Of Rights, Wrongs and Other Myths

My hazarded guess is probably not far wrong in that terrorism is the latest conversational topic around the dinner party tables and will plausably remain so for a long time. As Samuel Johnson once said “ death is a subject that concentrates the mind wonderfully…? and close proximity to Jack the ripper always makes one a little less composed than normal and a reassuring conversation is a tried and tested outlet. What is the probem with terrorism? It violates a human right. The human right to life. However, as diffused a subject as this may be, I personally don’t see how ‘rights’ seem to occupy a preordained space in the sphere of human understanding.

To prove that it indeed is a mental fixation requires as little as a google search. I am about to propose the fundamentally absurd. There is no such thing as a human right. The basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, often held to include the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law define the broad framework of human rights. Strangely enough this definition ignores the most imprtant aspect of what human rights mean to a n individual. What does a human ‘right’ imply? A right that Homo Sapiens posses over and obove other species- In that case a human right is a social construct we have granted our selves for convenience- yet another reflection of our profoundly anthropocentric thought process.

A human right is also the gaurentee of access and practise conforming to a uniform standard. Equality and freedom are two such standards. Yet, these are the two most violated notions in human history; perhaps suggesting that these really are not rights. They are abstract ideas converted to ideals; both equally difficult to comprehend and far more difficult to implement. Equality is myth. Equality suggests a uniform standard for all people no matter how different and for some reason finds its justifictaion in freedom- completely antithetical even in abstraction. In fact, the only ‘notion’ that exists is that of fundamental freedoms.

Freedom could mean many things. Freedom could imply doing what you please, it might mean being granted freedom to take your own decisions. All these interpretations are delicately tied to notions of coercion. Here again, the notion of a ‘right’ rings untrue. There is no single right to freedom. Perhaps there are fundamental freedoms. The liberty to decide for yourself is one such. You are free as long as you don’t impinge on someone else’s liberty.

There is a more important problem with the idea of ‘human rights’. The idea that you posses a right implies that you are entitled to something. A far reaching consequence of that idea is that it slowly, subconciously and steadfastedly works at taking away the idea that goods (social goods—like social respect for example) are also to be earned. If one believes that one is entiltled to a certain standard of living for example, a right to a ‘standard of living’ would (amongst other things) imply that because it is a right it does not need to be worked for. This is oft called lunging after a free lunch. Unfortunately, reality and free lunches have about as much in common as a seahorse and a bald eagle. The point I am getting at obviously is that- all social standards have to be worked towards.

My detractors undoubtedly will disagree. It is assumed that human rights are understood in the context of “there being somebody who is violating human rights” is a popular argument. However, if there is no such thing as a human right, then where does the question of violation arise from? The history of the evolution of the idea of ‘human rights’ and its meaning has changed. Its consequences are far wider than just that of violation. Indeed, human rights are also affirmative. The notion of a ‘human right’ also fails if applied to voluntary violence. Casteism for example has been a much accepted practice—evolved from modes of work, which then became entrenched in the Indian psyche. If t is voluntary how is it a violation? Could self-depreciation also be a human right?

Understanding forms of violence in the context of coercion as apposed to human rights has many virtues. For starters it frees the argument from its moral underpinnings. This is not to suggest that morality is a poor standard. I am merely suggesting that in this case it is a deficient parameter because it does not allow for concrete judgements or solutions. Secondly, a correlation with coercion allows for enforceability; just like property rights for instance. Once enforced- incentives work strongly in the favour of the protected.

Perhaps what needs to be recognised, is the fundamental failing of morality and ethics as a working process in society. It is only then that any change can be internalised and manifest.