Right vs. Law

Professor Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School makes the case against Human Rights. In short, he claims that the Human Rights have failed, and that the world needs a more humble approach to replace our current effort.

It is, in essence, a lawyer’s view of a philosophical issue. His interesting, but in my opinion completely wrong argument was summarized almost ten years ago by George Carlin:

These are not rights; they are Privileges. Privileges!

Posner makes the same comment, but – as someone who implements law – draws the wrong conclusions. He argues that Human Rights aren’t – nor can ever be – universally enforced, and hence must be abolished in favor of a better, new (yet unspecified) construct. He may be right from view point of someone who considers case law a viable method of jurisprudence. He may even be right if you are primarily concerned with implementation versus ideals.

From an ethical standpoint, however, he’s completely off the mark. Yes, Human Rights, unlike Physical Laws, can be broken. They are rights, not laws, and it requires an effort to have them enforced. Most countries, including the USA, UK and most European countries don’t enforce them enough, or legislate around them (e.g. the USA allowed torture in the wake of 9/11 – as Posner points out).

Carlin was spot-on: Human Rights are privileges, and a country must be in a position of relative wealth to ensure them. No country is there yet; many are far, far away from the day where all human rights are universally enforced.

But abolishing human rights is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As Rousseau once remarked, Good laws lead to the making of better ones; bad ones bring about worse. Human Rights are a good first step, and they have improved over time – proving Rousseau’s quote. We are where we are today after more than one hundred years of limited progress.

Human Rights, given enough ethical reasoning, become obvious once you start pondering the questions of what defines humanity. So the question shouldn’t be ‘what new construct should we use to replace Human Rights’, but ‘what must we change how to better implement Human Rights’ – even if we suspect that this may be a fool’s errant.

To give up and re-set would be phenomenally unwise. We can talk about replacing our current human rights with new constructs as soon as we have something that is objectively better. Until that day Posner is merely pointing out the obvious: our current implementation of Human Rights is lacking. Unless we have something better, we should stick with what we have and try to improve.