Published in September 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Are human rights political?
Aristotle ended his lectures on ethics by turning attention to the state and its laws—thus preparing the way for the following lectures we know as the Politics—on the ground that questions about the good for individuals are inseparable from the constitution and laws of the community to which they belong. Ethics and politics, he said, are seamlessly connected.
There are other ways of making the point, but Aristotle’s embedding of ethics within politics is attractive for a number of reasons. One of these is that it illuminates the practical implications for any society that takes ideas of human rights seriously. Talk of human rights is talk of what is required for individuals to have a chance of making lives for themselves that, by their own and any reasonable standard, are good and flourishing. This is centrally an ethical enterprise, where ethics is understood as a more inclusive matter than morals. Ethics is about the character and quality of one’s life as a whole, and how one lives it. In short, ethics is about what sort of person one is—from which the nature of one’s specifically moral agency follows.
But to recognise, protect and enhance those rights intended to give individuals the chance of good and flourishing lives, a state has to erect a fabric of laws and institutions fitted to the task. The project of devising those laws and institutions requires the familiar political processes of debate, negotiation and consent. So yes, human rights are political: an important part of what the state exists for, and a focus of activity and concern within it.
Independently of the relatively recent explicit regimes of human rights adopted internationally and nationally, states have always existed to protect the interests, often enough regarded as rights, of at least some section of their citizenries. That protection was aimed at both external and internal threats to those interests, and took the form of laws, sanctions and institutions. All this is through and through political, so its extension to the idea that all individuals have interests likewise meriting enshrinement in law and institutions—interests in life, security, privacy, the getting and imparting of information, and so on for the other familiar matters variously constituted as rights in all codes—is in the same way political.
Human rights are also political in the sense that they are the subject of occurrent politics, involving arguments over the form and strength of the instruments embodying them. Governments enact human rights provisions in good times, and find them inconvenient in the bad times—just when they are most acutely needed by everyone else. That is the current British experience, proving the politicality of human rights beyond doubt.
Sent in by Kevin Kennedy, Surbiton
Send your philosophical queries and dilemmas to AC Grayling at firstname.lastname@example.org