I call it the Principle of Common Sense Rights:
Provided you behave as a civil human being, you have the right to be treated as a civil human being.
Behaving as a civil human being means obeying the law, including respecting the equal rights of others. It is because of this that common sense equality can be said, like justice, to trump rights.
So, what rights do you acquire through behaving in this way?
I’ll start with a conventional list of human rights, the UN Declaration from 1948. Looking through the list, I find myself dividing the listed “rights” into four groups. I call these: fundamental rights, rights of non-impedance, wisdoms and aspirations.
Fundamental rights result from moral prohibitions – that is, prohibitions applicable to everyone – of the form “Thou shalt not...” followed by something bad. For example: The right to life (thou shalt not kill). Dignity (thou shalt not treat human beings as less than human). Security of person (thou shalt not do violence). Property (thou shalt not steal). No slavery. No torture. No cruel or unusual punishment. No unjust arrest or detention. No unjust interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence. No untrue defamation. No coercion into marriage. And others.
There are also some fundamental rights which should be in the Declaration, but aren’t. Notably, peace (thou shalt not commit aggressions). But also, no stalking or routine surveillance, no search without reasonable suspicion of real wrongdoing – and in particular, no random searches, on any pretext – and no unjust seizure of goods or other assets.
I am coming to think that there should also, perhaps, be some kind of “right to truth,” based on “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Aspects of this might include: A right to challenge false public statements made about you, or about issues affecting you. A right to know what information others hold about you. And a right to have such statements or information corrected or removed if they are wrong.
I hope all readers will agree with these fundamental rights, and the rightness of the prohibitions which underlie them. I hope, too, that few will disagree with my second category, rights of non-impedance. These result from more nuanced moral prohibitions, of the form “Thou shalt not put any obstacle in the way of...” followed by something good. In this category fall rights such as: Freedom of movement and residence. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Freedom of opinion and of speech. Freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Freedom to marry. Freedom to seek work. Free choice of employment.
As with fundamental rights, there are also some rights of non-impedance missing from the Declaration. For example, freedom for each individual to pursue his or her own happiness.
The third group I call wisdoms. Examples include: equality before the law; public, impartial courts and trials; and innocence until proven guilty. They represent, in a Western view at least, the best ways found so far to organize Civilization justly. These are all good stuff; but they’re necessarily provisional. There’s always a chance of discovering better ways to do these things.
The fourth group I call aspirations, though some call them “positive rights.” Examples are a “right to work,” social security, a minimum standard of living or “free” education. While most people would agree with the gist of these aspirations, there’s a problem with elevating them into “rights.” For, when such a “right” requires someone other than the receiver to pay for it, that is itself a violation of the rights of those who are forced to pay.
But these aspirations can easily be recast as rights of non-impedance. For example, the “right to work” turns into the right not to be impeded from seeking work. And the “right to a minimum standard of living” becomes a right not to be impeded from trading with others to get your basic needs satisfied such as food, shelter and sex. In other words, no-one should ever put any obstacle in the way of anyone’s access to the free market.
Similarly, no-one should put obstacles in the way of anyone insuring against illness, injury or other incapacities. Or providing a good education for their children. Or making themselves financially secure.
Thus, all real rights are either fundamental rights, rights of non-impedance, or “wisdoms” which represent the best ways so far found to achieve justice.
But there’s a sting in the tail. Or, more accurately, in the proviso at the front of the Principle. If you fail to behave in a civil manner, then to the extent that you fail, you forfeit correspondingly some of your own rights. This is why it’s OK, for example, to deny freedom of movement to convicted criminals in prison.
Rejecting the cop-out clauses
Conventional views of human rights, however, don’t make this proviso. Instead, they allow political governments – or the EU, or the UN – to cop out, and to limit rights for trumped-up reasons.
The Declaration includes the following text:
2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
– United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 29
If the Article quoted above had stopped after the word “others,” I could have accepted it. But instead, there are excuses for cop-out such as “morality,” “public order,” “the general welfare” or “the purposes and principles of the UN.”
Questions present themselves. What morality? How can “public order” be compatible with the nature of conscious beings to create order, not to be brought to order? Does “the general welfare” differ from John Locke’s “public good,” and if so, how and why? And if the UN gets a bee in its bonnet about something – say, deep green environmentalism, or world government – does that negate all human rights in that area? These cop-outs are both wrong and very, very dangerous.
Certainly, you may choose to give up some of your rights in a particular situation, if you wish. If you have joined with other people in a defensive war or a fight against oppression, for example, you may be willing to give up for the common cause some of your property, or some of your freedom of movement, or some of your opportunities for rest and leisure.
But the rights of a civil human being, unless he or she voluntarily chooses to forgo them, must not be violated. Not for any reason. Ever. They are sacrosanct. And those that violate others’ rights cannot complain if they, in their turn, suffer their own rights being violated.