Sunday, May 29, 2011

Michael Boylan on: Are There Natural Human Rights?

Michael Boylan has written an interesting essay in today's nytimes entitled "Are There Natural Human Rights?" If human rights are only invented by humans then they are only arbitrary social constructions that apply only to societies that choose to adopt them. "Under this scenario the concept of natural human rights is not a legitimate universal category by which to judge societal or individual conduct."

Are there human rights that are not mere social conventions but have universal application? If not, in a Nietzschean move, all that would be left is power. "Each nation would be free to treat its citizens as it chooses, subject only to the rule of power. Hitler would not have been wrong in carrying out the Holocaust, but only weak because he lost the war. The logical result of such a position is a radical moral relativism vis-à-vis various cultural anthropologies."

Boylan wants to argue that universal human rights can have a natural basis. If universal natural rights exist, then evil dictators are wrong. If univeral natural rights do not exist, we can jettison attempts to apply our invented ethical "norms" to other cultures.

I'm not clear what Boylan means by appealing to "higher principles" like the Golden Rule. He concludes with this thought experiment.

"Imagine living in a society in which the majority hurts some minority group (here called “the other”). The reason for this oppression is that “the other” are thought to be bothersome and irritating or that they can be used for social profit.  Are you fine with that?  Now imagine that you are the bothersome irritant and the society wants to squash you for speaking your mind in trying to improve the community.  Are you fine with that?  These are really the same case.  Write down your reasons.  If your reasons are situational and rooted in a particular cultural context (such as adhering to socially accepted conventions, like female foot binding or denying women the right to drive), then you may cast your vote with Hart, Austin and Confucius. In this case there are no natural human rights. If your reasons refer to higher principles (such as the Golden Rule), then you cast your vote with the universalists: natural human rights exist."

Can there be universal human rights that are "natural?" I find this difficult without the idea of God. Boylan is familiar with this. See, for example, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on "Divine Command Theory," fast-forwarding to the last section, on Boylan's response.