Atheory of Human Rights

Since the original UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights1 laid out the general principles of human rights, there has been a split between what have been regarded as civil and political rights as opposed to economic, cultural and social rights. It was, in fact, the denial that both could be considered “rights” that prevented them from being included in the same covenant.2 Essentially, the argument for distinguishing the two concerns the nature of freedom. The civil rights to the freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, association, and so on do not specify the content of the speech, the theology of the religion or the purpose of the assembly or association. 3 Freedom in such cases is necessarily value-neutral. In leaving the choice up to the individual, these rights purposefully abstract from the content of this choice. The case is quite different for economic, cultural and social rights. All of these necessarily express values with regard to the forms of our social organization. This is because they move beyond individual choices to consider the purposes or goals of our existence together. Thus, the rights to the cultivation of a cultural identity necessarily impact more than the individuals exercising them. As collective, they affect the society as a whole. The same holds for the UN sponsored rights of a person “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”4 For a society to honor these rights involves specific choices with regard to its social content and collective organization. Such choices embody a particular value—in the UN’s words, that of the “social security” of the individual.5 Freedom, here, is freedom for specific social goals. Since these goals are collective, they..
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