For a person to have security and liberty in his/her life there must be rights that apply to the individual. As well, the other members of the community and the government must respect these rights. Without commonly accepted rights and the means to enforce them there is no system of defence against the appetites of the strong, the will of the majority or the overreaching ambitions of leaders. Some groups of people would be especially vulnerable: women in some countries, members of visible, ethnic or religious minorities, homosexuals, and the powerless. The defence by rights depends on the identification of true basic rights. Mixing in a false right results in limited energy and resources being wastefully employed and, more importantly, usually results in real rights being trampled. This book presents a theory of true fundamental rights and identifies false rights that are being harmfully implemented. It argues that identifying true rights involves more than one’s moral or social inclinations; it involves reason and analysis if the crucial requirements of permanent truth and universality are to be satisfied.
The first issue is, “What is a right?” A right is a mandatory reason for supplying something to the right-holder, with this reason being based on an unassailable principle or definite contract. The right addresses someone who is capable of supplying the “something”. Therefore, there are three necessary elements of a right:
- A right-holder (i.e., the subject of the right)
- Person/people who are addressed by the right
- Some specific obligation placed on the person/people addressed with respect to the right-holder
If any of the elements are missing in the statement of a right, then the right is invalid or empty of force. For example, the claim that a person has a right to work is empty because it is entirely speculative as to whom the right addresses and what their obligation is.
It is also important to include any conditions or qualifications in the statement of the right so that it is absolute, not conditional, because conditions dilute the force of the right. For example, it might be stated that a person walking past a movie theatre has a right to enter the theatre. If the person tried to exercise that right she would probably feel a tap on her shoulder and hear a request for a ticket. Properly stated, a person who purchases a ticket at a movie theatre has the right to attend the performance covered by the ticket. If these rules of stating rights are followed, and care is taken to express them accurately, then many unnecessary arguments over a questionable right will be avoided.
The import of a right is that it is a definite cause for action or inaction toward the right-holder and its effect is emphatically in the here and now. It is not like an exhortation that something should be done (or not done). Movement on that basis would require a consensus among those called upon to endorse and contribute to action. They would refer to their chosen morality or ethics, practical considerations, wants and fears, including their fear of change. Rights, on the other hand, are based on previously accepted principles and obligations, are clear and unequivocal, and are absolutely compelling. Rights have the power to support the security and dignity of every individual in the community, generate resistance and retribution when transgressed, and keep greater power at bay. In the case of a serious breach, a right can justify the use of compulsion and force. For example, an apprehended thief can be compelled to return to the owner what was stolen, and a person who is under physical assault may use as much force as necessary to repel the attacker.
The use of compulsion and force, however, is normally reserved for governments in the enforcement of their laws. In respectable political systems some laws are supposed to protect the rights of all individuals, while the remainder of the laws are not to conflict with fundamental rights. Even in this proper mode of governance, as well as the abusive regimes that are too common, the government retains unilateral power to compel the citizen and use force against him/her. There is the potential in this for the government to disrespect and possibly harm people in their person, possessions, or prospects. While most citizens of the world are relatively comfortable with the power of governments over them, in some countries the mentioned potential is an actuality, demonstrating that the idea of government abuse is not just a theoretical one. For this reason, it is vitally important that governments operate from a base in true human rights. The critical question then is “What are true human rights?” The answer depends on the reply to the more basic question of where human rights come from.
The candidate sources for human rights can be divided into two basic groups:
- A source external to man. This could be God (for those who believe in Him) or the foundational patterns of nature.
- Humanity itself, meaning that fundamental rights are conceived by people for their purposes, more or less in the way that “the rules of the road” were created. Their purpose could be to put or hold in place a benevolent society, a religious society or some other society based on a political, social or economic model.
Sources (1) and (2) support two schools of thought on where human rights come from and therefore what they are. If the reader has ever wondered why everyone in the world does not just accept the current doctrine of rights and get on with it, it is because there is no singular theory of rights… at least, not yet. This will not be apparent from witnessing political discussions, following reports from the news media, or reading popular books on human rights. So far in the twenty-first century school (2) dominates. Ideas from school (1) appear mostly on the Internet, under such key words as “natural rights”, where the long arm of political correctness has trouble reaching.
It was not always this way. The evolution of the concept of human rights followed track (1) for millennia. It was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the direction was changed to track (2). The change was engineered by political and social thinkers who saw in the all-encompassing scope of democratic governments the means to eliminate deprivation throughout the population. This story of human rights development is examined in the next chapter, followed by a section on “Perspectives”, which discusses the different views on human rights and resolves the issue of their source.
Filed under: | November 19th, 2012