Last week, Garrett West argued that we should abandon the discourse of “human rights” and instead adopt the language of “human goods” (“The unappealing politics of universal rhetoric,” Oct. 30). His solution makes it seem that we have only two options: Franklin D. Roosevelt or John Rawls. Considering the consequences from these two lines of thought, this seems like a sick game of “Would You Rather?” for conservatives.
Yes, there is a problem with modern political discourse, especially “human rights” talk. Yet West’s article fails to address the real problem: The rejection of a permanent human nature. Instead of speaking in terms of “human goods,” with no standard other than public opinion, politics should shift back to what policies best secure our natural rights.
First, to address the problems with his presentation of human rights. He is wrong to assume that modern politicians’ “ultimate criterion for the justice” is “human nature.” Mainstream politics abandoned that standard long ago.
Due to the rejection of a permanent human nature, human rights and goods seem to come from government. FDR helped popularize “human rights,” which, he explained, we must “gain” and “keep.” Natural rights, on the other hand, we already possess; government’s purpose is to protect these rights.
It is true that modern political discourse invites bitter discussions, but its problem does not lie in rights language. Without any standard grounded in nature, factions compete for more rights from government. Contrast that with the founders, who debated the means of protecting pre-existing rights. Most know of the heated debates between Hamilton and Jefferson, but they argued over what particular policies would best secure citizens’ rights, not principles.
While human rights are a bad standard, the alternative of human goods that West advocates is worse. The first and most obvious problem with human goods is that they lack an objective standard, which means that majority preference becomes law. The second problem is with West’s example of welfare. What part of the standard of human goods limits the redistribution of property? Is that left to messy public discourse? If so, that seems dangerous for those whose property is being confiscated.
Evaluating this from a natural rights standpoint, the law of self-preservation and the right to life offer a clearer solution. Welfare is justified only to preserve a person’s life. This protects the property rights in general, it does not allow individuals to be comfortable on welfare, and it encourages individuals to be industrious and productive.
Rawls’s “Theory of Justice” rejects this idea of a limited welfare state in favor of policies to benefit the “least among us.” Along with liberty and opportunity, Rawls classifies income, wealth, and self-respect as “social primary goods.” I agree that discourse should consider, as West says, “the well-being of all,” but we must return to natural rights for this to be just. If not, how do we refute Rawls’s formulation that social goods should be “distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored”?
Instead of talking in terms of human rights or goods to arbitrate between claims of justice, returning to natural rights is the most just solution to our failing political discourse. But first we must recognize the distinction between human rights or goods, which government grants, and natural rights, which government protects.
This distinction is important for several reasons. First, it means rights are not subject to public opinion. Second, natural rights are the standard to which we hold all public policy: Is a policy protecting rights or not? When we agree on these principles, political discourse centers on the “how” of protecting rights, not the “what” of human rights or goods.
Granted, this requires a consensus on natural rights, which is unlikely. But if we are going to shoot for reforming political discourse, we should at least aim at the right principles.