|Human Rights : Some philosophical issues
Source : http://www.legalserviceindia.com
Author : Ranjini2
Published on : August 06, 2017
Human Rights: Some Philosophical Issues
The issue of human rights has acquired significance in the last sixty years or so . The concept of human rights has legal , moral and political connotations . In recent years human rights has become central to issues of migration and torture . The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR) in December 1948. This inaugurated a new period of thinking about human rights since it was based on the idea of the inherent dignity of human beings and the universality of their rights. The UDHR basically said that human beings have certain rights and that these rights were an existing moral reality . It emphasized socio-economic rights along with civil and political rights. For example Article 23 talks about the right to work. However we must remember that even before 1948 , the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) also mentioned a concept of rights held by humanity. The idea of natural rights were discussed in the works of Locke and Kant.
Central to any discussion of human rights are four main questions:
1. What is the nature of human rights and whether they are a subset of moral rights or legal rights?
Nature of Human Rights
It has been held by many philosophers that all human beings possess certain natural rights simply by virtue of the fact that they are human beings. The naturalistic conception of human rights says that human rights are moral rights that all human beings possess at all times and all places in virtue of their being human . The UDHR also states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This view postulates an equal moral status for all human beings notwithstanding physical , social and cultural differences . Since all human beings are morally equal therefore all human beings deserve similar kind of protection of human rights. Brian Tierney in his book The Idea of Natural Rights(2001) argues that the idea of natural rights did not emerge in Europe with the emergence of individualism as is popularly believed but it emerged in the twelfth century in the writings of Canon Lawyers who wrote about rights possessed by people in the sense of powers or capacities .Natural rights emerge from qualities that human beings possess like rationality and their need for integration into society. He also argues that natural rights are just one element of morality among others . There are other moral considerations like duties without counterpart rights like duties of charity . Natural Rights emerged in Western consciousness only as one element of moral concern . They do not exhaust the category of other moral concerns. The naturalistic conception of human rights also bases itself on the view that all human beings have equal moral status . Some have argued that the mentally insane and children are not right holders. Peter Singer has argued that the argument of the moral superiority of human beings is a form of prejudice just like racism and sexism.
Justification of Human Rights
Those who argue that human beings have rights simply because they are human beings see the justification for rights in terms of protection of some distinctly human features. Justification of human rights is seen in instrumental terms in that human rights are seen as essential means to realizing some valued features of human life. These features are appeals to the notion of agency , the notion of good life and the notion of basic needs. The agency argument says that what distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity to have a conception of good life. The notion of human dignity is seen as the capacity to pursue a good life . Therefore human rights are seen as protecting this capacity . But the problem with this view is that children and mentally retarded cannot be autonomous moral agents and so by this view they cannot have human rights. In order to get over this problem some philosophers have conceptualized human rights as grounded in a plurality of goods required for a good life. The elements of a good life according to this view basically derive their view from the Aristotelian view of Eudaimonia. Therefore the basic forms of human good include freedom from pain , knowledge , personal relations , aesthetic experience , sociability and religion . The justification for human rights , then , is seen as protecting conditions necessary to pursue a good life.
Real Human Rights
The trajectory of human rights has been seen through three generations: civil and political rights , social rights and lastly group rights and right to peace and development . The concept of human rights has been considerably expanded by the UDHR. Some rights so conceptualized , like the right to employment , periodic holidays with pay , medical care and housing have been subjects of controversy . Some international declarations on human rights have also mentioned a child’s right to be loved and the human right to assisted suicide . The whole concept of socio economic rights is often criticized as being sham in countries where the legitimacy of the government itself is questionable . The concept of group human rights postulates two types of such rights . One type of human right is the right held by individuals on the basis of membership to a particular group like being a woman , a child or a member of a minority group. The other type of group right is the right held by a group as a whole and an example of such a right would be the right to self-determination of a group.
Genuine Human Rights
A common object of criticism has been the view that the concept of human rights is essentially a Western concept of a universal order that does not accept cultural relativism . Cultural relativism grounds the concept of human rights in socially defined cultural codes . But the response to this view has been that there are basic human rights possessed by everybody in virtue of their being humans even though the origin of the conception may be Western . The universal validity of Newton’s Law of Gravitation is not compromised by the fact that it is a western discovery . Relativism argues that the conceptions of good life are essentially debatable . The minimalist view of human rights would argue that certain human rights are fundamental for basic human needs or capabilities and such rights need to be protected irrespective of the society . The solution to the problem of cultural relativism was proposed by John Rawls as we discussed earlier . According to him we should not base human rights on theological and moral conceptions of human beings since they may not be accepted by people holding incompatible philosophical and religious views. Rawls thinks that we should instead think of human rights as an element of the “ law of peoples”. The law of peoples is a set of principles on which well ordered peoples from different religious and moral backgrounds can agree. There can be agreement , Rawls believes among different societies about the role of human rights in international peace and a minimum list of such rights will set the boundary for intervention in the internal autonomy of states .
Richard Rorty on Human Rights
The American philosopher Richard Rorty has essentially argued that we cannot justify human rights; reason is a useless apparatus to promote human rights ; and we should instead concentrate on sentimental education . In his famous book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature(1979) he argued that traditionally philosophy has been centered on questions of knowledge and the study of mind . Traditional philosophers from Descartes to Kant tried to establish through knowledge a representational relation between ideas and reality . Rorty wrote that “ to know is to represent accurately what is outside the mind”. This was the core of the representationalist paradigm . Language has an important role between the self and reality . It determines the way we think .Without language we cannot access reality and so we cannot know whether our language accurately represents reality . Our language is contingent because we use language for accidental reasons . Therefore our search for Truth is contingent upon language . We are unable to find absolute justification for our beliefs because we cannot step outside the limits of our language to understand the reality -in-itself. Rorty proposed that we should give up the philosophical quest of truth through knowledge . Instead of a representationalist paradigm he argued for a more pragmatic conception of creating a more democratic society . He is more concerned with what works . He says that in matters of human rights appeals to reason and knowledge will be of no use . The Serbian torturers did not see their victims as Muslims who were part of humanity . The Nazis also were aware that many Jews were clever and learned but that did not prevent them from killing them . The Kantian notions of treating human beings as ends do not come to help in cases of genocide . Rorty says that we should be grateful to Plato and Kant because they thought of Cosmopolitan Utopias . The way to promote cosmopolitan utopias is through sentimental education . Sentimental education proposes to acquaint peoples with different ethnicities to see the similarities amongst them rather than differences . Rorty believes that a properly functioning human rights culture results from security and sympathy.