The Dark Side of Human Rights: Part 2
(This makes much better sense if you first read Part 1.)
First I would like a moment to thank everyone for bearing with me over the past few months. I know posts have been erratic – I’ve graduated college, moved about four times, started a new job, and sat through my first hurricane – and I still have a few moves to go, but I will try my best to get things back on track. To that end, Part 2 has finally arrived.
I have said that moral and legal systems can be conflated, and that this causes problems – that in fact, sometimes “human rights” is not only part of the problem, but at its very root. It is high time I explained myself.
What are the differences between morality and legality that allow each to be abused when we forget to distinguish between them? Here are a few of the main factors I see:
First, legal systems deal with institutions, not individuals. Institutions are artificial, and in a sense arbitrary. They are made by humans, and they can be changed by humans. Because of this, they can’t have inherent moral duties. Institutions, governments, are not large charities; they are ways of organizing society. And since society is finite, legal systems have limited resources. They are designed to cover the minimums, not to solve all our problems. Society is not an individual; it has no obligation above that, and it cannot get a special ‘word from god’ that mandates that it act in any particular case.
Second, by the same token, legal systems deal with contracts, not virtue. They are concerned with making sure you’ve checked the right boxes before you get what you want. They are not trying to make you into a better person or tell you what to think; they only tell you what the rules are. When I sign a contract, I am concerned with what I want and how I’m going to get it, not with the other person’s well-being; it is a simple business transaction. Anything more than that comes from my responsibility as a human, not as a signatory.
The idea of rights, when used as a system of morality, allows us to separate the vague concept of the right we’re supporting from the individuals for whose sake we’re supposed to be supporting that right. We can shout encouragement and advice, carry signs, and passionately believe in a cause, without ever having to take any specific action to help anyone. I can cheer for a woman’s right to choose without caring whether she’s choosing to live with trauma and depression, because it’s the right that’s important, not the person. Morality becomes a code instead of a way of life.
Similarly, because my legislation is now moralistic, I can demand ever-expanding protection for whatever rights I think I have; there is no saying ‘enough’. A man’s right, it seems, is to do what he likes, unless it hurts someone else, but this before long becomes untenable, because everything anyone does is going to affect someone else in one way or another. You have the right to put your seat back; I have the right to leg room. You have the right to music; I have the right to silence. You have the right to smoke; I have the right to clean air. The math doesn’t work; there has to be some way of judging between those rights. (I’ve discussed this before.)
How is this done? At the moment, whichever side best phrases his demand as a moral right, wins. Once I have gained support for my concept of rights, I can delegitimize the other side for wanting to destroy human rights. And because human rights are something the government is designed to uphold, I can then use political power to override my opponents. Now, of course this only works if I have power in the first place, but the point is that I can use that power to get what I want and silence my opponents, all the while patting myself on the back and painting myself as a champion of human dignity and worth.
While legal rights are an important part of our society and ought to be protected, then, I would suggest that we stop thinking about them as moral mandates. Morality isn’t about my rights; it’s about my responsibilities. If we put things the other way around, I end up thinking about what I want instead of what I should be doing.
Take, for instance, the right to choice, which is not actually about choice at all. It is about whether or not an abortion involves killing an innocent child. If we all agreed on this fact, we could make a decision about whether this falls into the category of “choice” or whether it is murder and ought to be prohibited. Alternatively, we could think about the value and dignity of human life and decide that, just in case, we should probably avoid anything that might involve killing a massive number of children. Either way, the question at stake is human life, not choice.
But if abortion’s case rested at that, all would be lost, so instead we introduce the “right to choice,” taking the noble sentiment that goes with a moral concept and the open-endedness of a legal right. We separate the right from the people; we don’t care that there might be children involved, and we don’t care about the trauma the would-be mother will suffer. We become champions of an abstract right, ignoring the fact that the moral concept of freedom is limited in all sorts of cases when it comes to protecting human life. Once the virtue is separated from the individual, anything can be argued for under the banner of rights; it becomes just another means to get what I want.