The concept of human rights has been promoted over the past 50 years as an idea whose time has come. The irritating fact that many nations have repressive governments has led the more "civilized" nations to put pressure on these rogue nations This pressure has been justified by the supposed existence of human rights. The origin of these rights and their practical application is the subject of this inquiry.
Aristotle believed in a universal morality. He described this as Natural Moral Order which, he argued, had an independent rational basis. Aristotle's ideas held sway on many subjects for over one thousand years. After the invention of the printing press, the general public gradually became better educated and a period of enlightenment took place during the 17th and 18th centuries. Philosophers such as Locke and Kant expanded on the idea that there are certian basic "rights" to which every person is entitled in order to ensure a minimal level of sustenance
Locke believed that there was a Natural Law concerning human rights which originated with God. Kant sought to eliminate the necessity of appealing to a supreme power. He outlined a rational approach for the justification of human rights. These two philosophers influenced the leaders of our country as they crafted the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights (1776). The French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) also incorporated some of these ideas.
The latter part of the 20th century saw an expansion of the meaning and enforcement of human rights. Key events with respect to this expansion were as follows:
* Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations - 1948)
* European Convention on Human Rights (Council of Europe - 1954)
* International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (United Nations - 1966)
The concept of human rights was expanded to include additional rights such as economic rights, civil rights, children's rights, political rights, etc. The human rights movement has become a bonanza for those who enjoy the pretense of being on the moral high ground. Almost invariably, the organizations that support human rights are less about action and more about the perks of bureaucracy. Most everyone would agree that it is desirable to promote prosperity and attack misery in the world. The question is whether we have a well thought out, practical method to achieve this goal.
The mindless expansion of the concept of human rights has many unintended consequences. Some examples follow:
Equal Valued Rights - All rights are presumed to be equally important. No coherent system of prioritizing rights that overlap and contradict each other is offered. The idea that all rights are equal shows the lack of depth that has gone into the subject. The right to vote, for example, has little value without an educated public. Therefore, at the beginning stages of a developing nation, education should have a higher priority than universal suffrage. We have been disappointed many times of the consequences after the arbitrary imposition of democracy on backward nations.
Individual vs. Group Rights - The original justification for human rights was founded on the desirability of individual rights. Lately, human rights has been extended to groups of people. It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately define a group right that is not more efficiently and fairly applied to every individual in a society.
Liberty vs. Claims - The early concept of human rights was concerned with individual liberty. Our constitution's Bill of Rights is primarily concerned with preserving individual liberty. Everyone has a right to take a trip to Hawaii - if they have the resources to do so. The socialist elements of our society have gotten into the civil rights arena by including rights which have claims against society as a whole. Now, everyone has a right to go to Hawaii - but society must pay for the trip!
Universality - The weakest link in the chain of arguments for human rights is the idea that they are univeral. Humans are constantly looking for absolute truth and human rights would not have any selling power if it were not a universal truth. If a poll were taken around the world, most people would probably settle on a small set of rights that they feel are desirable. Unfortunately, desirability is not the final criteria because making a wish list does not solve problems. Each culture has its own situation to deal with and must judge when it is practical to implement certain rights.
The logical basis for the concept of human rights has been presented by several philosophers. In most cases, the use of logic has been assumed to be sufficient for their justification. Unfortunately, logic cannot stand alone. Valid premises are necessary before the mechanical application of logic can have any value. David Hume, also an 18th century philosopher, insisted on coupling logic with empirical evidence. The only evidence that he considered relevant to the question of human rights was the evidence of utility. In particular, if a supposed human right did not have universal agreement on its utility then it could not be considered a human right. He showed many examples of societies with differing concepts of what is morally right.
As comfortable as it may be to believe in absolute human rights, this belief does not meet the test of universal practicality and acceptance. One way to bring human rights closer to this ideal would be to sharply trim the ever growing list of human rights. It would be much easier to attain a degree of univeral acceptance if only the less controverial ones were included. Beyond that, all rights which represent groups or make claims against other peoples resources should be eliminated. Human progress is dependent upon the incentive for each individual to contribute to society in the form of goods and services in exchange for payment.
In the long run, even these precautions will not make human rights an absolute and universal ideal. Some judgment is required and each potential violation of human rights must be put in context and handled on an individual basis. In an ideal world, every society would agree on the rights to which men are entititled, but as Hume pointed out - in an ideal world we wouldn't need human rights.