You have human rights because you are human – not because you are for instance a good, intelligent or kind person. And there is always an element of equal treatment: everyone can claim these rights by virtue of their humanity. But doesn’t this apply to all moral rights? Don’t we think that other people should treat us with respect because we are human? What is so distinctive about human rights?
Dutch human rights activists are often told by laymen: ‘surely human rights aren’t violated in the Netherlands? Isn’t that done by the likes of Putin and Erdogan?’ At the same time, people constantly appeal to human rights, whether discussing climate change, wars or healthcare. What does it mean if a politician, an activist, a lawyer or a citizen does so? What is the common denominator of all those rights? This is one of the most important questions I try to answer in my dissertation.
The theory I develop in my dissertation addresses this question. It includes a discussion of the ideas of the American philosopher Alan Gewirth (1912-2004). The concept of rational agency plays a crucial role in Gewirth’s work. A rational agent is someone who can think coherently about himself and the world, and can act upon this. Gewirth conceives of human rights as all the necessary conditions which one’s existence must meet to be able successfully to act as a rational agent. For example, the right to healthcare if you are ill, or the right to have your physical integrity respected.
The problematic aspect of rational agency is that it appears to consist of strictly universal conditions. Take for example the right to health care, and suppose I accidentally lose my hand. Do I have to be given a prosthesis to be able to act? I can still do all sorts of things which do not require a prosthesis. Or take the right to education – do I really need a certain amount of training for every action? I don’t think so. Thus, the universality requirement leaves you with very few human rights – it even excludes things we consider very important. Education for instance may not be a universal necessity – but in our time, it is rightly considered an extremely important good.
“Education may not be a universal necessity – but in our time, it is rightly considered an extremely important good.”
To solve the problems related to these universal conditions, I have given Gewirth’s theory a twist. I took my inspiration from Kai Möller, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, where I studied for a while as part of my PhD research. Over the past ten to fifteen years, Möller and several fellow legal scholars have developed a theory of human rights which includes all kinds of non-universal needs, such as a person’s love for art or nature. But Möller and his colleagues didn’t give their pragmatic theory a sufficient philosophical justification.
A walk in the woods
I developed the concept of agential pluralism to underpin their theory. To be a rational agent your life must meet more than just a few minimum conditions; you also need to be able to claim the respect of others for the specific person you are. Say it is your specific desire to enjoy nature, then besides the fact that it is your own responsibility, it is also other people’s responsibility to see whether they can help you in this. Not because a walk in the woods or a swim in the sea is a universal good, but because you deserve respect for this particular wish.
Does my theory say that you have a ‘human right’ to fulfil all your wishes? Well, no. Agential pluralism is a practical, flexible and at the same time philosophically underpinned starting point for our thinking about human rights. We can use it to investigate which responsibilities people have in order to fulfil their own wishes, when governments must play a part in this, and which moral rights must be codified into law.
In other words, my dissertation only partially answers the question as to which goods – such as nature or culture – are the basis of human rights. It is high time for us to have a public debate on the subject, which also looks at issues which could arise in the future, like new technologies or climate change.