- Zealotless Passion and Passionate Moderation:Osiatyński's Defense of Human Rights and Their Limits
Human rights literature rarely engenders complete consensus regarding either its content or its critiques. There may be some people who claim that genocide is good, basic education bad, and torture a desirable thing to engage in or be subjected to. Moreover, while some people are averse to the "rights talk," most would also agree that a regime that [End Page 1057] wantonly ignores people's basic interests, such as life, bodily integrity, freedom of speech and religion, education, and a modicum of material goods necessary for a minimally dignified life, is doing something wrong. It is when one tries to move beyond those truisms that the difficulties begin.
On a philosophical level, many are not satisfied with a simple recognition of some respect due to the basic human interests, and attempt to "ground" them in a more general theory. People's basic interests have to be respected because humans are "rational beings," or because they have "inherent dignity," or because they are made in the image of God. The problem with these attempts is that the theories in which human rights are supposed to be grounded are significantly more controversial than the rights themselves—indeed, many proponents of the more philosophical theories seem to be driven to them in the first place because of the relative self-evidence of the rights that are supposed to flow from them, rather than the other way around. As a result, the philosophical theories of human rights tend to be somewhat second rate and not very interesting.
On a more pragmatic level, the idea of human rights raises a host of pressing questions concerning their relation to other desirable goals of political and social life, such as democracy (majority rule), the need for domestic and international security, and economic prosperity. In this area, many advocates of human rights are perhaps the most disappointing. To be sure, many tyrants intent on oppressing their political, religious, or economic enemies clothe their call for ignoring the rights of their opponents in fraudulent theories of the cultural relativity of human rights, their alien character to non-Western cultures, and their role in imposing a culturally dominant point of view. It is also true that respect for basic human rights is probably most often conducive to economic growth, and its conflict with the demands of security if often exaggerated, especially in times of political hysteria. Nevertheless, human rights are clearly not the only value we hold dear, and it is simply disingenuous to claim that they can never come into a real conflict with other values or that, in cases of such conflicts, they should always be given a priority. When the commitment to human rights is not tempered by a sensitivity to the importance of other values, such as democracy, economic prosperity, or collective identity, the very concept of human rights tends to expand, gradually including all kinds of essentially political objectives that this or that group of proponents happens to espouse. Leaving behind the condemnation of relatively uncontroversial wrongs, human rights then extend to a panoply of economic and labor rights that many countries cannot afford, advanced environmental protection that needs in reality to be weighed against other social objectives, or an essentially unlimited, and often doctrinaire, concept of human flourishing that leaves no room for hard social and political choices reserved for each individual community. Indeed, as with all views, human rights rhetoric can also be abused and, consciously or unconsciously, serve as a cover for self-interested aims, such as economic protectionism.
So a nuanced view is important—something that human rights advocates are tempted to ignore, and to adopt instead a rather self-righteous stand which denies that serious compromises may be necessary. Those who believe that such compromises may be called for are often seen as ill-intentioned, insensitive to moral values, and disparaging of human dignity. [End Page 1058]
All this makes Wiktor Osiatyński's book, Human Rights and Their Limits...