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SOME SUGGESTED HUMAN RIGHTS FOR THE 2010s (AND PERHAPS BEYOND)

16/03/2013

A NON-DECLARATION OF SOME NON-UNIVERSAL RIGHTS (see Note 1)
1.1 A right to cause offence to others [But Preferably Not Too Often (BPNTO)].
1.2 A right to be caused offence (BPNTO).
1.3 Nobody has a right never to be caused offence. (see Note 2)
2.1 A right to challenge the beliefs of others (BPNTO).
2.2 A right to have your own beliefs challenged (BPNTO).
2.3 Nobody has a right never to have their beliefs challenged. (see Note 3)
3.1 A right to question the actions of others, even when they claim that they are acting in accordance with their own customs and traditions (BPNTO).
3.2 A right to have your own actions questioned, even when you claim that you are acting in accordance with your own customs and traditions (BPNTO).
3.3 Nobody has a right never to have their actions questioned, even when they claim that they are acting in accordance with their own customs and traditions. (see Notes 4 &  5)   
4.1 A right to stereotype others (BPNTO).
4.2 A right to be stereotyped (BPNTO).
4.3 Nobody has a right never to be stereotyped. (see Note 5)
5.1 A right to misunderstand others (BPNTO).
5.2 A right to be misunderstood (BPNTO).
5.3 Nobody has a right never to be misunderstood. (see Note 5)
6.1 A right to ignore others (BPNTO).
6.2 A right to be ignored (BPNTO).
6.3 Nobody has a right never to be ignored. (see Note 5)
7.1 A right to make mistakes affecting others (BPNTO).
7.2 A right to be a victim of the mistakes of others (BPNTO).
7.3 Nobody has a right never to be a victim of the mistakes of others. (see Note 5)

Notes
(1) The hazards of declaration
There have been many versions of the Ten Commandments, such as Arthur Hugh Clough`s poetic parody The Latest Decalogue (1862).  Declarations of human rights are also prone to manipulation, distortion and ridicule.  My list is intended as a modest addition to such grand affirmations as the preamble to the United States`s Declaration of Independence (1776), France`s La déclaration des droits de l`homme et du citoyen (1789) and the United Nations` Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).  It is not a parody, since it is not intended in any way to mock or denigrate these important declarations, nor will it, I hope, be dismissed as no more than an extended quip.   Nor is it original, since these rights are tacitly acknowledged in the behaviour of many people and organisations.  What is true is that they are seldom articulated, still less codified, and that their importance (or the importance of similar rights) is often overlooked in discussions of the contribution that the recognition and exercise of human rights  can make to human flourishing and human happiness.   At the risk of overstatement, they may be seen as reflecting a neglected dimension of contemporary humanitarianism.   

Why only seven sets of three? Entirely a result of my lack of imagination.   Suggestions for additional sets of three would be welcomed. 

(2) A right to offend and to be offended  (Rights 1.1 – 1.3)
How these suggested rights are related to one another   The rights are linked, in that all three have to do with the same thing, with causing and being caused offence, but any logical or moral connection between them is loose, so that you could accept any one of them and reject the other two without necessarily committing a logical error or being open to moral criticism on that account.  In considering the merits of these rights, it is interesting to note the view of some utilitarians, that when possible futures are being compared and evaluated (such as the possible outcomes of possible actions, or the possible effect of the general observance of possible rules), it is reasonable to disregard  suffering or displeasure (pain) arising solely from causing offence.  There are, for example, utilitarian arguments for and against eating meat, but if some people find the very thought of meat being eaten profoundly upsetting (painful), it is suggested that this pain may be disregarded in assessing the strength of the case against meat-eating. 

Status of the suggested rights   Only 1.1 looks like most conventional rights (whether or not it is accepted as valid), which affirm that actors have a right to perform actions of a particular kind or to do things that tend to have particular effects.   Exercise of 1.2 would require the existence of at least some other persons having a duty or disposition to cause you offence (not merely a right to do so).  1.3 is an example of a kind of right that some lawyers and others have found hard to relate to conventional accounts of rights in relation to claims, duties, enforcement arrangements, etc.   (Those who accept the distinction between negative and positive rights as valid and useful will probably view such rights as a sub-class of negative rights.)  It is a feature of a social order that values personal freedom that many rights like this will be acknowledged.     

Difference between offending and insulting (I)   In defending 1.1 and 1.2, it is essential to draw some distinctions, to avoid any suggestion that they offer a blanket justification for all forms of offensive behaviour, still less that a right to cause offence to others necessarily implies also a right to insult them.  There is a difference between my doing something that offends one or more persons (although causing offence was not my reason for doing as I did, and I may not even have realised that it could cause offence), and my doing something to one or more persons with the clear intention of causing them pain such that they will feel insulted.  (The expression “doing something” embraces actions of all kinds, including speech acts and acts having a symbolic meaning such as gestures and facial expressions.)  Thus in the realm of verbal behaviour,  to claim that I have a right to say something that could possibly cause you offence (though I may be unaware of this possibility) is not the same as saying that I have a right to insult you deliberately, knowing and intending that this may cause you pain, as for instance telling you that you are a rat, that you should have been drowned at birth; that all Xs (where you are an X) are despicable or inferior; that you are of no account because of where you live; that you are a lousy parent; that you are a liar and a bully; that you are ugly; that you are not to be trusted, etc 

Difference between offending and insulting (II)   These examples draw attention to further questions: whether something bad is being ascribed to a particular person or, stereotypically, to an entire group; whether and to what extent what is said may be true; and, if it is, whether it is wise or helpful or justifiable to say it.  A related point is that there are significant differences of meaning and use between, on the one hand, offending or being caused offence, etc, and, on the other, insulting or being insulted, etc, both of which are linked to a family of related but far from identical concepts.  Part of the difference has to do with point of view: whether we are observing from the perspective of actors and their intentions, or of those who are affected by such actions.   Thus person B may be offended or feel upset by something person A has said or done, although person A had not appreciated that their action might have this effect, and having such an effect was never person A`s  intention.   But if person A intentionally showers person B with insults, person B  may respond with indifference, disdain, pity, anger, physical attack, by speculating about person A`s motive, or by feeling hurt, to mention just a few possibilities.  My point is that if person B`s response to what person A has done is to feel hurt, perhaps to feel deeply hurt, as will often be the case, this is just one of a number of possibilities. 

Difference between offending and insulting (III)  The relevance of intention is that where offence is concerned, the intention to hurt may be wholly absent.  We also readily acknowledge that offence can be caused accidentally or unintentionally, or as an inevitable feature of life in a society that values certain personal freedoms (see Note on status of “new” rights below).   By contrast, insult is typically intended to denigrate, humiliate, disgust or otherwise cause pain to the recipient, and so is more likely to be regarded as morally reprehensible and/or as something of legitimate concern to those who shape public policy or who make and administer the law.   It is, moreover, arguable that while, on a spectrum of pain, the pain of feeling offended may range from the trivial via the moderate to the severe, the pain arising from being insulted tends to be never less than moderate.  It is for reasons such as these that 1.1 and 1.2 refer to causing and being caused offence (which are to be allowed and on occasion celebrated) rather than insulting and (feeling) insulted (which are to be discouraged and sometimes punished).  
In practice the difference between offending and insulting may be far from clear.  In part this is because the same action may be seen as possibly one of these by the actor, but as definitely the other by other persons.   For example when a bus driver ordered Rosa Parks to give up her seat on his bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama on 1 December 1955, and she refused to do so, she must have known that her act of defiance could offend the driver and at least some of the white passengers.  To the driver and these passengers, however, her action was, it seems, taken as an insult.   Facts like this make life hard for law-makers, magistrates and others who may wish or be required to draw a clear distinction between offending and insulting before going on to propose that they be treated differently. 

A domestic dispute  Moving from the (non-)universal to the domestic arena, there is in the UK a new organisation called “ReformSection5”, which argues that “the law…should not be used to protect us from having our feelings hurt” and that “nobody has the right not to be insulted or offended”. This organisation has campaigned for repeal of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 which outlaws “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”.  I find ReformSection5`s running together of “insulted” and “offended” unhelpful, the more so as the organisation`s slogan FEEL FREE TO INSULT ME! comes close to advocating a right to insult as distinct from defending a right to cause offence.  A better focus for their campaign would be to ensure that S.5 of the Public Order Act was never employed, as a result of creeping re-interpretation, to justify seeking to regulate behaviour which, while it could cause offence, was not seriously and deliberately “threatening, abusive or insulting”.   [Note added in mid-January 2013:  Prompted by a recent decision in the House of Lords, the British government has announced that it intends to ask Parliament to amend Section 5 by removing the word “insulting”.] 
(3)    Some beliefs exempt from challenge?   (Rights 2.1 – 2.3)

The term “beliefs” is used loosely here, to cover a broad spectrum of opinions, views and attitudes, including but not confined to matters of fact and questions of right and wrong.  As with 1.1-1.3, these suggested rights are linked, in that all three have to do with the same thing, with beliefs being challenged, but any logical or moral connection between them is loose, so that you could accept any one of them and reject the other two without necessarily committing a logical error or being open… (and so on: see second paragraph of Note 2 above).   Only 2.1 looks like most conventional rights (whether or not it is accepted as valid), which affirm… (and so on: see above).  Exercise of 2.2 would require the existence of at least some other… (and so on: see above).  2.3 is an example of a kind of right that some lawyers and others have found hard… (and so on: see above).  The postulate underlying the proposed rights is that no beliefs are immune from challenge – which is not to assume that they could never survive such challenge.  (An apparent exception, beliefs founded on necessarily true propositions, fails because the claim that the propositions concerned are necessarily true can itself be challenged.)  The postulate points to the need for a strategy or array of strategies for deciding whether beliefs are true or justified.        

Examples   Here are a few examples of beliefs that might be challenged:
That the universe as we know it has existed forever; that democratic government is always preferable to its alternatives, that gold is the most beautiful of all metals; that light travels at a speed of one million miles an hour; that some beliefs are so dangerously wrong that holding them should be made unlawful and their holders punished severely; that the earth is roughly spherical; that there exists one and only one true god; that drinking alcohol is wrong; that the (alleged) moon landing was a hoax; that nature ordains that women should be subservient to men; that my right to propagate my beliefs transcends any obligation I may have not to promote civil disorder; that Beethoven was a better composer that Berlioz; that Conservative governments have shown themselves more competent at managing the British economy than Labour governments; that some people are possessed by evil spirits.

(4) Questioning people`s actions (Rights 3.1 – 3.3)
The form of words used in articulating these rights, “…even when you (or they) claim that you (or they) are acting in accordance with your (or their) own customs and traditions ”, seems preferable to “…even when you (or they) are acting in accordance with your (or their) customs and traditions”.   It indicates that it is the actor who is claiming that something is the case, that they (the actor) is knowingly performing an action, and that acting thus is consistent with (or required by) what they claim to be their customs or traditions; rather than that a third party, observing that the actor is doing something, judges that this “doing something” constitutes such and such an action, and then judges the action in relation to what they (the observer) assume or believe to be the customs and traditions of a group to which they (the observer) assume or believe the actor belongs.   It also accords with one of the commonest ways in which actors seek to explain their actions to themselves and to others, that is by claiming to be acting in accordance with custom or tradition.  Customs and traditions can, of course, be useful, and may remain in being for a long time, but the fact that they endure cannot by itself show that they are morally defensible. 

How practices change   Customary and traditional practices that have existed in human societies are many are varied. There are cases where such a practice, once accepted but now considered wrong, has been abandoned, sometimes in association with a legislative initiative, as a result of a campaign or social movement, often a very long-lasting campaign or movement, aimed at bringing about change.   Campaigns typically involve debate and argument, in speech and in writing, and public demonstrations, all of which are likely to succeed sooner, and/or be more likely to achieve their aim without recourse to violence, in a cultural environment where dissent is tolerated and such familiar rights as freedom of speech, association and movement are respected and upheld.

Examples   Here are some examples of practices that are or have been regulated by custom or tradition, and where custom or tradition has been appealed to, or could be appealed to, by persons whose conduct has been questioned.   Sometimes the practices have been required, sometimes permitted, sometimes forbidden, and sometimes required in one place, permitted in another, and forbidden in a third. 

According some people less favourable treatment on the basis of an unalterable innate or socially ascribed attribute [eg being an Ainu (Japan) or Dalit (India) or black or illegitimate or female, having cerebral palsy]    Agnatic succession (ie property and titles passing only to males)   Bear baiting   Bull fighting   Buying and selling human beings (slavery)   Capital punishment of people found guilty of certain crimes   Censoring or banning plays, books, broadcasts, etc   Cock fighting   Corporal punishment and/or verbal abuse of children/servants/wives by their parents/employers/husbands   Corporal punishment of children by their teachers   Dancing   Debt bondage   Dressing to ensure that certain parts of the body are covered   Drinking alcohol   Drinking to excess   Eating certain foods   Excluding from the community people afflicted with leprosy and certain other diseases   Female genital mutilation   Female infanticide   Forced feeding of geese to make pâté de foie gras   Forced marriage   Gambling  Growing a beard   Homosexual activity   Honour killing   Human sacrifice   Hunting elephants, tigers, foxes, rabbits, etc   Male circumcision   Parents sending their young children to live away from home for the sake of their education (boarding schools)   Paying senior bankers huge annual bonuses in addition to their already very large salaries Rearing animals in order to eat them   Recreational use of cannabis   Regulating forms of address in speech and in writing   Requiring children in certain age groups to attend places of instruction (schools) every day for over half the year  Restricting access to primary, secondary or higher education on the basis of gender,  religion or political affiliation   Restricting entry to certain occupations on the basis of gender, religion or political affiliation    Restricting the right to vote in elections, stand as  a candidate, sit in a legislative assembly or serve as a government minister, on the basis of gender,  religion or political affiliation   Sending into exile, lashing, killing or otherwise punishing people who have disobeyed group norms of acceptable behaviour     Serfdom   Smoking during performances in cinemas, theatres and concert halls, etc    Stealing from your neighbour   Suttee (sati)   Taking laudanum   Telling jokes or stories that are racist, sexist or homophobic, or which belittle people with disabilities, people from certain countries or regions, etc   Usury  Women being excluded from membership of, for example, some learned societies, golf clubs, social clubs   Women not being elected or selected  to fill senior positions, such as CEOs, High Court judges, bishops and Prime Ministers.  Women wearing trousers in public  

(5) (Rights 3.1 – 3.3 to 7.1 – 7.3)  
As for 1.1 – 1.3 and 2.1 – 2.3.  See second paragraph of Note 2 above, on “Status of the suggested rights”.

General note on status of the suggested rights
I want my suggested rights to be seen as complementing the rights commonly referred to as civil liberties and political freedoms.   A big difference between them is that while mine are largely institution-free,  most civil liberties and political freedoms are institution-linked.  Rights are institution-free if they make sense, and can be exercised, regardless of the institutional context, apart from such universal institutions as language.  By contrast, institution-linked rights  make sense, and can be exercised, only within a defined institutional context, such as arrangements for electing representatives, coming together for a common purpose, participating in religious practices, etc.  Furthermore, the suggested rights are at the opposite pole from absolute rights – rights seen as universally, permanently and unconditionally valid.  They are not universal in either of two main senses of the term.  The first, that all rational compilers should in principle be able to agree whether a candidate right is valid, is clearly not true of the rights on my list.  On the contrary, it is only my list, reflecting the sincerely held views of myself and some of my contemporaries.  I am not, on the other hand, advocating a wholly relativist position, since I would hold both that a strong case can be offered in support of most of these rights, and that some of them, especially those in the first three sets of three, underpin the notion of intellectual freedom without which some institutions, including the modern university as a centre of creative scholarship and research, cannot thrive.  Secondly, I would hesitate to claim that all the listed rights are possessed by the whole of humanity.  Moreover, while I several times refer to those who can have (or infringe) rights as persons, I am not suggesting that only persons (or, for that matter, only human beings) can have rights.  Equally, these rights are plainly neither permanent nor unconditional.  They are impermanent in that there is no reason to suppose that, were they to find favour today, they would still appeal to the same extent at all future times, nor that someone like me, setting out to create a new list in, say, 50 years time, would come up with anything closely resembling the present 2011 list.  Nor should they be regarded as unconditional: having a right cannot in itself provide adequate warrant for its exercise.  Take, for example, the case where my exercise of a right would involve doing things that, in the particular circumstances, could lead to serious harm to others, whether intentionally or otherwise.  It could be argued that the right should not be exercised unless, at the very least, it was possible to justify the possible harm by offering good reasons in its support.  It is also often the case that exercise of a right would clash with the rights of others, making it necessary for someone (who?) to judge whose right(s) should take precedence, or for someone (who?) to attempt to negotiate a compromise of some sort.   

© Gabriel Newfield   
gabrielnewfield@tiscali.co.uk
Reproduction in whole or in part permitted, provided source is acknowledged
List of rights issued December 2011
(Reissued December 2012, with Notes substantially expanded)

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