human rights quote

Human Rights Quote (89): Lincoln Cleaning His Boots

Abraham Lincoln

An apocryphal story I guess, but a good one:

One day, a friend of Abraham Lincoln found the President sitting in a corridor of the White House, cleaning his boots. “But Mr. President!” he said, “are you cleaning your own boots?” “Of course,” Lincoln replied, “whose boots do you think I’m cleaning?”

This is relevant to human rights. Human rights do not require that we all clean our own boots or that, more generally, all differences in status or occupation are removed, but they do require equal standing, status or respect regarding certain very specific human capacities or activities. We all have an equal capacity to think freely, speak freely, move around freely etc., or rather we should have those capacities in an equal measure because we have a right to have those capacities. And we should be respected as equal bearers of those rights. So, that’s a very specific sense in which we all have equal standing, even though we don’t have equal standing in all settings. When we don’t have a certain set of capacities in an equal measure, then cooperative schemes and governments should do everything possible to provide them. We are only bound by the coercive power or agreements resulting from our existing cooperative schemes and governments as long as these schemes and governments do everything possible to provide us with the set of capacities to which we have a right.

A president cleaning his own boots is then a metaphor for human equality, not overall equality – he remains the president – but human equality in the specific sense of human beings having an equal set of rights. Or perhaps I’m just over-interpreting this. You decide.

More human rights quotes.


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