In this fascinating interview, The Philosopher’s Zone Joe Gelonesi interviews Samuel Moyn about the political concept of human rights and its utility. As Moyn points out, though we like to talk abut human rights as if they’re evident and sacrosanct, we actually live in a world where many communities and nations still suffer widespread political and economic corruption, implement policies that foster foster inequality of wealth and opportunity, don’t provide adequate healthcare to many or most of its citizens, fail to prevent or mitigate racism, sexism, violence, even slavery, incarcerate huge numbers of its citizens for even minor (or some might think non-) crimes, and in other ways don’t live up to the ideal of universal human rights as outlined, say, in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
So what are human rights and what does it mean to have them? That’s as tricky a question as it ever was. Though we like to think it’s a given, it’s not at all clear that all, or even most, people agree on even the most basic answer to this question. For one thing, ‘human rights’ starts sounding like such an abstract thing once you start trying to define what thye are. For another, there’s this big conundrum I see in the human rights theory that I think relate directly to Moyn’s comments.
If human rights are something innate, something we’re born with, then why do so many disagree about what are rights and what aren’t, and why do we have to fight for them? But then again, if we we say that everyone is born with them, then we can and should be outraged when human rights are not recognized and protected.
If they’re something we create for ourselves and one another, than how are we justified in saying that everyone should have them, regardless of context or culture? But then again, if we say they don’t naturally exist so we have to create them, then that motivates us all the more to have to come up with excellent justifications for why we think everyone should have them, and forces us to work all the harder to make sure everyone does.
Sources and inspiration:
‘Political Philosophy in the World: Human Rights’. Interview with Professor Samuel Moyn by Joe Gelonesi. The Philosopher’s Stone podcast, April 3 2016