Part One: Introduction
It has recently become an issue of great concern and a point of significant contention within political philosophy and the liberal paradigm to discuss an expansion of basic or “human” rights. This expansion of human rights essentially involves an inclusion of another innate right, one that has not traditionally been recognized, that of subsistence goods, to the list of already widely accepted human rights such as; life, liberty and property - here it should be made clear that the widely accepted right to “property” does not include a right to specific goods, only the right to own whatever property to which you are otherwise entitled. The position which maintains that this expansion should occur is founded on the premise that subsistence goods (generally considered to consist at least of those goods necessary for basic survival) are required for any human person to live a minimally functional and meaningful life. The position further maintains that it is a human right to have a minimally functional and meaningful life and that not only access to, but the possession of these subsistence goods is required in order to ensure the protection of human rights. This article will therefore argue that some mediated form of an egalitarian society that provides for the basic welfare of its citizens is necessary - although to what extent this egalitarianism should occur is an issue with which this essay does not largely concern itself.
One popular position contrary to this presents a rather complex argument to demonstrate that this right to subsistence goods and services does not meet the criteria required to be a human right. The argument is centered on a concern of right-bearers and obligation-bearers; a concern that is based on a principle which states that all human rights have a corresponding duty or obligation which is required for the fulfillment of the right. The argument then goes on to demonstrate that since there can be no clear “obligation-bearer” for this kind of human right (welfare or economic rights), that it must be substantively different than other human rights and may not be considered alongside these other, widely recognized, human rights (to life, liberty and property). In general, this paper will be arguing in favor of the former position, but will include a consideration of, and response to, the latter. I will attempt to demonstrate in the following pages that it is necessary for a society’s ruling body to procure and provide minimal standards of welfare rights for the citizenry because these needs must be met in order for human beings to have any meaningful ability to exercise their human rights to life, liberty and property. This will be the main consideration in parts three and four of this article. Part two of this article will provide a brief historical foundation and analysis demonstrating that the expansion of economic rights – rights to subsistence goods - as human rights is one which does fit into the Western Liberal paradigm of political philosophy.
Part Two: Laying the Liberal Foundation
In order to more fully understand both positions in regard to their discussion of human rights and what is necessary in order to achieve consideration as human rights, it is important to examine the foundations of this concept in the liberal tradition. Perhaps the first political philosopher to indicate in his writings that there existed a list of rights which all persons have simply by virtue of their existence was John Locke. In his “Second Treatise of Government” John Locke introduced these concepts of rights as things in which “no one ought to harm another” and named “life, health, liberty, or possessions” as basic rights to which all human beings have a legitimate claim.
An important qualification introduced by John Locke in this treatise occurs in his rationale for these being “natural” or human rights. He says that human beings can, through reason alone, come to the conclusion that we have a moral obligation to “preserve the rest of mankind” (Locke 452). Locke then says that in order to preserve the rest of mankind in a way that is just, we may not “take away or impair” (emphasis added) anything that assists to maintain the protection of human rights and preservation of mankind (Locke 452). I will therefore argue that in order to add any specific right to a list of human rights, one must demonstrate that that right, were it not provided for, would take away or impair the preservation of mankind. It is my hope that this article will later demonstrate that living without basic subsistence goods is effectively impairing other human rights and the preservation of mankind and that we must necessarily, therefore, find economic, subsistence rights to be among those other human rights.
The position supporting an expansion of human rights to include economic rights often finds a strong foundation in the egalitarian political philosophy of contemporary philosopher John Rawls. In his A Theory of Justice, Rawls indicates that operating under his two principles of justice requires a form of economic egalitarianism to the extent that economic inequalities, if any, must be to the benefit of all people (Rawls 1046). Rawls further moves on to demonstrate that this principle of justificatory reasoning for economic inequalities within an institution (the state) necessitates a social and economic structure set up by the state such that society gives “more attention to those with fewer native assets” – here it should be understood by “giving more attention’” Rawls intends greater economic rights (Rawls 1046, 1049). Rawls’ application of egalitarianism within the Liberal paradigm is one instance which resulted in the consideration of the idea that economic rights could be justified within the Liberal tradition of political philosophy.
Part Three: An Analysis of Recent Important Texts
One recent publication that outlines the argument in favor of economic rights (sometimes called “welfare rights”) as human rights is James W. Nickel’s “A Defense of Welfare Rights as Human Rights.” In this article, Nickel defends economic rights by creating a structure of justice through which to view human rights and indicates that welfare rights fit clearly within the structure of human rights. Nickel argues that a human right is anything which would be required in order for a human being to live a minimally good life (Nickel 438). He thereafter identifies three specific rights which are necessary in order to ensure that any human being has the ability to live a minimally adequate and meaningful life – one that would allow them to substantively exercise their other human rights. Nickel identifies these rights as “subsistence, health and education” and explains that he draws these three rights from former United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his conception of welfare rights as human rights (Nickel 438-40).
As has already been discussed, Nickel argues that there is an important link to subsistence rights and other (already widely recognized) human rights and that these other human rights cannot be effectively implemented without the addition of basic welfare rights (Nickel 441). For example, Henry Shue and others argue something to the effect that when one lacks the basic necessities of everyday life, it is impossible for one to fully enjoy their other rights or to live in a way that is meaningfully human (Payne 1-2, Nickel 441). Nickel points out that those who are living in severe poverty are likely going to be merely “marginal” (in his terms) right-holders or what I would call nominal right-holders since their rights are in name only and do not realistically exist in any substantive or pragmatic sense.
Separate from, although not incongruent with, the framework presented by John Locke, Nickel presents a sophisticated, multi-step process for determining when a right qualifies a human right. He presents 6 criteria that a right must possess in order to be called a human right, he writes that it must:
(1) fit the general idea of human rights, (2) be sufficiently important, (3) respond to recurrent threats, (4) require the modality of rights rather than some weaker norm, (5) impose burdens on the duty-bearers that are not wrongful or excessively heavy, and (6) be feasible in most of the world’s countries today. (Nickel 441-2)
These qualifications present a relatively strict standard in order for something to be considered a human right. Nickel then uses this system of qualification to explain that welfare rights do, in fact, meet each qualification that he lists above and therefore demonstrates that (if his justificatory structure is appropriate) economic and social rights do indeed qualify as human rights.
One important contemporary text that demands examination which takes the position described in the introduction regarding obligation-bearers and right-holders is “The Dark Side of Human Rights” by Onora O’Neill. The article begins with an important proposition regarding the idea of human rights in general that is worthy of some though. O’Neill makes a point of illustrating the perspective that abstract rights (such as economic or social rights) are meaningless unless we have some way of procuring the goods required and ensuring that the rights will be met. She makes this point to demonstrate a supposed significant difference between other human rights and welfare rights, and her article has this focus – to make distinct the arguments requiring other human rights and the arguments requiring welfare rights or economic rights (O’Neill 426). This argument therefore differs significantly from Nickels’ position that economic rights are actually required for other human rights.
O’Neill then introduces a rather complex and controversial argument regarding the nature of human rights as normative claims. She argues that one way in which the welfare rights advocate could escape this requirement of indicating obligation-bearers would be to maintain that human rights (such as welfare rights) are not normative claims about what society must do, but are simply noble aspirations regarding what society should do in the best of circumstances. However, as O’Neill recognizes, very few would be willing to give up the other human rights to life, liberty and property as merely noble aspirations and would instead maintain that human rights are universal and should be observed under all circumstances and are not merely noble aspirations (O’Neill 427). It is after this discussion that O’Neill defines the heart of her argument.
O’Neill then goes on to explain another distinction that should be drawn between the two types of rights by introducing the concepts of right-holders and obligation-bearers. She explains that in order for a right to be given to someone or recognized for someone, it must therefore be given by (or recognized by) someone else – meaning that if we have a right to goods and services, the goods and services must be provided for an individual by another individual or another group of individuals (O’Neill 425-26). She argues that we have institutions and clear responsibilities that allow us to recognize easily violations of so called “liberty rights” – which demand only non-interference - without placing obligations on individuals or allocating funds, whereas a violation of a right to goods and services could not be recognized unless obligations to individuals to meet those rights have been allocated (O’Neill 436, ). Again she differs in this sense from Nickel, as Nickel does not clearly identify an obligation-bearer, although he indicates that other human rights require that obligations be met by obligation-bearers whose identity is equally unclear until someone is indicated by the society and its institutions (Nickel 448).
She goes on further to say “there cannot be a claim to rights that are rights against nobody, or nobody in particular: universal rights will be rights against all comers…” (O’Neill 427), indicating that since there is no universal right being upheld by economic rights, it should not be classified as a human right. She clearly states that it would entirely undermine the point of human rights if we were to recognize something as a human right but not identify something (be it individuals, agencies etc.) which was responsible for meeting this right. O’Neill argues that since proponents of economic rights to goods and services have been thus far unable to identify with whom the obligation for meeting the alleged right lies, that it cannot be considered a human right to have access to goods and services (O’Neill 428) – additionally arguing that many examples of welfare rights indicate that they are special rights (since they are only adopted by specific states) and not human rights.
O’Neill recognizes, however that the proponent of economic rights such as James Nickel would have a response to this, that there is an obligation-bearer for these rights and that the obligation-bearer would be the state. O’Neill addresses this issue and explains that if we accept that proposition of the state as the obligation-bearer, then we have to reject the idea that it is a human right, since this view of the state as obligation-bearer means that the right to goods and services is merely institutional. This view would necessarily hold that the obligation only exists at the institutional level, and since obligations and rights have a necessary correlation and there can be no right without an obligation, the right would therefore not exist in a situation that was “pre-institutional” and a right that is not “pre-institutional” cannot be a human right since it would not exist outside of civil society, which is, according to O’Neill, a requirement for something to be a human right. However, it should be noted that under Nickel’s justificatory structure, he does not recognize this “pre-institutional” existence as a necessary component of a human right.
A solution differing slightly from Nickel’s position of the State as obligation-bearer could also provide an adequate response to O’Neil’s criticism. Perhaps one could argue that it is the responsibility of the society collectively, as a State or as a State-less Nation, to provide basic economic rights to all individuals who are incapable of obtaining those basic goods necessary for a minimally functional life. Although it may be difficult to imagine how such a process would work in the “original position” or “state of nature” it cannot be ruled out as a theoretically sound approach to require each individual who is able to bear the obligation of providing basic subsistence rights for those who require them.
Part Four: What Is Necessary to Fulfill Human Rights?
This section of the article focuses on clarifying and demonstrating the validity of a position to similar to Nickels’ within the tradition of Liberal political thought and will argue that welfare rights should be considered human rights and that all other human rights and humanity itself are meaningless without a certain level of assured subsistence. I will maintain that it is necessary for meaningful existence to be able to exercise the basic human liberties outlined by John Locke and others since the 17th century, those to life, liberty and private property ownership. I then hope to show that all of these abstract rights are meaningless without a way to practice them. Following this I will demonstrate that without having human necessities assured by means of subsistence or welfare rights, human beings are unable to exercise their more fundamental human rights to life, liberty and property, which are a necessary component of human existence.
First let us examine the importance of the rights widely accepted in the Liberal tradition to demonstrate that they and their exercise are indeed necessary for meaningful human existence. Beginning with the right to life – it is seemingly self-evident why this right would be a fundamental necessity, since life is clearly a necessary component to have a meaningful life, but we will examine this requirement further to include the security of this right. In order for a human life to be meaningful, I would posit that one must be reasonably certain in believing that one’s life is secure, otherwise the ability of humans to hone skills and engage in other meaningful activities will be undermined by the fact that they will have to worry incessantly about their lives. In this situation I find that the individual’s ability to focus on activities that would promote human flourishing would be too significantly compromised to consider to right to life as being fulfilled without reasonable assuredness of security.
Additionally I maintain that liberty and freedom are important factors in human existence and must be exercised by humans in order to fully enjoy their human rights. It has long been considered an important tenet of Liberal political philosophy that individual and societal autonomy are necessary in order to have an appropriately meaningful life, since without choice it appears that life is much less dignified (Locke 450 and 475-76, Kymlicka 366-68). The right to property ownership is also an important one that has been upheld over the centuries as a right that provides a significant and positive impact on human existence and one which, in its absence, would cause an inability to live a fully meaningful life (Locke 483, Rawls 1046, Lomasky 5).
Now that we have shown that the basic human rights listed above are necessary for meaningful human existence - which is their sole purpose - let us examine the case in which these rights merely exist in the abstract and are not applied practically to society. In the case of life, when a right to life is merely considered an abstract fundamental right but is not respected, it is clear that the right has no intrinsic value. Imagine, for example, a society in which life is considered fleeting and is often squandered and extinguished with no regard for life even though the abstract right is recognized in that society, as it is in our own, a society in which death, disease, sickness and murder would be largely permissible and thought of merely as facts of life. We would say in this instance that the right is, in effect, meaningless and we would therefore need to find a way in order to better secure this right (Woodward 1, Woodward 3, Lomasky 1). Additionally, one could implicate into this right to life a right for health care, or at least insofar as to provide a minimally adequate standard of health care. By applying the principle recognized earlier that humans must be reasonably certain of the security of their lives, it is clear that a right to some form of health care (although not unlimited) could be included in this right to life.
In terms of liberty, if autonomy and free choice are considered rights but are not respected by civil government or by individuals who subordinate other human beings to their arbitrary decisions, then we would say that the right to liberty is not being sufficiently protected. In this instance we would seek means to better secure this right in a given society. A demonstration of this can be seen in Will Kymlicka’s justification of self-government for minority cultures. Kymlicka argues that “the rights of national groups to self-determination is given (limited) recognition in international law” and that some level of political autonomy in a culture and in an individual is required to “ensure the full and free development of…cultures and the best interests of…people” (Kymlicka 367).
Now with regard to property, it is this issue that is often considered most contentious with regards to welfare rights. If we live in a society where it is the case that we maintain that individual citizens have a right to own property, but it is the reality of our society that many people are not able to acquire property in any meaningful sense, is the abstract right to property really relevant? I argue that if the economic distribution of the society is such that it is so unequal as to prevent a group of citizens from the ability to access and acquire basic property (E.g. housing, food or clothing) then the human right to private property ownership is being violated. Therefore, we should also interfere in society to the extent that we can better achieve the end of securing the right to private property by creating an economic system in which it is easier for all individuals to secure their rights to own private property, a society in which basic economic goods are accessible to all persons (Lomasky 2, 5 and 7, Glendon 2, and Woodward 3). Hopefully the above has demonstrated that in order for a human right to be truly exercised, one must have the practical means of exercising them.
It is also appropriate to address the concerns introduced by O’Neill and others regarding the obligation-bearer requirement that they find cannot be met by simply implicating the government as the obligation-bearer to the right-holders. Although the concept of a corresponding obligation for every right seems intuitive, I will attack this principle at its foundation. It is not apparent in the tradition of Liberal political philosophy and the discovery of innate rights that there must be an individual, pre-institutional obligation to coordinate the protection or recognition of a human right. One issue that I believe illustrates this fact is the discussion that has occurred within this tradition of examining human behavior pre-institutionally. I maintain that O’Neill’s standard of applying a pre-institutional obligation requirement is inappropriate since an examination of rights outside of civil society is nearly impossible to imagine.
But even if it this right did not exist “pre-institutionally”, the argument can easily be made that this obligation is met by individuals and is the responsibility of all individuals or all individuals above a specific socio-economic setting and that the institution is merely the means of collecting and allocating the goods. As Locke holds in his Second Treatise, although human rights exist outside of the institution, it is better to form a society in which to protect and administer these rights (Locke 483-84). As it is with the basic rights already accepted by Western societies, so it is with economic rights, all men have this right in the hypothetical state of nature, it would simply be their individual duty to assert this right. However, all men would likely recognize that it is better to form civil society to administer this right than to have it enforced in the state of nature.
Part Five: Conclusion
I hope the above arguments have presented well the position that because it is a necessary condition for the appreciation of human rights to have basic subsistence needs met, that an expansion of human rights to include economic rights is not only appropriate, but necessitated by the acceptance of other human rights. Because the Liberal philosophical tradition maintains that these rights are important and because we have demonstrated today that, in the words of one philosopher “a minimum level of subsistence is a necessary condition for the enjoyment of any right” (Woodward 3), I hope that the reader now understands why it is a requirement that society adopt certain egalitarian principles to ensure the ability of its members to practice their rights to life, liberty and property ownership.
Another practical concern that this paper does not address are the issues about the inability of the state to effectively implement a right to subsistence goods and other economic and social rights. Although I agree that it is difficult and offers opportunities for abuse of the welfare system, I would argue that it is not substantially more difficult to implement than the protection of other human rights.
Although I recognize that the level and extent to which this egalitarian principle must be adopted was not discussed in this document, time and length restraints have prevented us from examining this issue here. Hopefully a later paper will address this concern to identify more precisely what level of minimal quality is necessary for appropriate human functioning. Also I recognize that the concern about corresponding duties and obligation-bearers may not have been addressed to the satisfaction of many libertarians, however I hope the readers finds my explanation compelling and understands that the differences between obligations of an economic sort and those of “liberty rights” are not as different as have been proposed.
Colby Alexis will be a fourth-year undergraduate student at St. Joseph's College.
Glendon, Mary Ann. “Welfare Rights at Home and Abroad: A Learning Process.” Current
367 (1994). Academic OneFile. Web. 26 Nov. 2012
Kymlicka, Will. “Justice and Minority Rights.” Contemporary Political Philosophy: An
Anthology. Eds. Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit. Malden: Blackwell Publishing
1997. 366-389. Printed Copy.
Locke, John. “Second Treatise of Government.” Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy 2nd
Edition Ed. Steven Cahn. New York: Oxford University Press 2012. 450-516. Print.
Lomasky, Loren and Kyle Swan. “Wealth and Poverty in the Liberal Tradition.” Independent
Review 13.4 (2009). Academic OneFile. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.
Nickel, James. “A Defense of Welfare Rights as Human Rights.” Contemporary Debates in
Politcal Philosophy. Eds. Thomas Christiano, John Christman. Blackwell Publishing Ltd
2009. 437-456. Printed Copy.
O’Neill, Onora. “The Dark Side of Human Rights.” Contemporary Debates in
Politcal Philosophy. Eds. Thomas Christiano, John Christman. Blackwell Publishing Ltd
2009. 423-436. Printed Copy.
Payne, Michael. “Henry Shue on Basic Rights”. Philosophy Commons. University of Dayton.
2008. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. http://commons.pacificu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1317&context=eip
Rawls, John. “A Theory of Justice.” Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy 2nd Edition. Ed.
Steven Cahn. New York: Oxford University Press 2012. 1038-1058. Print.
Woodward, P.A. “Shue on Basic Rights.” Social Theory and Practice 28.4 (2002). Academic
OneFile. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.