Note: Previously published in the Dictionary of Ethical Politics (2009)
Project of Resurgence and Open Democracy
The concept of rights confers upon an individual or a group of individuals a kind of permission to act and/or a permission to be in terms of one’s identity or association – these are classically referred to as “liberty rights” or “liberties”. There are also permissions to have access to something, or “entitlements” (for a further discussion see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right). In this sense a right is conferred by a social construct inherently conjoined to an ontological premise, i.e., rights reflect belief systems.
In terms of permission to act, some societies, for example, value the individual right to speech or to congregate in public while other societies view these kinds of actions as deleterious to the society at large and thus delimit individual liberties in deference to a preferred moral picture of society. Permissions to act can be diversely ascribed to genders, e.g., heterosexuals are more often given the right to marry than homosexuals in many societies around the world. In terms of identity and attempting to create a baseline for a shared framework of human rights, the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) is an incredible document well ahead of its time; see http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.
Because rights are inherently conjoined to values this means that they are representational of morality frames and simultaneously people’s personal identity. Rights, in modern times, tend to follow class hierarchy. Thus liberties have been awarded following power positions and related preferences. The right to vote, for example, in the United States was at first relegated only to white males that were also landowners. The ruling class tends to reify power and the act of conferring rights can be in direct opposition to their power position. The tenacity of human beings’ dedication to their belief systems is fierce and is a major reason why forging a truly universal standard for human rights is hauntingly intractable. The cognitive distance between value sets is so large that we have yet to engineer conceptual bridges long enough to negotiate a balance point for a shared standard. Not even the United States of America has been able to ratify the UN Declaration on Human Rights.
Some of the more interesting contemporary rights issues today are related to the commons and associate entitlement rights related to access and use. In relationship to water, the fundamental building block of nature and all life, there is a fascinating debate on whether water is a human need or a human right. If water is a need, than ownership of water and the distribution of water can be privatized and corporatized. Whereas, if water is considered a fundamental human right and part of the global ecological commons, radically different approaches to access and distribution – and most notably disallowing ownership of water must be pursued. There are obvious ethical concerns if global corporations own the world’s water resources – essentially they would be directly controlling life.