Saturday, January 12, 2008

Individual and Group Rights

Ophelia Benson has an odd post on this document that opens with:

This idea that human rights are for individuals rather than for groups is relevant to the Vatican's reflection on the Rights of the Family in the context of the Universal Declaration, too. (Do you see a pattern here? There is one. Religions, especially coercive, totalizing, domineering religions such as Catholicism and Islam and Protestant fundamentalism, are suspicious of human rights and would like to elbow them aside in favour of group rights, especially [of course] religious-group rights. We need to watch that, so that we can fight back.)

It's not "the Vatican's reflection" but a document released a few years ago by the Pontifical Council for the Family, one of a little less than forty institutions in the Roman Curia (what we refer to more colloquially as 'the Vatican') that are, generally, independent of each other except for answering to the Pope. The purpose of a Pontifical Council is primarily just to be a think tank, generating ideas on some topic considered particularly important -- in this case related to the pastoral care and dignity of the family. They contrast, sometimes rather sharply, with the Congregations, which have more authoritative functions. Using them to indicate part of a pattern about "religions" is like using Presidential Commissions or advisory councils as a basis for a generalization about the nature of government. (One imagines someone making the argument, 'Leon Kass says such-and-such, therefore governments in general are impediments to stem cell research'; the only reasonable response would be that the President's Council on Bioethics is not even relevant to establishing a pattern about the relation of governments generally to stem cell research, being just one, purely advisory, body in an extremely complicated system, and only one of many systems, at that.) Benson recognizes the distinction between Vatican and Council in a previous post; but it rather wreaks havoc with the line of reasoning in this one.

Moreover, I don't think Benson has read the document correctly. She reads it as saying

That the family should be treated as a person, indivisible and with rights, and that in aid of that the members of the family should not be treated as indivisible persons with rights, they should be treated as parts of an indivisible whole. The family is a subject, with all that that implies, and the people who make up the family are merely parts of that subject.

Whereas it seems to me to say that the family as a subject, i.e., of a group right, is not merely an aggregate of subjects of individual rights. Not once does the document say that the family is a person; nor does it say that members of the family should not be treated as indivisible persons with rights (and, indeed, a number of things said in the document require the opposite); nor does it say that the people who make up the family are merely parts of the family. Perhaps there is some subtle twist of argument here; but it seems to me that if Benson is simply going to make things up it might be a good idea to flag that rather than to present it as an interpretation of the actual evidence that supports a more general argument being made.

But that aside, the question of group rights vs. individual rights is an interesting one. I once had a long discussion while in Canada about this very issue, in which I took Benson's line that human rights can only be applied to individuals, while my Canadian interlocutor argued that Canadian affirmation of human rights that were collective rather than individual was not only legitimate, but that the U.S.'s restriction of human rights to individuals was one of the reasons why the U.S. has so much more trouble with social justice issues than Canada. I'm still skeptical of the notion, even for such important groups as families. Even if we hold, to quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that the "family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State" it is more natural to understand this as a form of rights pertaining to the human person. One can legitimately talk about the rights of the group, by figure of speech; these rights are really complicated and interlocking webs of individual rights. This, incidentally, seems to me to make the most sense of the rights of the family discussed by the Charter of the Rights of the Family to which the document is alluding whenever it talks about family rights.

But what say you, readers?