Over at The Stone, Michael Boylan has a lengthy survey of some of the arguments for and against the idea of universal human rights. After setting out some of the better-known positions put forward by philosophers across the centuries, Boylan returns to the contemporary international turmoil with which he began in an attempt to bring home the importance of answering the question of whether or not there are natural human rights:
The way we think about the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa is also conditioned by the way we understand human rights. If natural human rights exist, then the autocrats in charge that suppress them are wrong and they should either create a constitutional monarchy or a democratic republic. If natural human rights do not exist, then the whole process is one of political negotiation that on the one hand involves peaceful protests and on the other involves bloody civil war. Our entire understanding of these events requires us to take sides. But how can we do this?
Boylan’s answer to this question is, to my mind, much weaker than it needs to be. Indeed, he ultimately concludes that we ought to simply ask whether or not a) we would find it acceptable for some group to suffer ill-treament and then b) we would find it acceptable to suffer ill-treatment ourselves if we were members of that group:
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.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with playing the game that Boylan wants us to play. But I don’t think it provides an answer to the question at the heart of Boylan’s piece, namely whether or not there exist natural human rights. It only tells us something we already know: that each of us believes we have rights (though not whether they’re natural) and not whether they extend to others. Indeed, as Richard Rorty argues, it doesn’t really take into account that fact that most abusers of human rights don’t consider their victims to be like them in the most decisive respect at all.
But, of course, I think we can do better than to scratch our heads when we arrive at the question of whether or not there are natural human rights. Indeed, one of the central chapters of my book is devoted to an argument for an objective grounding for the idea of human rights that applies universally. That is, a grounding for rights based in our common nature as human beings and not simply based on what I think about myself.
And that grounding, as I’ve also written about here and here, is human dignity:
[D]ignity is a function of our self-consciousness, our ability to talk and think about ourselves. As noted in the previous chapter, the Greek δόξα, from which dignity is derived, is defined as “the opinion which others have of one, estimation, repute.” While this ancient concept was thought to rely on the way we were perceived by others, I want to argue that of far greater importance is the opinion we have of ourselves and, in particular, the stories we tell about ourselves. My dignity is bound up with my answer to the most fundamental identity question, “Who am I? [which] will normally address what is most salient in one’s sense of self.” This narrative identity, DeGrazia notes, “involves our self-conceptions, our sense of what is most important to who we are.”Bound up with my narrative identity is the sense that I can make something of myself; this ability to posit a future that I have a hand in shaping can be traced back at least as far as Nietzsche and has been updated by contemporary theorists like Ronald Dworkin – discussed in the previous chapter – and Richard Rorty, the subject of the next chapter. DeGrazia puts this especially cogently: “Much of what matters (to most of us, anyway) is our continuing existence as persons—beings with the capacity for complex forms of consciousness—with unfolding self-narratives and, if possible, success in self-creation.”
At bottom, then, I want to argue that personhood and dignity are bound up together, that one cannot be a human person without the ability — derived from organized cortical brain activity — to feel as though there is a “I” in the center of one’s brain, pulling levers and adjusting dials (even though we know that, in fact, this is simply an evolutionary strategy developed by our genes to make ours brains better, more clever ones). This “I” amounts to a feeling of selfhood that, finally, accounts for our having dignity and being persons. As I conclude in my book, “It is, in my estimation, the feature that separates human persons from human animals and, so far as we know, from all other animals.”
While I have no doubt that some people will want to suggest problems with this argument — and I look forward to hearing them! — I think it’s a much stronger position than the one put forward above by Boylan, namely that we might ask ourselves whether or not we like the rights we feel we have and then suggest that we probably ought to extend them to others, as they might also like them.
Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 444.