The dignity of the individual

The dignity of the individual

Many of the most vocal supporters of so-called human rights promote legal concepts that inadvertently support the sort of misconduct they wish to see ended. In particular, demands for human rights in terms of social or collective rights undermine the universality intended by the drafters of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.

In modern times, identity politics has emerged with leaders of group-based movements claiming to represent interests of groups defined by ethnicity, class, religion, gender, sexual orientation or other criteria. Such a focus on group “rights" divides communities into distinctive and separate political classes may interfere with the interests and rights of other groups.

In the first instance, granting special rights to groups contradicts the notion of universal rights, wherein all humans possess equal rights. Basing human rights upon collective concepts of “fundamental" social rights leads to zero- or negative-sum policy outcomes, whereby some groups benefit while others lose.

Those wishing to support human rights should consider that rights and dignity of humans are best preserved through rigorous support for individual rights and the rule of law. As it is, proponents of collective or group rights who ignore the key role of individuals as bearers of rights guaranteed to autonomous humans undermine the rule of law.

Indeed, the assertion of group rights over individual rights provided the basis for the injustices of apartheid in South Africa and genocide in other parts of the world. The assignment of group rights in the case of apartheid is a worst-case scenario of abuses arising from the violation of these generality conditions. But other extreme acts arising out of the exclusivity of ethnic nationalism had destructive consequences in the Balkans and plague other parts of the world.

References to social or collective or group rights mask the fact that assignment of such rights may involve empowerment or possessions that require the action or aid of others. In the process of activating such group rights, the rights of other individuals will be violated by imposing an obligation upon them.

Rights that impose obligations necessarily attenuate the freedom of choice and action of others. In such an order, human beings are treated as objects or servants of the community rather than valued as unique individuals.

Whereas the assignment and enforcement of individual rights encourages coordination and cooperation, collectivized rights involve conflict and require coercion. As it turns out, many of the countries that suffer most from communal violence and sectarianism are those that have implemented policies that define rights of minorities. Clearly, this approach has not worked.

What is at stake is the choice of a system that serves as the means for attaining and measuring social justice. On the one hand, private property rights might be seen as essential for safeguarding most other civil rights. On the other hand, these rights might be the most effective incentive to inspire individual effort that may lead to general prosperity of the community.

A focus on “social" or communitarian rights tends to encourage the politicization of economic positions (income and wealth) of individuals. Politicizing life outcomes in pursuit of “social justice" is left open to exploitation by special interest groups or power elites while allowing envy and politics to brew up a ghastly stew.

In the end, politicization arising out of attempts to enforce collective rights can be seen as the principal cause of the powerlessness of individuals. Expansion in the nature and direction of state intervention replaces the rights of the individual, except as a member of a group.

More troubling is what seems to be a growing intolerance of diversity due to resentment of members of groups who are perceived as recipients of preferential treatment.

Members of groups identified as historical victimizers begin to imagine that they are being victimized and captive to an insubstantial logic of retribution. Certain members of the Hindu community in India are making such claims against the Muslim population.

Defining human rights in collective or group terms invites an increased politicization of life outcomes. Unfortunately, populist politicians seldom search for private solutions to solve problems or conflicting interests in a private manner.

For greater harmony in the future, political initiatives and the relentless expansion of restrictions that contribute to dehumanization should be replaced by individual initiatives. The best way to serve humane ends is to base human rights on individual rights protected within a rule of law.

Christopher Lingle is research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. Comments are welcome at