Why Do We Need Human Rights? (33): A Full Human Life

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.

The Ethics of Human Rights (64): Value Pluralism Supports Human Rights

The justification of human rights – the quest for reasons why they are important and why we need them – is probably the most important topic of this blog (some previous posts are here, here, here, here and here). One element of justification is their compatibility with an important tenet of moral theory, namely value pluralism. Value pluralism is, in my opinion, a principle of morality that comes very close to being a “moral fact“.

In short, the principle says the following. There are many different moral values – or different moral “goods” if you want – such as happiness, liberty, equality, loyalty etc. Those values differ qualitatively from each other and don’t seem to be reducible to one super value. And neither is there a clear ranking of importance so that conflicts between values can be easily decided. Different values can’t be compared to each other. Friendship is not clearly more important or a higher value than loyalty; freedom is not prior to equality; being happy is not better than developing your capacities etc. When two values seem to be incompatible, it’s hardly ever certain which of the two should be favored. And neither is it easy to say that a decrease of x in value v is acceptable if it results in an increase of x or y in value w; it’s often even impossible to determine the x and y in this equation because values are quantitatively and not just qualitatively incomparable. An increase of x in friendship is not comparable to an increase of x in loyalty. What does an increase of x in friendship even mean? Furthermore, there are problems in cases that don’t involve incompatible values: in general, is it better to strive towards increases in value v rather than increases in value w? For example, some say a society and a government should promote equality as the prime value; others prefer to maximize liberty. It’s difficult if not impossible to decide if either of these goals is the most important.

And yet, even if value pluralism is true and moral theory can’t therefore offer guidance in cases of incompatible values or in the choice of the single value to pursue in life, people have to solve conflicts between values on an almost daily basis, and they have to decide which value or values should guide their lives. If moral theory is useless in those everyday decisions, then it’s better to let people decide for themselves about what is good and right. People should be left free to live their own lives according to the guiding values they choose independently, and they should be allowed to decide conflicts between values according to their own conscience. If value pluralism is true, then there is no single way of life that is the highest and the best for all, and then it’s also true that people should be given the freedom to decide for themselves.

This is where human rights enter the scene. Human rights support this freedom in two ways, a direct and an indirect way. They allow people to choose a type of good life independently from the pressures of government or society: minority religions are free, people are free to associate, expression is free, they can use their property the way they like etc. In addition, there’s is nothing in the system of human rights that prohibits self-chosen and self-regarding value decisions, as long as the rights of others aren’t harmed (for example, drug use that doesn’t harm others cannot be prohibited on the basis of human rights).

Indirectly, human rights oppose authoritarian governments which favor and enforce one value or one way of life as the only desirable way of life: communist societies that promote equality at the expense of all other values, Catholic dictatorships that prohibit other religions, Muslim theocracies etc. If value pluralism is true, then there is no basis for coercive policies intended to systematically favor one value or one way of life. (Of course, in specific cases of incompatible values, it may be necessary for coercive government intervention in favor of one value or the other, especially when government inaction would cause more overall harm to certain values than government action; but that is the exception to the general rule that people should be free to solve those issues themselves – a rule that is based on morality’s inability to find good general reasons to favor one value over another. An example of such an action would be a government prohibition on religious child sacrifice).

One problem with the line of reasoning that I set out here is that the opposite can also be true: value pluralism can support authoritarian government. Not the type of authoritarian government that is paternalistic and that favors the realization of one value above all others, but the type that presents itself as a bulwark against anarchy, instability and factionalization. Governments which take the latter approach start with the presumed fragility of the bonds of community. These bonds, it is said, can only be maintained if society is inspired by a single purpose and a single good. The freedom to let people decide for themselves what type of life they want to pursue can undo the necessary sense of community because it erodes the single purpose, but also because groups of people will turn away from each other in disgust over the other groups’ lifestyles. Conflict and a lack of solidarity will destroy society. One purpose should therefore be enforced, not because this purpose is generally superior to all others, but because otherwise society will fall apart. I’ve argued here against this justification of authoritarianism. The crux of my argument is that you can’t enforce a common purpose; this has to come voluntarily and “from within”, and enforcing it merely encourages violent dissent on the side of those who see their own purposes suppressed. If this is correct, then value pluralism doesn’t support authoritarianism.

More on value pluralism 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.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (28): Protection, or Something More?

The standard answer to this question is protection: human rights offer people protection against other people or the state. People need rights because they want to protect their interests, their freedom, their equal status, their opportunities, their values and their projects in life against attacks by those more powerful. (There’s a more elaborate version of this standard thesis here).

However, there’s a sense in which we need rights even if no one harms anyone else. Immanuel Kant has made this claim in a very convincing manner. Suppose that all those people who are powerful and strong enough to frustrate our interests, projects, opportunities and values and to harm our freedom, independence and equal status refrain from doing so in a coherent, systematic and predictable manner. Hence, there is no harm imposed by people on each other, and one could assume that human rights retreat to the background. In fact, they would seem to become totally useless.

And yet, such a social setting would imply that the weak are able to enjoy their rights, their freedom and their equal status and to pursue their goals and values only “on the sufferance of the strong” and with their explicit or implicit permission and indulgence. Kant thinks, rightly I believe, that it is wrong for people to be dependent on others for their freedom and equality in this manner. And if we understand the “weak” to be almost everyone – even the strong have to sleep – then this dependence on indulgence will be a general phenomenon. Hence, even in such a seemingly idyllic society awash with benevolent and self-restrained power we need human rights.

More on the reasons why we need human rights here and here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (13): Why Do We Need Freedom of Expression?

Here’s a list of some of the traditional rationales for the right to free speech (Eric Barendt for example has identified some of these in his book “Freedom of Speech“):

1. Freedom of speech serves the search for truth

There’s a long tradition in philosophy claiming that freedom of speech and the equal right of everyone to express himself or herself in public on any possible topic improves the quality of opinions and knowledge. Rawls, Mill and Kant for example have fleshed out this claim. In the words of Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Or in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

2. Freedom of speech serves individual self-fulfillment

People who can express themselves freely are better placed to develop their personality and identity. When you can say what you think and believe, you can better give shape to your thoughts and beliefs. Also, thoughts and beliefs depend heavily on the possibility to receive information, which is something that in turn depends on free expression. On top of that, persuasion is an important element of wellbeing: people who can persuade others feel better about themselves. And when they can persuade others, they can form communities and associations, and belonging is another important aspect of wellbeing and self-fulfillment. Finally, when the right to free expression is respected, people can better enjoy culture, education and other things that improve wellbeing.

3. Freedom of speech improves the functioning of democracy

Even for a minimal democracy (regular, free and fair elections for representatives) freedom of speech is very important. Candidates have to be able to advertise themselves and their policies and argue amongst themselves. Lobbyists should be allowed to make their case (publicly and transparently, of course). Etc. But democracy should be more than that. Ideally, democracy requires deliberation among the people on the best possible policies. It’s obvious that this deliberation requires free speech. More on democracy and free speech here.

4. Freedom of speech is a check on the corruption of power

People have to be able to receive information about the functioning of government. Free speech is a necessary prerequisite of government accountability. Freedom of information acts are just as much an element of free speech as a free press, and both are required to counteract corruption and abuse of power. At the margin, elements of free speech such as freedom of information, a free press and the right to protest can make the difference between freedom and tyranny, but they also limit the risk of lesser evils such as administrative corruption, betrayal of election promises, covert government activities etc.

5. Freedom of speech is a right that is required for the protection of other rights

Historically, it has been the case that other rights have depended on freedom of speech for their full protection. The civil rights movement and the struggle against racial discrimination in the U.S., for example, would have been impossible without freedom of speech (which doesn’t mean that the right to free speech of the proponents of equal rights was never restricted). Equally, the feminist struggle for equal voting rights for women was made much easier by freedom of speech. And finally, the right to religious freedom cannot be separated from freedom of speech. And there are many other examples.

6. Freedom of speech serves prosperity

Without freedom of speech there is less innovation and less trade. Scientists who develop new products or services need freedom of speech, and business people have a lot of difficulties trading or advertising without it. Hence, it can be said that economic growth is fostered by free speech. But free speech doesn’t only promote prosperity in general (on average); it also benefits the poor. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. If the poor aren’t able to make their case, they won’t get help.

More on freedom of expression.