Human rights as idolatry

We need to stop thinking about human rights as trumps and begin thinking of them as a language that creates the basis for deliberation.

I’ve been reading Michael Ignatieff’s 2001 lectures, Human Rights As Politics and Idolatry. Ignatieff is a true human rights pragmatist. To him, rights are neither inviolable nor intrinsic. Inviolability is impossible, since rights so often contradict even themselves. Intrinsic? This requires us to root rights in religious faith (which is exclusionary or imperial). Among humanists, it is simple idolatry.

This seems like an odd thing for a captain of human rights to argue. But Ignatieff argues that rights need not be inviolable or intrinsic to be universal. Rights exist to protect individuals from tyranny. They are universal because they are useful to all.

This brings him to my favorite argument:

In order to reconcile democracy and human rights, Western policy will have to put more emphasis not on democracy alone but on constitutionalism, the entrenchment of a balance of powers, judicial review of executive decisions, and enforceable minority rights guarantees. Democracy without constitutionalism is simply ethnic majority tyranny.

I’m sympathetic to Ignatieff. Certainly I think human rights serve an instrumental and universal purpose, and that purpose is sufficient to enact and protect them. But is there no deeper basis for human rights than simple pragmatism?

The critics, who write responses at the end of the book, are not so critical. Where are the philosophers who argue the intrinsic basis for rights? Reader suggestions welcome.

11 thoughts on “Human rights as idolatry

  1. Chris,
    Jambo from Nairobi! I’ve been profoundly influenced by Through the Moral Maze, a 1994 book by Robert Kane, who taught me philosophy as an undergraduate. The book brings together his thinking and teaching in ethics. (He’s known in the philosophy world more as a key thinker on issues of free will.) Although he doesn’t put it quite this way, boiled down to the basics, I would put his argument this way: if you recognize that other individuals are fundamentally like yourself in their humanity, and what you would like to see is a world in which human beings like yourself are accorded basic respect (let’s say human rights), then the way to create that world is to accord that basic respect to others. He’s comes at this in many ways, including by saying that is a matter of treating people as ends rather than means (a Kantian notion), and pointing out that the ethical principle you get to is found in some form in every major world religion, e.g. do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so could be said to represent something of a worldwide consensus on the big picture if not all the details.

  2. “is there no deeper basis for human rights than simple pragmatism?”

    yes – pragmatism has a purpose, and our purposes may have deep bases. If you like the pragmatic explanation of human rights, you can say that they are the instruments we chose to deal with the deepest aspects of humanity. You can call these intrinsic, if you like.

    I like the idea that societies should use the designation of a “human right” sparingly – granting something the status of a right should have meaningful practical consequences, and that means such designation must be made with a eye on pragmatism. If human rights worked the way I think they ought, they would an important expression not only of a society’s values, but also how far it is able to realize those values.

  3. What do you want from a basis? If you want to form a party and undertake particular actions on behalf of human rights, you probably need a basis. But if you take your plan out into the world and try to persuade people to take it up, and they don’t accept your basis, what do you do then? Pushing your plan anyway would be what Ignatieff calls “majority tyranny”.

    For example, I believe that children have a right to medical care, based on (humanist, I guess) morality. However, there’s an incident reported on TV where a father in Pakistan refused to have polio inoculations given to his children, based on theistic morality. If God wanted them to live (the translation said), they would live.

    Is there a basis (preferably only one) that the Humanistic Morality party can use to get its program accepted throughout the world?

  4. Chris, I strongly recommend you read Tom Campbell’s Rights – A Critical Introduction Routledge, 2006, 229pp. It carries out an overview of all major theories on rights, and human rights in particular. I found it easy to read, and comprehensive.

    Another book that might interest you is J. Griffin’s On Human Rights, which also is a great overview of the foundations of human rights theory. Both are available for limited preview in google books.

  5. The problem with a nonpragmatic basis for human rights is that if you reject the philosophy — Deism, for example — you lose access to the human rights. The only truly universal justification is a pragmatic one, by definition.

  6. Pingback: Thinking of Human Rights in a different way « The Yale Journal of Human Rights

  7. The search for a “deeper basis” of a normative discursive construct is the greatest folly of Philosophy. This isn’t just French post-structuralist mumbo-jumbo. Even the American neo-Kantians can only be pragmatists.
    We need to put to rest the quest for a “deeper basis” and focus on the kind of work that you do–recognize what you think is important (human rights as a discursive construct), move on, and start getting your hands dirty with empirical work.

  8. We need to stop focusing on what is good and what is bad, ratherfocus on what works. Learn from democratic movements in history that led to peacefull revolutions, for instance in Europe. But also more recently in for instance the philippines.

  9. As a religious studies student I very much stand behind the Ignatieff’s stance that spiritualizing human rights, or using religion to inform how to treat one another, is a slippery slope. If not evidenced enough by the havoc missionaries have traditionally brought to indigenous societies, then through the politicization of the world’s religious majorities (Chirstianity, Judaism, and Islam) it is clear that regardless of religious texts, human interpretations sparks violent conflicts.

    However, can the pragmatic approach of constitutional protection of rights offer an unbiased solution where governments are ineffective and religious majority controls the state? Likewise, will drafting a secular constitution even deter religiously informed human relations?

  10. I think Amartya Sen (On Ethics and Economics) discusses the distinction between the instrumental and constitutive role of “rights” (which Sen refers to as positive and negative freedoms). While human rights are important instrumental roles, they may also be constitutive of a person’s well-being.

    Perhaps legal expressions of human rights tend to be instrumental. But they may also represent certain underlying freedoms that are constitutive of a person’s well-being. It is those underlying freedoms, and not their expression in legal form, that have intrinsic value.

  11. It seems very dangerous to argue for “an intrinsic right.” There are multiple societies that argue that rights expressed by the vast majority are not universal. It seems that pragmatism is the only basis with which to try to universalize human rights. There are other problems, however, when societies become so insular or isolated that getting them to adhere to a new pragmatically derived set of universal rights becomes problematic. I am thinking of examples like the underage sex trade or female genital mutilation.