How not to argue about human rights

Amanda Marcotte had a really strange piece today in Alternet, which was cross-posted at Salon. She is apparently trying to respond to conservative efforts to demand liberals articulate where human rights come from. The conservatives Marcotte focuses on claim they come from God, while Marcotte explains that they come from, well, um…don’t worry about it.

What’s really bizarre about the piece is that Marcotte recognizes that conservatives aren’t actually looking to have some debate about where rights come from. They want to have a debate about what rights people should actually have. She claims they engage in this debate for two reasons:

  1. to make “it easier for the right to actually restrict the number of rights they will accept that people have, all while pretending to be pro-rights”, and
  2. to “dismiss the idea that the rest of us have a right not to have their religion imposed on us.”

What’s her response to the conservative’s effort to argue that we ought to have different rights than the ones liberals think we ought to have?

What are liberals to do? Well, as tempting as it is to take conservative bait and try to argue a secular version of where rights come from, the smarter move is to refocus the conversation. Where rights come from is less important than emphasizing how important rights are for people’s lives. The right to vote, to get an abortion, to have food on the table and access to a doctor, to marry whom you like: These aren’t rights because your version of God whispered it in your ear. We respect these rights because we know that people’s lives are made worse if they don’t have them. At the end of the day, distracting from real people’s lives is what conservatives are trying to do with all this talk about rights coming from God. Liberals shouldn’t allow that to happen.

This paragraph is entirely incoherent. At the top she says liberals should refuse to justify a liberal theory of human rights. Then halfway through she says the a liberal theory of human rights is justified because “we know that people’s lives are made worse if they don’t have them.” That last bit is a theory of the origin of human rights. It says we ought to define rights in welfarist terms. So which is it? Should liberals refuse to justify a theory of human rights or should they do so by saying human rights are simply rules of thumb that track welfarist goals? Marcotte is saying both at the same time.

The thing that is really bothersome about this piece is the claim that liberals should not have to justify their political theories. First, all groups should have to justify their political theories. Second, not doing so is a ridiculously bad strategy. Giving way to a universally conservative discourse by not engaging arguments is a good way to doom yourself in the long run. Those forming their political beliefs seem to like to explain their views beyond saying “I refuse to explain.” Third, it is a huge tip off that you actually have no idea how to justify your position. Nobody is fooled into believing that you actually have this winner argument in your pocket, but are just unwilling to unleash it. They know you don’t.

What’s really sad here is that there is a massive literature on the human rights topic. You could spend a couple of hours researching this topic and have a half-dozen answers to the right-wing.

For instance, here is famed philosopher of justice Amartya Sen’s take, which I wrote about in February this year. If I may quote myself:

So Sen’s view here is refreshingly realistic. He basically argues that an assertion about the existence of a right is not a metaphysical claim or a claim of moral certainty on the point: it is just a strong way of making a normative claim. So when someone says “health care is a right,” they are really saying in a stronger voice something like “health care is really important, everyone should have the freedom to access it, and we should ensure as a society that they do.” It is stated in terms of recognizing the existence of a right, but it’s really just a basic moral claim about what we ought to do.

Personally, I hate theories of human rights. I find the whole way they are discussed broadly useless. But if liberals want a theory of human rights that is straightforward and simple, it’s not hard to come by. You just say, as Sen points out, that saying “X is a human right” is a fancy rhetorical way to say “X should be something everyone is entitled to.” Then of course you have to provide background reasons for why that is the case (e.g. the welfarist reasons Marcotte opts for).

If you are dead set on always appealing to “human rights,” this is a better way to go. Whichever way you go though, please don’t employ the Marcotte strategy of being a “human rights” kind of person that explicitly refuses to actually explain yourself. That’s extremely bizarre.