Thursday, January 05, 2012

Human rights, human wrongs

As the first post of the new year, and in honor of our upcoming conference on which the blog will be thematically focused over the next few months, I wanted to raise the issue of the relationship of concepts of human rights to concepts of injustice.

I raise this question for discussion because I have noticed that talk of "human rights" most often rises in response to human wrongs--to perceived injustices. I put the emphasis on human wrongs here, because when natural disasters with heavy human (and environmental) tolls occur, the typical response centers on alleviating human (and environmental) suffering without much talk of human rights. A terrible earthquake can have the same effect as a war in denying the necessities of life to those in the area: clean water, food, shelter, etc. But when a lack of food or resources is caused by war or some other human-made disaster, the response of sending aid often is paired with rights-language. The human rights of people in the area have been violated by having those, or other, necessities denied them as a consequence of human action or inaction.

On the other hand, human rights-language usually only enters a response to natural disasters if there is a perceived human complicity in the suffering caused by the natural disaster. For example, when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, no one accused the hurricane itself of injustice. Who would accuse a hurricane of having done wrong? But the human officials involved in preparing the city for a potential hurricane, and those in charge of helping once the hurricane had struck, were frequently accused of injustice and even human rights violations. Natural disasters often do terrible harm, but we seem to intuitively reserve terms like wrong and injustice for effects and actions that are at least partially under the control of humans. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis... none of these things violate human rights (isn't that right?), even though they often do terrible harm and cause huge suffering. Conceptually it seems that only humans can violate human rights.

Questions of what constitutes justice and injustice are often at the foundation of human rights language. Is it the case, then, that human rights-language only makes sense in the context of human interactions? Or is there an unspoken notion of human rights that prompts the response of attempting to alleviate suffering caused by such things as natural disasters?


  1. I can't really comment on human rights only existing in relation to human wrongs, but perhaps this is because I've never been too keen on human rights talk in the first place. I'm less of the opinion that we have certain inalienable claims in virtue of being human and more of the opinion that what we do have/get should be earned.

    For example, we don’t have the right to assemble but rather we earn the ability to assemble by showing that we can do so in peaceful and proactive ways. Or, we don’t have the right to speak our minds but rather we earn the ability to speak our minds by showing that we can do so in considerate and thought-provoking ways.

    It is not so much a human right for X as it is human beings deserving X through the demonstration of their maturity/readiness for X. (Like a teenager who shows that they are ready for a cellphone by demonstrating responsible use of a cellphone. Or like Adam and Eve showing their readiness for wisdom by demonstrating their wisdom in obeying God.)

    So, in the examples that you raise of natural and human-made disaster, what we see when people step up to help is not a response to some basic human right to live, a right that may not exist in the instance of natural disaster. Rather what we see in both cases is a demonstration of our maturity and readiness as humankind to live on earth. We see people earning their lives and doling out to others what has already been earned by human beings who similarly demonstrated that they deserved life in the past.

    In the end there is no human right (to life or whatever). The rainbow is as much a reminder that God can wipe us out as it is a promise that God won’t. That our ancestors and contemporaries have earned our place here on earth (not to mention our ability to assemble, speak, practice religion, etc).

  2. I think I understand some of your discomfort over the use of "rights" language, Jared, though I don't share your reasons. It is difficult to define rights, and one runs perpetually into the issue of what makes something a "right". There are plenty of people for whom social justice is a central concern that nevertheless hesitate to use "rights" language, due to the difficulty in defining what constitutes a "right" and what supports any such rights.

    It seems to me that is not the reason you're not keen, as you put it, on rights language, though. You talk about having to earn things. I think insisting on earning things runs into two problems right off the bat, however. The first is a problem of equity. Saying that we have to "earn" the ability to assemble or the ability to speak our minds assumes that everyone begins on a level playing field and that that those who are able to talk or assemble have somehow proven their ability and thus earned the chance to speak and assemble. To whom or what have they proven their ability? Some people, due to the circumstances of their birth, simply have more resources to begin with. It seems to me that this should not make them any more (or less) able to speak, or to assemble. The resources they have have not necessarily been earned by them.

    The second problem that "earning abilities" runs into is strikingly similar to the second problem rights language must face. Just as, in order to have a really robust conception of human rights, one needs to be able to articulate by what standard a right is a right, so also, if one wants to advocate that things like the "ability to assemble" are "earned" one must answer the question of what or who judges when an ability has been properly earned. Both questions deal with standards and authority.

    You said we earn the ability to assemble by showing that we can do so in peaceful and proactive ways. Who defines peaceful? Who defines proactive? In a pluralist society, such as Canada is, one person's definition of "peaceful" and "proactive" is not necessarily going to mesh with the next person's definition. Who gets to arbitrate, then, and by what authority?

    You speak of people "earning their lives", but it seems to me that we don't earn our lives, as though we somehow begin with a zero-sum and have to prove that we are worthwhile in order to remain on earth. We may earn our livelihoods, or earn "a living", but that is different than earning our lives. I wonder whether your language of "earning" instead of "rights" is trying to highlight human agency in interacting with one another? If so, does language about everyone having particular "responsibilities" toward fellow humans (and environment etc) sit better with you than "rights"? Talking about all people having such responsibilities would still run into the second problem facing both "rights" and "earned" talk, but it would avoid the first problem of equity. I'm not ready to give up on rights language yet, but perhaps responsibility language is a good topic for discussion as well?

  3. If I think about what it is that I don’t like about rights (and responsibilities) language I think it’s just too strong. I find it hard to reconcile inalienable or absolute claims on things with other views that I hold in esteem. For example, I can’t reconcile rights with grace, or the idea that life, speech, assembly, etc, are gifts, or must come as gifts. If we have a right to any of these things then wouldn’t their gift character be destroyed? Can something that we have a right to ever come as a gift? (Or similarly, can something that comes out of responsibility be called a gift?)

    The strength of rights language also serves as an overriding or final say. Rights (and responsibilities) can become a conversation stopper, you know? Not just because of the difficulty of defining rights but because rights can be thrown against what in many cases might be wiser arguments. For example, sometimes the wiser course is to keep our mouths shut and to not speak our minds. Sometimes the wiser course is to lose our lives. While having a right to speech or life doesn’t prevent us from seeing and taking the wiser course in such cases, I do think that believing we have such rights can serve as blinders to wisdom. We can become too focused on what we think our rights are and in the process close our eyes to wisdom. We can override the arguments of the wise with our rights talk (and still sleep well at night because it was our right to do so!).

    In line with this point, I feel that rights language lends itself to a sense of entitlement (it leads us to keep our lives when we should lose them or to speak our minds when we should shut up). Don’t get me wrong, my preference for earning something lends itself to entitlement too, but there is a difference I think. With the kind of earning that I mean there is a demonstration of readiness and maturity for something, while with rights there is simply an inalienable or absolute claim. The result I think is a more genuine entitlement when we shift from rights talk to earning something. (I hope we can both agree that there is something important and meaningful about earning something versus having it given to us or having a de facto right to it, even if it’s the basic needs for life. I think most people would rather earn these than be charity cases...)

    Also, to be clear about my position, when I say we must earn something (whatever it is) I don’t mean ‘earn’ in the sense of do A for B, where we enter into some kind of contract and B is our (rightful) payment for A, so that we earn B by doing A. That kind of earning would be just as incompatible with grace as rights would be. Instead, the kind of earning that I mean is, again, earning A by demonstrating readiness or maturity in A. (e.g., Earning assembly by demonstrating maturity in assembling.) Earning in this way doesn’t guarantee payment. It still leaves room for the gift to come. But it still brings with it the kind of genuine entitlement that I think is important and missed with rights talk, i.e., entitlements that are worked for and deserved.

    Finally there is the question of who says whether someone has earned assembly, speech, life, etc. I think the answer is obvious to us all even though it is hard to put into words. For example, we have all seen immature assemblies. We can all look at the Vancouver post Stanley Cup ‘assembly’ and agree that most of the people did not earn their ability to assemble there. It’s obvious. That event was more of a revocation of our ability to assemble than it was a demonstration that we deserve to assemble. I think this ‘obviousness’ holds across the board. We can recognize life, speech, etc, that is earned. We know mature speech when we hear it. We recognize mature life. We have all seen an athlete perform at the top of their game and experienced the feeling that “this person deserves to be here; they have truly earned their place on the field.” It’s obvious when we see it even though we can’t define it.

    Thanks Allyson.

  4. Interesting discussion. Let me just throw something into the hopper here.

    A word we don't see used much in these kinds of discussions today is "duty". I like the word "duty" instead of "responsibility" because "duty" implies not just a kind of moral ownership but also an owing. It's less vague. It's also less tinged with judgement. "Responsibility" is often seen as synonymous with "culpability".

    Duty is naturally at odds with rights (as liberally conceived) since rights are about not having impositions on the freedom of the rights-holder. The language of rights tends to not be about the positive right to have things but about the negative right to be free from interference with the having of things. The right of assembly is the right to have an assembly without interference. Our concept of rights is set against power and authority that could seek to limit nor compel certain activities. A loose understanding of rights, for many, is simply that no external authority has any business compelling the individual in any way unless the activities of that individual negatively affect another individual. P.E.T.'s famous "the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation" is an expression of that sentiment.

    One of the problems with the idea of rights, or human rights, is the implicit focus on the individual as recipient of rights, which leads to a sense of personal entitlement with no implicit sense of personal obligation. That radical individualist ideology has entered mainstream politics in America is evidence of this, I think, and I think that restoring a sense of duty as an assumed component of an order than includes rights would be healthy. If there is a charter of rights should there not also be a charter of duties? (I think this at least flirts with your conception of earned rights, Jared.)

  5. Hi Daryl, Maybe I could summarize my concerns by likening rights and duties to Biblical law. If we focus too much on these, as if rigidly defining and upholding them was the point, then we run the risk of turning away from wisdom and denying grace. On the other hand, if we focus on wise living, which I believe is less defined and involves a more active and ongoing discernment, then the law (our rights and duties included) will be fulfilled. Every jot and tittle.

    So although it might be hard to see up front (since the terms I'm using are far from clear!), you could say that my focus on "earning" is an effort to do just that. It's a move toward demonstrating maturity in all that we do (wisdom), and a move away from the kind of thinking that would suggest there are some things that we unconditionally owe or are owed. (There is no room for grace with such thinking.)

    As the perspective you share further shows, though, this is complicated stuff.

  6. Hi Jared, perhaps we can have our cake and eat it too. The concept of rights that is perceived as something owed to the individual (or group) seems problematic to me, too. I view it more as the case that rights are something that we have already received and duty is simply our response, more like grace and gratitude than like product and payment.

    When the debate over our Charter of Rights and Freedoms was taking place I recall thinking that codification was a mistake. We had gotten along well without it and it seemed to me that codification would both unnecessarily limit rights and unnecessarily limit our responses to situations that fell between the cracks. In short, my concern was that a charter like that precludes wisdom (which is often expressed as a judge's opinion). I'm still not sure the Charter was the right thing to do but I am pleased that we didn't embed it in our constitution as firmly as some other places have. The infamous "notwithstanding" clause seems to have blunted the bankability of rights and avoided terrible winner-takes-all constitutional battles. Perhaps by simply not embedding the Charter in our national identity we have also blunted the interpretation of rights as entitlements.

    Even before a judge gets to decide on a thing there are many opportunities for wisdom to be employed. Most matters between people do not need the law to decide at all. Were we to focus more on wisdom as a social value, we should need even fewer cops and lawyers. I'm not sure how one would plan that, however.

  7. Allyson, in response to the questions posed in the last paragraph of your article I would say that "duty" (a term I have been harping on a bit:) is what is being expressed in our attempts to respond to events and relieve suffering. Or at least I'd like to see the word "duty" nuanced to mean that more. Rescuers the media wants to call heros almost always say "I'm no hero. That's just what people do." There's so much truth in that, and relieving the suffering of others extends beyond our families and clans and even our nationalities. It extends even beyond our species. I'm not sure that this behaviour or the impulses that lead to it can be discussed under the banner of rights at all, but it sure seems possible to discuss under the banner of duty.

    A person is hanging by one hand from a branch at the edge of a cliff. Is it your duty to pull her back (assuming you can) or is it her right that you do so? As I recall there have been attempts to codify the latter. I'm not sure whether or not they've been successful.

  8. I think I understand where both of you are coming from, and I agree that rights-language has not always been used in ways that I would be comfortable with. Nevertheless, being the student of history that I have become, I admit to sleeping a bit better at night knowing that Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Having such a Charter doesn't guarantee that nothing bad will happen, of course, and one does run the risk (as with all laws, and much of life in general) of people abusing the system. But it gives, in theory, some recourse if matters go really ill.

    I am all about wisdom, and I agree that if society put more of an emphasis on inculcating wisdom (I'm drawing on the notion of wisdom as situational understanding of an appropriate and right response or action) in persons, then we would have less need for laws and police. But even then, I personally would not want legal documents such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to disappear. Such rights function as protection against some of humanity's less-than-shining moments (take your pick, there are plenty to choose from...) happening again, in new contexts. Many governments and people throughout human history have claimed to be led by principles of wisdom, or by taking "wise courses of action." Many of those same governments and people have subsequently been vilified (often rightly) for turning their governing into means of oppression. To me, "rights" fall into the realm of protection. There is no nationally (or internationally) agreed-upon definition of "wisdom" (and there couldn't be, since it is situational) but if a right becomes part of law, such as in the Charter, then governments as well as people can, in theory, be held accountable.

    I don't think this means we can't talk about what a right is, or whether thing X is a right and if so what kind or right, nor should it close down discussion on how such rights should be held, called on, or enforced. Rather, I think that the rights (or lack of rights) a society collectively decides on in many ways shape and define that society. In particular, I think it encourages public discussion, such as this, about the way we structure society and act toward each other. Thanks guys!

  9. If there is a place for law (or rights and responsibilities talk) in the Bible then I must believe that there is a place for it in the world. While I still see it as something that we will (or at least should) outgrow, I agree that it has a purpose which both of you are right to stress.

    I would say, perhaps in agreement with you both, that the use or taking seriously of such concepts (law, rights, duties) is an aid in our becoming wise. It has its dangers, and we must always remember that focusing on such things is not the end-all and be-all of a mature existence, but it also helps us when we're not yet ready or strong enough to find the way on our own. Or when the world is not yet ready or strong enough.

  10. In response to your person-hanging-off-a-cliff thought experiment, Daryl, I thought through my own reaction to the word "duty" and what I would say about the question you pose. Words and the nuances of their meanings are constantly being revised, of course, but I find that when I think of the word "duty" I automatically connect it with "law." For me, doing one's duty means doing what the law demands. Sometimes I also think it is used to mean doing what is traditionally or culturally expected of you, but usually I find myself thinking of duty in terms of law. It's probably for this reason that I don't prefer to use the word much, because often (in my opinion) the right thing to do requires more than simply doing one's duty. In fact, I think a case could be made that sometimes the right thing to do is precisely *not* to do one's duty. (Where duty is understood as what is legally required. I am speaking here of civil disobedience to unjust laws, etc.) But I think you and I have different definitions of duty, and we might be talking about the same thing with different words.

    As to the cliff example... on my understanding of duty, one would not have a duty to rescue her, unless the law requires persons to attempt rescue. Nor in this case would I necessarily say that she has a "right" to be rescued by you. Having said that, I believe the proper human response, outside of duty or right, would be to immediately hit the deck and reach your hand out to her. (It sounds like that's what you're talking about when you say 'duty'?)

    I'm falling back again on my understanding of rights as a form of protection, largely against other human actions. But I would say that rights and duty is not all that there is to take into account when one is considering what is appropriate or moral. Rights and duties (in my opinion) are the buffers we have collectively put in place over time to help prod people into acting according to such traits, for example, as justice, empathy and compassion.

  11. Allyson, yes, you have it. I wouldn't argue that "duty" by itself has the connotations I would imbue it with but used in context I think it would imbue the discussion with those connotations in a way that "responsibility" does not. A duty to uphold the value of fair play, might be an example. I would consider it my duty to pull the cliff-hanger back, though I might argue that this is despite it not being my responsibility.

    I consider it a duty to oppose unjust laws. And to vote.

    You used the term "buffers" and Jared said "aid" WRT rights language, with about the same meaning AFAICT. I agree with that but inasmuch as we humans learn generalisations by repetition (experience) I wouldn't de-emphasise rights language or the idea itself. It needs to embody wisdom and leave room for wisdom, however imperfectly it does that, IMHO.

  12. It's interesting that each of us has indicated a desire for something even more elusive than rights and duties. Something just as absolute in the sense of authoritative but also something more relative in the sense that it doesn’t hold true for ALL time like a right or duty but that it must be actively discerned IN time so that it is right for the time.

    With this in mind, I wonder what a shift from rights/duty to wisdom might entail. Notwithstanding the need to keep speaking of rights and duties for the reasons we’ve put forward, I wonder, not so much what a post-rights/duties world might be like (there has already been mention of no lawyers and police!) but more importantly what kind of shift it would call for in our individual behaviour or attitudes. For instance, they say that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. But what does this mean on a personal level should we take it seriously? What comes next? I’ll resist my temptations to answer for now.

  13. I'd replace "fear of God" with "humility". I think we'd find that this is a large component of the success of any well-functioning community, including ours even now (though signs of deterioration are evident).

    I'm not so interested in what it means on a personal level as I am in what it means on a public level. What chance is there to introduce or make space for wisdom in a culture that is organised at its base on the idea that personal gain is the highest principle? I wish I had an answer.

  14. That's right, humility! We need a good sense of our cosmic insignificance. Within this context however I would say that we also need a good sense of our calling to image God. That is, we need to recognize the pride and glory of being human. (Even though we're made of dust and we'll soon be ashes we can't resign ourselves to such humble states.)

    Can't answer your question however. I would hope that the authority of wisdom would make it an undeniable force when it is there, but I think you're right: it is more likely to be mistreated and ignored.