7.3.2 Objections to human rights discourse, 1: It’s selfish

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Unit 7 Contents

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But aren’t there some real dangers and problems with ‘human rights’ language?  Shouldn’t Christians be suspicious of the very concept of human rights, because it gives people a ticket to selfishness – to insist on their own individual ‘rights’, regardless of the common good?  Aren’t we supposed to be concerned mainly to fulfil our responsibilities, to God and to neighbour, even if this involves giving up one’s ‘rights’?  Doesn’t the language of ‘rights’ lead to a shouting match in which everybody’s claims to have rights just clash with others?

We shall briefly consider four objections to ‘human rights’, on this and the following three pages.  But before we turn to them, here are two general points that are worth keeping in mind.

The first is a reminder of the historical context.  In the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church rejected talk of ‘the rights of man’ wholesale, on the basis of arguments that it was inherently flawed in the sorts of ways the first paragraph above suggests.  So the Church has already ‘been there and done that’.  Yet during the twentieth century, the Church moved beyond that rejection, to recognition that there is a way of affirming that people have human rights that is compatible with traditional Christian teaching.  So for Catholics to align themselves now with sweeping critiques of rights discourse would be for them take up the position again of 100 years before Pacem in Terris and the Second Vatican Council.

Secondly, while the Church has come to affirm that human rights language can be used well, and can be highly important, this does not mean for a moment that it always is used well.  On the contrary, any such terminology can be abused, and that of human rights often is – to make claims that are groundless, merely selfish or even fraudulent.

This means that the kind of response required to claims about rights is clarification and discernment, not blanket endorsement or rejection.

Let us now consider four specific objections to rights discourse.  Possibly the next few screens will seem a bit more dense and demanding, conceptually or philosophically, than the earlier parts of this unit.

Objection 1

Use of the language of human rights is inevitably selfish.

The response to this is straightforward.  While it is certainly true that people can be motivated in a narrowly selfish way when claiming to have particular human rights, to a large extent people use this terminology in arguing and campaigning for the rights of others, not their own.  This is most obviously the case of the big human rights campaigning organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and it is equally true of innumerable smaller bodies, for instance Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a UK group that focuses on the religious freedom of Christians.  The article you have just read by Mateo Garr refers to several other such examples.

Often work for human rights is selfless rather than selfish: people really do risk violation of their own rights out of commitment to those of others.  In response to any particular claim about human rights, then, the task is to discern whether it is someone cloaking mere self-seeking in spuriously moral terminology, or someone speaking truthfully about what human dignity really does require.

It is worth adding that it can, of course, be wholly right for people to stand up themselves against abuses of what really are their own human rights – this is not merely selfish, but arises from a proper sense of human dignity, their own and that of their family members and neighbours who might also be threatened.  Indeed for people to stand up for their own human rights can be just as dangerous as doing so entirely on behalf of others.  You may be aware of the brutal crackdown by the Syrian regime during 2011 and 2012 on many Syrians who were doing just that.  This led to a truly terrible civil war which continues in 2014.

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End of 7.3.2

Go to 7.3.3 Objection 2: Human rights language is individualistic

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