An essay of questioning by Bob Corbett

Dec. 1997

The concept of universal human rights is a generally accepted concept in our time, but it presents some serious philosophical difficulties for me. I do not have any emotive or personal desire to reject the ideals of striving to provide such universal human BENEFITS to each and every person on the earth. Quite the contrary, I have worked toward such goals in many places and in many ways in my life's work and continue to do so now. Rather, I am a bit puzzled by the language that such ideals are "universal human rights." I am puzzled by what such a claim really means in practice, whether this is a reasonable demand to be placed on the limits of individual liberty, and what sorts of other philosophical assumptions or descriptions must accompany such a claim in order to produce a reasonable and consistent account of political life.

This all seems to me to be a subset of the question: what moral obligations (if any) do I have toward other persons. Actually that formulation is not quite correct, since it seems to hide a larger question: the interrelationship between the citizen and government. Thus I guess the frame of the question for me is:

What moral obligations, if any, do I have toward other persons, and what indirect obligations do I assume through government, toward other persons? This complexifies the question a great deal.

Initially there seems to be an important distinction between being asked to forego doing some act, and being required to do some act. I know that there are those who say that this distinction between a so-called "negative right" and "positive right" makes not sense and is not a real distinction. Perhaps my problem begins here, since it does seem to me there is adequate grounds for such a distinction, and that the replies to my question of obligations toward others will be answered differently in each of these categories.

What essentially troubles me is: what is asked of ME and others or my government. That seems to me where I will have to live out my moral obligations If there is a moral obligation, then it makes sense to say one should be required to do what is morally necessary, and one has the right to compel others to do so even if they do not wish to do so. Thus my question is not an abstract one of desires and hopes and goals and aims, but of action. What is and what is not morally required of ME and others? What is morally required of my government?

What makes me believe there is a different set of claimed "rights" between the negative and the positive is knowing who must DO something.

When it is said that every human being has a right not to be tortured, I know what follows from this for my government and myself and you. None of us has the right to do an act of torture upon another person. We may quarrel about what counts as torture, but given a notion of torture, we know what we can and can't do.

But, where it is said that every human being has a right to health care, who is being said to have a duty? Do I have to provide health care to each and every human being? Do you? Does my government have to (and thus indirectly, must I finance this health care for every human on earth)? This is all very puzzling to me.

The notion that says there is some limit to my individual freedom, and when that limit is reached I must not further act that I can understand, and even see strong and reasonable justifications for such claims. I don't have much difficulty with a notion of universal human rights within the category I call negative rights.

But the notion that someone has a right TO something from .well, there is my problem. From WHOM? And why must that person or those persons be required to sacrifice something of their own for another?

Perhaps this is a notion of where my confusion rests. Perhaps there is no personal property which is my own and which I am free not to sacrifice unless I willing do so. This is extremely hard for me to believe reason supports such a notion of the loss of all private property, but in such a world my puzzle might disappear. However, what is extremely puzzling is that in one of the most common formulations of these so-called universal human rights, is the claim that "Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others." (Article 17 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dec. 10, 1948). If this is so, then my puzzlement of what is required in actual practice seems to stand. There must be SOME notion of justified private property. What is that private property of mine stands in the way of someone else's realizing his or her right TO something like health care, a job or food? Am I them morally required to sacrifice it? Is my government justified (even required) to confiscate it to serve this purpose?

Further, in discussion of human rights (both positive and negative) I have always been troubled by the use of the term "inalienable." Etymologically this word seems to me: cannot be given up or taken away by another. But it clearly doesn't mean this even in the area of what I think of as negative rights. We generally agree that one may morally take the life of another in self-defense. Some countries still hold it is morally just to take the life of a convicted criminal for purposes of retribution, public safety or deterrence. Most countries accept that they may take the lives of enemies in war. Perhaps this latter case is some sort of self-defense notion. In any case, the right to life is not FULLY (that is not universally) inalienable. When can such a right be alienated and when not?

This gets closer to another source of my puzzle. With the case of self-defense or even capital punishment, I take it the notion is that if one ACTS in a certain way, then one loses the right to life. But, can't this happen with other rights? If one acts in a certain way, perhaps in a manner of not taking personal responsibility for one's own life and needs, can one not them alienate this right?

I guess, more explicitly, I am very puzzled that there is no talk of responsibility connected with these rights. I tend to think of rights as a quid pro quo. I have a right to do thus and so, connected with a responsibility to do thus and so. If I fail in my responsibility, then I "alienate" the right. This has always seemed to me the fundamental notion of what it is to live in society and surrender (rationally) to the rule of society. Of course society is often more powerful than individuals and may force people to surrender their actions even if they have not surrendered their will. But what is attractive about philosophically looking at human interchange in both personal morality and social morality is to see what does reason require, if anything. As soon as that question is broached, I tend to think in terms of the interrelationship of rights and responsibilities. I am puzzled that the notions that I call positive rights seem to be rights without responsibilities, where negative rights seem to be rights with reciprocal responsibilities that are commensurate with the rights gained.

None of the above is taken by me to be arguments for or against anything. Rather, I am trying to articulate my own confusions and puzzles. I am in a world that increasingly talks about universal human rights in ways that many people whom I tend to respect and admire, seem to go about their business in a way that this notion is obvious and crystal clear. They are happy to use all the power a state or set of states can muster to force anyone who does not willing comply to be compelled to comply with these notions of universal human rights. Compelling unwilling persons or states to act in a certain way about negative rights, I can understand and know reasons for that I find compelling. But, as I stated at the outset, compelling persons and states to the positive rights has me very very puzzled.

I am prepared to believe that this is a particular blindness that comes form having lived most of my life in a very individualistic state that takes private property to be a central good, and takes personal responsibility to be the central source of personal well-being. Perhaps there are notions of error in such values and analyses. But there certainly aren't clear to me. Not clear in their philosophical roots, and certainly not clear in their practical effects and modes of achievement.

I'd love to get clarification.

Bob Corbett

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