If human rights do exist, they must be intrinsic. That is, they should flow from the very nature of the beings we are. Thus, all duly constituted persons possess these rights in kind. These rights are claims of individuals about what should or not be done to them. After all, methodologically, only individuals act. Whatever can be discerned of humans, it is actualized in the lives of individuals.  After all, it is by experiencing this nature in myself that I can grasp more intimate the reality of these claims. These rights are natural because they do not depend on the whim of some authority or the magnanimity of a man-made institution. These rights are often called inalienable because every time we are deprived of them, a wrong is done.

Now, if that is the case, all human beings are connected to this common nature and thus united in a common origin. We are also united in a common interest to see these rights respected as, if men deprive others of these rights, what makes me think I will not be deprived of them at some point? Interestingly, as each person is the bearer of these rights, all men as a group participate in a common nature, a common set of claims, and a common interest in defending these rights. Regardless of what theory you support in terms of the ultimate source of these rights, there is no doubt that the proximate source is man himself.

Do all rights come from God or from nature? No. Other rights come from my voluntary agreement with others, from the contract I establish with others. For example, I am entitled to a given salary I negotiated with my employer and that claim comes from that relationship. I have a right to vote at a certain age as that understanding comes from a specific legal system. However, we believe that even these constructs may have a moral or ultimate basis, they should make sense to the creatures for whom they are granted. In other words, there has to be a point for granting them.

As we see, there is a real universal thrust, a collective reality that unites all men. I call it the universal commonality of human dignity.  It is easy to notice also that there is an individual existential expression of these claims we call rights and that is the person. The individual then has a claim for the respect of his autonomy and dignity but also a duty to respect that autonomy in others.

So, we are unique and unrepeatable and at once members of a common race. Yes, that is why we are born from others and are totally dependent in their magnanimity and care to survive. In effect, each one of us is a complete being when it comes to certain acts such as locomotion or digestion but when it comes to reproduction, to bringing forth other beings called to autonomy, we are only half of a being. As for reproduction, we are a single organic principle only in union with another. So, we are connected and need each other, community has its place. What is that place?

There must be some solution to the question of the relative place of community in the lives of beings that, as we established, are called to autonomy. Some have argued that autonomy is an illusion, that our meaning and destiny exist only in union to the group. Some attributed the ultimate matrix of existence to class, others to race, and more recently some attribute it to the community or the state.

We know of the failures of the first two ideologies but what about comunitarianism?  Well, one problem is that there is no such thing as a community. We are members of a multitude of communities at once, and thus it is difficult to attribute to a given community any binding power to determine our existence. Some have attempted to collapse all basic communities into the affairs and institutions of the state.  In this way they think we can solve any apparent difficulty in deriving rights from so many communities. That answer refers to the failures of Marxism and Fascism that not many try to directly defend today and we will put aside for the time being.

The greatest threat I see today is this notion of communitarianism that indirectly strengthens the institutions of the state and forgets the uniqueness of the individual.

The confusion lies in the difference between inclination and obligation. Yes, I am influenced by my participation in communities and by the environment where I live but these factors may incline me one way or the other without sealing my fate. Community brings me the opportunity to trade, to do things I could not do by myself by giving me access to the skills of others. It also offers me things like friendship, camaraderie and culture.

But what we all experience is that these things offer benefits to the individual, they enrich the person and each of us absorbs these influences differently. There remains one priority and that is the person himself. The “action frame of reference” to use Talcott  Parson’s term, sends us always to the one who actually acts, and that is the individual person. This methodological individualism. The community is never a self-fulfilling, free standing entity regardless of what may apparently look like inconsequential individual action. Every time we gaze too long at the label, we miss the person in front of us. Even in economics, every time we examine aggregations the conclusions are general and often misleading.

Going back to the idea of the primacy of the individual will help us understand what our rights are and protect them from those who love to better talk of indicators using colorful charts.

Advertisements