Dignity Has No Nationality is a proponent of basic human rights. The word “right” has a number of meanings. If something is morally correct, it may be described as the right thing to do. Every state has laws which govern its citizens, which may or may not be morally right, but society extends the legal right to punish those who break the law. Human rights, however, are in essence moral, not legal.
The Philosophical Basis of Human Rights
Human Rights are principally based on Immanuel Kant’s second formulation of his Categorical Imperative, namely that all people have a unique dignity and should be respected as an “ends-in-themselves”. This augments his first formulation, which states that what we wish for ourselves, we should allow existing for all others. While Kant does propose a unique way in which to justify this position, it is essentially a philosophical elucidation of the Golden Rule, found in most religious tradition. But only with the philosophy of Kant did the notion of human dignity come into such sharp focus.
The Content of Human Rights Documents
Human rights documents attempt to codify this individualistic, and yet universalizing morality. The fact that human rights are fought for within legal structures should not be taken to mean that they are merely conventions, and can be made or destroyed with the stroke of a pen. A right can be universal: existing for all human beings alike, or specific: existing for a certain group of people because of some shared aspect, such as that of sex or sexual orientation. Rights relate to things which are owed to us either because they are valuable (either in themselves or in helping to bring something about), and necessary, given our human dignity. Human nature clamors for values, among the most basic being life (food, water, shelter, and heat), love (through relationships of family and friends), work and freedom from external coercion, amongst other things. Documents of human rights seek to promote that without which we cannot survive and flourish.
Human Rights and the Law
Rights, of course, can be denied, and even denied by the state in which we live. But morally rights always remain; they are expressions of what we are always entitled to expect, from the very fact that we exist as persons. It implicitly demonstrates a faith in the existence of justice. Rights and law imply one another, but asymmetrically. Rights do not rely on the law, at the very least state law, to acquire their justification, whereas the law is never its own justification and needs to rest on the foundation of morality, namely, rights. Rights are the primary moral truths on which all positive law should be based.
The Need for Continuing Development of Rights Legislation
In all countries, there is an ongoing need to develop rights legislation and to do away with bad traditions. As Milton A. Gonsalves says in Right and Reason, “What begins unjustly and in bad faith cannot be righted by the mere passage of time.” One such example is slavery. The bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of slavery from England took place last year. It now seems obvious that as Gonsalves says, “Slavery is wrong because it comes so close to treating a person as a thing, a mere object to be used. … Precisely because they are rational and free beings capable of voluntary and free acts, persons cannot be owned.” But such understanding was long in coming, and it is obvious that there are many places in the world where it is still to arrive.