Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On Charles Beitz Human Rights as a Common Concern

According to Charles Beitz there are two types of conceptions surrounding human rights – the first, nonpartisan, is one in which is universally true regardless of an individuals culture and views. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good example of a nonpartisan conception of human rights. In Human Rights as a Common Concern Charles Beitz defends a partisan view of human rights, that they are not neutral and so they cannot be considered universal. To support the idea that human rights are not neutral he points out that they conflict with traditional Islamic doctrine, contradict traditional Asian values and condemn the practice of Female Genital Mutilation – a core tenant of some cultures.

Beitz points out that a subset of human rights that are nonpartisan seems the natural answer to this issue to many philosophers. The idea that a neutral set of human rights could be outlined is the attraction of this viewpoint. However he is quick to point out that this list would be very short indeed, it could not include equal rights for women, free choice of who one marries democracy, or even mental and physical wellbeing… “The idea of a right itself is culturally specific.”

Beitz states that one role of international human rights is to justify the interference of outside nations in order to, for example, stop genocide or restore a deposed democratic government, even to deliver assistance to victims of natural disasters. People shy from this concept because they the fear it is too paternalistic, that the intervener is left to judge standards of help by measures that the subject has no control over. However Beitz argues that paternalism applies to situations in which a person’s agency is overridden for their own good, so it cannot apply under these circumstances. To address the issue of cross-cultural standards Beitz suggests that help should be based on what is “best” by the subjects own cultural standards.

Charles Beitz uses Rawls’s concept of “decent” societies as a possible middle ground between nations with differing cultural viewpoints – specifically liberal societies and illiberal regimes. A decent society is one which protects many, but not necessarily all, basic human rights; rights of the person and of expression, the rule of law, as well as religious freedom. To what extent these rights are to be upheld is not made clear, so this theory has received some criticism for being too tolerant. He points out that unlike common core views Rawls’s theory leaves enough room for interpretation to avoid many cross cultural conflicts, however the door is left open for interference of liberal societies which may not be consistent with the native morals of those societies. Rawls’s hypothesis is that by interacting openly with liberal societies decent societies will naturally become more liberal, however Beitz points out that this fact itself may turn some countries away from pursuing the status of decency.

It is Beitz’s belief that human rights need to be recognized as a political construct rather than viewing it as a natural law or universal statement of political justice, though he concedes that it may also fall under these definitions he states that it is necessary to see human rights from a political standpoint in order to criticize or adhere to it. Beitz reaffirms the fact that transnational influence comes not only through intentional actions such as military intervention, but through indirect means such as international businesses. He states that the human rights doctrine is the outline of aspiration native to liberal societies, but that its ideals may not be embraced all at once.

Finally Beitz points to the fact that human rights by nature need to be justified and these justifications infer a cost upon others without offering any real means of fulfilling the debt. Thus a quality declaration of human rights should be viewed primarily as a theory of global justice.


Dawson said...

Remind me to enlist you as a personal tutor if I ever take another course in philosophy. Your ability to translate intensely complex ideas into relatively easy to digest bits of information is quite simply mind-blowing. Thank you for helping me to understand, and even agree with, Beitz's hypothesis.

--=Dawson Busenbark=--