What Are Human Rights? (47): A Hostile Symbiosis

comments 9
philosophy / what are human rights
clownfish and sea anemone

clownfish and sea anemone, photo by Natascia Tamburello


“Hostile symbiosis” is a concept I borrow from Benjamin Wittes. The idea is that the different human rights that are part of the system of human rights are both mutually dependent (or interdependent) and at the same time hostile to each other. For example, the publicity of free speech can’t exist without the privacy offered by privacy rights (no light without darkness), and yet at the same time respect for a person’s privacy may require limitations of someone else’s speech rights. Religious liberty can’t exist without equality of rights (religious liberty is in fact religious equality) and yet it may be necessary to allow religious groups the right to discriminate against candidate members in order to preserve their religious identity. And so on.

The same rights which are in one case interdependent and which can’t exist without each other, are in other cases mutually hostile and need to be balanced against each other and limited for the sake of each other. Hence the concept of hostile symbiosis.

Symbiosis is a term from biology, and is a combination of the Ancient Greek terms for “together” and “living”. It refers to close and long-term interactions between different biological species, the classic example being the clownfish and the sea anemone. A clownfish feeds on small invertebrates that otherwise have potential to harm the sea anemone and it’s territorial instinct protects the anemone from anemone-eating fish. In addition, the fecal matter from the clownfish provides nutrients to the sea anemone. The clownfish is in turn protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging cells, to which the clownfish is immune.

This is not a hostile symbiosis, as in the case of different human rights. Human rights form not just a hostile symbiosis but also an obligate symbiosis, meaning that both symbionts entirely depend on each other for survival. That is, as I understand it, not the case with clownfish and sea anemones, but some types of fungi and tree symbioses for example are obligate in nature. Many varieties of fungus live in close association with trees and other plants, drawing in nutrients from deep underground and providing them to the tree in exchange for a share of the energy (in the form of sugars) produced by the tree’s photosynthesis. The trees need the fungi in order to gain nutrients more efficiently (source).

Some more examples of what I’m talking about are here and here. More posts in this series are here.


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  2. This is very interesting. Of course rights frequently conflict. But I wonder if there might be some way of resolving this by creating a heirarchy and then some kind of alogorythm for resolving rights that confict. For example do you have the right to kill a burglar? No, because the right to life is greater than the right to keep your possessions. It would still be messy, I imagine, but in the context of an increasingly secular world we have lost the ten commandments and need some internationally agreed standards to put in their place. It also seems to me that developing some kind of an international overview is the next step in our evolution. Thanks for a thought provoking blog, I intend to keep following you.

      • Hmm, thank you. I have read both those references and you have forced me to think!…. So without a heirarchy of rights do you think there is any basis for logically deriving what ethical actions should be?

        • In case of conflicting rights, the judiciary should decide on this basis: which conflicting right serve best the value it is meant to serve? E.g. the politician’s right to privacy should trump the journalist’s right to divulge politically irrelevant private infirmation. But: the journalist’s right to free speech should trump the politician’s right to privacy if the journalist wants to divulge politically relevant private information (such as private relationships with donors). In the first case: the right to free speech isn’t intended or justified by the need to say irrelevant or harmful things, but by the need to find the truth. In the second case: the right to privacy isn’t meant to protect deception.


          • OK so the heirarchy of ‘rights’ gets replaced by a heirarchy of ‘values’ eg with respect to the right for information – political relevence gets higher value than prurience. But wouldnt doing it this way also be subject to the argument that you make so well with rights? i.e that there would be no ultimate heirarchy of values because they too compete with one another?

          • No the values are not ordered. Conflicts between rights are not solved because some rights serve more important values, but because in certain cases certain conflicting rights better serve the values that they are meant to serve. I argue that in many cases this will yield an easy resolution of conflicting rights. Not in all cases for sure. But still many. Real dilemmas are unavoidable, but relatively rare.

  3. Truly when someone doesn’t understand then
    its up to other people that they will help, so here it occurs.

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