Are Human Rights a Figment of Our Imagination?

Each day the national newspapers are riddled with stories of atrocities occurring across the world; stories of mass killings in Syria, bombings in Iraq, strikes in Spain. How can we, in America, sit back and have a discussion about Human Rights when all of this injustice surrounds us?

In 1948 the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which allowed all global citizens inherent dignity and inalienable freedom. However, a declaration of rights may not prove effective just in its plain existence. In order for there to be a discussion of human rights, one group of people has to be victimized or subjugated and there has to be an institution to distinguish what is right from what is wrong. Who is qualified to make those judgments? Certainly, with the United States’ mission to instill democracy across the globe we fulfill part of the role, but under what circumstances is enough, enough?

Luckily, in the United States we have a life of leisure and do not have constant fear of our government or potential rebellions. According to Richard Rorty, human rights are just a figment of cultural relativism. From the American viewpoint human rights are inherent in our lifestyle and we look down upon other nations that do not. This gives us a sense of moral superiority to see others as victims and make it our duty as Americans to help spread democracy. American exceptionalism not only refers to our political and economic superiority, but also to the idea that the American way of life is superior. However, are we moral humans because we are Americans or do we observe human rights because history has allowed us to lead lives of freedom and receive education about what is right and wrong?

Rorty alludes to the fact the best way to understand the life of the oppressed is to put yourself in their shoes. The news media plays a vital role in exposing people to these lifestyles and is able to play on our emotions by creating a feeling of empathy. We are able to relax and absorb this sentimental education because we have the time to. Rorty states that “The tougher things are, the more you have to be afraid of, the more dangerous your situation, the less you can afford the time or effort to think about what things might be like for people with whom you do not immediately identify” (p. 128). In these countries where moral atrocities are part of their everyday lives, maybe it is because they do not know any better.

In short, human rights are a negative freedom that allows the freedom from something. First one has to identify the “evil” they have the right to be free from. This inadvertently creates a subclass of victims that rely on superiors to help them. When we entered Iraq to instill democracy the United States believed they were protecting human rights, but couldn’t it be argued that we were identifying a class of victims? Human rights differ from other rights in that it is a right “from” something as opposed to a right “to” something. There first has to be an evil for there to even be a conversation about human rights.

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