Reflecting on the limits of Human Rights

Adi Levy
5 min readAug 15, 2020

Human rights are conceptualized as moral entitlements that we all have by virtue of being human beings, rational beings, to use the Kantian paradigm. As rational agents, we are also autonomous agents with inherent human dignity that grants us certain inalienable entitlements. Kant’s ideas about human dignity were dominant in the formulation of human rights conventions. The first article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) reads as follows:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

While getting much less attention, the spirit of brotherhood seems to be an operative concept in this clause, mostly because, without the spirit of brotherhood, human rights lose much of their sustainability.

Photo by Mat Reding on Unsplash

The first few articles in the UDHR appear to be compatible with the idea of natural rights. The right to life, liberty, dignity, equality, freedom from torture, and slavery. All pretty much emanate from the basic idea of human dignity and inherent liberty. Nevertheless, scrolling down, some of the rights stipulated in the charter seem a bit distant from their natural origins. Consider, for example, the right to education, leisure, occupation, participation in culture, and the right for an organized society. It seems peculiar to think about these rights as natural entitlements because they are associated with social practices much more than with natural existence.

Human rights theorists and thinkers have pondered how to adjust these rights to the natural rights paradigm. One way was to emphasize the notion of equal rights. Since all humans are born equal, they have the right to equal access to all resources and goods. But this still does not support the idea that these rights are natural and innate. Equal access requires a regulating authority that is more compatible with social and mostly political order. Indeed, the most intriguing aspect of human rights is that states are expected to provide (education, welfare, culture) or safeguard them (life, liberty, property). Ultimately, human rights have gained prominence because they are organizing principles that have a functional role in the social order. They compel states to protect the interests of individuals through their international recognition.

Human rights get their power from their global recognition. This is no startling news. It is entirely rational and reasonable to understand human rights this way. We only think about human rights when things go wrong. We usually don’t get up in the morning and think about ourselves as free agents. Quite the contrary, most people get up and think about all their errands and responsibilities. Furthermore, an empty day is quite depressing. In that sense, even liberty is a conceptual matter. We think about freedom of movement only when we’re not allowed to move from one place to another, and we think about our freedom of speech only when we are coercively silenced. In these cases, human rights give humans the option to appeal to higher standards of justice and demand their freedoms. Then again, this means to appeal to other members of society rather than to natural power.

We usually think about human rights when they exist, and our country inhibits our access to them. But, what happens when countries don’t have access to human rights. What happens, for example, when our country cannot provide us with an adequate health system? Or elementary education? Is this a violation of our human rights? If so, who is responsible to respond to this violation? Who should a child from central Africa turn to demand his right to clean water if his country doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure to provide clean water. There is no doubt that this child’s rights are violated, but we do little to amend this situation, perhaps because it is not really our problem. Most of us accept this reality and conform to the ‘developing and developed’ countries dichotomy, giving little attention to our obligation to treat one another in the spirit of brotherhood.

How does the spirit of brotherhood look like?

Perhaps the most suitable answer that is also feasible is Justice. The moral philosopher John Rawls suggested that we should understand justice as fairness. His idea mostly addressed the American tax system and is mainly applicable to domestic political systems, and even in these systems, it raises many challenges because being fair means forfeiting some of your fundamental rights. Suppose you earn 100$, while your friend earns on 50$ for the same work. Are you obligated to give your friend 20$ to make the distribution fairer? Requiring this means taking a part of what is yours, thereby violating your autonomy and your dignity. States instill this mechanism in the legal system, as part of what a citizen gives back to the state that enables him to earn that money in the first place, but this does not help the kid from Africa who still doesn’t have access to clean water. Do we have a moral obligation to give some of our wealth to impoverished countries to ensure they enjoy equal human rights? Maybe we do. If so, such moral obligation reaffirms that humans rely on other social agents for human rights, rather than on natural force. We are probably not born with the right to a house or a land or a job. Instead, we organize our social life to have a house, a piece of land, and a decent job. It is always nice to have a higher authority to take care of us if we cannot afford a house or are prohibited from owning a piece of land. But this requires social collaboration and sharing the same moral standards that all people should have a piece of land, a house, and a job that enables him to live a dignified life — A spirit of brotherhood. Here lays an inherent paradox. Human rights are worthless unless they exist in a social context, and their existence in a social context demands that we give some of them up.

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Adi Levy

Ph.D. Visiting lecturer at the University of Haifa. Fascinated by the ethical questions of political science and trying to make sense of society and morality