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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What Are Rights?

RIGHTS DEFINED Rights structure the forms of governments, the contents of laws, and the shape of morality as humans PERCEIVE THEM. To accept a set of rights is to approve a distribution of freedom and authority, and so to endorse a certain view of what may, must, and must not be done. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Rights are entitlements, usually of a legal or moral nature, (not) to perform certain actions or be in certain states, or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or be in certain states. The key to understanding the nature of a right is human perception. Disagreement is bound to occur as people base their understanding of rights on perceptions of their own time and place. For example, at one time slavery was both legal and considered moral treatment of blacks in the American South. Southerners had the rights to own slaves and even abuse them as property of genetic inferiority, not the obligation to respect them as human beings. Plantation owners perceived the right to own slaves as an accepted part of a thriving business and economic system. These businessmen endorsed slavery as vital to their survival as an entitlement of class. HUMAN RIGHTS Human rights refer to the "basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are ENTITLED." Examples of rights and freedoms which have come to be commonly thought of as human rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education. (Houghton Miffin Company, 2006) Specific enumeration of rights accorded humans has historically differed greatly across space and time. Many times, the system of rights defined and accepted by one group has come into sharp and bitter conflict with that of other groups. In politics, where rights have historically been an important issue, the issuance of rights is normally addressed by the constitutions of the respective nations. The enforcement of international human rights law is the responsibility of the different Nation States (sovereign territorial units), and it's the primary responsibility of the State to make human rights a reality. There is currently no international court that upholds human rights law. Human rights laws are difficult to legally enforce due to absence of consensus , the lack of relevant national legislation or of bodies empowered to take legal action to enforce them. SOME HISTORY OF RIGHTS The history of human rights possibly began with Hammurabi's code about 4000 years ago and extended into laws of ancient Greece, where the concept of human rights began to take a greater meaning than the prevention of arbitrary persecution. Early human rights became synonymous with natural rights, or laws that reflect the natural order of the universe, essentially the will of the gods who control nature. Throughout most early history, the concepts of rights have been authoritarian and classified according to various criteria into successive levels in which different people get different rights, some more and some less than others. For example, the divine right of kings to hold absolute power over their subjects did not leave room for many rights to be granted to the subjects themselves. In the Middle Ages and later the Renaissance, the decline in power of the church led society to place more of an emphasis on the individual. This focus, in turn, caused the shift away from feudal and monarchist societies, letting individual expression flourish. (thinkquest.org) A COUPLE OF PARTICULAR VIEWS Jeremy Bentham Jeremy Bentham and the philosophy of utilitarianism (18th Century) argued that rights should be set on policy that would cause "the greatest good for the greatest number of people," or the principle of utility. Utilitarianism evaluates actions based upon their consequences. The relevant consequences, in particular, are the overall happiness created for everyone affected by the action. Bentham wrote in The Principles of Morals and Legislation:
"Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think." (Bentham, Jeremy, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) Ch I, p. 1)
John Stuart Mills Bentham's philosophy on rights were expanded upon in John Stuart Mill's ideas. The overall aim of his philosophy is to develop a positive view of the universe and the place of humans in it, one which contributes to the progress of human knowledge, individual freedom and human well-being. Mill's On Liberty addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. One argument that Mill develops further than any previous philosopher is the harm principle that holds each individual has the right to act as he wants, so long as these actions do not harm others. According to Mill, "If the action is self-regarding, that is, if it only directly affects the person undertaking the action, then society has no right to intervene, even if it feels the actor is harming himself."( Mill, John Stuart "On Liberty" Penguin Classics, 2006, pages 90-91) He does argue, however, that individuals are prevented from doing lasting, serious harm to themselves or their property by the harm principle. Because no-one exists in isolation, harm done to oneself also harms others, and destroying property deprives the community as well as oneself. RIGHTS TODAY Governments, laws enacted by governments, and morality of societies differ greatly in their respect to certain rights. Even today, no universal agreement among citizens of the world exists. Bodies such as the United Nations set global guidelines and policies, but what may be "one man's justice" is "another man's injustice." The United Nations does not always succeed in correcting problems. Resistance to changing old policies and practices is great while interference between cultures is often discouraged. Rights, then, according to governing bodies, depend upon different accepted norms and the rationale of the times.

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