I caught a really thought-provoking interview on human rights featuring the philosopher John Tasioulas recently. Being an (old) episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, which caters to a general audience, the interview focused on a basic1 question: What are human rights?
Basic, but not simple, since “human rights” has become both a very charged term and, perhaps in some circles, one so overused as to have turned into a bit of a hollow buzzword. Which is why it’s notable how Tasioulas kicks off the interview by first dispelling the, shall we say, “special snowflake” air that has enveloped the concept: human rights are only one kind of rights, he asserts. Now this doesn’t undercut the importance of these rights, but it at least does away with the tunnel vision that they tend to inspire and situates them within a broader category of similar concepts that, he implies, are no less worthy of discussion.
But the dissolution of the term “human rights”‘ definite edges is, like I’ve said, something of a problem. So what distinguishes human rights from other kinds of rights? Tasioulas says: universality, these rights’ applicability throughout humanity.
This is the point I find most interesting, mostly because of personal experience. Ever since it became clear that our new president had won the post, there’s been a disturbing spike in drug-related extra-judicial killings. The number keeps ticking up to this day, and there’s been a lot of debate about the validity and ethics of these incidents.
The administration has built its stance through somewhat confusing statements: one moment maintaining that deadly force is the police’s last resort, putting out bounties and encouraging vigilante killings the next. In any case, one sentiment rings loud and clear here: it’s okay to kill drug criminals. Coupled with an understandable lack of public confidence in a sluggish justice system, this sentiment has spawned a disturbing corollary: since it’s okay to kill drug criminals (the typical line of thinking goes), and the instruments of due process often involve unconscionable delays, the swiftest–and thus best–way to solve the country’s drug problem is to gun down the druggies ourselves
There’s a tendency in any society, I think, and certainly in ours, to view criminals as “lesser beings”2 undeserving of the same rights, privileges, and protections we law-abiding citizens enjoy. When criminal activity occurs to a degree that danger goes from an abstract specter to a poltergeist knocking on the front door for a majority of the populace, it’s not surprising that those tendencies morph into an angry, vindictive impulse, or in a certain vicious relish when news arrives of a criminal’s takedown. (People feel cornered by crime and its perpetrators, and cornered people typically want to fight their way free. Or at least cheer on those who seem to be doing that for them.)
But just because it’s unsurprising doesn’t mean it raises no questions, the most important being: Is it right?
Is this disinhibition of often-violent tendencies right, or at least justifiable? (Or, you know, putting ourselves in the administration’s shoes for a bit, is it a stance that is reasonably defensible?)
Full disclosure: I’m against these killings and many people’s condonation of such activities, so I guess this whole post is more of me trying to articulate why I’ve ultimately arrived at that position.
So, you know, my answer to that question: No, it’s not.
There are a lot of analyses, statistics, evidence and recommendations out there regarding the costs (staggering) and effectiveness (not quite as staggering, to put it mildly) of an all-out “war on drugs” in territories like Mexico, Canada, and the United States. I could argue from an evidence-based position, but like I mentioned earlier, there’s a very visceral and moral dimension to many people’s support of the administration’s bloody anti-drugs campaign. So that’s what I’m trying to interrogate here.
And going back to Tasioulas’ interview, he makes another argument that I find relevant to the question at hand: that it’s crucial to view human rights as grounded in interests and not agency.3 By “grounded in agency,” he means characterizing human rights foremost as protections of human autonomy and rational decision-making. For example: saying that torture is a human rights violation because it impedes a person’s agency and ability to exist as they see fit.
But as said in the interview, Hmm, the fact that torture is painful must have something to do with it too, right? Shifting focus from agency to interests creates space to take into account factors that might not be predicated on an individual’s capability to act.
It’s a relevant argument because I think such a shift also heads off some problematic “blind spots”4 or twists of reasoning that might arise from agency-centered notions of human rights. A lot of the statements made in support of these drug-killings, I think, illustrate one of these blind spots: many people seem to believe that, if human rights are rooted in autonomous agency, then the use of such agency to carry out criminal actions (i.e., actions that go against the moralities underpinning these rights) constitutes a forfeiture of those rights, or at least justifies authorities’ total disregard of these rights when apprehending criminals.
There’s a bit of a legalistic bent to this notion, which is understandable because we often encounter human rights in terms of their legal and political functions. Blended with disinhibited vindictive impulses, we arrive at, If you break the law, don’t even think about expecting the law to protect you. However, Tasioulas again makes a point that I’m inclined to agree with: human rights are not purely legal or political concepts. As discussed in the interview, it’s best to envision these rights in two parts: their source or basis, and their force or whether or not they can be overridden by anything else. For Tasioulas (and for me too, personally), human rights don’t just arise from law; there is an independent underlying moral right there, separate from its embodiment in law:
“There is an independent moral right…but there are also some very good reasons for embodying this right in law. And one of the reasons we want to do that is because often, at the level of pure moral reasoning, it might be unclear what exactly this right involves, but it might be important nonetheless to draw some clear lines. And what the law has to do is, one, grab onto this prior independent moral notion, but then give it some more specific content, so that it becomes a much more effective guideline for action in society. So in a sense, law completes the job that morality begins.”
Law completes the job, but it isn’t solely the job; it would be a mistake, then, to conflate legality and morality, and to proceed to rescind suspected criminals’ human rights on that basis. Or, to bring it back to the idea of interests and human rights being rooted in said interests: yes, okay, they might have violated the law, but surely we also have to take into account other factors that, while not strictly law-related, still carry weight in the question of someone’s execution?
To insist otherwise would also, I think, expose an untenable paradox at the heart of the pro-killing argument: If a suspect’s relation to the law is our primary (if not sole) metric for judgment, then what do we make of the disregard (if not disdain) for due process and equal protection, concepts which are themselves central to our laws?
“No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.”
Clearly the due process and equal protection clauses aren’t mere formalities, despite many recent claims to the contrary. As the above quote from Tasioulas reminds us, law clarifies the guidelines for enforcing certain important moral notions espoused by society. In this case, due process and equal protections are notions once deemed vital enough to have been given definite legal embodiments.
Which brings me back to the idea of universality. Tasioulas noted that this–applicability throughout humanity–set human rights apart from other kinds of rights. However, in practice, different rights don’t always align neatly; as Tasioulas notes at one point, there are cases in which certain rights are overridden by other concerns/considerations. But the question is, which rights are open to being overridden, and in what circumstances? In this specific context, what outweighs a person’s right to live, or at least a person’s right to have that question given considerable thought? Are there any conditions that render a person fully and fundamentally excluded from the coverage of the law’s safeguards?
The due process and equal protection clauses as well as the legislature’s suspension of the death penalty in 2006 seems to say: nothing does. But the death penalty has had a complicated history here, and there has been a lot of popular support for its reintroduction these past few months. That support is driven by the same sentiments behind the celebration of the ever-growing “Kill List” and the frequent bypassing of any semblance of due process — sentiments that, I think, continue to flourish despite strong reasons for opposition.
So what, if anything, has changed? The administration? Basing procedures on the orders of particular personalities seems dangerous in a political landscape as tumultuous as ours. The urgency of the problem? I’d like to think that any grave, far-reaching problem merits solutions that are aware of their own equally far-reaching consequences. Society, and some deep-set aspect within the people themselves? That’s a possibility too monstrous to contemplate.
- This word has gained kind of a pejorative sense lately, which is an interesting thing to explore and also not the sense I intend to convey here, lol. [back]
- To put it in most people’s less-delicate terms: “scum”[back]
- His caveat: that “interests” here isn’t necessarily in the Utilitarian sense, i.e. as something that first and foremost must be maximized. [back]
- One example Tasioulas uses in the podcast: how about those people who are not agents, or don’t have complete agency, or have been rendered incapable of making completely rational decisions — are their human rights (for example, to life) forfeit?[back]