Are Group/Corporate/Collective Rights Compatible With Individual Rights?

by thewedewer

This post isn’t intended to convey a comprehensive answer to this question. I simply want to share some initial thoughts about this question, which will serve as a road-map for a research paper I’m about to write. Two years ago, I created this blog with the intention of becoming a “thought-leader” or a “public intellectual”. Right now, I’m more concerned about avoiding writer’s block and existential crises.

This question is arguably the defining question of “post-material” or “post-modern” politics. The developing and the developed world alike confront issues dealing with so-called “minority rights”, whether rooted in sexuality, ethnicity, “race” or gender. As noted by Will Kymlicka, post-war notions of universal human rights were intended to address the concerns of various minorities by separating rights from identity. Like Kymlicka, I believe that this move has its strengths: rooting rights in corporate bodies has a long history of oppression, which may be seen in the caste system of colonial Spanish holdings, “Jim Crow” America or feudal Europe. Like Kymlicka, I also believe that notions of universal human rights do not provide answers for the problems that face multicultural states: should states grant minority nations, whether Crow or Euskadi, more autonomy or less autonomy? Should states grant special privileges to minority ethnicities so that they may posses special authority over sacred sites or lands used for rituals? Should emerging immigrant communities and pre-existing minority communities receive some sort of state support to preserve language or, at the very least, accommodations for their lack of fluency in the dominant tongue of their nation-state?

I’d argue in the affirmative to all of these questions but I’d feel uncomfortable stating this support without noting that these questions are problematic and contain no easy answers. These questions challenge our shared conception of liberal citizenship, rooted in universal rights and duties. Confronting these questions by granting various minorities, whether ethnic or racial, special privileges, distinctions or rights should give us pause because it may serve to deepen divides between different communities. Furthermore, it may be at odds with ideas about universal human rights.

In the research paper that I’m working on, I’m going to propose that conferring minority groups with special privileges, rights and autonomy complements rather than contradicts notions of universal human rights. I’m also going to propose, contrary to the liberal scholars whose works I’m drawing on, that human rights should be only be referents to the most essential, agreed aspects of human dignity that are worth protecting. When frameworks for a universal human rights become more than this, they deny pluralistic/multicultural or plurinational states the ability to define specific notions of rights in a democratic manner that’s attuned to social realities. Some rights and some duties may be rooted in a objective, universal ethics but political theorists should pay attention to the subjective experiences of different cultures and take care to reflect upon the problems attached to excessive abstraction. This is no justification for moral relativism but rather a clarion call to political theorists to pay more attention to the importance of social realities, which may necessitate some new frameworks for creating rights.