Monday, October 30, 2006

Beer and rights

I have no idea what the Lord Chancellor's intentions were in declaring that:
"Human rights are as British as the Beatles. As British as the BBC. As British as bitter beer."
It's pretty nonsensical however you look at it. And I don't think it works as a piece of rhetoric. But, if it means anything at all, is this claim true? I think he wants it to refer primarily to the UK's role in drafting the European Convention on which the act is based, but even so it is worth asking whether humans rights are British... Isn't there something odd about such a claim anyway, since I thought that human rights were supposed to be somehow independent of any particular citizenship or nationhood. At least natural human rights would seem to be like that.
Still, if you want quickly to find out what rights you have (and when they can be overridden) you could start with the DoCA's website, and its handy 'study guide'. This will tell you, for example:
Article 2: The right to life

3.12 In summary, you have the right to have your life protected by law. There are very limited circumstances when it is acceptable for the state to take away someone’s life. You also have the right to an effective investigation if one of your family members dies incircumstances where the state might have had a part to play in the death. Everyone present in the UK has these rights, including those such as suspected terrorists or violent criminals who put the lives of other people at risk.
Article 2 gives perhaps the most fundamental of all the rights under the ECHR.

So that's clear. The state cannot kill you except in cases when it can. And if it does, your family gets to have it investigated, but not necessarily explained. Note that this is the most fundamental of all rights and even this is defeasible. But when?
So here's the problem. To be honest, I find talk of rights incredibly slippery. At most, they seem to be declarations of what we take to be a person's general entitlements and what such a person may not be prevented from doing. But in most cases, it is indeed possible to conjure up cases where the circumstances seem to demand the infringement of a supposed right. (See, for example, the nice first -year kind of questions about torture.) What ever is wrong with just saying that there are certain things we think should not be done to people and certain things people should be allowed to do? This sounds to me like a clear set of moral questions, and talk about rights often merely obfuscates the central issues. Why don't we just say that we think that killing people is, generally, wrong. There are times when this basic intuition might come under pressure, however, at which point some very careful and agonising thinking has to be done. There may be no clear and easy rules about when it's OK and when it's not of the sort that would make convincing and useful legislation. But why should we expect there to be?
Are these questions as British as bitter and the Beatles? No. They are as universal as suffering, oppression, and difficult choices.

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