more willing to accept reasons for the importance of their own human rights than they are to accept reasons for the importance of the rights of others. More specifically, when the possibility to shape your own life is the reason for accepting human rights, there will be few people rejecting this reason as long as it’s about their own lives.
Once we can convince people of such a reason for the importance of their own human rights, we can then try to take the next step and try to convince them of the importance of the rights of others. At that moment, we may use elements outside of the system of human rights. Perhaps we can’t convince them of the importance of the rights of others when we focus on those rights, but maybe we’ll be more successful using other, non-rights based moral imperatives. These imperatives then apply the value people see in their own rights as a means to persuade them of the value of the rights of others.
For instance, the old maxim called the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” – does have some power of persuasion, but in this context it requires that we first convince people that human rights are necessary for themselves as human beings and that they view other human beings as human beings. Since we’re dealing with people who deny the rights of others, we may run the risk of including the conclusion in the premise. In other words, people who believe in the Golden Rule probably don’t need to be convinced of the general importance of human rights, and those who need to be convinced may not be swayed by the Golden Rule.
Similarly, we could try to persuade people of the importance of the rights of others by appealing to Kant’s categorical imperative: “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. But again, this may fail, since it’s very unlikely to find a Kantian who isn’t already convinced by the general importance of human rights, or to find an opponent of the rights of others who can be convinced by Kantian arguments.
Still, you don’t know if you don’t try, so let’s leave aside these worries for the moment and go back to the first step in this strategy: how can we convince people that human rights are important for themselves? I still think a description of the ways in which these rights can help them to achieve a self-chosen vision of a full human life is promising, even if the definition of this full human life has to remain very abstract and vague and can’t include anything more specific than the capacity to choose your own path through life and your own final goals and perspectives.
This kind of justification of human rights, because it builds on a vision of a full human life that is very vague and that only includes the free choice of what it means to have a full human life, holds across a wide range of different individuals, ideologies and cultures. A vision of a full human life that is paradoxically “thin” can justify human rights, at least as long as we limit the ambition to egocentric justification, i.e. a justification of people’s own rights. Justifying rights as something that people need to respect in each other is then the next and more difficult step. Also paradoxically, this thin version of a full human life doesn’t justify a thin set of human rights but rather a set that contains many rights that are still controversial, even among those who generally view human rights in a positive way.
More on justifications of human rights here.