Human Rights

On page 335, I say “We must therefore insist that though people do have a political right to equal concern and respect on the right conception, they have a more fundamental because more abstract right. They have a right to be treated with the attitude that these debates presuppose and reflect – a right to be treated as a human being whose dignity fundamentally matters. That more abstract right – the right to an attitude – is the basic human right.”

Samuel Scheffler very helpfully pointed out a series of possible problems in this formulation. It might suggest, first, that an act or practice does not violate human rights unless those responsible were in a particular mental state. It might suggest, second, that it is the mental state that constitutes a violation, so that a government violates human rights when its officials hold the wrong attitudes even though they never act on them. I should have made plainer that this summary formulation presupposes the rest of the discussion: whether a government violates human rights depends on whether its acts, set in the context of its broader culture, history and policies, are best interpreted as denying the requisite attitude toward some people or groups. It is, moreover, its acts – the way it treats people – that are the subject of that interpretive judgment, not anyone’s bare attitudes.

Scheffler raises a further important question. Does this formulation allow for horizontal human rights? Does it accommodate, for example, the now popular view that transnational corporations must respect the human rights of their employees or of others who are affected by their conduct? Yes, but it makes that popular view depend on controversial answers to further open questions. Whether some institution’s behavior is correctly interpreted as denying anyone’s right to dignity depends on the level of concern it is required to show for him.

Throughout Part 5 I assume that a government has a responsibility of equal concern for all those subject to its dominion. We disagree about what that means: we disagree about what economic system equal concern requires, for instance. But if a government’s policies cannot be interpreted as enforcing any good faith answer to that question, its policies deny the dignity of those who suffer in consequence. In Part 4, on the contrary, I assume that private individuals have no comparable responsibility to strangers. I may permissibly exhibit more concern for myself and my family than for you and yours, and my favoritism therefore cannot be interpreted as denying you full human status and dignity. But if my behavior is sufficiently unmindful of your welfare – if I refuse to rescue you when I easily can or if I deliberately harm you – then, as I claim in Part 4, I have violated your rights because I have failed to show your humanity the right respect.

Human rights conventions are constructed with the high responsibilities of coercive governments in mind: they assume that government must show all those over whom it exercises power an equal concern. We must therefore approach the question whether people have comparable rights against giant transnational corporations by first fixing the level of concern these organizations owe to those whose lives they affect. Which analogy should we use? Ordinary commercial enterprises do not owe the same concern to customers as to shareholders: they are obliged to seek a profit for the latter by enticing the former. They are subject to the constraints of decency of Part 4 but not the much stronger constraints of coercive government. But giant corporations have many powers that strike critics as coercive and it might therefore be right to hold them to the greater level of concern we associate with governments. I have not attempted argument for or against that different analogy, but nothing in my discussion of human rights in Chapter 15 rules it out.

This entry was posted in FURTHER COMMENTS and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.