Monday, May 30, 2011

Are There Natural Human Rights?

In a post on the Opinionator blog yesterday, philosophy professor Michael Boylan asks, Are There Natural Human Rights? He rightfully claims that this question is more than academic, as much international policy is built upon the the position that there are universal, natural human rights:
International policy would cease to be able to advocate universally for certain fundamental rights—such as those set out in the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights or the United States’ Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence or Liu Xiaobo’s "Charter08." And of course, the idea that NATO, France, the United States or any other country should intervene in Libya would have never arisen. Instead, each nation would be free to treat its citizens as it chooses, subject only to the rule of power.  Hitler would not have been wrong in carrying out the Holocaust, but only weak because he lost the war. The logical result of such a position is a radical moral relativism vis-à-vis various cultural anthropologies.
Boylan reviews the history of conflicting responses to this question. Some people argue that the entire notation of natural human rights was created during the European Enlightenment, that what we consider natural human rights are merely social constructs. Others counter by arguing (1) that thinkers before the Enlightenment did discuss human rights even if they didn't use the terms we use today or (2) that there is a logical basis for proving the existence of natural human rights—a basis that transcends the history of writings about rights. Boylan goes on to offer a scholarly examination of these positions that draws on philosophy and history.

At the end of his post, Boylan suggests that our position on this question colors how we understand world events—such as the Arab Spring uprisings. He offers a thought experiment for his readers to help them determine their position on the question:
I have a thought experiment that might help the reader decide what he or she thinks is the correct position: imagine living in a society in which the majority hurts some minority group (here called “the other”). The reason for this oppression is that “the other” are thought to be bothersome and irritating or that they can be used for social profit. Are you fine with that?  Now imagine that you are the bothersome irritant and the society wants to squash you for speaking your mind in trying to improve the community. Are you fine with that? These are really the same case. Write down your reasons. If your reasons are situational and rooted in a particular cultural context (such as adhering to socially accepted conventions, like female foot binding or denying women the right to drive), then you may cast your vote with Hart, Austin and Confucius. In this case there are no natural human rights. If your reasons refer to higher principles (such as the Golden Rule), then you cast your vote with the universalists: natural human rights exist.  This is an important exercise. Perform this exercise with everyone you are close to—today—and tell me what you think.

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