Human Rights / Humans as Political Beings
Natural Rights, Civil Rights, Human Rights
So far, in this unit of the course, the notion of “rights” has come up several times. Both Hobbes, Locke, and Mills discuss rights in some way.
As you may recall, Hobbes defines right as a type of liberty, the freedom to do something without impediment. Both Hobbes and Locke believe that humans have natural rights, that is inherent freedoms that they are endowed with by nature. In other words, because humans and the world are they way they are, humans come with pre-given rights. For Hobbes the principle right held by humans was to do whatever it takes to survive. For Locke it was to defend one’s property (including one’s life).
For Hobbes, when humans enter a social contract and form a government with laws, they give up
their natural rights. For Locke, the institution of government provides a way of guaranteeing one’s natural rights by codifying those rights into law. When a sovereign power establishes rights for its citizens and laws for protecting those rights, we get civil rights.
Natural rights apply in the state of nature while civil rights apply in civilization. Human rights refer to those rights which humans hold simply because they are human. Such rights are closer in kind to natural rights, but are often reflected in civil rights.
The notion of human rights gets invoked frequently in discussions of violations of human dignity and ethics. But where do human rights come from? Are they real? Who guarantees them? How effective are they in protecting vulnerable people? Do other-than-human beings have rights, too?
Amartya Sen, 1933 – Sen was born in West Bengal India in 1933. He received is B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in Economics at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. His research has included topics such as social choice theory, economic theory, ethics and political philosophy, welfare economics, theory of measurement, decision theory, development economics, public health, and gender studies. His interest in global welfare and human rights was partly inspired by his experience of witnessing famine in India.
Sen has served on various economic advisory boards including the American Economic Association. He has also received numerous awards for his work, the most prestigious of which was the Nobel Prize in economics.
Sen currently teaches at Harvard University.
Hannah Arendt, 1906-1975
Arendt was born in Linden, Germany in 1906 to a Jewish family. She studied under the German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers while at university. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Marburg in 1926. She fled Germany to Paris in 1933 after being briefly held in a detention camp. After the outbreak of WWII, she and her husband fled to the U.S.
Arendt’s most famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) was based on her reporting of the trial of infamous Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker. It was extremely controversial partly because she claimed that evil was “banal” and that Eichmann wasn’t a devil but just a boring, unthinking person incapable of seeing the world from another’s perspective.
Arendt is considered to be one of the most influential political thinkers of the 20th century.
United Nations The United Nations is an international organization that was established in 1945 and currently includes 193 member nations. The U.N. has four main offices located in New York City, Geneva, Nairobi, and Vienna.
It was established following WWII for the purpose of preventing further catastrophic wars and protecting and securing the future of humanity around the globe. The U.N. consists of 5 active bodies: The General Assembly (for deliberation and discussion), Security Council (for dealing with peace and security issues), Economic and Social Council (for promoting economic growth and cooperation), International Court of Justice (for holding war criminals accountable), and Secretariat (for providing studies, info, services).
The concept of human rights was essential to the message of the U.N.’s founding charter.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights In 1948, the U.N. ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). According the the U.N. it marks a common standard of achievements for all peoples and nations, and sets out the fundamental human rights that should be universally protected.
By definition, human rights, are rights/freedoms that come with being human. If you’re human, you have human rights. But how do we know what those rights are? The UDHR includes 30 articles, some of which list more than one right. These include things like the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community to the right to be recognized as a person before the law to the right of parents to seek education for their children.
Look over the list of UDHR articles and think about the following:
● Are all of these rights natural rights? ● How did these rights get recognized as rights? ● Why do these rights, as implied by their name “human rights,” only apply to humans? ● What is the purpose of drafting up a list of rights is then signed and ratified by the member-nations of the
U.N.? ● Does this charter tell us how to recognize when a being is a human?
The Need for Human Rights The UDHR begins with several claims about the necessity of recognizing human rights, principally that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (1). In other words, when everyone recognizes these rights as fundamental to human life and well-being, humans as a species can flourish in prosperity, freedom, and peace. A recognition of universal human rights can foster mutual respect among different people of different nationalities, religions, ethnic backgrounds, genders, and political affiliations.
The principles laid out by the UDHR are meant to help countries around the world to structure their own constitutions and laws as well a their international relationships. It helps to establish the idea that humans are more alike than they are different. This is especially important because difference has been one of the leading justifications for war, slavery, genocide, gendercide, and colonization. Even though the member countries of the U.N. ratified (officially consented to make valid) the UDHR, humans rights violations occur throughout the world all the time in the most politically and economically stable nations (U.S., Japan, Germany, etc.) and in less stable nations (Venezuela, Syria, Somalia).
Thus, the UDHR is an ideal to which the member nations of the world (and especially the drafters of the resolution) hope to aspire. As Sen explains, “The understanding that some rights are not fully realized, and may not be fully realizable under present circumstances…suggests the need to work towards changing the prevailing circumstances to make the unrealized rights realizable, and ultimately, realized (1005).
Need for Human Rights (2)
Sen’s assessment of the need for human rights coincides with that of the U.N. According to Sen, “proclamations of human rights are to be seen as ethical demands” and “an assertion of the importance of…the freedoms that are identified and privileged in the formulation of the rights in question” (1000).
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that attempts to systematize, recommend, and defend principles and concepts of right human behavior. Generally, the goal of ethics is recognized as the effort to help humans live good lives. Good, in this case, can refer to all sorts of notions of “good” from the opposite of evil to correct and right to that which is most valuable.
This means, that from Sen’s perspective, when someone claims that something like healthcare is a human right, that person is saying that without unfettered (free) access to healthcare, humans cannot live good lives. Or, if you believe that humans should lead good lives, they should all have access to affordable healthcare. From this view, healthcare is a right because it is necessary for living a good human life.
In other words, when people assert their human rights, claim that humans rights have been violated, or draft legislation to protect human rights, they are making an ethical assertion about the value of certain freedoms for the good of individual humans and human society.
Need for Human Rights (3) For Sen, human rights can be “parents of law.” That is, ethical demands for the recognition of rights like access to affordable healthcare, the freedom to practice one’s religion or practice no religion, and the freedom to get a fair trial can and should inspire lawmakers within nations to draft laws that will enshrine and protect such rights. Of course, this comes with the understanding that any given government has the welfare of its citizens as its primary concern.
However, Sen is careful to point out that “an ethical understanding of human rights…goes against seeing them as legal demands” (1000). In other words, human rights are not civil rights, that is rights granted to be people based on the law of their nation.
Even though a nation’s interest in protecting human rights typically begins with protecting its own citizens, the UDHR implies that countries must not only take an interest in their own citizens but in all of humanity. The U.N. is an extra-sovereign, inter-governmental body. In other words, it has no official sovereign power; it does not rule over other nations like nations rule over their citizens. Rather, it is more like an assembly, a means by which representatives of other nations can come together to discuss problems that extend beyond their country’s borders (i.e. climate change, war, famine, epidemics).
This means that the U.N. needs to convince nations to come to the defense of humans who live in other countries where their rights are being violated. The framework of human rights provide a means for countries to negotiate with one another.
Need for Human Rights (4) In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt takes a different approach to the need for human rights. Putting the rise of human rights language into a historical perspective, she writes, “The proclamation of human rights was also meant to be a much-needed protection in the new era where individuals were no longer secure in the estates to which they were born or sure of their equality before God as Christians. In other words, in the new secularized and emancipated society, men were no longer sure of these social and human rights which until then had been outside the political order and guaranteed not by government and constitution, but by social, spiritual, and religious forces” (291).
In other words, before the start of French Revolution in 1789 a person’s rights were derived from one’s belief in a God that endowed humans with reason, intelligence, and other abilities. Belief in God, in an authority beyond the human realm, ensured one’s rights. God, who was objective and all-powerful, was the ultimate judge beneath which human authority was pale and arbitrary. But as belief in religious powers waned and as notions of polygenesis (the belief that there were multiple beginnings or human origins), Darwinism, and freedom of religion spread, the security that belief in God brought to natural rights was undermined, leaving humans to build a new foundation for those rights.
Inalienability of Human Rights According to the most famous line of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this, as in many other documents regarding human rights, these rights are almost always referred to as inalienable. If something is inalienable it cannot be given or taken away by the possessor.
The declaration that rights are inalienable is powerful for activists who wish to improve the lives of people around the world, but as Arendt points out, the “inalienability” of rights isn’t so simple, especially when they are no longer “endowed by their Creator.”
Rather the inalienability of human rights leads to a paradox: “Since the Rights of Man were proclaimed to be ‘inalienable,’ irreducible to and undeducible from other rights or laws, no authority was invoked for their establishment; Man himself was their source as well as their ultimate goal. No special law, moreover, was deemed necessary to protect them because all laws were supposed to rest upon them” (291).
In other words, the inalienability of human rights implies that rights spring unencumbered from the human being itself and are thus evident to anyone who encounters another human. Thus, human rights should be able to stand on their own without the support of laws. They are a symbol of one’s total emancipation (freedom) from any restrictive order be it government or religion.
Paradox of the Inalienability of Human Rights For Arendt, this inalienability highlights an important paradox in human rights discussions. Since human rights sprang from one’s mere humanness unrelated to government, social order, religion, and all other types of human community, then they referred to an entirely abstract notion of a human being. However, humans don’t exist abstractly, they exist in the world, amongst their peers and families, in nations, and in cultural communities. Human life depends on being a member of a community, and the most common form of community in the modern world is the nation.
Hence, “The Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as ‘inalienable’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments;
but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them” (292).
In other words, when people are deprived of governmental protection, they also lose the rights that were supposedly guaranteed by their very inclusion within the human species because there is no one willing or able to defend their rights.
Stateless and Rightless People According to Arendt, the paradox of human rights comes to light when we start considering the rights of stateless people. One of the major ethical questions raised by Arendt’s analysis of human rights is: what are the rights of stateless people and what standing to the rightless have in the world?
First, what does it mean to be stateless? For Arendt, a stateless person is anyone who is a member of a group who was “welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere. Once they [the group] had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth” (267). Writing as a Jew who had fled from Germany on the eve of WWII, it’s likely that Arendt had in mind refugees of civil wars as the quintessential example of stateless people.
But stateless people have also historically included many other groups including illegal immigrants and people who didn’t use a form of government recognized by white Europeans. For example, the in the eyes of the European colonists and European slave traders, Native Africans and Native Americans were pre-civilization, subhuman, and therefore excluded from the realm of moral obligation. As “naturally inferior” they, like animals, were exempt from the rights held by the “naturally superior” white Europeans. Look back at the Mills reading for some examples.
Stateless and Rightless People (2)
Even though human rights were generally received as something positive, Arendt notes that there was never a real effort made to implement and ensure them. The main reason for this was that civil rights had historically tended to guarantee the rights now associated with human rights and to change their governments if they didn’t. However, “The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforcable–even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them–whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state” (293).
Even though everyone seems to agree that the plight of the stateless is their loss of rights, no one can agree what to do about them.
Just think about the current Syrian refugee crisis. Millions of people are being displaced by the Syrian civil war, but the U.S., which is supposedly a defender of human rights has just put in place a ban keeping new refugees from entering the country even though their basic human rights aren’t being met and staying in Syria might lead to their deaths.
Stateless and Rightless People (3) Arendt says that the rightless suffer two primary losses:
1. Loss of their homes, “the entire social texture into which they were born” (293) and their distinct place in the world
2. Loss of government protection and legal status in all countries
Most importantly, “The calamity of the rightless is not they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion–formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities–but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever” (295). They are “superfluous.”
Notice that Arendt is extremely focused on the notions of place and community in her account of rightlessness. As I said earlier, Arendt believes human life is fundamentally and inextricably tied to community. Without it, our lives lack meaning, structure, and purpose. This is why she can come to this conclusion:
“The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice…is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer a matter of choice” (296).
Nothing but Human Take a moment to read Arendt’s account of slavery on page 297. Consider the following questions:
● What’s the difference between a slave and a stateless person?
● What do slaves have that the stateless don’t? ● Based on this passage, how we summarize
Arendt’s definition of humanity? ● What is the role of community in a person’s
Even slaves, whose rights have been trampled on to the severest extent, are more secure in their rights than the stateless. The reason: “To be a slave was after all to have a distinctive character, a place in society–more than the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human. Not the loss of rights, then, but the loss of a community willing
and able to guarantee those rights whatsoever, has been the calamity which has befallen ever-increasing numbers of people” (297).
What does Arendt mean by “nothing but human”? By this she means the state of being merely a being with a human body and mind. A being born into the state of humanness. Being nothing but human means to be an abstract individual in a sea of other individuals without any of the markers that distinguish one as meaningful. One “begin[s] to belong to the human race in much the same way as animals belong to a specific animal species. The paradox involved in the loss of human rights is that such loss coincides with the instant when a person becomes a human being in general–without a profession, without citizenship, without an opinion, without a deed which to identify and specify himself–and…loses all significance” (302).
The Myth of Human Rights For Arendt, the notion of human rights is constructed on the myth that humans are equal in the state of nature. In contrast to Hobbes and Locke, Arendt doesn’t believe people are born equal:
“Equality, in contrast to all that is involved in mere existence, is not given us, but is the result of human organization insofar as it is guided by the principle of justice. We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights” (301). Only politics can produce equality.
Because human rights are supposed to apply to human beings equally, universally and indiscriminately, then in theory no human should be able to lose her rights. But humans lose their rights all the time or, in some case, are never granted them to begin with.
Since the idea of human rights depends on the equality of all persons and since humans are not equal except when there are laws and customs that establish that equality, the idea of inalienable human rights is fundamentally flawed.
If Arendt is correct in her analysis, should we give up on the idea of human rights? Is it a dead, useless concept? Or can it still be beneficial?
The Importance of Human Rights Amartya Sen would argue that the concept of human rights is still significant and carries important weight in politics.
As we saw before, according to Sen, claims to human rights are ethical claims–they help make it know that there is an injustice occurring or that people are suffering. Human rights become calls to act in a way that will increase the welfare of human beings and can act as a standard way of measuring the wellbeing of humans around the world.
Human rights might be a myth, but they are a myth that helps humans to communicate to one another about the things that matter in making their lives livable and even enjoyable and meaningful.
Determining Human Rights Whether human rights are inalienable or something constructed by humans as a means of helping them to flourish in the world, the question of how do we determine which rights are human rights still remains.
According to Sen, human right are demands to respect a particular freedom. Yet, “for a freedom to count as a part of the evaluative system of human rights, it must be important enough to justify requiring that others be ready to…advance it” (1001).
For a freedom to be considered a right, it must meet two criteria:
1. Be important 2. Be interpersonal and interactive
Consider the four freedoms that Sen lists on pg. 1002. Which of these does he think meet the criteria for being a human right? Why?
The types of freedoms protected by human rights include process and opportunity freedoms. These refer to the ability of persons to choose to act or not act in particular circumstance as opposed to being forced.
Finally, for a freedom to be considered an acceptable right, it needs to be scrutinized by the global community in a forum of “unobstructed discussion.” By unobstructed discussion Sen means a place where no one is being forced to say something against their will, but is speaking openly without fear of retaliation. Such public reasoning can help lead to ethical objectivity.
Conclusions To wrap up, there are debates about whether or not human rights are born from human nature or whether humans have constructed human rights as just another myth for making sense of and ordering the world.
As Arendt shows, the concept of humans rights has flaws and paradoxes that reveal weaknesses in the argument that human rights are inalienable. For Arendt, the only way this could be the case is if some divine being endowed us with rights.
But for Sen, even if human rights aren’t inalienable, they are useful for holding humans around the world to certain ethical standards that will guarantee the well being of flourishing of humans everywhere.
Based on Arendt’s analysis of human rights, do you think human rights are sufficient for protecting vulnerable populations including refugees illegal immigrants, and people forced into exile? What are some of Arendt’s reasons? Use a current event to explain your analysis.
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