The guest-post below by Enza Ferreri is a follow-up to last week’s discussion about the conflicting definitions of “human rights”.
Should Human Rights Be Rejected?
by Enza Ferreri
In Europe in particular, “human rights” have become dirty words.
For that we have to thank supranational bodies like the European Court of Human Rights, that have given this concept a bad name through a never-ending proliferation of entitlements that often have very little to do with the concept’s original and true meaning.
Parts of the European counterjihad have also started systematically attacking the idea of human rights. And there were some who did not sign the Brussels Declaration at the conference of July 2012 because they had problems with its human rights strategy.
The phenomenon of so-called “judicial imperialism”, by which unelected judges through their verdicts supersede laws passed by elected representatives of the people, has long been recognized by many brilliant writers, from the British journalist Melanie Phillips to the Italian philosopher Marcello Pera, former President of the Italian Senate — the second highest office in the country — author of the book Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, and incidentally the professor with whom I prepared my undergraduate thesis, who wrote:
It was not a law of the United States Congress that first liberalized abortion in America, but a ruling of the Supreme Court. The Italian parliament has never authorized euthanasia, but court rulings have. No public debate preceded a court decision in the Netherlands that euthanasia may be performed on twelve-year-old children. Not by parliamentary law was same-sex marriage first granted equal status to marriage between a man and a woman in some countries. Not by parliamentary vote has eugenics become a right. No parliamentary decisions allow for polygamy to be freely practiced, as often occurs, or for the recognition of transgender rights. Nor is it the will of the people that distinctions be made between terrorists and ‘resistance fighters’ who plot to carry out massacres, or that migrants be allowed to remain in a country they have entered illegally.
However, these authors do not think, and I agree with them, that we should throw away the human rights baby with the bathwater of its distortions.
To bring clarity to this discussion, we need to look at the philosophical basis and origin of “rights”. People sometimes scoff at philosophy, but they probably don’t realize that practically all major views that are held today, mainstream or not, have at one point been formulated by philosophers.
Without delving too much into a historical analysis, the contemporary idea of human rights derives from the concepts of rights, natural rights and God-given rights in ethics, established by the 16th- and 17th-century thinkers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and other philosophers, continuing a Christian tradition.
In politics, classical liberalism is the doctrine that has at its centre the theory of the fundamental rights of human beings, namely that all humans are naturally free and equal, and their basic freedoms exist before, are independent from, and incoercible by the state.
Human rights are individual rights, not group rights. Liberalism does not recognize the right of cultures to exist or to be protected, which is one of the dogmas of multiculturalism in open contradiction with the theory of human rights, showing once again how the latter has been distorted beyond recognition — even transformed into its opposite — by its current usage and applications. Cultures that violate individual rights should not be protected at all.
The criticism levelled against human rights, that they conflict with each other so someone, usually a judge, has to decide on their relative weights, describes a situation that is common to all legal or ethical principles, so is not a good reason to reject human rights. Even a summary knowledge of the law will show you that laws constantly contradict other laws, so a balancing act is always required.
The problem, highlighted by “anti-humanrightists”, of the infinite, ever-expanding number of new “rights”, often used to help Muslims in the West, illegal immigrants and jihadists, is real, but the target here is this proliferation, not human rights.
Bear with me while I bring in philosophy again. In logic, a concept has two dimensions: meaning and sense. The former is the class of objects to which the concept refers, the latter the information it conveys. There is an inverse proportion between the two: the larger the meaning the narrower the sense and vice versa. If you ask me what happened today and I answer “everything”, this reply’s descriptive power is almost nil because its meaning is so all-comprising.
The extension of the meaning of “right” has decreased its sense, to the point that today it just describes nothing more than a desire for something. In these times of public spending cuts I found even a “right to our library”.
In fact, many of the current “human rights” policies are violating real rights. The distinction between negative and positive rights is also crucial.
But I think that we cannot do without the principle of rights.
You can see why we need the concept of human rights when you think of free speech. Presumably all counterjihadists support free speech, but what does that mean if not the “right to” free speech? It’s impossible even to formulate the idea without a reference to rights or some very similar principle.
Anti-jihad people (in the comments section of the linked post) who say they only believe in democracy, narrowly defined as majority rule, and nationalism will find it impossible to derive the case for free speech from those two beliefs alone: if a nation’s majority decided to abolish free speech, they would have nothing to oppose this undesirable result.
It is no coincidence that we need the concept of rights, and it’s not just for semantic or political reasons. It goes deeper than that, to the foundations of our beliefs. It may be true that there have been great political movements without an ethical basis theoretically formulated, but I think that, in the same way as we need ethical guidance in our personal lives, so we do in our political actions.
Throughout this debate on human rights, I have encountered many references to “gut instincts” and similar, as bases for making political decisions. I believe that it’s dangerous to leave everything to that, for a simple motive. As individuals, we all have “instincts”, feelings, emotions which are entirely subjective and not shared by anyone else. What we have in common is reason, which is universal.
Once we do away with a rational ethical foundation, which the rights’ view provides, we can no longer be sure of what other people in the same movement really want, what are their motives behind what superficially may appear the same aspirations: different people may be for democracy for all the wrong reasons, for example, as the Muslim Brotherhood clearly shows.
There are other ethical theories, but the only real rival of the rights’ view is utilitarianism which, as I explained here, would be a worse substitute.
In conclusion, human rights should not be discarded but, far from it, returned to their original meaning. Their present use, deriving from a quasi-socialist interpretation of them, is in conflict with the liberal doctrines and the spirit from which they originated.
Enza Ferreri is an Italian-born Philosophy graduate and writer living in London. She blogs at http://www.enzaferreri.blogspot.co.uk/