Human Nature and Human Rights

Article excerpt

IN THE CLOSING months of his presidency, Bill Clinton and some of his entourage have taken to using the buzzphrase "human and political rights" to replace the simpler "human rights." A call to the White House press office produced no explanation of the coinage, but assured me that "no policy change was implied." It's always nice to know that it is business as usual.

One would like to think that some sense of the paradoxes and complications of the term "human rights" had come home to the administration, and that in consequence it was on its way to even more qualifications: perhaps "human, political, economic, legal, cultural, national, sexual and domestic rights." This may be too much to hope for, but one gets the impression that President Clinton has meant to restrict "human" to "personal and family" and so needs to tack on "political" to cover all those "rights" that are to do with the wider society and participation in it. But what does this mean? That political rights are not human? That "human" has to do only with our persons and families? Whatever happened to "natural rights", which traditionally used to cover all of the above?

So much has now been written about "human rights" that, like President Clinton, we tend to lose our perspective and get confused. As with the classic issue of "natural rights" before it, the debate becomes so infused with passion that straight thinking is almost impossible. Argument about rights of one sort or another is both possible and desirable, particularly given the current penchant for using "human rights" as a basis for often quite brutal foreign policy decisions. But we have to recognize that putting "human" in front of "rights" -- when, for example, talking of the "human right" of people to free elections--is simply to use a warm hurrah word as a rhetorical device. In the same way, wars of political suppression become "humanitarian interventions", and anything we do not currently happen to like becomes "unnatural", even if it is something as basically human as the hunting of game animals or investment in multiple spouses.

Both "human" and "natural" do have a real content, and we can identify that content. Given the all-too-free use of these terms, perhaps we should ask ourselves what that content might be. The trouble is that we have used them as hurrah words for so long, that we balk at any result that is not consonant with our current enlightened prejudices. We want to define what is natural; we do not want nature to do it for us, for the result might not be pretty.

Thus, if anyone were to make an argument, however logical, coherent and backed by evidence, that there was no natural or human right to vote, for example, he would not be answered so much as ridiculed and condemned as reactionary and anti-humanitarian. Yet a respectable argument could indeed be made that there is nothing in nature, or certainly in the nature of being human, that demands the right to vote as such. That right is not so much a natural or human right as one contingent on the fairly advanced economic and political development of certain civilizations. This is probably the sort of thing Clinton has in mind when he adds political to human in the rights catalogue.

The natural/human right might be phrased as "a right to a say in the affairs of one's group." How such participation in group decision-making is to be ensured, however, is not defined by anything in nature or humanity. Voting only becomes an issue at a certain sophisticated level of political development. It may be possible to argue that at such a level everyone has a right to vote (although exceptions will rapidly be listed--children, lunatics, felons, peers, exiles, non-residents, resident non-citizens, non-property owners, unregistered persons), but such a right is scarcely natural or human. It is more properly cultural, or social and political, deriving from the nature of government so achieved rather than from facts of nature or humanity. …