Rights bleg

bleg: (Internet slang) An entry in a blog requesting information or contributions. (from Wiktionary)

This entry was prompted by an interesting post on religion and human rights by Kate Cronin-Furman over at Wronging Rights. My question here has little to do with the contents of that particular post other than having been prompted by it in my impossibly tangential brain, but I think it’s a great post that you should all read regardless. Now on to my question:

I’m not sure I believe in human rights. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a monster, and I’m really more agnostic on them than a certain skeptic. I also happen to value very highly pretty much all the widely-believed human rights and most everything to which the title of a human right has been expanded. I’m not convinced that my personal normative valuation or preference is the same as actually believing in human rights (their existence and universality), or whether the rights framework is the most true or helpful one. The work I want to do overlaps a lot with rights practitioners and language — again with the valuation of those ends. I’ve also read quite a few things written by human rights activists, but mostly on the level of “we were trying to document or stop this atrocity” or otherwise using the language of rights towards an end which I support, but usually assuming from the beginning that the reader believed in human rights. It also seems that a lot of things that just seem good to many people, independent of a rights-based framework, are touted in that language because it is simply what is done. I also get the impression that there are a fair number of people working within the ‘human rights establishment’ who see the construct as more useful than true (or don’t distinguish between the two) but I have no way to verify that.

None of these hesitations are final, of course — this may simply be a shortcoming in my education that I need to rectify. I grew up very religious and went to a very conservative college that only employs professors who belong to a particular conservative evangelical denomination. I missed out on formal coursework or guided readings in secular philosophy or ethics, or at least any presentation of that material by people who actually believed it. Some of what I learned was heavily filtered through that strain of fundamentalist thought that looks at everything that is not itself and decries it as an un-moored, baseless fantasy. (Amongst others, blame Francis Schaeffer — one his books recounts the truly atrocious evangelistic technique of trying to convince a confused young person that there are only two intellectually honest ways to reconcile hopelessness resulting from the perceived failure of secular philosophy to find meaning; believe in God or commit suicide.)

There were certainly others who were more gentle in approach but the underlying thought was always there, that there can be no absolute statements — whether about morality or rights — without theistic belief. However, in college I took a skeptical turn and eventually came to disbelieve my theist roots altogether. My graduate work has been more technically-focused (which is what I wanted), for example considering how to achieve improvements in health rather than deep thinking about the foundational assumption that there is a right to health. Many of my peers who attended liberal arts schools or research universities have obviously focused on the study of human rights to a much greater extent, whereas my education bypassed it altogether. To some extent I want to believe in human rights because it seems to be the dominant framework and language and things would just be simpler if I did. But wanting to believe something because it’s helpful is not enough to me. It seems like it would be easier to believe in human rights if one did believe in a higher power, which may be one reason why liberal religious groups seem well-represented in human rights circles.

So finally, my bleg: what should I read? Is there a single primer on or defense of the foundations of human rights that you would recommend to a secular/skeptical person like me? This could be a book, an essay, a journal article —  whatever you think might be the most convincing case. I think this line of thinking deserves more than a simple read of a Wikipedia page; I’m hoping that you can distill the arguments that you’ve found most useful in thinking about rights into a few recommendations. Likewise, if you’re in the doubter camp or think there is a better secular alternative out there I’d be happy to hear counter-suggestions as well.


12 2011

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  1. David #

    I wish I had some good suggestion for what to read, but if you come across a good read, let me know. All the things I have read that use a rights-based approach argue very badly (IMO) or assume the premise of the rights before going on to argue for other things.

    I tend to think of even the term human rights as being unacceptably speciesist. For more on that view, I would recommend some books by Peter Singer, like The Expanding Circle or the collection Writings on an Ethical Life.

    But I would love to hear an informed advocate of human rights reconcile that approach with the reality of gradual evolution.

    • 2

      David — I think I’m broadly familiar with Singer’s approach (though now that I think of it I’ve only read essays by him and not any of his books, and I missed hearing him speak earlier this semester) and it seems to make sense intuitively to me though I won’t go deeper than that for now. I may post a round-up of sorts summarizing the recommendations and what I think of them after I get a chance to peruse a bit.

  2. Matthias Daues #

    This is a vexing issue, and the catholic answer that there must be an inherent moral essence in the fabric of reality to found bodies of law and ethics on is, in a way, charming but – I think – fundamentally wrong. It is a construct to circumvent the fact that there is no logical connection possible between the “what is” and the “what should be”. How to behave can never be directly deduced logically from experience. The question remains where to find a solid foundation for codices of cohabitation we all can subscribe to.

    It is also a serious issue, because without said codices cohabitation would be a bleak hell of pseudo-darwinian gamble without truce nor quarter. This is acerbated by the fragility of these foundations. The codified values are no more and no less than agreements on how to behave that are available and valid only as long as they are constantly renewed and agreed upon by the people wishing to have a part in their application to others and themselves.

    Some reading suggestions come to mind: Kant’s “critiques”, for instance. What I have found is that there are also some unusual suspects available, foremost of them Terry Pratchett.

    – “Hogfather” gives a good introduction into this issue of whereupon to ground morals and rights.
    – “Small Gods” gives a good introduction into the difference between dogmatic theocracy and individual belief – the difference between “Religion” and “Religiosity”.
    – “Night Watch” is a comprehensive primer on political theory and the open society.

    And to bolster the fun reading with a thorough theoretical and philosophical framework of the open society based on the idea of universal human rights go and get your copy of Karl R. Popper’s “The open society and its enemies”.

    This is what I’d recommend to read to get one started on the road to answer this question of where to find validation for the “idea of human rights” 🙂

    Cheers, and merry christmas,


    • 4

      Matthias — thanks for the thoughtful response. These all sound like good reads but maybe not quite what I’m looking for (either too far back and abstract, or possibly too novel-ish). I should have specified that I’m looking for things that are 1) concise, 2) stand alone, and 3) relative recent (though I’m more flexible on #3 if something classic is still the best choice.)

  3. 5

    Brett, this is something I spent a long time struggling with. Here’s where I am now: I know what I think, and what I value, and I personally believe that the human rights framework is “good” and useful and important. But philosophically, I remain skeptical. Philosophically, I think, there are no absolutes, everything is subjective. Things are only “right” and “wrong” within particular contexts. I think in real life, this is different– philosophical discussions are great and can help inform politics and policy and such, but I do think there’s a dividing line between what you can conclude in philosophy and what you can conclude in “real life,” whatever that is.

    In any case, you could read the 1947 Statement by the American Anthropological Association on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which they criticize it as “a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in countries of Western Europe and America” (I can’t seem to find it online though) and their more recent statement on it: http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/humanrts.htm

    I was once a passionate advocate of enforcing human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration, everywhere in the world, without question. I still believe it’s a really good framework, but I’m less zealous about enforcing it to the letter everywhere. I think different people have different sets of rules and there’s nothing wrong with that if everyone’s happy. A professor once tried to make the point that cultural relativity to an extreme is not an option either by saying “what about genocide?” Cultural relativity, superlatively, is not a position I would take, but I think this was a bad way to illustrate it. The way I see it, things like genocide are a *disruption* of culture, not a representation of it.

    It wasn’t until I started my MA in African Studies that I started questioning the foundations of the framework. I think scholars deal with these questions, not all of them take for granted the inherent value of a set of legal norms written by particular people in a particular historical context. Bias and subjectivity are inescapable; but I think if you can at least see that and be explicit about it, you can mitigate the effects it has.

    This looks like a great reading list: http://www.aaanet.org/committees/cfhr/syl_engelke.htm

    And I’ve written about this kind of stuff before (http://usalama.wordpress.com/2010/12/31/cultural-relativity/). I’m reading Geertz right now, and finding some of it pretty inspiring, and thinking I’m going to blog about him soon.

    One thing I do disagree with is the notion that there is no hierarchy within the framework (http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/gashc4021.doc.htm). The right to intellectual property is just as important as the right to life? I struggle with that. And what happens when rights conflict? When protecting one right means violating another? Why are there derogation clauses if all human rights are equally “important”?

    Anyway, I hope this has got the wheels turning a little. I think I have a good background for these kinds of conversations since I’m both IR and Area Studies, Political Science and Anthropology, general and specific. I’m both a universalist and a relativist. I’m a total contradiction, LOL.

  4. 6


    Fascinating post that reassures me somewhat that I’m not crazy for often entertaining the thought, “Human rights: true/valid, or simply useful?”

    For this reply, I could (rightly) be trounced by people who know more of secular philosophy and ethics than I do. But in the spirit of wanting to further the conversation, here are my two cents:

    I would recommend A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. It’s the primary place where, to my knowledge, he propounded his application of the “Veil of Ignorance” theory. I’ve found that idea to be foundational to my thinking since reading it. I think of it often when I’m having moral barometer moments. You asked for something that laid the foundation for contemporary human rights, and in my mind, Rawls fulfills that a bit better than someone like Peter Singer, because Rawls addresses the issue at the level of “This is WHY you should think in the following way” rather than simply telling you how to think.

    But, like I said, I’m not a student of philosophy or ethics. And I think someone would need to have a much broader knowledge base to respond well. But of the limited reading I’ve done on this topic, Rawls scratched what I take to be the equivalent intellectual itch in me.

    Hope this helps!

  5. 7

    Much as I hate to do this (but, really, how much could I possibly hate to do this?!), I’m going to recommend my own book, which is called In Defense of Human Rights: A Non-Religious Grounding in a Pluralistic World. I recommend it because I think it actually makes an attempt to tell the sort of story you’re looking for. In the end, I make an argument about human dignity as the groudning of human rights, which is based on a biological understanding of the way our brains work, as well as an argument about an overlapping international consensus on the specific human rights set out in the Universal Declaration, using John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas on deliberative democratic decision-making (with a fair amount of Richard Rorty thrown in for good measure too). I’ve written a bit about it on my blog in the past, for example http://kohenari.net/post/3703599584 and http://kohenari.net/post/4368949684 but these are just short pieces that look at specific critiques of the argument in my book.

  6. 8

    An interesting question and I don’t think I have an answer either. These days I’m quite an advocate but it is not, i don’t think, through naive acceptance of human rights “because you’re supposed to”.

    After graduating I worked for a year in two human rights organisations but I didn’t particularly theorise about what it meant to me. I then studied human rights, and subsequently ignored them as I began to work in development (public health). Over time I’ve thought hard about what they mean and figured that, as a set of overarching principles and as a statement of the inherent value of humans, I can live with them. But I don’t think I’ve come to this through any seminal text.

    Practically, since many governments have signed up to at least one or more international human rights conventions, I also find that as a quasi-legal tool they can be a useful tool for marginalised people trying to understand/interpret/describe their situation.

  7. 9

    I think the best book I can recommend is Jack Donnelly’s “Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice.” It is a very clear explanation of HR using the “universal declaration model” as a starting point. Donnelly isn’t a skeptic, but he definitely approaches the three “generations” of human rights carefully and without trying to convince you of one thing or another. Rather than trying to convince you human rights exist and are the way of the world, he is just introducing you to the ideas that are at the foundation of human rights.

    I would also recommend Peter Uvin’s book on Human Rights and Development, but I hated it. It was way too detailed for my needs, but someone focusing on development and specific legal issues might get more use out of it.

    I’ll try to dig out some more articles to round out the discussion, but they usually address specific issues such as relativity or universality of HR, or address specific generation rights.

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