What Are Human Rights? (45): Negative or Positive Rights? Ctd.

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various / what are human rights

negative positive

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I realize now that this previous post wasn’t any good. I need to do a lot more to clarify the difference between negative and positive rights, and to argue that there are indeed two types. Most people assume that there’s only one type and that human rights are always and only negative rights:

  • the right to free speech is a right not to be silenced, not a right to be given the ability to speak (e.g. to have my vocal cords healed)
  • my right not to suffer arbitrary arrest is not a right to be rescued from a cave (in the words of Jonathan Bennett)
  • my freedom of movement is a right not to be hindered, not a right to roads
  • etc.

These examples are meant to make two points, both of which I want to contest:

  1. many so-called rights violations are really not rights violations because there is no violator
  2. rights require only the removal of constraints, more specifically of human imposed constraints.

It does seem to be the case that there can only be a right when someone can violate it (see here), and in the examples above there is no one violating a right: my vocal cords gave up without anyone’s help, and I got stuck in the cave because of my own stupidity or because of a natural calamity. And indeed, the conventional wisdom is that there are numerous types of inabilities which render rights meaningless but which are nonetheless not rights violations because there is no one who caused the violation. In other words, not all inabilities or harms are rights violations, not even if they render rights meaningless.

However, this conventional wisdom is wrong for several reasons. Often there is a violator lurking in the shadows and his or her presence is not clear at first sight. For example, many believe that poverty isn’t a rights violation because no one causes poverty; poverty is just the unfortunate outcome of economic circumstances, like my falling into a cave is the unfortunate outcome of my own stupidity. But that’s not necessarily true: poverty is often the direct result of purposeful and conscious actions by dictators, by the designers of international trade or migration policy etc. So one should be careful when arguing that something is not a right or not a rights violation because there’s no violator. Often there is one but you just fail to notice it.

The second claim implicit in the examples above is that rights require the removal of constraints, not the provision of abilities: free speech requires the removal of censorship, not the provision of the ability to speak; freedom of movement requires the absence of government imposed restrictions on movement, not the provision by the state of roads (even if the absence of roads makes freedom of movement meaningless); etc. However, even the removal of censorship requires the provision of judicial systems, of a police force etc. Hence, it requires the provision of abilities: the ability to sue censors, to send the police to them etc. I see no reason why these abilities should be limited to the ability to remove constraints, and why they should exclude abilities such as education. If rights are important, then people should have the abilities to make their rights real; sometimes this means removing constraints, but often it means providing abilities. Why should it be a big thing when someone is censored, but not when someone is denied the education necessary to make speech possible and meaningful in the first place?

The conventional wisdom – quoted above – that not all inabilities or harms are rights violations, not even if they render rights meaningless, is only partly true. Not all inabilities or harms are rights violations: my broken heart is not a rights violation. But there are many inabilities and harms – even some for which we can’t identify a human agent causing the inability or harm – which are still rights violations because they render rights meaningless. Rights violations don’t always require the presence of a violator and require more than the removal of constraints.

More posts in this series here.

4 Comments

  1. I agree about how governments are the biggest creators of poverty (hence taking poverty out of the realm of natural events of things also it depends on our defintion of poverty, poor people here in usa live way better than poor in other countries.)positive rights convey the idea you must give up a right to someone else, involuntary servitude, if you have a right to food clothing and shelter am I obligated to provide it? why? what moral high ground means I am obligated to care for others? is not my obligation to care for myself and my family so as not to be a burden on others? should they not do likewise? please don’t confuse voluntary giving like charity, this is totally different concept then positive rights, charity voluntarily given is out of compassion appreciation for life, or ones own prosperity and desire to share, this voluntary giving does not violate negative rights at all. but to use guilt, taxation, or making enforceable laws to protect positive rights does violate negative rights. this is how I understand it anyhow. i did a blog post about positive and negative rights.

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