What Does the Administration Mean By "Human Rights"?

I read an interesting headline at ABC News this morning: "Rick Perry Says Human Rights for Gays ‘Not in America’s Interests’."

Of course, I'm thinking, that can't be what he said.  The man's had some trouble expressing himself clearly at times, but even so I couldn't imagine that anyone would say "human rights for gays are not in America's interests."  

And of course, it turns out, that's not what he said at all.  What he said was that special rights for gays were not in America's national security interests -- and that foreign aid decisions, which is what all this is about, should be based on national security interests and nothing else.

Secretary Clinton recently gave a speech in which she announced the policy change in which gay rights will be considered in making foreign aid decisions.  However, she appears to deny the governor's premise that what is at issue are special rights, saying, "Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights."

There's nothing in her speech that suggests she is interested in "special" rights, and I'm not sure just what Governor Perry means by that.  If he means that gays should not have a special right to redefine the basic institutions of society to suit them, I suppose I agree with him; but if he's opposed to the things Secretary Clinton was actually talking about, I don't think those include special rights at all.  

Still, let's consider his statement a little more carefully. Here's the meat of his remarks:
This administration’s war on traditional American values must stop..... 
But there is a troubling trend here beyond the national security nonsense inherent in this silly idea. This is just the most recent example of an administration at war with people of faith in this country. Investing tax dollars promoting a lifestyle many Americas of faith find so deeply objectionable is wrong.
Now, it is true that "people of faith" tend to be morally opposed to male homosexuality, not just in this country but in most countries.  This is especially true in the countries Secretary Clinton is talking about when she says that being gay should never be a criminal offense -- that is generally true only in the Islamic world.  

Secretary Clinton spoke to this issue directly, however, in a way that seems to make clear that the governor's concerns are not well founded.
Of course, it bears noting that rarely are cultural and religious traditions and teachings actually in conflict with the protection of human rights. Indeed, our religion and our culture are sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings. It was not only those who’ve justified slavery who leaned on religion, it was also those who sought to abolish it. And let us keep in mind that our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source. For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people. And likewise, for most of us, the bonds of love and family that we forge are also vital sources of meaning and identity. And caring for others is an expression of what it means to be fully human. It is because the human experience is universal that human rights are universal and cut across all religions and cultures.
I generally hate the phrase "fully human" wherever I encounter it -- what is the point of the adjective here? -- and the last line is not quite right.  Still, the objection I would raise to it is not that there aren't universal human rights, but that she's eliding past the true reason why they exist.

It happens to be true that Secretary Clinton is poking a finger in the eye of some people of faith, then:  Iranian ones, though, not American ones.  This is still a strange decision from an administration that declared it was going to rebuild relationships with the Islamic world, but I expect it's because they really believe in it enough to justify the hardship it's going to create for their diplomatic efforts.

That this comes at the same time that the US government is shutting down its commission on religious freedom is bad timing, but it's not the State Department's fault.  The Senate is responsible for this because of  the question of funding.

Now, Governor Perry may still be right that (a) foreign aid decisions should be based only on national security issues, and (b) this push is not only not going to help us in that regard, it's actually going to be harmful because it will further irritate relations with the Islamic world.  I'm not sure I agree with (a), but if you do, (b) surely follows.  


Texan99 said...

I'm fascinated by attempts to impose the notion of universal human rights on people who disagree with us. What's our basis, again? It can't possibly be some notion that we're right about an unalterable moral truth, because we're way too sophisticated for that. We're moral relativists, celebrating the diversity of cultures. Except when cultures are mean to homosexuals, because that's wrong. Well, "wrong" in a nuanced sense. Because we need to be sensitive to the rainbow tapestry of human beliefs . . . .

As C.S. Lewis says, the man who doesn't believe in universal property rights is nevertheless quiveringly alive to the inviolable injustice of someone stealing his pie.

Dad29 said...

"Imposition" is only the first problem. And we know how well that works: see Afghanistan, e.g.

Nonetheless, what Perry didn't articulate, and what HRC will NOT say, is that the vision of 'homosexual rights' in the West includes such aberrations as gay 'marriage' and --yup-- imposition of gay "values" on others.

IOW, Perry could have said that 'error has no rights' AND defended natural HUMAN rights, thus condemning the error of anal intercourse AND supporting the rights to life and liberty (with 'liberty' understood as the freedom to do what is right.)

MikeD said...

What's a fascinating exercise is to ask a liberal if there is such a thing as a "good" or "bad" culture, or if one culture can be superior to another. Most will give you the moral/cultural equivalence bit and say they don't believe there are bad cultures (unless they make an exception for their own being so). Then ask them what they think of the treatment of women and gays in Middle Eastern cultures. The whiplash effect can be quite entertaining.

Grim said...


Your position is certainly coherent with Kant: one has freedom to do what reason dictates is right, and indeed one can only be said to be free (for Kant) while doing what is right according to reason. To do otherwise is to be driven like an animal -- and indeed, this includes the satisfaction of your own internal, animal desires.

We (and Aquinas) tend to have a little stronger view of liberty and natural rights, though, which includes a right to satisfy animal desires in a way that perfects them. Thus our discussions on marriage, for example.

What's the perfection here? Celibacy isn't the perfection of the drive but the denial of it; and while that can be a noble and worthy sacrifice, just as fasting can be, not everyone feels called to sacrifice. Does perfection then include some general right to be left alone to satisfy these drives so long as they don't impose on anyone else?

I realize Aquinas would not have endorsed any such reading, because he viewed these acts and desires as disordered of themselves. And indeed, maybe they are, if Secretary Clinton is wrong to say that homosexuality cannot be caused or cured. It's certainly true that psychology can't cure it, but that's true of almost everything. There was the case in which a stroke seems to have caused a rugby player to become gay; if brain damage can produce homosexuality, then in principle brain surgery could reverse it.

If that's true, then what you have is something like a disease or disability for which there is not currently a cure; and pity, rather than disgust, is the morally right response.

Of course, Secretary Clinton's view is clearly that this is not a disorder at all, but a natural and appropriate order. On that view, since everything natural is at least possibly good, there should be a perfection to pursue.

The quality has to be either a disorder or not a disorder; there aren't any other logical options. In either case, some accommodation seems proper: though certainly not the top-down reordering of society and its values that seems to be desired.

Grim said...

Since I'm citing Kant and Aquinas, I suppose I should cite them properly. Kant speaks to the issue in The Metaphysics of Morals, Part I, Section III, subsection 24:

"...unnatural use [of sexuality] takes place either with a person of the same sex or with an animal of a nonhuman species. Since such transgressions of laws, called unnatural (crimina carnis contra naturam) or also unmentionable vices, do wrong to humanity in our own person, there are no limitations or exceptions whatsoever that can save them from being repudiated completely."

Aquinas follows Augustine in assessing the matter as being the greatest sin among the species of lust. See article 12.

Grim said...

By the way, Kant's argument comes in the "Doctrine of Right" section of the Morals, not the "Doctrine of Virtue" section. The distinction is that the state should have the power to enforce what is right, but not what is (merely) virtuous.

Thus, Kant's position actually is the one that Sec. Clinton is arguing against: that homosexuality should be criminalized, and punished by law.

Dad29 said...

Another way to put that quote:

"Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to
do what we ought."--John Paul II

The Church considers homosexuality to be a 'grave disorder,' which 'splains Augie (and Kant). TA certainly agrees.

That does NOT mean that homosexuals should be subject to abuse or disrespect.

Anonymous said...

If memory serves, about ten years ago an interesting question arose in Florida over the priority of religious freedom vs. the priority of public health. A group of Santeria followers were exercising their 1st amendment rights in a backyard and leaving the remains of the sacrifices to decay or be eaten by rats and insects. This caused the neighbors to complain about the practice. The courts ruled that the Santeria worshippers had the right to their practices, but that the health and safety of the larger community demanded some other form of sacrifice and clean-up be found. So in this case, the right of freedom of religion stopped when that freedom was put into practice in a way that (potentially) harmed public health.

I think the same can be said for a lot of things that Kant, Aquinas and others would consider sins. The innate tendency is not the sin and is not illegal. However, acting upon that tendency constitutes a problem, especially if it means imposing something on others against their will (individuals or a particular community).


Grim said...

There's no first amendment right involved in homosexuality, of course; at least, not that I'm aware. I suppose one could construct a church operating from a metaphysics in which male/male sex performed some ritual function, but I've not heard of it if it exists.

(Or at least, the only things I can think of from the epics and sagas that treat such things are rituals of degradation; for example, in the old Norse law, the penalty for using a man homosexually is the same as the penalty for castrating him.)

It would then be arguing against public health concerns from something less than an equivalent position, I would think. However, I'm not sure the public health concerns you mean to cite are easy to prove: we have the correlation/causation problem.