Monday, September 12, 2005

Most Of Us Prefer Our Own Kind (To Goodhart's)

This is a little off my beaten track, but a bad argument is a bad argument. David Goodhart argues in this month's Prospect that the Human Rights Act is a threat to national security (because it problematizes e.g. the deportation to countries where they may face torture or degrading treatment of individuals perceived to present a terrorist threat, and the detention without trial of such individuals). UK citizens have rights, he says, (mainly) because they are UK citizens. Non-citizens don't share them. ('People are not born with [rights] and, regrettably, many .. have few or none'.) But of course, he acknowledges that 'we would ... like the rights currently enjoyed by people in developed countries extended to the rest of the world too'.

Surely we have two options with rights-talk: we could call 'rights' the things that are actually respected, or we could call 'rights' the things that should be respected. This terminological difference makes no difference to the question of which things should be respected. And as soon as we acknowledge that whatever rights UK citizens enjoy should be extended to everyone, there seems to be no basis of the kind Goodhart wants for an argument that non-UK-citizens should be treated differently to UK citizens.

Goodhart seems to think that non-UK-citizens should not be extended certain rights if they 'hate us and may attempt to harm us'. Whether or not such attitudes and potential behaviours are relevant to the forfeiting of rights, however, no argument is given that UK citizenship is similarly relevant. So it isn't clear why, even if one agrees that one can forfeit rights because of what one might do, the appropriate conclusion is not that anyone who 'hates us and may attempt to harm us' forfeits the rights in question.

(Perhaps, though, it is not so surprising to see an unargued preference for UK citizens in someone who thinks that "[t]o put it bluntly - most of us prefer our own kind").


Aidan Maconachy said...

There needs to be a distinction drawn here between human rights in the broadest sense of the term and specific rights as defined and codified under British law.

While a visitor to my home will be given all of the due consideration accorded to a fellow human, if this person proceeds to interfere with the rights (as defined by the home dwellers) of my family, then I will penalize the visitor by showing him/her the door.

Just because we are all heirs of certain fundamental rights as humans (hopefully ahem), it doesn't mean that as a non-citizen present in a given country I should expect or demand to be accorded the same "rights under law" of a citizen - ESPECIALLY if I am plotting to bomb people, or harbor other hostile intents.

When the framers of such human rights provisions came up with them, the assumption was that people would use them for positive empowerment - not as a tool to play the system and demoralize the citizenry.

I can relate to David Goodhart's frustrations on this issue.

Carrie Jenkins said...

To be clear, the relevant rights for the point I was making are not all those things codified in British law as rights of UK citizens, but something much more minimal: the right not to be tortured or detained without trial (which many people think falls into the category of fundamental rights that should be respected regardless of features like nationality).

Aidan Maconachy said...

Agreed ... for the most part (being human) :)

ant said...

It needn't be an 'unargued preference for UK citizens': after all, Goodhart claims (as you point out) that 'people are not born with [rights]'. If Goodhart believes that, then presumably he believes that people are not born with things about them that should be respected (and presumably that they only get those things in virtue of some relational properties to their country of citizenship or residence and their legal standing there). If one is as skeptical about innate rights as he is, then one should see no problem in treating people according to the rights they happen to be granted, which is a matter of relatively free choice on the part of the government of the country concerned.

The further claim about extending rights to the rest of the world then has to be read with a restricted scope (and, I admit, a slight stretch on the word 'extended'): he doesn't want the rest of the world to be given rights by the UK; rather, he wishes that people in the rest of the world were given rights by their own governments that met developed world standards. But nothing in that restricted scope claim is self-undermining, or indicates that the whole thing makes for a bad argument. It might be completely wrongheaded, but if so that's a function of its premises.