On rights, human or otherwise

I am reading an interesting book, the right to have rights, which is a critique of that statement made by Hannah Arendt in a book and an a journal.

The authors of the present book critique the human rights regime as it exists now especially its inadequacy in guaranteeing the rights as declared in the many instruments that address human rights for example the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration of Independence among others.

The question I find interesting is whether there exists a human nature as such that is subject to rights? And it is in response to this question that I find this quote by Arendt quite telling. She wrote

We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutual equal rights.

Seen in this light, therefore, human rights are not a given but are negotiated and makes sense when you look at the varied attempts to by different minority groups everywhere to assert their humanity and rights to be treated as members of the human community.

And in the same light, this quote, below, then is very telling

Perhaps that is what i must learn t accept. to start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity. Like a dog. Yes, like a dog.

J.M Coetzee


About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

33 thoughts on “On rights, human or otherwise

  1. Tish Farrell says:

    Gosh, this is a thorny issue. Many of us with fortunate existences presume/assume we have a natural born right to human rights. It’s a dangerous position, because it means we are not attending to what actually happens in societies run/manipulated by the powerful – both visible and invisible – individuals and groups whose grip on power relies on fostering the kind of divisiveness that ensures segments of their own communities, or the citizens of deemed ‘enemy’ nations are denied what we would like think of as ‘human rights’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      That’s not all. And you are right. There is further argument that the origin of human rights in the west also has a racist undertone to it. For example, while the us declaration of independence talks of people having rights, these rights did not accrue to African Americans and others considered inferior races and this can still be seen today through the actions of the ICE and others

      Liked by 3 people

      • Tish Farrell says:

        Yep. Rights only apply if you are seen to belong to the right club. And poor people too often cannot afford to enjoy any rights at all. The US rulers believe they have the right to regime-change the democratically elected leader of any nation that doesn’t suit them, so relieving the citizens of those nations of the right to breathe.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joël says:

        This is interesting yes. The declaration of independence speaks of human rights. African Americans weren’t considered humans at the time. Most of the writers of the declaration of independence had slaves..


        • makagutu says:

          Slaves were not people, no?
          The strange things people have believed while doing the exact opposite


          • Joël says:

            Haha, the consequence of having a frontal lobe. All of a sudden we supposedly have freedom of choice, and are able to look at stuff from different perspectives. It results in the fact that we can make two totally contradicting decisions believing they are in line with each other. Amazing!


  2. I adore Hannah Arendt, read Eichmann and the Holocaust this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. renudepride says:

    A very interesting post. my Kenyan brother. I’ve always found it somewhat disturbing that the “inalienable” rights are always thought to be ordained by a deity. Yet the believers in that same deity are more often than nor the very ones who re depriving others of their inalienable rights. Do others see the hypocrisy? Naked hugs!


  4. Arendt is correct, and her statement on human rights is self-evident.

    That principle is precisely what Thomas Jefferson expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Opposing forces (i.e. white supremacists) were able to undermine it in the U.S. Constitution via the Three-Fifths Compromise. The concept of equality under the law was restored after the American Civil War with the 13th and 14th Amendments.

    But, what if the South had won the Civil War? Where would America be today? Surely, the legal and practical status of human rights would be far worse.

    This matters, and it matters most profoundly. Any objective view of human nature and behavior correctly understands that society without laws is anarchy. Even in our hunter-gatherer past, there were tribal rules to live by. Because we frequently fail to adhere to such lofty goals is all the more reason to have them… and to support them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      Is the pursuit of happiness as written in your Declaration of Independence inimical to freedom?
      Are these aspirations lofty dreams never to be actualized?


      • What makes you happy? How do you define freedom? People interpret these concepts differently.

        Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence spoke against arbitrary authority (i.e. the British monarchy). Arendt wrote in opposition to totalitarianism (i.e. Nazi Germany). These contexts are key to understanding both.

        If human rights are so ethereal as to be ineffectual in the real world in which we live, then practical alternatives are demanded. Jefferson saw it in constitutional rule of law (i.e. republicanism), and Arendt saw it in the codification of civil rights. Both accepted the premise of a “social contract.”

        The human aspirations of happiness, freedom, etc. are indeed lofty goals, and they must be so. Without them, we humans have nothing to strive for. Actualizing them is a process, a state of being.

        From our earliest origins, we humans have committed great atrocities against each other. This is undeniable in our nature, and it is undeniably where the idea of human rights sprang from. It is both a reflection and a condemnation of ourselves.

        Destroy the rule of law, civil rights, and the social contract, and we unleash the beasts within us.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I think Christians have more rights than everyone else cause that’s how God wants it and it says so in the bible somewhere. Oh, if you don’t believe me, you’re wrong. OK.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Swarn Gill says:

    I agree with Arendt’s quote. But what I think it misses is that we are born as part of a group. Our nature is social species and as such we are going to have practices that increase group cohesion. Human rights, it seems to me, are a common sense attempt to build group cohesion by recognizing commonalities among all humans rather than choosing superficial qualities like skin color, religion, or particular cultural practices.

    I am not sure how familiar you are with Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics that he created for his robot novels, but the gist of the first one was that no robot could do harm to a human being. In one of his novels called Robots and Empire people arrive to a planet where the people seem to have fled leaving only their robots behind to protect the planet. When a group of humans come to the planet several are attack as the robots identify them as non-human. Only one human is not attacked because she was originally a native of the planet and had the dialectic accent of that planet. It turned on the previous inhabitors of the plan reprogrammed the robots to only recognize those who were natives as humans, and all others non-human, regardless of whether or not they are human. I find this to be a good parable to how humans dehumanize others. Human rights only applies to humans, and it is very often the case that due to something a superficial as skin color, people will be willing to say that someone else is less than human, that they don’t mean the definition of human and thus human rights need not apply to them. The case you brought up of the American Constitution is very much like this, in which all men are created equal…which is great for those you consider “men”. But for those are not “men”, like black people who were property need not be considered for rights under the constitution. Sadly black people still struggle in this country and elsewhere to be considered as a human.

    Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      Hi Swarn,
      I don’t think she misses that point. She raises the point that sometimes people become rightless by actions of the very nations that should offer them protection- Israeli government actions to Palestinians.
      I don’t know whether they are common sense attempt or a realisation that something should be done to guarantee these rights?


  7. Joël says:

    I believe human rights to be an invention. They do not exist without humans, therefore only exist as a product of our collective minds. There is no chimpanzee of lion worrying about his or her ape/lion rights, nor the rights of his fellows.

    Rights might support the cooperation of humans on a large scale, however the extraction is one of human rights being there for everybody, it is just that not everybody has them..


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