On the essential nature of human rights

Tom Stoppard with an excellent think piece on the nature of human rights. He argues that they are not ‘natural’ entitlements as such but instead they spring imaginatively from a votive intent by individuals to create an open society:

“Is there ever a time and place for censorship?” On the one hand, we have Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” On the other hand, we have hate speech. I will add something personal. I was proud to be British before I was British. I arrived in 1946 when I was eight, and that was that. Czechoslovakia, which I couldn’t remember; Singapore, which I could barely remember; and India, which I enjoyed, fell away like so many ladders. It was a love affair, and I was not very much older when I first articulated to myself what it was that was the foundation of my anglophilia. It was the Voltairean credo, enshrined in my adoptive country.

But note: the appeal of the Voltairean credo was precisely that it was voluntary, his choice. He was not conceding his antagonist’s possession of an overriding right, he was choosing to accord that right. He was putting down a marker for the kind of society he favoured, for an ideal. The underlying question remains as before: does Voltaire’s credo hold good at all times in all circumstances?

The “human right” of free speech is a non-starter. It is not an absolute to be claimed for any and every position. It will prevail when we accord it. The rules are ours to make, and modify for different situations. The rules will be as good as we are; or as bad. “We need wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us. But that is our dignity as human beings” (Alexander Herzen in The Coast of Utopia).