Monday, July 9, 2012

Roger Casement and human rights

The phrase 'human rights' is a bit like the phrase 'social justice': both are overused and ideologically charged.

Adrian McKinty recently (and somewhat anachronistically) referred to Roger Casement (1864-1916) as a 'champion of human rights'.

Although the term 'human rights' was not widely used until relatively recently, I recognize that the general concept has been around for centuries. My understanding is that the modern idea evolved from the medieval tradition of natural law. The notion of a divinely sanctioned moral order lying behind (and somehow justifying) human-made laws and legal systems led to the notion of universal rights which came to prominence in the 18th century. The concept was initially applied to individuals but was broadened during the Romantic period and beyond to encompass the rights of ethnic groups (or nations) to self-determination, etc. Roger Casement's anti-colonialism and (militant) Irish nationalism grew out of this tradition of thought, so McKinty's description is not altogether wrong.

But I do have problems with the term itself, as I don't think most of the people who use it realize what (in my view at any rate) its use is committing them to - that is, what assumptions it depends on to be meaningful.

It seems to me that the term 'human rights' only makes sense a) if you believe in an objectively existing natural law (or immaterial moral realm) where these rights are somehow inscribed; and/or b) if you envisage and advocate some kind of comprehensive institutional arrangement (not necessarily a world government) which would list certain rights as universally enforceable laws. (In the latter case, the rights may be seen as transcending the laws, or, if one rejects the natural law idea, merely as legal rights.)

This is not just about terminology. There are deep issues of belief involved. In my view, it's most unfortunate that humanitarian causes etc. have become linked to this (rather problematic) term. Humanitarian goals can be and have been effectively pursued without using the term or appealing to the concept. One can be motivated simply by a sense of human decency, or fairness, or compassion, or empathy, or by other emotions or convictions which owe little or nothing to the concept of universal human rights.


  1. I'm with you on this.
    I did a study on natural law long ago, tending at the time to believe in it, and came out believing otherwise. And I am a firm believer also in Bentham's one true statement: the idea of natural rights is "nonsense on stilts."
    The problem I have with such things is the word "natural." If physics can find a law quark somewhere, maybe I'll change my mind, but in the meantime there's no physical process that results in nature judging or prescribing anything. It just doesn't happen in nature.
    So when someone mentions "natural law" or "natural rights," what I hear is "rights which it is natural for people to want to be true."

    To me, a "right" is a concept humans have invented to describe a form of respect for others. If I say I have a right to property, actually I am declaring that others should respect my claim to "own" (or control) that property. As it happens, most social groups would grant such a claim and in that sense -- notice it is purely a convention -- I would have the right in question.
    A "right" is no more complicated than that, and it certainly isn't divinely ordained in any way. If it seems "natural" that such a right should exist, that is just an empirical event: everyone in the social group agrees that such claims should be possible (likely because sometimes they would like to make the same claim). To elevate all that to some metaphysical status that says the right "exists" is ... well ... as you have treated elsewhere: just magical thinking.

  2. Second look:
    So I have said that rights are just conventional. But of course that opens up all sorts of claims people might make, hoping that enough people agree. That's why we have positive law, and I see nothing wrong with some professional body working systematically on "rights" -- conventions -- that make sense in a civilized world. Funny ... I thought philosophers were the right people to do that. LOL.

    1. The trouble is (as I see it) that many of the people trying to frame enforceable systems of rights have an ideological agenda, and are exploiting the respect that still exists for the idea of natural or universal rights to implement that agenda. Some on the left sincerely believe in the traditional understanding of rights, or in a less traditional, convention-based view such as you describe. But others are more cynical. The concept has been - or is being - appropriated by particular groups, and no longer reflects the broad consensus it once did.

    2. The problem with many "rights" is that they are rivalrous, that's what makes so many systems unsustainable, even in the short run.

      If you look at the US Bill of Rights, you find only one right that you could potentially classify as rivalrous, the right to counsel. Obviously my right to have a lawyer could potentially take away the right of another to have one at their side, but even here the courts would simply dismiss the case or postpone it until counsel could be found. SO, it isn't really denying anyone of that right at all.

      Now jump to things like food, water or healthcare. If people have rights to these things by their very existence and if one were to try to enforce those rights, you find it can't be done, resources are always scarce. The first rule of economics is that there is never enough of anything anyone wants to go around (and if there is its a public good, another topic though).

      But let go back to our bill of rights, my right to free speech denies no other of their right to the same. My right to keep and bear arms, denies no other of their right to do that either (my actually buying a gun, that is a different story). You only run into problems that are morally difficult to solve when you assert that one person has the right to the work of another, or when one persons right to something denies another their right to that same thing.

      That is why I certainly think there are natural rights, they are easy to pick out, the ones that are free to all.

      (The whole 6th amendment I don't even think are actually rights anyway, they are more in the way of restrictions on the government masquerading as rights. You don't have the right to counsel while arguing with me I don't think, not unless you pay them.)

    3. Natural rights are usually seen as universal and inalienable but legal rights (you mention for example the Bill of Rights) generally apply only within particular geographical areas or to certain groups. I'm not sure whether you're claiming, as the framers of the Constitution probably believed, that at least some of the rights set out therein are not just legal rights but also natural rights in the usual sense.

      But I certainly agree with you that rights to various freedoms are far less problematic than so-called benefit rights (rights to some good that someone has to provide or pay for).

  3. I certainly think that the framers had it right, they didn't create any rights, they merely wrote the bill of rights to recognize rights they believed already to exist. Why is quite simple, we don't need the government to exercise any of them. If you want to forcibly redistribute wealth in the form of anything, you need organized force to do so: government.

    I would also argue that the rights in the bill of rights are not bound by geographical areas, but only guaranteed in some. If you remove the government in the UK, do the people living on the island of Great Briton still not have the right to bear arms? I'll ask another, do they still have a right to free healthcare?

    1. Don't mind me using 2 different login things, it seems I have a different one on each of my computers...

    2. Though I reject any metaphysical interpretation of rights, I would agree with you that, for example, an individual who has not been killing or exploiting others has a perfect right to defend him/herself with weapons if necessary. It's quite natural to use the word 'right' here. On this level, rights talk is just a way of expressing moral judgements. And I suspect many of my judgements would accord with yours even if we have different presuppositions.

    3. Which is another good indication of what a right is. As the number of ways to arrive at the same conclusion increases I would think that the odds of having a bona fide right on your hands approaches 1.

      A lot of things that we would call rights are just restrictions on government, while only a few, self defense and defense of property, speech, religion, etc. are true rights. Just in the sense that they are applicable without government. Without a government, who the hell would quarter soldiers in your home?

      As the quote I have on my blog says:

      "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."

      ~George Washington