Veering Off Course, or, A Long Rambling Post on Human Rights Evolution

(Note: I had intended to respond to narrow aspects of the debate stirred by Sean’s post from the other day.  Instead, I appear to have written a rather long, somewhat unfocused post.  I hope no one minds too much.)

Below, Sean Calder introduces the debate of postive v. negative rights.   In the comments, Robert McLelland of objects to the notion that human rights are a settled matter and will not evolve any further (hopefully that is a fair representation of his comment).  Sean, in a reply, does not take up the idea that human rights are a settled matter.  He argues with Robert about where the evolution has taken us, and where it might need to end.

However, at the risk of being pwned by Robert, I will take the bait.  I do think that human rights are a settled matter – by that I mean that I think we have identified the negative liberties that underpin our elemental human rights (I understand that the debate isn’t settled).  I believe that an evolution, development, expansion or growth of human rights is invalid and outside the framework of western democracy.  The fundamental human rights have already been laid out by classical liberalism (freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, etc).  The ‘evolution’ of rights, whether it is the invention of new rights, the expansion into positive rights* or the general sentiment of entitlement that has been growing and nurtured through Human Rights Commissions and Human Rights Tribunals is an affront to our liberty, and a wild veer from the path on which we had been.

All that being said, I would not suggest that the issues surrounding human rights have been settled.  Certainly, there is much work to do, but it is our understanding and application of the ‘traditional’ human rights that needs to evolve and adapt.  Recently, I have heard claims to such rights as the right not to be offended [sorry, can’t find the link], the right to bear children, the right to health care and the right not to be exposed to wine tastings in grocery stores.  Putting aside the relative merits of each underlying issue, it is ludicrous to dress these things up as human rights.

By venturing into the territory of granting positive rights, we are working against the notion of responsibility.  As each person clamours for a new entitlement in the form of a right, and as the government or one of its organizations acquiesces, the responsibilities that individual citizens should feel towards one another is eroded.  If we are to claim that every public policy that seems good or fair is automatically a right, we no longer have any need to worry about our legislators devising good and fair legislation.  The citizenry needn’t worry about whether or not we select people who will decide wisely, for we have taken that concern away from ourselves by relinquishing authority to unelected courts and Human Rights Commisions.  Such a situation is detrimental for the society and the individual.

It is when we come to the discussion of our responsibilities within society that we often turn to arguments regarding the nature of distributional rights (eg the right to health care, the right to a living wage).  I think Julian Sanchez, Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, put it well when he wrote:

I’ve suggested before that the best version of progressivism—by which I mean, the most internally coherent version—would not include a distinct right to health care for competent adults as a moral or theoretical right, though it may in practice recommend that some degree of access to publicly provided or subsidized health care be afforded as a concrete or legal right in actual progressive societies.

I will not try to parse his statement, nor will I try to improve upon it.  However, I will try to relate it to our current debate here at ThePolitic.  These ‘distributional rights’, if we act on them, are ‘rights’ that we have decided to bestow on each other.  We will have decided that we are sufficiently privileged as to endow privileges upon each other, even if it takes some liberty away from society as a whole or specific individuals.  But the notion of welfare or wealth re-distribution – whatever we label it – is not an entitlement from on high owed to each individual, it is a collective act of charity, entered into freely, aimed at alleviating as much suffering as possible.  We can argue about how much suffering we should alleviate, how much re-distribution in which we should engage, what form it should take, and how much wealth creation (for the whole) we’re willing to sacrifice in order to lift up the least among us – and most of us will grant that some form of welfare is desirable public policy – but our decision to enact such policy does not manufacture a new human right.

When we turn these acts of charity into ‘human rights’ that are owed to various members of society, we are robbing society not only of the acknowledgment of the gift we are giving, but of the duty we have to give it.  We will have relinquished responsibility of caring for the poor to the state.  We will have washed our hands of our obligations, opting for collective responsibility rather than personal responsibility.  In such societies, not only do we erode the very liberty that brought us such prosperity, but we sit back as government welfare crowds out individual charity.

If every transgression, slight or hardship one experiences bears a new human right – a right to be protected from whatever unwanted circumstance it is that one has  encountered – we are removing the obligation to be virtuous from our fellow citizens.  Without virtue, we will be lost.

*Robert made the point that the right to vote is a positive right, and thus an opponent of positive rights would be against universal suffrage.  I understand where he’s coming from.  I see the right to vote as somewhat artificial since I see the creation of ‘the state’ as somewhat artificial (though that does not mean that I consider either illegitimate or undesirable).  However, I also see the right to vote as the individual application of the macro-level manifestation of negative liberty – personal sovereignty, freedom of expression, self-direction, what have you.


  1. says

    Jonathan, thank you for this. It clarifies much of what I was thinking when I started my rant in that last post of mine. This is very much more toward what I was thinking. As I said, it was late, I was foggy and a little annoyed by a personal experience. Probably not the best circumstances under which to post an opinion. ;)

    Anyway, aside from some of the Human Rights that are recorded in that UN document, I think that it fairly well sums it up. That being said, I disagree totally with adding new “Rights” to that document. Rather, I could possibly agree to reviewing what those existing “Rights” encompass aka definitions/clarifications or as you said, the application and understanding of those elemental Rights. I understand that I wasn’t very clear in that when I spoke about the evolution of Human Rights.

    Thank-you also for including that statement that indicates the differences between Human Rights and Legal Rights, although I hesitate to consider them “Legal Rights” rather than Legal Entitlements. Throwing in the word Rights just complicates the issue as far as I’m concerned.

    This is a far better launchpad for the discussion than I had.

    Thanks again!