Respect Not Legislation

An interesting column from Andrew Hamilton in today’s Eureka Street on the recent extension of the language of ‘rights’ in Australian public discourse, and the often conflicting demands from people who either want their rights legislated for or want other people’s rights denied because the rights of others are interfering in the petitioner’s rights.

Human rights are often seen as a list of individual rights that are self-contained and unconditional. In this view rights are individual entitlements that you have fully or not at all. So you must defend your rights tooth and nail against people who wish to excise part of them on the grounds that you are contravening their rights.

From this perspective the claim to rights is always competitive because other individuals will make conflicting claims. The conflict must be resolved by the assertion of power, either the power of government or the power of the majority. The corollary of this view is that you do not have a right until someone concedes it to you. Perhaps that is why governments behave so vituperatively when any critic accuses them of abusing human rights. The criticism supposes that rights are not the government’s to give and to remove.

Such conversation and conflict is, in my estimation, entirely unedifying and unhelpful. No one can win when this kind of ‘zero sum’ game is played with human rights.

Hamilton makes the suggestion that there needs to be a different approach to human rights and their application, an approach that is based not on legislation but on respect – a respect for the reality of each human being.

It is better to see human rights as expressions of what it means to flourish as human beings. Like health, flourishing can be named in various dimensions. We do not flourish unless we have sufficient food, sleep, shelter, access to medical care, education and work, the freedom to associate with others, to marry and form a family, to publicly state our political and religious opinions, to express our thoughts freely and to associate in groups of like-minded people.

At the heart of such an approach is the recognition that we are human beings and not someone who is of this or that religion, this or that nationality, this or that ability, etc. Such a change in conversation would radically change the nature of public discourse in Australia, a change that is, again in my estimation, long overdue.