Human Rights and Wrongs

I’m continuing my discussion of Roger Scruton’s view of rights and freedom. Already mentioned is the transition in recent generations from “freedom rights” to “claim rights.” In the place of older notions of liberty are new expectations about the “quality of life” that each person must, it is said, be guaranteed by society.

According to Scruton, “it is easy to see why a libertarian might object to the expansion of the list of human rights to include claim rights—especially claims to nonspecific benefits like health, education, a certain standard of living, and so on, many of which crept into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the approval of Eleanor Roosevelt. For, in the absence of any relation of liability, specifying who is to satisfy these claims, they inevitably point to the state as the only possible provider. And large, vague claims require a massive expansion of state power, a surrender to the state of all kinds of responsibilities that previously vested in individuals, and the centralization of social life in the government machine.” (A helpful discussion of this point can be found in the article “FDR’s Second Bill of Rights.”)

Scruton believes that the extension of rights leads to “rights inflation” or the cheapening of supposed “benefits” at the expense of both duties and meaningful freedoms. “If,” he goes on to say, “there are such things as ‘natural rights’… they ought to have the essentially negative aspect of freedoms; rights not to be molested, rather than claims to specific benefits.” The foundation for any system of rights is one’s understanding of justice. For traditionalists “the distinction between the just and the unjust” is a matter of common sense. It is also limited strictly to the “realm of human action” and “does not apply to states of affairs judged as they are in the themselves.” Scruton is referring to progressive theories of justice, espoused by John Rawls and others. Here the concern is not simply that one person stole money from someone else (an easily identifiable crime), but that some people have more money than others (a highly generalized accusation). The proposed remedy is to address the inequality of “outcomes” through redistribution, regulation, etc. For a related discussion, I refer readers to “Greed, Conscience, and Big Government” (Politics & Prosperity).

Where I think Scruton displays real insight and depth of understanding is in his concluding discussion of “noncontractural obligations.” The English thinker goes beyond both Hobbesian and Rousseauistic notions of “social contract” theory by pointing out that many of our most important obligations are defined in ways that transcend purely legalistic constructs, which is why, for example, “prenuptial agreements” seem such a crass degradation of marriage vows. That is because in traditional matrimony the spouses freely pledge themselves without definite expectations of “what you owe me,” and so forth. For more on these points, readers should pick up a copy of Scruton’s book, The Soul of the World.

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