What are Human Rights?
Sunday, May 6, 2012
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 27, 2010

What is it

According to the Declaration of Independence, the basic human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are God-given. Whatever the role of God, rights must be recognized by the society in which one lives to be of any use. Are rights universal? God given? Philosophically justified? Or a matter of custom and culture? John and Ken welcome back Helen Stacy, author of Human Rights For the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture.

Listening Notes

The show opens with John wondering what human rights are. Ken finds a compelling answer to that question in the Declaration of Independence. John quotes the famous all men are created equal. This is a revolutionary document routed in the Enlightenment-era idea that all human beings enjoy some fundamental rights, although some like Jefferson thought that these rights were God given. But, John asks, if these rights are not God given they where do they come from? Perhaps they are just natural, intrinsic to what it is to be a human being, independent of culture, answers Ken. John brings up that the UN said there is a right to rest and leisure, so periodical paid holidays must be a universal human right. Ken is astonished: John surely doesn’t believe that employers can have workers work to the bone until they drop dead! John denies that he does. But, he says, it seems that we need an understanding of intrinsic rights that differ from politically or socially created rights. Ken says it is hard to draw the line between these types of rights. John suggests that created rights depend entirely on law, on convention. John and Ken further discuss other types of rights that might be considered essential human rights, the governments that permit certain rights to be upheld and others to not be controlled, and they also consider societal variations.

John and Ken welcome guest Helen Stacy, Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, Stanford Law School, and author of Human Rights for the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture. John first asks Helen how she got interested in studying issues of rights and culture as intertwined. Helen explains that she went to work in Indonesia in the 90s convinced she was bringing human rights enlightenment to the people with the intention of educating families on not sending their children to work. It suddenly became clear to her that if the families did not send their children to work, they would starve. This made her pause and reflect. She started noticing other issues of rights come up, such as how the right to healthcare in Australia went unsaid, whereas in Indonesia this was not at all considered a right. So what exactly is a right, asks John? Helen says that in the United States, what is meant by human rights is something drawing on the American Bill of Rights, a term with a certain Jeffersonian influence. For Helen, rights are just a claim, a form of words, and the claimants believe they have the high moral ground. A human right is a right that is directed to a government, and the expectation is that government will supply the content of the right.

Ken asks Helen: what does it mean to say that something is mine by right? Helen explains how the word ‘right’ has become completely devalued by overuse. Ken wonders whether there are such things as human rights independent of any particular government, and if there are, how do we go about deciding which ones those are? Helen speaks about the integrity of the human body, but rights in this area are by no means settled. She gives an example related to female genital mutilation: a father commits this act upon his daughter in a foreign country with no malicious intent; for him, this practice is a cultural initiation of sorts, not at all out of the ordinary in his country of origin. But in many nations, this is a practice that is frowned upon and forbidden for multiple reasons. So, prompts Helen, what are we entitled to do about a country that does not follow the same human rights standards as we do and think all countries ought to? Should we invade that country? Place economic restrictions on that country? Helen explains her personal belief that she should not enforce her beliefs on others, and that we lose out on the human rights discourse when we frame it as right versus wrong. Helen, John, and Ken welcome questions from the audience, and they continue the discussion by tackling topics such as increased globalization, Uganda’s new laws, and constitutional human rights.

Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:18): Philosophy Talk's Reporter Molly Samuel explores how some basic rights can conflict with other basic rights with relation to the sit/lie law in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. She speaks with Justin Buel, who has lived in a district for a number of years. 

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Helen Stacy, Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, Stanford Law School

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