Russell Kirk on Human Rights

Radicalism at the end of the eighteenth century expressed its case in terms of “natural rights”. Ever since Paine’s Rights of Men was published, the notion of inalienable natural rights has been embraced by the mass of men in a vague and belligerent form, ordinarily confounding “rights” with desires. This confusion in definition plagues society today, notably in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” drawn up by the United Nations Organization: thirty articles, and a somewhat greater number of “rights” defined therein, including the right to free education, the right to “enjoy the arts”, the right of copyright, the right to an international order, the right to “the full development of personality”, the right to equal pay, the right to marry, and a great many more which actually are not rights at all, but merely aspirations. The conservative adage that all radical “natural rights” are simply, in substance, a declaration of the Right to be Idle is suggested in Article 2: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” This lengthy catalogue of “rights” ignores the two essential conditions which are attached to all true rights; first, the capacity of individuals to claim and exercise the alleged right; second, the correspondent duty that is married to every right. If a man has a right to marry, some woman must have the duty of marrying him; if a man has a right to rest, some other person must have the duty of supporting him. If rights are confused thus with desires, the mass of men must feel always that some vast, intangible conspiracy thwarts their attainment of what they are told is their inalienable birthright. Burke (and after him, Coleridge), perceiving this danger of fixing upon society a permanent grudge frustration, tried to define true natural right and true natural law.

~~Russell Kirk. The Conservative Mind : from Burke to Eliot. (1985), pp.47-48.

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