St. Cross Seminar: Natural Human Rights, Michael Boylan

Are human rights natural or conventional? That is, does one possess human rights in virtue of being a member of the human race, or, do these rights only come into existence only once they have been written in by some sovereign body? This question was at the heart of Michael Boylan’s St. Cross Seminar, ‘Natural Human Rights’, given on Thursday 27th November (spoiler alert, he sides with the former in both cases!). The seminar explored the central argument in Boylan’s recently published book, Natural Human Rights: A Theory. In it, he argues that one can “bridge the fact/value chasm to create binding positive duties that recognize fundamental human rights claims.” Boylan covered a lot of material during his talk, and so in what follows I shall focus on the positive arguments made in order to get a feel for the substantial element of the seminar. You can find a recording of the talk here.

After rejecting a legal justification of human rights (instantiated by what I took to be a legal positivist position and then a contractarian approach) and an interest-based account of human rights, Boylan takes up a position centred upon agency. In his book, Boylan considers Amartya Sen & Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach and Alan Gewirth’s minimal agency theory, but finds both accounts wanting. Instead, he begins with what he calls the ‘Personal World View Imperative’ (PWVI hereafter). This imperative states that all people must develop a single comprehensive and internally coherent worldview of the good, which they can then strive to act in accord with during their daily lives.

The PWVI entails four elements: (i) completeness, where one’s theory or ethical system should handle all cases put before it; (ii) coherence, both deductively (speaking to us not having contradictions in our worldview) and inductively (not adopting different courses of action which work against each other); (iii) a connection to a theory of the good (i.e., what is the good we strive for; how does this guide our actions); and (iv) practicability. However, Boylan’s theory does not just speak to the individual agent (in fact, this is one of his objections to the contractualist position); we also have a ‘Shared Community Worldview Imperative’ (SCWI hereafter). For one thing, the SCWI is of importance because it is within the context of communities that human rights are realised.

With Boylan’s PWVI in place we can move onto his grounding of natural human rights. There is a lot going on in Boylan’s argument (it is split nicely into thirteen premises in his book) but I shall try to distill it to it’s basic form. The argument begins with Boylan asking: what are we (a philosophical question if ever I’ve heard one!)? His answer is that we are people that express our humanity by wanting to commit purposeful action for something we believe to be good. Given an assertion that all people, by nature, desire to be good (a controversial premise, Boylan admits), he suggests that in order to be good one must be able to act; and so, by nature, people desire to act and wish to protect this ability to act. Boylan also suggests that given the PWVI, and this is where the ‘natural’ focus of his argument really comes to the surface, all people must agree that what is natural and desirable to them individually is natural and desirable to everyone collectively; and, since the attribution of basic human goods are predicated generally (i.e., at the species level), it is inconsistent (notice the PWVI cropping up again) to exert idiosyncratic preference.

With all this in place, Boylan concludes that every individual has at least a moral right to the basic goods of agency, and all others have a duty to provide those goods. What Boylan finds appealing about this conclusion is that it is a cosmopolitan principle, involving positive duties that apply to everyone everywhere.

So how is this conclusion fleshed out (i.e., what natural human rights does this amount to)? Boylan cashes this out in terms of the goods of agency, which operate within a hierarchical structure. This structure distinguishes between basic and secondary goods (each having their own levels internally). The first level of basic goods are biologically orientated, securing food (Boylan cites the United Nations as saying the amount of calories needed for minimal action is around 700 calories, with slight variance [5%]), water, clothing & shelter, and protection from unwanted bodily harm (Boylan gives the example of PTSD inhibiting our ability to think and act purposefully). All these goods are required to think properly and act purposefully. Further, there is a virtue in that these requirements for action can be scientifically examined and modified.

The second level of basic goods, less important than the first level, secure educational goods, liberty goods and the assurance that those you are interacting with are not lying to promote their own interest. These goods are to ensure an ability to pursue a life plan of one’s choice (in accord with the PWVI).

The secondary goods are compromised of three levels: the first level secures basic societal respect; the second level ensures the ability to utilise one’s real and portable property in the manner one chooses, the ability to gain from and exploit the consequences of one’s labour and the ability to pursue contingent goods of a society (these are goods that most people own within a society, i.e., access to the internet perhaps); finally, on the third level, there is the ability to succeed in one’s material goods. What is important to remember, especially with regard to this third level, is the hierarchical structure: so long as this good (or rather, the ability to amass goods) doesn’t violate a more primitive good, then this is acceptable. It may be helpful to think of the first level of basic goods as lexically superior to all other goods; the second level of basic goods then lexically prior to the secondary goods; and so on.

With this, I hope to have given a flavour for Boylan’s argument. In what follows I shall raise a concern of my own, as well as a few questions raised by attendees.

My concern is whether Boylan’s account of human rights is over-inclusive; while I find the hierarchal structure of his basic goods appealing, I am not sure whether the second and third level of the secondary goods allow too much to come under the umbrella of (natural) human rights. This may speak to the fact that I am not particularly motivated by libertarian concerns in regards to property. Boylan may reply with ‘look, we’ve secured the basic goods: from here on it is my natural human right to my property’; but again I ask, is this a (natural) human right?

A second concern (raised by Luke Davies during the Q&A) is how the conditions set out by PWVI function; are they necessary conditions for agency? Sufficient conditions for agency? What happens if you don’t meet these conditions (Luke is not even sure he meets one, let alone all three)? In reply, Boylan said that these conditions set out what an agent ought do: you ought to have these conditions; you ought to be working towards these conditions; they are achievable. It was pressed, so can one be more or less of an agent? Boylan seemed happy to reply with a yes.

The final question I shall consider is that, while an agent may want purposive action, it seems these goods go far beyond this (this question is similar to my first concern). To this Boylan replied: remember, these goods are hierarchical, we need to secure the first level of basic goods before others; and with each next level, they become less necessary. Yet, the question is raised: why call them natural human rights?

You can follow me at: @joe_bowen_1


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