The Anti-Concept of Human Rights

The run up to the Olympics in China, including the travails of the Olympic torch relay and the protests in a number of countries, has resulted in repeated criticism of China’s human rights record. The charges are leveled most often at China’s treatment of Tibet, and to a lesser extent, its treatment of its own people.

The majority of complaints in these cases center on the denial of basic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to practice religion—basic individual rights that we in America hold dear.

Based on its use in common language and the media, it seems that most Americans equate human rights with the traditional ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; we equate the concept “human rights” with “individual rights,” and thereby tend to judge abuses of both with the same esteem. But is this accurate? Is this what human rights activists are truly advocating?

As espoused by the supporters of the human rights movement, the concept of human rights is a Frankenstein’s monster of contradictory ideologies, and at least in America, it uses our sense of life – our implicit beliefs in the primacy and rightness of individual rights – as a means to sneak in collectivist ideas. As such, the term “human rights” has lost any valid meaning in the realm of ideas. It has become an anti-concept that only clouds the issue, doing harm to a proper defense of individual rights.

What are Individual Rights?
For a fully consistent and proper formulation of individual rights, and their role as a moral “concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context”, I refer to Ayn Rand’s writings on the topic. For the purposes of the examination of the differences between individual and human rights, it will be useful to examine the following quotation:
Since Man has inalienable individual rights, this means that the same rights are held, individually, by every man, by all men, at all times. Therefore, the rights of one man cannot and must not violate the rights of another.

For instance: a man has the right to live, but he has no right to take the life of another. He has the right to be free, but no right to enslave another. He has the right to choose his own happiness, but no right to decide that his happiness lies in the misery (or murder or robbery or enslavement) of another. The very right upon which he acts defines the same right of another man, and serves as a guide to tell him what he may or may not do. [bold added]
(from ARL, 9th quotation on the page)
The political expression of these rights, based on the above quotation, is a purely capitalist system where the government’s only role is to protect the rights of the individual, leaving each person free to pursue their own self-interested goals and values.

What are Human Rights?
In the same vein as above, let’s look at how the advocates for human rights describe it. From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, we find the Human Rights entry, authored by Andrew Fagan of the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex.
Human rights have been defined as 'basic moral guarantees that people in all countries and cultures allegedly have simply because they are people…. The moral doctrine of human rights aims at identifying the fundamental prerequisites for each human being leading a minimally good life. Human rights aim to identify both the necessary negative and positive prerequisites for leading a minimally good life, such as rights against torture and rights to health care. This aspiration has been enshrined in various declarations and legal conventions issued during the past fifty years, initiated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and perpetuated by, most importantly, the European Convention on Human Rights (1954) and the International Covenant on Civil and Economic Rights (1966). [bold and emphasis added]
Note some fundamental differences between the two concepts as presented by their respective advocates. Ayn Rand says, to put it in similar terms as Fagan’s statement above, that the positive right of an individual is the “freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice,” and the fundamental negative right is that others “abstain from violating his rights.” (ARL, 1st quotation)

Contrast that with Fagan’s view that the fundamental nature of human rights aims to ensure that each person has the necessary prerequisites (i.e. rights?) for “leading a minimally good life.” One such positive right is a right to health care, and a negative right is a right against torture.

This shows the fundamental difference between the two ideas of “rights.” To quote Ayn Rand again:
There is no such thing as “a right to a job”—there is only the right of free trade, that is: a man’s right to take a job if another man chooses to hire him. There is no “right to a home,” only the right of free trade: the right to build a home or to buy it. There are no “rights to a ‘fair’ wage or a ‘fair’ price” if no one chooses to pay it, to hire a man or to buy his product. There are no “rights of consumers” to milk, shoes, movies or champagne if no producers choose to manufacture such items (there is only the right to manufacture them oneself).

If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.

Any alleged “right” of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.
(ARL, quotes 12 and 13)
By saying that an example of the implementation of the concept of human rights is a “positive right to health care”, this exposes the fact that it contradicts the notion of individual rights. By enforcing a “human right to health care” or any other aspect of a “minimally good life” that requires the redistribution of property, the fundamental rights of the individual are violated.

But surely the real-world implementation of the human rights doctrine wouldn't go this far, would it? Let’s look at the political expression of these ideas. A perfect example (referred to in the above Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry) is the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human rights.

The first 21 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are a rather haphazard collection of seemingly random ideas, though in the context that it is intended to cross national boundaries, I suppose things like “everyone has a right to a nationality” have some basis in historical fact. (refugees?) Most of the first 21 articles are not openly contradictory to individual rights and some even support them, though Article 17.2 sounds good but for an insidious “extra” word in there: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”

However, beginning at Article 22, the true nature of the differences between it and the proper concept of individual rights comes to light (forgive the long quotation, but reading the Articles in full is truly eye-opening).

From Wikipedia:
  • Article 22.
    Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality. [personality? what? --ed.]
  • Article 23.
    (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
    (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
    (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
    (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
  • Article 24.
    Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
  • Article 25.
    (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
    (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
  • Article 26.
    (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
    (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
    (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
  • Article 27.
    (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
    (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
  • Article 28.
    Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
  • Article 29.
    (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
    (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
    (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
    [all emphasis added]
I ask, in all of this, "paid for by whom?" The answer of course is in Article 29.1: "Everyone has duties to the community..." We already know that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property,” so the goal of government, adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is presumably to make sure that depriving people of their property for use by others is not arbitrary.

This, in essence, is pure socialism. Article 3 states “Everyone has the right to live, have liberty, and security of person.” However, many of the rest of the Articles directly contradict this basic notion of individual rights. To quote Ayn Rand again, “If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.”

So what does this mean to us, when we hear the media or various organizations and governments touting human rights advances or decrying human rights violations? What it means is that we cannot passively accept these assertions, giving them the credit of supporting true individual rights. The term “human rights” cannot be assumed to connote the good. It may in certain instances, but that is not its core intent.

For all the instances where the human rights movement fights for free speech in a Middle Eastern dictatorship, there are an equal number of attacks on property rights of businessmen. The heart of the human rights movement actively works against individual rights. Their standard position is advocacy of socialist/collectivist ideas intent on enslaving the productive individual for the good of the collective – the political expression of the altruist ethic. And yet in America, both individual and human rights are used as synonyms. In refusing to identify the differences, the American people give more credence to the anti-individual rights ideas inherent in the human rights movement, and the contradictions only serve to foster the altruist/collectivist concept of human rights. As Ayn Rand wrote in Galt’s speech, “In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”

Does this mean that we should abandon the use of the concept when what we really mean is individual rights? I’m interested in hearing feedback on this idea. Taken out of the context presented above, the term “human rights” should not be objectionable. Human rights, man's rights, individual rights... in the proper use of the term, the "individual" would simply be implied in the definition: "An individual human's rights." But that is not how it is used, and it seems lost to the collectivists now. Is it worth trying to “win it back”, as Ayn Rand did with the word “selfishness”?

Regardless, it is clear that when we hear someone speak of human rights abuses or a country’s human rights record, we need to dig deeper. There may be (and likely are) violations of true individual rights involved, but we must sort the wheat from the chaff, and be sure to identify when the “human rights” being advocated are an attempt to actively infringe on individual rights.


Monica said...


You already did a good job of pointing out the contradictions, but there a couple I have to point out in addition.... "Elementary education shall be compulsory." vs. "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."

HUH? What if they choose none? Or a madrassah? Urgh.

And then there's that part at the end about not being able to exercise these rights in contradiction to the purpose of the United Nations. So then if the UN changes its purpose, the whole document becomes null and void in various areas, no?

Anyway. Regarding the concept corruption and concept sloppiness -- I'm glad you addressed it because I'm going to do this myself with a bunch of environementalist concepts at some point in the future.

I do think it's important to take back the proper meaning of concepts, but I think it's even more important in the meantime to simply clarify in conversations with others what is meant by a particular term or concept. In thinking about conversations with others in the past this is where most of the disagreements have come. If we could just agree on a definition, it would make it all so much easier. And I've often been surprised at how receptive to reason people are once that is done. :) Of course, there are some that refuse because their goal is intellectual obfuscation. But they are not our concern.

C. August said...

Thanks Monica. The openly contradictory nature of the Universal Declaration is truly astounding, isn't it? Thanks for calling out the education example. What a piece of work that is.

Everyone has a right to education, and it must be free, and kids HAVE TO go to the free elementary schools, and governments (taxpayers) must provide any kind of school that the parents want. The NYC and Minneapolis public madrassas are the real world example of this poppycock.

In doing more thinking on the idea of taking back the proper meaning of "human rights", I've decided that it's just not worth the effort right now, and in fact, speaking out against the problems with it provides us an opportunity. In every case where one can discuss "rights violations," stressing that it is inviolable individual rights that are at issue and not some fuzzy, "collective rights" idea embodied by the human rights movement will help to get the important ideas out there.

And I look forward to your analysis of "concept corruption and concept sloppiness" in environmentalism!

Stephen Bourque said...

Great post, C. August. It’s an important point you make about the ambiguity of terms that are thrown around and swallowed uncritically by the average person. Who would argue against human rights? And yet, when you see the particulars that are associated with these “human rights,” it becomes clear that the very opposite of individual rights is intended.

For that reason, I generally avoid using terms that have been highjacked in that manner. Monica makes a good point: we should restore the proper meaning of concepts where we can, but it is more important to be clear.

In writing and conversation, I never say “human rights,” but use “individual rights.” It’s quite true that “individual rights” is a redundancy - there are no other kinds of rights - but it helps to make my meaning clear. (In fact, I’ve experienced a rather bizarre demonstration of this. When I started my current job a couple of years ago, I was drawn into some conversations of a political/philosophical nature with a coworker, who turns out to hold as a philosophy the most execrable, European-style subjectivism of anyone I have ever known. After some number of conversations, he actually asked me to stop bringing up the term “individual rights” in my arguments! This was the end of my conversations with him, of course, but my point is that the concept was unambiguous even to him. I doubt that a term as sloppy as “human rights” would have bothered him.)

For the same reason - namely, to be clear - I rarely refer to today’s lefti-leaning intellectuals simply as “liberals.” I call them “modern liberals” to distinguish them from the classical liberals of two centuries ago. Similarly, I rarely use “selfishness” by itself because of it is automatically off-putting to most people; I say “rational self-interest.”

C. August said...

Someone actually asked you to stop saying "individual rights" in conversation? You were threatening his carefully constructed worldview based on wishing and evasion, weren't you? That's not very nice. I'm sure he worked very hard trying to not really think about things.

On a "crazy things people say in arguments" tangent, I remember having a heated conversation about religion in college, and the girl got so flustered and upset by my atheism that she shot up out of her seat and said loudly, "Well... may God just strike you down!" I smiled, leaned back and with outstretched arms, said, "OK, God. I'm ready!" She stormed out in a huff. Ahh.... the good old days.

Back to the serious stuff, I agree with you about "selfishness." I rarely use it for the very reason you state. And I thought your point about your co-worker -- that the term "individual rights" was clear even to him -- was really interesting. He probably would have been comfortable with the mixed bag of contradictory ideas represented by "human rights" because he could imagine it meant whatever he felt like.