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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jack Donnelly disses collective rights

For all the talk of excessive individualism, the problem in the world today is not too many individual rights but that individual human rights are not sufficiently respected. States and societies have a variety of claims on individuals and modern states have awesome powers to bring individuals to their knees; if necessary, to break their minds as well as their bodies. Human rights, and particularly legal rights, are among the few resources of individuals in the face of the modern state. The balance is already (always?) tilted against the individual. The only likely result of advocating collective human rights ... is a further strengthening of the forces of repression.

Every day we see individuals crushed by society. Rarely, if ever, do we see society torn apart by the exercise of individual human rights. Social disorder and decay are usually associated with the violation of individual human rights by the state or some other organized segment of society. Human rights are a rare and valuable intellectual and moral resource in the struggle to right the balance between society (and the state) and the individual. Unless we preserve their distinctive character and stand firm on their character as individual rights, their positive role in the struggle for human dignity may be compromised.


I'm not actually big on the misleading (IMO) expression "human dignity", but it'll do as a place marker in this context. I think these paras from Jack Donnelly's book on human rights sum up something important.


That Guy Montag said...

I'm going to say I can't see anything I'd disagree with there though I would try to include a point you've made before Russell that I rather liked that it's important we remember that the kinds of actions that things like Human Rights limit are fundamentally actions that are popular so for instance discrimination against a minority, whether they are immigrants or prisoners, but also increasingly restrictive security measures.

The only other point I'd add is that I'm not entirely opposed to the idea of human dignity because I don't think it's too difficult to have a very useful definition. I think it's something that's so sadly missing from so much of the world, the idea that other people matter. For instance I can't stand the way there is always a scrum to get on or off public transport as if we can't do people the simple courtesy of giving them a foot of space to themselves. It's a small example but I think a poignant one and while I'm open to the suggestion that that's a little old fashioned and that I should really be talking about autonomy, I am certain that it is at the very least something that needs to form a part of the thinking because I think it's part of the kind of expanding spheres of moral concern that seems to work so effectively.

Jambe said...

Those paragraphs are... extremely generalized; they almost struck me as preaching. I suppose there's a point to be drawn, though.

It's ultimately a balancing act, isn't it? Individual freedoms vs rules necessary for the functioning of society. Things would be much clearer if involved parties determined which "rights" humans and societies should have and why, in fairly granular detail, so that when time comes to trade individual rights for collective ones (or vice-versa) there's less ambiguity.

The problem is, consensus on what constitutes "human dignity" (or "flourishing") is unlikely, especially between the world's largest disparate cultures. So it's hard to define a clear, all-encompassing goal which would be suitable explanation for every proposed right. Such a panacea-like concept would be too vague to be of much use anyway; it'd probably be better to tackle "rights" issues on a right-by-right basis. Speech, assembly, suffrage, individual social programs, etc.

I also don't know if the individual-crushing is as terrible a problem as Donnelly suggests, at least in the modern west. It seems to me that the modern west represents a fairly high point in the history of our species' well-being and freedom.

There's also the question of what exactly Donnelly sees as "crushing". Is the US FTC always repressive, for example, or is he only referring to the actions of auto/theocratic regimes? Surely there's a scale of offensiveness. How do, say, the Israelis compare to the Burmese Junta?

Tony Lloyd said...

I would want to distinguish two types of "collective right".

The first is a collection of individual rights. We all have, say, the right to breathe and this summation of all our rights competes against the rights of an individual to drive a gas guzzler.

The second is the rights of a collective, say the Catholic Church, Warwick University, or Everton Football Club. These collectives may be free associations of people with a common cause. This being the case it is not altogether nonesense to talk of them "having rights", but the collectives rights are parasitic on the individuals. I would dispute that collectives have any rights in and of themselves.

It seems to me that the most conflicts surrounding individual/collective rights stem from confusing the two.

Jim Royal said...

Excessive individualism? Collective rights? Of where, precisely, are we speaking? The United States? Canada? France? Germany? India? Morocco? China? Iran? Pakistan? Saudi Arabia?

The definitions shift tremendously based on the context.

David said...

I struggle to find anything I disagree with in that passage too. I think an interesting topic for discussion on the question would be immunisation. Immunisation is an example of a situation where the state (at least in most countries) has not enforced immunisation on individuals on an appeal for greater community safety. Which probably undermines the 'always' in parentheses in the first paragraph.

That Guy Montag said...


I'm not sure to what degree I like the idea of it being characterised as a balancing act. It's been my experience that there's a reason that abstracting principles from Kant's Categorial Imperatives to Rawls Original Position to Nagel's View from Nowhere appear to be so powerful and I don't think it's surprising that they can often give fairly concrete answers to questions and we shouldn't be too quick to ignore the strength of these kinds of principles.

No, instead I think the problem is more when we rely on grand totalising schemes to explain everything of what we want to get from any moral system so I very much agree with you when you point out that "it'd probably be better to tackle "rights" issues on a right-by-right basis. Speech, assembly, suffrage, individual social programs, etc." Maybe, if it doesn't get too difficult, we should event boil it down further to a case by case basis and then I dare say what we get starts to look maybe a little more like politics.


I really like your distinction so a suggestion to expand it a little bit. We need to draw two kinds of distinctions, roughly metaphysical and epistemelogical. Your second definition is the strictly metaphysical one in that it says what rights are constituted by and I think it's quite right that we ought to perceive collective rights of say minorities within governments as being parasitic on individual rights. That kind of thinking helps avoid the sort of difficulties many people have with multiculturalism a view which fails because it fails to conceive of cultures properly as collectives of individuals. What I find interesting about this is that it's at the level of the individual where we appear to get principles at their most general, so it ties into my point above to Jambe.

To expand on this I generally take the view that the fundamental problem we face in ethics, but also politics, is one of epistemology and that's where I think your first definition poses a real challenge in the sense that I need to either describe properly or explain away moral dilemmas because nothing I've said is incompatible with the idea of conflicting moral requirements. Jambe, if you're still reading I think that is me suggesting maybe I was too hasty in thinking balance doesn't have a part to play.

No no, it looks like I'm right back in a state of confusion here. Anything anyone thinks I got right there?