Are Rights Universal?
There is a debate within the conservative movement, for some time, about whether rights are universal or even if rights are absolute. Some traditional conservatives view rights as radical abstract ideas that fueled the excesses of the French revolution and today fuel rampant entitlements and the expansion the welfare state. However, rights in Locke’s philosophy and for our founding fathers were well-defined, delimited, and central to the program of protecting individual liberty. Rights are an important part of our heritage as relevant today as they were in
One question that is often asked is: are rights universal? Critics note that not everyone has a passion for liberty or a desire to respect the rights of others. Some note that a constitution protecting individual rights would be ignored in many cultures even if it were imposed by an external force. Furthermore, many people live without rights. What makes rights universal?
The answer is human nature. But even here we have to proceed with caution and clarify what we mean. I’d first separate the factual statement from a moral exhortation. Let me explain this in detail; it is important.
Factually, respecting individual rights respects man’s tool of survival: the individual mind. It is by cultivating the virtue of rationality that one understands, acts, and achieves the values required to sustain one’s life and properly deal with other productive and honest people. If one can’t act upon one’s rational judgment, human thought is superfluous. When liberty is recognized as a universal right of every individual, it makes virtue possible and necessary. And the core virtue, that of cultivating and maintaining one’s rational ability, is a requirement of maintaining cognitive contact with reality. It makes survival possible and possible on the human level, i.e. with the dignity and fulfillment appropriate to a human being.
At this point, I haven’t said anything about a moral imperative. I’ve just stated the relationship of human reason to one’s surviving and flourishing; and the role of rights protecting each individual’s ability to act on his best judgment. It’s as if a physician described the effects of proper medication, exercise, and nutrition on health – i.e. the wherewithal for a robust and long-term survival; it would first and foremost be a factual description. Or a psychologist describing the environment conducive to learning and growth, it would be a factual statement. The exhortation to do those things or create such an environment makes it a moral imperative.
The factual requirements for survival are irrelevant in the mist of a culture or location where human survival isn’t possible. As is trivially noted, in a juggle, being a gentleman is irrelevant. And rights become moot among those that cannot grasp the concept. However, the factual evaluation remains. The relationship between respecting rights and surviving as a human being with the dignity and longevity appropriate to a human being is still a valid relationship. It’s just that neither can be in some locations or cultures. That’s the point of the factual identification: rights are factually important to protect what’s required to survive properly. If you can’t secure them you are in danger.
We can therefore judge a culture by its ability to recognize and sustain individual rights. To the degree that rights can be respected in a given cultural environment, it becomes relevant to issue a moral imperative and exhort others to respect each and every individual’s rights. But a culture, like individual character, evolves slowly. Here is where I have sympathy for the conservative insight that cultivation of character or culture is a process that requires time and tradition. It requires establishing practices, in both thought and in deed, that create a body of knowledge both explicitly articulated and implicitly embedded in tradition.
Urging respect for rights in a culture that has no inkling of the notion is futile or even worse, counter productive. Educating people about the benefits of living in a rights-based society is a worthy investment but it may not come to fruition for some time. The question remains, when to push for change. Here there are no hard-and-fast rules. One has to be cognizant of what is possible in the short-term vs. the long-term in any given situation.
East Germans still find living in a free society challenging or worse, distasteful. The culture shock was great; one hopes there isn’t backsliding. But the virtues of self-reliance, independent thought, and independent initiative weren’t possible or necessary in Communist East Germany. Character can’t change by the “sudden inflow” of liberty. Many still want to be cared for by the state.
Even here at home, we ask similar question. Will people ask that the government take care of them or will we return to a culture of self-reliance and self-responsibility? Will people ask for benefits and access to education on the basis of their demographic group or will we treat each individual by “the content of their character?” Much hangs in the balance. The prospects for individual rights depend on cultural attitudes we’ve had in the past and new attitudes that replace them in many cases.
Rights are universal, in the sense that they are requirements for human well-being. But they are only possible, i.e. respected, if the culture allows.