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What’s Wrong With “Human Rights”

Some god-terms that issue from the media, and which I had the misfortune of hearing incessantly as an academic, make me wince as soon as they come out of someone’s mouth. Among these particularly obnoxious terms are “social justice,” “fairness,” and “sensitivity,” all of which drip with righteousness and dishonesty.

The term or concept that lately has been causing me the most visceral pain, however, is “human right.” The pain became excruciating last week, when I heard Fox News commentator Juan Williams insist that gay marriage is a human right. If Williams had his way, the Supreme Court would impose recognition of this arrangement on every hamlet in this country. That’s because he thinks it’s “fair” and in any case required by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. I’ve no idea how the Fourteenth Amendment can require the imposition of a marital practice that differs from how marriage was understood since the beginnings of human societies and up until a few years ago in this country. It is possible to see why the Fourteenth Amendment might be invoked to uphold the right of every American taxpayer, whatever his color, to use the public facilities he or she pays for. But how can it require, except by an act of judicial usurpation, that all Americans be forced to recognize as marriage a cohabitation arrangement between people of the same sex. Supposedly this entails a right that must be equally protected. Right to what? Presumably of anything that those involved decide to call marriage and then oblige everyone else, on pain of punishment, to accept as such.

What happens, however, if those who wish to experiment with new forms of marriage decide that it would be a good idea to practice incest? Does that too become a right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment? What about group marriage, a practice that’s already being tried in Holland? Is that too protected by our constitution, according to Juan Williams? The answer is that incest and group marriages may be entitled to legal protection against discriminators, if Williams decides to characterize them as human rights. What the hell—two more rights added to the list really won’t muddle the term “human rights” any more than it’s already been muddled. And in fact the term has now been reduced to a rhetorical trope that is meant to impress the listener with the moral seriousness of the person who pronounces it.

My objection to the term is not based on moral relativism, since I don’t pretend to be a moral agnostic. I could think of at least one right that all people should be entitled to and which government should provide: it’s Thomas Hobbes’s single example of a natural right, which is to be protected by government against violent death. But who believes in what rights is not the point here.  I am arguing against the use of human rights bombast whenever some individual, institution, or state wishes to express a political preference or a program of social reconstruction. Just make your arguments and let the listener decide. Further, I don’t object to listening to moral arguments against societies that do horrible things. Mention what the leaders of these societies do and then leave it to others to decide whether your indictment is correct. Saying that what you deplore violates human rights fills space with noise without contributing anything substantive to human knowledge. For example, if someone shows me that the Taliban stones women to death if they’re seen talking to young men to whom they’re not married, that’s a sufficient indictment. In no way would the speaker be strengthening his brief by adding that the Taliban “violates human rights.”

I would also make a traditionalist case against human-rights language. Whereas most of us in the same society up until a few decades ago could have agreed on what actions were right and wrong, human rights are more subject to change than traditional moral verities. Their validity depends on political and cultural winds; and it is foolish to believe that one can bridge the breakdown of moral or social consensus throughout the Western world by resorting to a new universal ethic based on “human rights” or “democratic values.” There are sharp and even growing differences in our society about fundamental behavioral questions, and appeals to supposedly universal rights language will not likely heal these divisions. Significantly, both those who favor and those who oppose the right to abort a fetus shower us equally with human-rights rhetoric. That practice settles nothing of importance, except for allowing the speakers to feel good about their cause and about themselves for upholding it.

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