Monday, July 25, 2011

Human rights

The admirable Anat Biletzki discusses human rights at The Stone, just when I was going to say something about the same topic based on what Gaita says about it in The Philosopher's Dog. And now, since it's taken me so long to write this, Matt at The Consternation of Philosophy, has chimed in too. Here's (some of) what Gaita says:
Talk of rights in human affairs has had two functions. The first [...] is theoretical--to explain why certain wrongs are wrongs, and (often) to ground them objectively. The second is moral. It constitutes one of the most noble fictions in our moral thought. Good-hearted people find it intolerable that just treatment of the powerless should depend on the generosity--on the charity, in the old-fashioned sense--of the powerful. Since at least 1789, the refusal to accept it has driven the rhetoric of human rights in a noble attempt to bestow dignity on the powerless by creating the impression that rights are a kind of moral force field, a metaphysical barrier to the indignity of being crushed ruthlessly. "I don't need your charity. I don't need your justice. I stand by my rights and demand that they be acknowledged." That is the spirit of 1789.
It is an illusion.
He goes on to quote Simone Weil on how appeals to justice might move someone but asserting your rights sounds contentious, and how a girl being forced into a brothel would not talk about her rights, since such talk would seem hopelessly inadequate to the injustice that was being done. I agree with Weil, but I think Gaita might be collapsing the second, moral use of the notion of rights into the first, explanatory and grounding one. He might be right about the spirit of 1789. I have some sympathy for Bentham's rejection of that kind of rights-talk (he thought it was dangerous as well as metaphysically unsound, and was arguably right to think so: the French Revolution was no picnic, and it is questionable to think that, say, the right to bear arms might be immutable). But isn't there now a use of rights-talk that pretends neither to explain nor to protect? A use of 'rights' to refer to something close to what Mill called "the essentials of human well-being"?

Thinking of cheaply referring to "the spirit of 1989" I googled "rights 1989" and found the Unicef Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to Unicef:
Every right spelled out in the Convention is inherent to the human dignity and harmonious development of every child. The Convention protects children's rights by setting standards in health care; education; and legal, civil and social services.
By agreeing to undertake the obligations of the Convention (by ratifying or acceding to it), national governments have committed themselves to protecting and ensuring children's rights and they have agreed to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community. States parties to the Convention are obliged to develop and undertake all actions and policies in the light of the best interests of the child. 
The first part of this might sound as though it was written by people who think that children can be protected merely by listing things that shouldn't be done to them, but the rest of it makes it pretty clear, I think, that the protection comes from government action. I see no reason why this kind of Convention could not do any good (nor, of course, any guarantee that it will work), and it is clearly intended to work, not to make or encourage any illusory claims about metaphysical force fields.

For this reason I don't think of rights as metaphysical and don't see much point in the question of what grounds them. More relevant would be the question of how we should decide, and how we might hope to agree on, what belongs on a list of rights. Among other things, Biletzki says that, "Theories of human needs, human interests and human agency provide analytical foundations for the idea of human rights." As long as we don't go overboard with the idea of theories or analytical foundations, this seems about right to me.  Rights should be identified with reference to human needs, interests, and what it means to be a human agent. You don't need to bring God into the conversation, although it might help with some people (even some secular ones). Indeed, a religious ethic might require the violation of human rights if God commands it (not that He usually does), as Biletzki points out. She goes on to say that, "It is a turn to the human, and a (perhaps axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic) posit of human dignity, that turns the engine of human rights, leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning without ever deserting that first posit."  I think that's all the foundation we need: a dogmatic posit of human dignity. What grounds that? The short answer is: who cares? The long answer: read some books (a list would be necessary for this to be a really long answer, but  since it would probably start with Shakespeare and perhaps the Bible I won't spell it out here).

This reference to the Bible might make you wonder just how secular talk of rights can really be, and Matt addresses this kind of consideration. His concern, though, is with whether a secular view such as Biletzki's can provide a foundation for, or theory of, human rights. My view, which I think is close to Biletzki's, is that we don't need any such thing. Matt concludes with these words:

If all we can point to when explaining human rights is our mere humanity, then what sets the ground rules for the discussion? What will determine whether this or that is a human right, or no right at all? Without answers to these questions, we don't have a theory of human rights at all.
I think he's right. But I don't see that we need any such theory.

UPDATE: Biletzki comments interestingly here.


  1. Reading over it again, I'm getting less and less clear about what Biletzski's position is. On the one hand, she speaks of "justifying human rights." On the other, she speaks of an "axiomatic" or "dogmatic" "posit of human dignity," as if there's simply a brute connection between humanity and rights about which we can say nothing. But that position, as I tried to show in my post, seems to amount to saying that there just are human rights, and no further explanation is possible. So what is doing the justifying?

    I think Biletzki is definitely right to say that how we theorize about human rights matters for how we talk about them with others. While she mentions the "internal, secular debate" about human rights as distinct from a debate between (say) a theist and an atheist about human rights, it's unclear how she thinks that debate should go. It's one thing to say that we can appeal to human interests, needs, and so on-- but once we say that, it sounds like we're committing to having a theory, since we would need to know which kinds of interests and needs are relevant, and how they matter, and so on.

    I should say that I enjoyed her article quite a bit, and am grateful that the NYT has this series. Boghossian's piece yesterday was pretty insightful; probably the first time relativized truth predicates have been mentioned in a major newspaper!

  2. Thanks, Matt.

    I agree with your first paragraph above entirely. That is, I don't think she really offers an explanation or justification for rights talk, although she does mention various ways it might be justified (or avenues to explore for the would-be justifier).

    I'm less sure about the idea that once we say we can appeal to human interests, etc. then it sounds like we're committing to having a theory. That might depend on what counts as a theory though. Some kind of account seems to be implied, yes, so if account = theory then I agree. But I don't think that a debate about human interests would need to be very theoretical. It wouldn't have to be very philosophical, at least. It seems like the kind of thing that philosophers might be able to help with, but it also might turn out that they would have nothing qua philosophers to contribute. If that's obscure, here's what I mean: it seems to me to be the kind of issue that could be discussed and settled just fine by people like Unicef, although it sometimes does help to have good critical thinkers on hand in case things get messy. But we don't, I think, need to get very metaphysical in such matters. I think my view is very similar to Rorty's on this, if that helps.

    And I share your view that this series is valuable. I'm glad the Times brought it back.

  3. That's really helpful, thanks! The line between a theory and something more bare bones is definitely unclear. I'm not sure whether one can settle how theoretical or metaphysical morality is in that sense without simply trying out various theories and testing them on their merits. In any case, these are fun questions, thanks for the discussion.

  4. Thanks, Matt. You're right that the line between a theory and what I'm calling an account is unclear. And I agree with you and Biletzki that how we think of, and talk about, rights will influence how we get along with others when we talk about, or try to protect or promote, rights with them. But I don't see this being a huge problem (in practice) for people working to protect children's rights, say, or human rights in general. And I certainly don't see that we need the kind of theory that would justify or provide a foundation for rights-talk. In fact, I think we will never have any such foundation for any ethics. God is a kind of foundation for theistic ethics (including theistic beliefs in rights) but not exactly an explanatory foundation. God is too mysterious for references to Him to explain much. (I don't consider this to be a strike against theism in any way, except as an explanatory theory. But then I don't think that belief in God is meant to be an explanatory theory.)

  5. The long answer: read some books (a list would be necessary for this to be a really long answer, but since it would probably start with Shakespeare and perhaps the Bible I won't spell it out here).

    Couldn't we say that, for roughly the same reason we don't need a theory to underpin rights talk, we don't need the rights talk either?

    I was here thinking of Cora Diamond's well-known Grundgedanke - for which the classic statement is probably her paper "Wittgenstein, Mathematics and Ethics: Resisting the Attractions of Realism" - that any specific term in a language need not occur in any occasion of using that language for this occasion to be an ethical one. We could, for instance, raise children to be good human beings without ever speaking to them with adjectives such as "good" and "bad", through means such as encouraging them to admire certain fictional characters and being dismayed by others. ("The long answer: read some books.")

    If "good talk" and "bad talk" are thus unnecessary, doesn't the same go for rights talk as well in that case?

  6. Yes, that's probably true. I don't know how far we would get avoiding not just 'good' and 'bad' but also all the other words we might use in their place (I mean 'thin' words like 'nice' and 'evil', not 'brave,' 'dishonest', etc.), but it might be (probably is) possible. I take Gaita to be saying not only that talk about rights is not necessary but that we ought to get rid of it or abandon it. I don't see why that is so desirable, partly (if not wholly) because I don't see that the word 'rights' really has all the metaphysical baggage that Gaita seems to think it does. In some uses it might, but not, I think, in all. When I think of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Unicef replacing all references to rights with some other language I can't help thinking that it would be more trouble than it was worth. If philosophers think the concept has some deep or explanatory value, though, then I might refer them to Gaita and Weil.

    Back to the question of whether we could do without the word 'rights'. I don't know, but I think this is an interesting question. If the word is used in a secondary sense then we could not do without it, I take it. And a case could be made that the word is (at least sometimes) used in such a way. But I'm in the process of re-thinking this case. (By 'thinking' here I mean occasionally blogging about it and, in the meantime, hoping that something good occurs to me about it.)