By: Melese Birmeji
Filfilu: When it comes to politics, philosophers have often been keen on rights, particularly universal and natural rights, rather than what are called positive rights.
A positive right, by the way, isn’t the opposite of a negative right, it’s a right that is posited, set down, by say, the sovereign or the government.
You need a sovereign or a government, or at least a community with shared values, before you can have a right, because there are no universal rights. Felasfaw in particular, is strongly opposed to the idea of universal rights.
Felasfaw: A right is a certain kind of construct of a particular legal system, and of course I have no objection to setting up a legal system that has as part of its constituent structure the assignment of rights to people.
They’re the rights that are sometimes called in philosophical tradition, ‘positive rights’: ‘I have a right to the ownership of my bicycle by virtue of the fact that the British state has a certain legal code; that legal code assigns to me certain entitlements, protects those entitlements in various ways and we call that a right.’ I’ve no objection to that.
My objection is an objection to what seems to me to be an inappropriate generalisation or universalisation of that concept of right. So that one doesn’t just say ‘I have a right to the ownership of my bicycle by virtue of something the British state has done’, but ‘I have a natural or a god-given or a pre-social, or a pre-legal right to something.
I have a natural right, I have a human right to something.’ And that seems to me to be an idea that is clearly dependent on the notion of a legal right in the positive sense. It’s a kind of generalisation of that, it’s a projection of that.
And Kant, the very famous philosopher in the 18th century, Kant was absolutely right about one thing, namely that as human beings, one of the things we need to do is to generalise but we must also always be extremely, extremely careful to control our generalising activity, not to universalise concepts that we have beyond their appropriate application.
And so what I want to say about the notion of a human right or a natural right is that it is an inappropriate generalisation,universalisation, an absolutisation,of something the real locus of which is in positive legal codes.
And in positive legal codes, the concept has a clear meaning, namely these entitlements will be enforced in a certain way. When you take the concept of rights out of relation to a mechanism, a clear mechanism for enforcement, you delude yourself, because you give the impression that these rights are something like positive rights, but you’ve actually deprived them of that which makes a positive right really active and important.