Human rights today are generally understood to be rights for individuals. The United Nations defines human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings.” This includes, but is not limited to, “the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression [and] the right to work and education.” Plenty of young people, including myself, are passionate about the concept of human rights. However, many understand this concept as a vague ideal rather than a concrete philosophy. In fact, human rights rhetoric today is often used to shut down, rather than open up, a conversation.
When understood as solely for individuals, a human rights framework is problematic for multiple reasons. For example, it is common to hear “healthcare is a human right” or “housing is a human right.” Once statements like these are made, anyone who may take issue with them is often perceived as against whatever important social issue is connected to this claim. This is troublesome because many people who recognize the importance of assets like housing or healthcare may not feel comfortable embedding these causes in the language of human rights. If a certain social issue is declared a “human right,” the assumption is often that government is responsible for providing for it. Therefore, the implication behind “housing is a human right” is that individuals should be guaranteed housing by their government. Thus, human rights language, when used in this way, recognizes primarily the role of individuals and government but fails to consider the role of other non-governmental groups in addressing certain social issues.
While a modern human rights framework generally under-emphasizes the role of non-governmental institutions, there are other political philosophies that provide a more comprehensive approach to protecting the well-being of individuals and communities in society and attending to their basic needs. In this article, I argue that human rights, which I will refer to as “individual rights” throughout this piece, cannot be protected by merely focusing on the roles and responsibilities of government to individuals.
A Public Justice Perspective on Protecting Social Well-Being
A public justice framework holds that “government is authorized by God to promote what is good for human flourishing … promoting the well-being of an entire society in right relationship with the larger world that God made.” Government has an affirmative, yet limited, role in advancing human flourishing. A public justice perspective emphasizes that the government must uphold policies that allow both individuals and groups to live out their distinctive roles and responsibilities. That being said, it is clear the government’s authority is not limitless and cannot offer the best care for every unique individual on its own. Contrast this with a “human rights” framework, which tends to solely emphasize the role of government in addressing the needs of individuals.
Public justice insists that complex social issues are best addressed when individuals, groups and government work together to fulfill their own unique roles. This perspective, as opposed to a purely individual rights perspective, supports public policies that require just treatment for the social diversity of human life, which includes individuals, distinct communities and faith-based organizations. A public justice framework articulates that individuals, government and civil society groups all have distinct roles and responsibilities in promoting human flourishing. These groups — schools, churches, businesses, social services, etc. — are integral for individuals to live out their God-given identities and callings. Steve Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies, co-authors of Free to Serve, reflect on the significance of this truth in American society. They articulate the need to uphold a society with diverse groups to meet the particular and varied needs of individuals. They state, “[we should] come together in organizations that reflect a particular way of accomplishing some action” (Monsma & Thies, 2015, pg 99).
Public justice requires that individuals, groups and government work together to fulfill their own unique roles. It is vital that the communities in which we live our lives are protected and allowed to fulfill their distinctive responsibilities. For example, a young woman cannot fulfill her role as a daughter without the institution of family, just in the same way a student could not operate without an educational institution, or a worker without a workplace, or a worshipper without a community of worship. Individual identities are intrinsically connected to the communities and groups in which these identities are incarnated. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that in order to fully advance individual “human rights,” the rights and freedoms of distinctive communities and groups should be protected, as part of being human.
In a Christian worldview, every human being was created in the image of God. God created us to be relational creatures, which means He created us for community. This is true whether or not an individual accepts Christ as their Savior. An essential part of being human is forming relationships and associations with others. It is true that we have individual rights and responsibilities, but since we are social beings, we are designed to live in community. Human society is not meant to be one of isolated, purely individual matters, but one with distinct communities that embody specific missions. Human flourishing requires space for groups and organizations to practice their diverse expressions of humanity.
The Need for Distinct Communities to Fully Advance Human Flourishing
As I have discussed thus far, “human rights” language is problematic because it makes implicit assumptions about the role of government, to the exclusion of other institutions in society, in addressing issues facing individuals. Public justice asks what the right role and responsibility is for each sphere of society in advancing justice for all people, especially vulnerable people groups. Modern human rights paradigms, which overemphasize the rights of the individual and underemphasize the importance of the various communities (family, neighborhood, school, church, business) come up short here.
To take this idea from conceptual to practical, I will consider the specific social issue of human trafficking. Sex trafficking is one of the biggest human rights issues today because of violations to life, movement, security and the forced subjectification to degrading treatment. Human trafficking victims are positioned into lifestyles that eliminate a sense of human dignity and worth. One example of an organization dedicated to supporting individuals who have experienced human trafficking is The Salvation Army. The Salvation Army is a non-profit organization with an anti-human trafficking program motivated by their faith in Christ and refers to human trafficking as “modern-day slavery.” This faith-based organization proclaims, “We therefore have the responsibility, both individually and collectively, to work for the liberation of those who have been enslaved in this manner.” Their faith conviction pushes them to “establish the legal and social mechanisms” to end human trafficking.
The abused and marginalized depend on these distinct communities acting upon their sacred animating beliefs to advocate for human dignity and protect individual well-being. Therefore, faith-based organizations should continue to be free to offer distinct care and programs aligned with their sacred beliefs and practices. Public policies should continue to uphold the capacity for diverse and distinct organizations, with varied animating worldviews, to offer services and programs that reflect their most foundational beliefs. We live in a pluralistic society. Individuals who face hardship have varied and particular needs and preferences, ranging from linguistic and cultural backgrounds to religious and moral beliefs. It is important that these diverse individuals have a wide variety of organizations to choose from to meet their own distinctive needs.
This article has explored why modern-day “human rights” language is often problematic. It could be argued that declaring a certain social issue as a human right automatically puts the onus on government to address this issue. Protecting the well-being of individuals is extremely important, but we cannot rely on government alone to protect individuals’ capacities to flourish. In doing so, we fail to consider other civil society groups and their roles in advancing societal well-being. We should affirm the government’s significant responsibility to allow other non-governmental groups to fulfill their God-given responsibilities. It is unlikely that “human rights” language will be reframed and expanded in public consciousness to include the interdependence of individuals and groups. However, this article has attempted, in some small way, to offer an enlarged vision of human rights: one that includes government but also recognizes the role other, non-governmental groups in securing social well-being and ensuring individuals have access to quality of life.
Individuals cannot live out their providential roles and responsibilities without the groups and communities that form the space where they practice these roles. Therefore, to fully protect individuals, we need to also support all the distinctive communities and organizations in which we live out what it means to be human. This extends to houses of worship, schools, arts and cultural organizations, civic and service clubs, businesses and all other organizations that bring people together around a common identity and purpose. In our discussions on human rights, we need to challenge Americans to think beyond the binary framework of the individual and of government. We have the potential to reopen the common understanding of “human rights” and to challenge others to consider how our own individual freedoms cannot be fully secured without also advancing the abilities for the diverse communities in which we live our lives to remain free to contribute to our pluralistic public square.
Andrea Rice is an intern with the Center for Public Justice and a student at Westmont College.