Know Your Rights

Another post about matters of phrasing and expression.

People sometimes say that someone has ‘the right to life’, and mean by this that you shouldn’t kill them (because it would violate that right), and similarly say that they have other such rights, whose import is that we should not to certain things to people.

For example, the 3rd article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (one of the few articles that relates more to ‘ethics’ than to ‘politics’) says that every human being has the ‘rights’ to life, liberty, and security of person, which as I understand it is principally to say that we should not murder, kidnap, imprison, assault, rape, or injure them.

Now, this is a little puzzling. When I take off someone’s hand, there’s not just them and me (and the weapon), there’s a third thing, their ‘right’? And they have several of these things? How many? If they have, in fact, 4, or perhaps 7, or 12, should we establish that number as an important number and regard it as an important fact about humans that they have that many?

A related worry is this: the practical content of these ‘rights’ seems to be an entirely negative thing – don’t murder and mutilate people with them. But the tone in which this is said makes it sound very positive: there’s something inspiring and thrilling in that sort of declaration. But if there is such an inspiring positive value in having those ‘rights’, what is it?

Actually, it doesn’t take too much thought to realise that what is being talked about here isn’t a plural noun called ‘rights’. What’s being said, it seems to me, is that persons are valuable, human beings are persons, and that the condemned acts – murder, assault, rape, imprisonment, injury, etc. – are violations of a person.

That is, when someone kills me, they don’t violate my right to life, they violate me. When they cut off my arm or lock me in a cage, they don’t violate a different right, they violate me in a different way. So there’s no such question as ‘how many rights do people have?’, just ‘how many ways of violating a person are there?’

This also removes the tension between positive and negative: the practical content, prohibiting certain acts, is negative, but the prohibitions flow from, and make reference to, a positive thing: personhood, that mysterious condition that differentiates us from tables and pieces of cheese.

Now, hopefully this is all intuitive and almost obvious.

But isn’t it odd to take a way of speaking that’s used for specific legal entitlements separate from their bearer, to talk about this quite different idea?

It might have made a bit of sense to take the legal notion of rights and use it to express things like ‘the right to a standard of living sufficient for health’ or ‘the right to education’, because these are really claims – things (I suppose, specifically, services) that this person can demand from (unspecified?) others, and which are themselves valuable separate from the rights-holder.

Whereas things like ‘the right to freedom of speech’ are more complicated – they are denying the applicability of certain sorts of exceptions to the prohibitions that follow from personhood. That is, while it’s affirmed that locking people in cages is a bad thing, because a violation of them ‘as people’, it’s then also said that this can be done in some cases, most notably by the state in enforcing the law. Then people are given ‘rights’ that serve to qualify the state’s right to violate people, such as the right to a fair trial, and the right to free speech. (After all, you need no right to free speech against me, because if I locked you up for expressing an opinion, I would simply be a kidnapper).

So these ‘rights’ are actually portions of the ‘remainder’ of the original ‘rights’ of life, liberty, and security of person – which in their turn are not really rights.

People sometimes try to distinguish things like ‘positive rights’ and ‘negative rights’ to clarify this, but it doesn’t seem like the right response to me. If a set of things aren’t the same type of thing, it’s not much good saying that they’re just two varieties of…the same type of thing.

In conclusion? The language of ‘rights’ tends to mystify matters somewhat, by expressing very different things in the same grammar. This probably doesn’t matter too much in practice but it’s a reason to not expect a useful account of ethics and political justice to talk much of ‘rights’.

One Response to “Know Your Rights”

  1. Know Your Rights « Directionless Bones – Romantic Robot Says:

    […] Know Your Rights « Directionless Bones. Permalink | RSS for this post | Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. […]


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