24 Mar 2010

Water and human rights -- part 3

This post is one of ten in the serialization of my paper on human rights, which is introduced here.

Human rights in water

Rights create obligations and guarantees. If these are violated, civil and violent conflict can result. Thus, we have to be careful about who gets what rights. To understand the costs, begin with the difference between negative and positive rights. Negative rights (e.g., the right to free speech) should not be taken from you; positive rights (e.g., the right to “clean and accessible water, adequate for the health…") should be given to you. We can immediately see that it is easier to protect negative rights from violation by an outsider than positive rights, which as violated by a lack of action. Even worse, we cannot tell when action, of a certain quality, quantity or price, is enough. Finally, consider that the cost of positive rights grows with demand (e.g., population); it costs nothing to supply an increased demand for negative rights.

For a useful example of the differences between negative and positive rights, recall the “Four Freedoms" that President Roosevelt proclaimed in a 1941 speech to the American people: freedom of speech and expression, of religion, from want, and from fear. The first two are easy to deliver (by not doing anything to interfere with them), but the second pair are essentially impossible to provide. Even if “we have nothing to fear but fear itself," there is nothing that an outsider (or the government) can do to convince someone that their want or fear has been provided for. But enough of this philosophical chatter. What happens in countries where citizens have a constitutional, human right to water?

In tomorrow's episode, I show that countries with a right to water serve leave just as many people dry as countries without that right


  1. Made the comment here about the distinction between negative vs positive rights


  2. David, I must respectfully disagree with your cost estimate for negative rights.

    All rights are also defined as restrictions upon all other individuals in the agreement. A right to freedom of speech is merely another way of saying that no other individual, nor government, can restrict one's freedom to speak. When explained in this way, the costs to negative rights become more apparent: all rights require enforcement of the restriction, and all enforcement has costs (opp. costs at the very least). With increased demand for negative rights (i.e., population increases), costs go up, too.

    And rights without enforcement by an appropriate and adequate power are worse than meaningless.

    In a larger sense (and ethics is my avocation), the distinction between negative and positive rights is not so cut-and-dried. All rights presuppose a right to life first, and without the means to live (and I mean merely survive, not thrive), a freedom to speak is meaningless. Life requires physical components as much as esoteric components, ergo scarcity of those physical components creates an ethical burden upon rights concepts (that is, scarcity of the basic physical necessities of life create an ethical conundrum - e.g., the various desert island thought experiments).

  3. @Josh -- I don't agree with you. A positive right has a cost for EVERYONE, the cost of provision; a negative right can be provided at NO COST.

    As for "right to life," I refer you to "just war" -- and you can talk to the philosophers about THAT.

  4. David, I agree that positive rights have costs, but how do you propose to guarantee a negative right with no costs? Really, this question deserves an answer.

    The historical libertarian (originally the word was liberal, and it still should be) view in the U.S. was that we take a baseline (certain inalienable rights), and enter into a social contract in order to guard this baseline - a constitution - precisely because we understand that individual rights have no real authority without it. It's circular, not linear.

    Regarding your just wars comment: All rights include the provision that, through due process, rights can be abridged. Thus, concepts like just wars and life imprisonment are perfectly reasonable. Rights mean nothing if one's right to life can be taken by another with no potential consequences.

  5. @Josh -- this is better for conversation, but I'll *write* two things: (1) it costs more to give something to everyone than to prevent taking away from some people. (2) rights can be limited by constitutions, but often (only?) when they interfere with the rights of others. (And, no, I do not see any reason to limit free speech.)

  6. I agree that there may be some truth, more often than not, to your #1. However, that does not mean that there is no cost to negative rights.
    As for your #2, I don't believe you. My right to freedom of speech ends where your nose begins. Expression through physical violence is a form of freedom, and we are not allowed it.
    Speech, as a right, is not completely free, and the only times and places where it matters are on those edges - slander, violence, theft, copyright, etc.

  7. @Josh -- you are cherry picking and misquoting. I said speech, not physical violence; of "slander, violence, theft, copyright, etc.," only slander interferes with freedom of SOME speech.


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