Tag Archives: human rights

I love hard questions!

Via the wonderful and intelligent Meb Byrne: “Is access to healthy food a basic human right?”

My initial response:

“In my line of thinking, no. I don’t think any basic human rights make material claims on other people–human rights entitle you to protection from other people’s actions, but (the way I see it) they usually don’t require action from other people on your behalf.

I looked at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while thinking about this. They do include food, along with housing, education, and various other social safety net-type things. Those aren’t the only parts of the UDHR that I disagree with, but they’re the point where I object most strongly. Will blog shortly on why, although I don’t know if I’ll make sense.

What do you think?”

The addendum to my response:

Human rights are, by definition, inalienable and inherent to our humanity. That means, to me, that they have been consistent throughout time: human rights are the same today as they were when the concept emerged during the Enlightenment, when they were the same as they had been for the Ancient Greeks, immutable since the dawn of civilization. (Of course, they haven’t always been honored, but we’ve gotten better at it over the years–especially the last 200 or so.) To assert that the definition of human rights changes to fit the feelings of the time would imply that (perhaps) the various bouts of enslavement over the millennia were not, in fact, violations of the enslaved’s human rights.

Given that the definition of human rights should be constant over time, I don’t think we can include any material rights in the definition–that includes food, water, housing, medical care, &c. Basically, I can get outraged over political/religious/ethnic repression & wanton violence throughout the years, and in each case I can find someone who was committing an affirmative violation of human rights. I can’t muster the same ire over the Irish potato famine–or, for that matter, the bubonic plague, or the Indonesian tsunami, or any other essentially natural condition. I don’t think it’s philosophically consistent to hold all of Medieval Europe responsible for the fact that the population periodically got out of control and people starved, any more than we can call it a human rights violation that they didn’t have access to doxycycline.

Obviously, I might be very wrong here. If I am, please tell me!


(None of this, of course, suggests that I oppose public provision of social services. Obviously, governments exist to do more than protect basic human rights. It’s worth acknowledging, thought, that we provide social services because 1) we like having other people around who aren’t starving and 2) we all benefit from having an informed, productive workforce to do stuff for each other and 3) we like knowing that if something goes wrong, we’ll have a safety net available, and lots of other reasons. None of those rises to the level of human rights, though, and we need to admit that in policy discussions.)