7.3.5 Objection 4: Don’t ‘human rights’ conflict?

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Unit 7 Contents


Objection 4:

Claims about rights often clash and produce insoluble conflicts.

This issue about rights conflicting, or at least appearing to do so, is a big one and I can only touch on it here.  I’ll make two main points.

First, within a single, overall view of human rights (for instance the Catholic Christian view presented in Pacem in Terris) there is remarkable consistency, and therefore lack of conflict, in what upholding rights requires in practice.  This is because of what is called ‘specification’. This term refers to what any particular right (or duty) actually requires in practice, once the details of the real world are taken into account. In other words, it refers to what a right entails in a specific, real situation.  For example, a general right to private property can appear to clash with the right of government to impose taxation.  But these are not inconsistent because property rights are subject to the principle of the universal destination of goods, and therefore to government having the right to raise taxation necessary in order to fulfil its proper role. However, government has no right to increase taxation just in order, for example, to line the pockets of its advisers.  When we specify the details of particular cases of alleged conflicts of rights, the conflicts often disappear.

While there is not space to explain it fully here, Catholic teaching is that such ‘specification’ can show that there are ultimately no cases of insoluble conflict between true, specific claims about either duties or rights.1. If there were really such conflict, we would have no option but actually to violate human rights sometimes.  But Catholic teaching has long been that, if we can think carefully enough about specific cases (which is called ‘casuistry’), we will recognize that we never actually have to choose to do what is morally wrong – which violating human rights always would be.  God never requires us to sin.

Second, real clashes between what people claim are rights do arise, but this is because there are deeply different overall views about human rights.  For example, Catholic teaching emphasises that abortion violates the right to life of the human foetus.  But non-Christian, voluntarist thinking tends to hold that the foetus does not have the status of a human person until it is capable of living outside the womb, and that, until this point, the mother’s right to choose in relation to her own body means that she may have an abortion.  So the ‘right to life’ clashes with this ‘right to choose’.  But what is at stake here is much bigger than a conflict of two specific claims about rights.  It is, rather, a deep difference between two overall views about the human person, namely a Christian one and an individualistic, voluntarist one.  Indeed in the past few decades a contest between these two – and their partly non-overlapping visions of human rights – has become highly prominent in public life in several countries, playing out in a range of neuralgic controversies (for example, about euthanasia and assisted suicide, and what ‘marriage’ is).2  There are similarly deep differences that underlie disagreements about economic justice and ecological protection, as units 3, 4 and 5 have brought out. Inevitably, positions that clash in this overall way also clash about some details.  ‘Specification’ certainly cannot resolve rights conflicts of that kind – because they involve incompatible worldviews.  Yet, despite the reality of such deep differences, there continues to be widespread agreement, at least in principle, on the rights set out in the Universal Declaration.

What these two points mean is that when we hear about alleged clashes of rights, it is always worth asking these questions:

  • First, can we try to specify in more detail exactly what the apparently conflicting rights actually require in practice?  If we can, does that appearance dissolve?
  • Second, does the alleged clash in fact reflect two deeply different worldviews, with the consequence that detailed thinking about the particular claims cannot have any success in bringing resolution?

It is the second kind of case which proves enormously controversial in public debate – because in any one legal jurisdiction at any one time, only one of the clashing views can be expressed in the law of the land.  The very big issues this raises are addressed in Module B.

On the last four screens, we have considered four objections to human rights discourse.  All of them have to be taken seriously, especially the third, I suggest – the phenomenon of ‘rights inflation’ and the related under-emphasis on duties and responsibilities.  But none of these four lines of argument presents a decisive reason for refusing to make use of the language of rights.  Rather, they make clear that it needs to be used carefully and well.   This matters a great deal, because the range of benefits and freedoms it refers to are highly important for whether people really have the chance to live life to the full.


End of 7.3.5

Go to 7.3.6 Taking action against human rights abuses

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  1. “The specification view is often expressed with an analogy to spatial limits. Suppose that neighbors disagree about who owns a particular fence post. A careful survey of the property lines will reveal the precise spatial limits of each neighbor’s property and so resolve the conflict. Similarly, the specification view holds that the careful examination of the limits of rights resolves cases of rights conflict.” George Rainbolt, ‘Rights Conflict’, IVR Encyclopaedia of Jurisprudence, Legal Theory and Philosophy of Law, at http://ivr-enc.info/index.php?title=Rights_Conflict (accessed Aug. 2011). 

  2. For brief comments on the debate about marriage, see 6.3.5, n. 2