"Simply in Virtue of Being Human": The Whos and Whys of Human Rights

By Gardner, John | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, February 2008 | Go to article overview

"Simply in Virtue of Being Human": The Whos and Whys of Human Rights


Gardner, John, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


ACCORDING TO JAMES GRIFFIN, human rights are rights that humans have "simply in virtue of being human." (1) This analysis of the concept of a human right strikes me as helpful and credible. Of course it raises deep questions. What is a right? What is a human? Griffin has much of importance to say about these questions. But whether he analyzes the concept of a right and that of a human correctly will not be my main concern here. My main concern will be whether he brings these two concepts together correctly in his analysis of the concept of a human right.

1. Three Propositions About Human Rights

Griffin's analysis of the concept of a human right can be broken down into three propositions, which I will express cumulatively. The first two are unquestionably true. It is only when one reaches the third that reasonable doubts begin to surface.

The first proposition to which Griffin is committed by his analysis seems so obvious that it scarcely need be stated:

(1) A human right is a right.

A trivial truth, one might think. And yet I have heard people try to cast doubt on it. How? They say that human rights are not really rights because it is not the case that wherever people have human rights they can obtain a remedy for their violation. I find it hard to repeat this objection with a straight face. If it is not the case that wherever people have human rights they can obtain a remedy for their violation, then it is not the case that wherever people have rights they can obtain a remedy for their violation. This follows because, as (1) says, human rights are rights. But are they--the objector persists--really rights? One would have thought that human rights are really rights if and only if they are rights. In which case, yes, human rights are really rights. But some people seem to use the word "really" to mean something more. What more do they mean? Perhaps they just mean "rights for the violation of which the right-holder has a remedy." Or perhaps they mean "rights that are respected," or "rights that are institutionalized in law," or "rights from which the right-holder obtains some further benefit," or "rights over the violation of which the right-holder exerts some control" or .... The possible meanings of "really" in this context are endless. But all this is irrelevant to the truth of (1), which only says that human rights are rights, not that they are rights endowed with some extra property that might be obscurely designated by the word "really."

Griffin's second proposition about human rights is, it seems to me, on equally solid ground. He claims:

(2) A human right is a right that humans have.

Expressed in this way, (2) entails (1). I could also have expressed it so that it leaves the truth of (1) open. But since (1) is trivially true, that would hardly be worth the verbal convolutions involved. So let's just consider whatever it is that (2) adds to (1). There is a reading of (2) such that what (2) adds to (1) does admittedly draw one into a live controversy. For (2) may be interpreted to mean:

(2A) There are human rights and humans have them.

This transforms (2) into an existential claim, which can readily be doubted by arguing that there are no human rights. The category "human right," the argument goes, is like the category "unicorn." There is such a thing as a unicorn, in the sense that there are conceptual criteria by which some creature may be judged to be, or not to be, a unicorn. But there is no such thing as a unicorn, in the sense that there are no creatures in the world that meet the conceptual criteria in question. Asked of a living creature, the question "is that a unicorn?" is always perfectly intelligible, but the answer is always "no." Could the same be true of human rights? (2) Perhaps the comical objection to (1) that I sketched above was a muddled attempt to argue in this way. Perhaps "human rights are not really rights" was a muddled way of saying "if any human rights existed they would be rights, but none exist. …

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