Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Human Rights

The idea of human rights is, one would think, obvious or self-evident. We certainly like to talk about human rights as though they are natural and logical consequences of being human, as though they were necessary properties of humanity. With a little examination, this view has some problems.

Rights are not the same as liberties. A liberty is a negative freedom, a freedom from restraint. Lions and sharks have liberties to kill and eat, but we don't say that they have rights. In the natural order, other carnivores have liberties to kill and eat even lions or sharks. A right, however, is something that is protected by Law. It is not a consequence of being human, it is a possible consequence of being recognised as a human in a society. Rights only exist through Law, and are granted by legislators. They are not necessary properties of humanity.

Other opposition to the idea of self-evident human rights comes from Alain Badiou. In Ethics he argues against the concept of human rights in several ways, but here are two key points. First that human rights are derived from an approach to ethics which is flawed.
Ethics is conceived here both as an a priori ability to discern Evil (for according to the modern usage of ethics, Evil - or the negative - is primary: we presume a consensus regarding what is barbarian).

That it is easier to establish a concensus regarding what is evil rather than regarding what is good is a fact already established by the Church.
Badiou, Ethics, 8, 10.
In other words, the ethical foundation of human rights is founded upon a consensus of opinion about evil. The movement from ethics to human rights is the second point of his objection.
Evil is that from which the Good is derived, not the other way around [and therefore] 'Human rights' are rights to non-Evil.
Badiou, Ethics, 9.
Human rights are therefore defined through a double negation. The first negative is to identify what is prohibited. The second negative is an attempt to negate the first. However, this double negation does not result in a return to the first condition. (For another example of a double negation like this, consider that punishing a person for murder does not return the murdered back to life.) This double negation is just the avoidance of Evil in disguise. A right is just a representation of a prohibition, and therefore is just a measure of control for "acceptable" liberties (as defined by contemporary popular opinion).

If we accept that rights are the result only of Law, and that they are founded on principles of non-Evil, then there is nothing necessary about them. There is nothing self-evident in human rights, nothing inherent about human biological entities that necessitates rights.

Rights for the Christian are even less valid. The dichotomy between Caesar and Christ demands that the Christian gives preference to Christ over the state. Any rights that the state gives are next to worthless (skubala if you like). There is no reason for a Christian to appeal to rights, human or otherwise (see a recent Online Opinion piece about this). The basis for Christian ethical action is, as always, love - and love through the lens of Christ. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus said that whatever is done to the sick and the suffering is also done to the Son of Man. Love, the positive command, is directed at one and the same time to the downtrodden and to Christ. This command is the basis of Christian action, rather than an appeal to rights.

Human rights are, from a secular and Christian point of view, a misguided foundation for action - nothing more than the avoidance of evil. Instead, the positive command to love is the solid foundation for action, both personal and political.
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