Are human rights anything more than legal conventions? asks John Tasioulas, Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London.
Isn’t the answer “obviously not”? Human rights are collective agreements, statements about what sort of society we want to live in, and of how we want people to be treated. As such, their justification and standing derives from the advocacy of people. Anything more than that is mere rhetoric, “nonsense on stilts”, as Jeremy Bentham explained long ago.
But, as with morals, people get unhappy about the idea that their feelings on the matter are all there is. People would really like human rights to be laws of nature, objective obligations that we ought to follow regardless. Wouldn’t that put them on a sounder footing?
Well maybe it would, but that’s no reason to suppose that they do have such objective footing. As Tasioulas explains: “Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths”. That’s because it cannot be done, because they are not objective truths.
So why does Tasioulas think that there must be some route, some argument that we don’t yet have, for them to be objective? It’s because he wants them to be, because he thinks we need them to be:
I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place.
Such arguments remind me of the Argument from Hitler for the existence of God. It runs like this: If God does not exist then Hitler is not currently being punished for his deeds. I want Hitler to be punished. Therefore God exists. I’ve seen this argument proposed seriously (though, admittedly, only by the — shall we say? — less thoughtful Christians).
The fact that human rights (or moral codes more generally) might be on firmer foundations if they were objective properties of nature is not any sort of argument that they actually are. Nature is under no obligation to conform to our wishes, nor to comply with what is convenient or good for us.
Tasioulas hopes for a justification along the lines of an “appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species” and also “the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship”. But something can only have “value” in the eyes of someone doing the valuing. Value is necessarily subjective.
Yes, Tasioulas’s reasoning explains why humans declare human rights. We value other people, and friendship, and we want to ascribe to each other “equal moral status”.
Is there anything wrong with that, anything inadequate?
In the Middle Ages people supposed that legitimate government and political authority could only derive from God, through the conduit, by Divine Right, of a King. But we’ve long rejected that idea. Everyone now accepts that legitimate government derives from “we the people”, a bottom-up conception of political power resting on the democratic consent of the governed, and residing in everyone’s feelings about what sort of society they want to live in.
This process is of course imperfect and fraught with contention (I am aware of who Americans have currently elected as President), but we don’t, these days, hanker after a God with a big stick to come and tell us that we’re doing it wrong and to dictate commandments for the running of society. Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.
Human rights have the same foundation: the advocacy of our fellow humans. It’s no good hankering after any status more objective than that; wishing it so won’t make it so.