The language of universal human rights has permeated contemporary conversations about justice. Many are familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s famous assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, and have been endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Contemporary society seeks to extend all these rights to every human being regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and the like. We have set up watchdog organizations like the United Nations in order to police violations of basic human rights around the world. Furthermore, as society has changed and developed many have begun clamoring about rights that Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers would never have envisioned as universal, such as the “right to healthcare” or the “right to education.” This language of rights has become the basis for respecting others; in order to respect another person, one must be able to recognize and affirm his or her rights. But does this language of human rights that we have become so accustomed to actually provide a sufficient basis for respecting human beings?
What is meant when we talk about people having rights? We typically think of rights as unalienable and universal standards of how we are to treat other human beings. They cannot be forfeited and every human being is entitled to them simply because he or she is human. The modern concept of human rights originated during the Enlightenment. One notable thinker from this period is John Locke. For Locke, there exists a law of nature above every man and even over states, which derives its authority directly from the Creator. In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke says, “Reason, being that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, and possessions.” The preservation of one’s life, liberty from absolute and arbitrary power, and the preservation of one’s possessions constitute the three “rights” that the law of nature, which we can understand through reason, prescribes. Even the state answers to the law of nature: “the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others.”
Since the law of nature is above any man-made law, no government can legitimately infringe on the rights that the law of nature prescribes. Hence these rights are unalienable. While the state may have the power to take away, for example, someone’s property, it does so in contradiction to the law of nature. The property the state confiscates still belongs to the man it was taken from. This concept is still embedded into our notion of rights today. Regardless of one person’s position of power or status in relation to another, they both have the same rights. While we have expanded our list of what rights are basic and universal well beyond the scope of Locke’s three basic rights of life, liberty, and property, the language we use to talk about them is an echo of Locke’s philosophy. This language is pervasive, however, it is not sufficient as a basis for respecting others as human beings.
Why might this be so? Philosopher Simone Weil opens her book The Need for Roots by examining this question. For Weil rights are not universal, nor are they unalienable, as she points out “rights are always found related to certain conditions.” The language of rights presupposes certain conditions such as equality and liberty in order to be coherent. However,Weil never denies the validity of the concept of rights entirely, but rather subordinates them to another concept: obligation. In one sense obligation and right can be thought of as the same concept seen from different perspectives. When someone has an obligation to another, he or she owes certain treatment to the other person. However, when seen from the perspective of the other, that person is owed, or has a right to certain treatment. The relation is one of object and subject. Weil does not treat them as equivalent concepts. For Weil, obligations exist eternally while rights do not, which is why she chooses to subordinate the latter to the former. How is this so? They are not eternal because they only make sense in certain contexts. Obligations exist not only in relation to others, but also in isolation. Weil says “A man, considered in isolation only has duties, amongst which are duties to himself…a man left alone in the universe would have no rights, but he would have obligations.” For Weil, rights exist only because obligations exist; they have no meaning by themselves.
So unlike obligations, rights do not exist independent of conditions. There is often a disconnect between talking about rights as an abstract concept and actual conditions within which people exist. In A Common Humanity, Raimond Gaita illustrates this with a powerful anecdote. Gaita recounts his experience of working in a psychiatric ward in his youth:
The patients were judged to be incurable and they appeared to have lost everything which gives meaning to our lives. They had no grounds for self-respect insofar as we could connect with self-esteem; or none which could be based on qualities or achievements for which we could admire them or congratulate them without condescension. Friends, wives, children and even parents had long ceased to visit them. Often they were treated brutishly by psychiatrists and nurses.
While the patients were treated poorly for the most part, Gaita points out that a few doctors made an effort to treat them with some dignity in spite of the conditions in which they found them. Gaita applauded them for their attempts to respect the patients, but he eventually came to realize that in spite of their best efforts, they could not help but assume an attitude of condescension. This was revealed to him by a certain nun, whose every action and attitude towards the patients contrasted with those of the doctors. Her compassion revealed their condescension.
The few kind doctors in the mental hospital recognized, at least notionally, the dignity of patients and treated them with respect. You could say that the doctors recognized and even respected the patient’s “rights.” Similarly, we often recognize and affirm that other people have rights and notionally pay homage to them, but this is rarely accompanied by an actual respect for the other person. The doctors wanted to talk about their patients’ right to be treated in a dignified manner, however, they could not talk about them as being equal without condescension, because the reality of their conditions was one of stark inequality. It was only the compassion of the nun, not talk of universal human rights, which showed Gaita that “even such patients were, as the psychiatrists had sincerely and generously professed, the equals of those who wanted to help them.”
What Gaita illustrates here quite effectively is that the concept of rights is indeed bound to conditions. The more disparate someone’s condition is from yours the more difficult it is to have true respect for them without condescension, even if you adhere to the concept of unalienable human rights or dignity. It is much easier to respect someone’s dignity by recognizing their rights if they are on equal footing. In situations where there is a strong imbalance of power or freedom, it is the love of the nun rather than talk of unalienable rights that allows us to respect the foreigner, or the sick, or the mentally ill. The purpose of the language of inalienable human rights is to provide us with a means of respecting all human beings equally, but the reality of human conditions seems to undermine this.
In Gaita’s example, the language of human rights does not allow us to truly respect human beings in situations of pronounced inequality. No matter how hard we try to abstract human beings as having equal rights, we cannot escape the actual conditions in which human beings live. N, Furthermore, there are situations where the language of rights makes no sense at all. For example, suppose a young man were taken prisoner in a war and forced into slavery. His masters treat him brutishly and force him to perform impossibly difficult labor. The young man is completely at their mercy, he is powerless to resist their oppression without forfeiting his own life. It would be absurd for him to accuse them of violating his basic human rights, and his masters would scoff at him if he made such a claim. Some distant authority could hear of the young man’s mistreatment and visit his masters and tell them to stop because of the young man’s right to freedom. But as long as the young man’s captors continue to disregard these rights, his deplorable conditions will continue. We can talk about rights all we want, but if there is no authority to recognize them, they are meaningless. The language of rights loses some of its universality when people are thrust into conditions of destitution and powerlessness. In Locke’s commonwealth, where everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, it might make sense to talk about rights, but as soon as we venture outside of that world, the language of rights has little meaning.
If the language of universal human rights fails to provide a sufficient basis for respecting others as human beings, then what concepts might we use in their place? In order to truly be able to respect others the concept of human rights must be seen as subordinate to the concept of obligation, as Weil suggests. What is it then about obligation as opposed to rights that makes it a more sufficient lens for respecting others? Obligation places the proper focus on the other person. When someone recognizes that they are obligated to act towards another person in a certain manner, their focus shifts to the object of the obligation. The problem with the language of rights is it forces us to focus not on actual persons, but persons as abstract concepts. As Gaita’s example of the psychiatric ward demonstrates, the language of rights abstracts real people as a part of a general definition of humanity and what humans are entitled to that is not in conformity with reality. Like the noble psychiatrists we cannot truly respect others unless our focus is on the persons themselves. When we say that we are obligated to treat people a certain way, we must recognize the physical and spiritual needs of the actual person if we are to meet those obligations. In The Need for Roots, Weil lays out some of these basic needs that are the object of our obligations. In addition to fulfilling others’ physical needs, Weil recognizes an obligation to fulfill the “needs of the soul.” Interestingly one of Weil’s needs of the soul is the need for punishment. Instinctively one might see this as the need for retribution: the need for punishment is the need for the victims of a crime to feel vindicated, or for society as a whole to purge itself of evil. But for Weil the person who is truly in need is the person being punished. We have an obligation to punish wrongdoers for their own good. This is a powerful example of how Weil’s concept of obligations and needs of the soul places the focus on other human beings, rather than abstractions.
Obligations also can exist independently of conditions. While talking of the “rights” of the patients in the psychiatric ward who were mistreated by the nurses, or talking about the “rights” of a slave who is totally subject to a cruel master, may not make sense, the obligations that the nurses or the master have to still exist, even if they refuse to fulfill them. As Weil says, “An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.” This gives the concept of obligation the universality that the language of rights claims to have, but in reality does not.
The language of rights, while prevalent in our contemporary discussions of justice, does not provide a sufficient basis for respecting others. For example, in circumstances of glaring inequality in power or status, like Gaita’s example of the mental ward, the language of rights does not allow us to respect other persons as they are, but only in terms of abstract propositions about them. On the other hand, the concept of obligation does provide a sufficient basis for respecting others. While the language of obligation naturally places our focus on other actual human beings rather than propositions about human beings, this does not automatically make us respect them. However, when we recognize our obligations to fulfill the needs of others, we are forced to confront the reality of the other person. And if we strive to meet these obligations, eventually through habituation we may indeed begin to truly respect the people whose needs we are trying to fulfill. While recognizing obligations alone does not automatically make us respect others, it is a necessary foundation. The language of rights might be helpful all else being equal, but it does not form a sufficient basis for respecting other human beings in all situations. Only when we recognize our obligations to meet the needs of others can we begin to respect others, not only our equals, but also the most afflicted among us.
 Locke, 6
 Ibid, 135
 Weil, 4
 Weil, 4
 Gaita, 17-18
 Gaita, 19
 Weil, 7
 Ibid, 20-21
 Weil, 3
Locke, John. Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, Edited by Stephen M. Cahn. Oxford
University Press, 2005
Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots. New York: Routledge, 2001
Gaita, Raimond. A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. New York: