I am hearing a lot of talk of what constitutes basic human rights. I have heard things like freedom of travel, access to state-of-the-art health care, access to clean water, a safe and comfortable home, basic education, higher education, and voting for political officials all listed as rights. And it has led me to have some questions?
Is every human need a right? If human needs for food and water are rights, what about other needs?
I have been told that humans need to laugh. Is this a right? The freedom to find things funny. Or do they have the right to have someone else make them laugh. To pay for other human services, I am taxed. What if it was demanded that I tell jokes to make my fellow citizens feel better? Ridiculous, you say. But this illustrates the perils of making a long list of things and calling them “rights.”
What about the need for safety? Is that a right? What is the role of the individual in this, if they engage in risky behaviors? Safety is both a reality and a perception that spans a great deal of arenas from seat belts to street lamps.
What about sex? Is it a need? Is that need a right? When does one person’s right to satisfy a need impact another’s rights? How does one person’s right to sex conflict with others’ right to safety?
What about privacy? Is it a right? Clearly we don’t believe this in practice, because I think there are laws against not giving your children social security numbers or keeping them out of school (of some type) which requires them to have certain personal details disclosed. So, in this case the right to welfare services and public education are in conflict with our right to privacy? We give up privacy all the time (some saying effectively killing the whole idea of privacy), in exchange for convenience, services, or even safety.
What about property ownership? Our economy is based in no small part on the sanctity of property ownership, but what can be owned? This has been debated for centuries and we rightly settled that you can’t own people (which was accepted for an unacceptable number of millennia and still is in some places and is more common in developed countries than we want to admit). But we can own plants, farms, livestock, and pets. We can own real property and equipment. We can own (even fractional) legal entities that aren’t really alive, like corporations. We can own contractual rights to thing that we don’t own (like stock options, etc.). Are all these rights? So, does that mean these things are needs? Do we have a need to own things? And whose job is it to satisfy that need? Do you need to be given things or do you have the right to earn them?
For a whole host of reasons, humans need to be treated well by our parents. We need to be fed, spoke to, and taught how to function in the world. It’s a need. Is it a right? We act like it is with child protective services, the foster care system, and child protection laws (all good things). So, if it is a right for kids, does it become an obligation for parents? In order to drive, you have to prove that you have the ability to not be a harm to others and that you have the means (insurance at least) to drive. Because people have the right to be safe as pedestrians and other drivers. But the same isn’t true of parenting. A parent’s right to making choices can be in direct conflict to their kids’ right to safety and a host of human rights.
We all have the right (mostly) to manage our own reproduction and so much has been written about this recently in the news. But that right has consequences. Where does right end and privilege begin if people are horrible parents and infringe upon the rights of their off-spring?
Regarding the right to your own body, what about exercise? Our bodies certainly need it. But is it the freedom to exercise that is our right or should we mandate exercise the way we do other things (i.e., like school attendance or lunch breaks for hourly workers).
You see what I mean. This “rights” versus “needs” is tricky. And it is further complicated by the fact that we live in an interdependent community.
Just like we need to be careful calling “wants” “needs” and confusing the ideas, I feel like we need to take the same caution with “rights” and “needs.” Maybe, all we have the right to in the end is the freedom to satisfy our own needs in a way that doesn’t diminish others’ rights to satisfy their needs. This all sounds good enough, but it is very difficult in practice. Especially, in a world where shocking headlines of “rights violations” can keep citizens from thinking critically about the implications of a society of having so many rights and where they conflict in practice.