Podium: Human rights and moral imperatives

Mary Warnock From the Hinton Lecture to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IS IT possible to derive the moral, public or private, from a notion of rights? A right is something you claim, and which you can properly prevent people from infringing. It is an area of freedom for an individual that someone else must allow him to exercise, as a matter of justice. It is necessary to consider how, in general terms, the existence of a right can be established.

The simplest case where you may claim a right against me is where there is a specific law or by-law granting you that right, for example, a right of way across my land. If a by-law marks a right of way, I have a duty to keep the path open so that you can use it. If there is no law, then though it may be convenient for you to use my path, and though you may blame me, on moral grounds, for not letting you use it (when, say, it would be quicker for you in your wheelchair to reach the station that way), you cannot claim that I am infringing any right if I keep you from my land.

But, of course, laws are not usually so simple, and often they are open to interpretation. It then becomes necessary to think of the intention of the law before judging whether or not it grants you a right; and as the intention of laws is usually beneficent, their outcome supposed to be desirable, it may be held that anything truly desirable may be claimed as a right. Thus it is increasingly claimed that, as specific rights of way across private land are granted because of their desirability, and their use may be claimed as a right, there must be a right to wander freely on anybody's land; hence the general claim of a right to roam.

However, to use the concept of a right in this context seems to me not only nonsensical but dangerous. It leads to the supposition that anything desirable must be obtainable as of right.

I have the same anxiety about the overuse of the concept of human rights. There is, I grant, by now a fairly clear, well-agreed understanding of what it is to act in breach of human rights, what it means to say that a particular nation has a "bad human rights record'. The birth of the United Nations after the Second World War was marked by a universal declaration of human rights specifying most of the rights that were to be protected, and these are increasingly protected by conventions and treaties between civilised nations.

Yet even here, at this high level of generality, what a declaration of rights seems to be is a declaration that there are some ways in which human beings can treat one another which are so wicked and barbarous that they ought not to be permitted. The infringement of human rights at this level is a moral outrage, not simply a matter of injustice, which it is somebody's business to bring to an end. Once again, to declare that something is a right at this level is to declare a shared ideal of how things, morally, ought to be.

The infringement of a right is always a case of injustice. But avoiding or rectifying injustice is only one of the ways of achieving moral good, or avoiding evil. Consider the case of two brothers who have been given a box of chocolates between them. If the elder brother refuses to share the chocolates we feel proper indignation against him, and tell him that the younger boy is entitled to half the chocolates. If he does share them, without our intervention, then we think he is doing only what is due.

But suppose the chocolates have been given only to the elder boy. If he doesn't give his brother any, we think him, perhaps, mean greedy, unsympathetic, as he sees his brother eyeing them with longing. If he does share them, we think him generous, kind, amiable. But there is simply no question of his younger brother having any rights in the matter. And because rights and justice do not come into it, we accord the elder boy the admiration that goes with these other virtues, or the disapprobation that goes with the other vices. We are here talking about his moral character in a private sense.

We seem increasingly uneasy in talking about private morality. We prefer to talk about rights and the infringement of rights, where justice can be demanded. And it is easy to demand justice, because it is an essential public concept. But a civil society, however scrupulous with regard to the rights of individuals and the duties of others not to infringe those individuals' rights or inhibit freedoms, cannot be founded on such scruples alone. For to defend a right is to demand something for yourself, or the group to which you belong. Private morality, on the other hand, is based not on demanding something for yourself, or even for others, but on the possibility of self-denial and altruism, the thought that others are as important or more important than you yourself.

Comments