Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Concerning Shue's "Basic Rights"

In his book Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy, Henry Shue argues that everyone has a right to subsistence and that this right is as important as the right to physical security. This argument runs counter to a common view that the right to physical security is more stringent than the right to the necessities of life. In addition, the common view could be argued to hold that the right to life is a right that is overridden or justly violated only in extreme conditions, while the right to an adequate diet or minimal health care are more easily overridden. I will provide a brief overview of Shue’s argument and what he means by a basic right, right to security, and right to subsistence. I will also explain why people, in his view, think it is easier to justify rights to security than rights to subsistence and why Shue rejects this reasoning. Lastly, I will evaluate and expand on Shue’s argument from a cost perspective that subsistence rights are basic and just as important as security rights.

Shue approaches his argument by first defining a moral right as providing, “… the rational basis for a justified demand that the actual enjoyment of a substance be socially guaranteed against standard threats.” The rational basis allows for insistence to the right without shame and resistance to the denial of the right. The actual enjoyment of a substance refers not precisely to enjoyment of the right but rather to enjoyment of what the right provides such as liberty, security, or food. For a right to be socially guaranteed against standard threats arrangements must be made, mostly by a government in the form of laws, for people to enjoy the right. “Standard” in this case means a reasonable level, not absolute level of guarantee. In other words, a guarantee against any murders would not be feasible but a system that provided strong deterrents, law enforcement, and a judiciary to as much as possible minimize the instances of murder would be considered reasonable and “standard”.

From this framework, Shue proceeds to define a basic right as right that is essential to the enjoyment of all other rights. When a right is basic, “… any attempt to enjoy any other right by sacrificing the basic right would be self-defeating, cutting the ground from beneath itself.” In other words, a basic right is the foundation from which other rights build upon and without which we literally could not live without. As such, non-basic rights such as free speech or assembly may be justifiably sacrificed, if necessary, to protect basic rights. The question then is what qualifies as a basic right. Shue answers by first arguing that security qualifies as a basic right because no other rights can be enjoyed if a right to physical security is not protected. The argument is more formally structured as follows:
  1. Everyone is entitled to enjoy something as a right.
  2. Everyone is entitled to the removal of the most serious and general condition that would prevent or severely interfere with the exercise of whatever rights the person has.
  3. Therefore, anyone who is entitled to anything as a right must be entitled to physical security as a basic right so that threats to his or her physical security cannot be used to thwart the enjoyment of the other right.
Shue also claims that the basic right of security is universal because the argument applies to everyone.

The order of Shue’s reasoning within his argument is important because up until now, few would disagree that physical security is a basic right. This is important in his argument for subsistence as a basic right because of the similarity he will draw between security and subsistence. By subsistence or minimal economic security, he means access to unpolluted air, unpolluted water, adequate food, adequate shelter, and minimal preventative health care. He recognizes that his claim is a form of distributive justice but refrains from treating broader economic rights at this point. In addition, he limits the scope of the basic right of subsistence to at least those who cannot provide for themselves. As such, the same considerations that support physical security as a basic right support subsistence as a basic right because no one can fully, if at all, “… enjoy any right that is supposedly protected by society if he or she lacks the essentials for a reasonably healthy and active life.” The same reasoning applies to prevention of deficiency of essentials for survival and indeed may be more basic than physical security because a healthy individual may be able to fight off an attack where physical security is violated while a hungry or sick individual could not fight off such an attack. Both security and subsistence are equally essential to a normal, healthy life and before exercise of other rights are possible. This is not to say that a right to security and subsistence are means to the enjoyment of other rights but are instead inherent necessities. He concludes by referring back to the definition of a moral right to show that a social guarantee of protection against threats to both security and subsistence is necessary because giving less priority to a basic right rather than to non-basic or other moral rights is “literally impossible”.

Shue attempts to show that the common view of accepting security and not subsistence as a basic right lies within the view of negative and positive rights. A negative right is a right of noninterference or simply leaving people alone while a positive right is giving to others or redistributing wealth. The prima facie argument against a basic right to subsistence relies on the view that subsistence is a positive right and therefore secondary to the negative right of security. Shue rejects this argument and suggests that both security and subsistence impose positive as well as negative duties. These duties include not depriving the right-holder the object of the right, protection of the right-holder against such deprivation, and aid to those who have already been deprived. In the case of security, Shue claims that it is impossible to protect a right to physical security without taking or making payment for positive action such as salaries for police officers, judges, and maintenance of correctional facilities. In the case of subsistence, he shows that fulfillment of the right to subsistence may not involve a redistribution of wealth or grants of commodities but rather protection from individuals or institutions that would otherwise harm them and prevent them from providing for themselves. According to the opposing view, this is a negative right related to security. Further, he briefly discusses the misconception that negative duties cost less than positive ones and suggest that this argument rests upon “… empirical speculation of dubious generality.” Shue does not deny that reasonably guaranteeing a right to subsistence would involve some form of redistribution of wealth but only that denial of the right to subsistence based upon the premises that security only involves negative duties while subsistence involves only positive duties is fallacious. Shue briefly mentions the cost of security versus the cost of subsistence to further weaken the claim that it subsistence is not a basic right or at least secondary to the right of security. I will expand upon this concept and show that in many respects, the right to subsistence may actually be cheaper than the right to security. I will also show that the resources of security, like subsistence, favors the rich and therefore also involves a redistribution of wealth to socially guarantee security as a basic right for all.

Controversy has surrounded the concept of redistributing wealth for centuries and has been the subject of political philosophers from Immanuel Kant in the 18th century to modern philosophers such as Rawls, Pogge, and Singer. In regards to the costs associated with the
realization of subsistence rights in comparison to actual costs associated with maintaining security rights, the common view is that achieving the right to subsistence would be costly and therefore involve a substantial redistribution of wealth. Based on current spending in the United States alone, I argue that costs necessary to achieve subsistence rights domestically and make a significant increase to achieve international subsistence rights are obtainable without any additional cost to the American taxpayer. In 2007, the United States spent an estimated $693.3 billion for all military expenditures and domestic police protection, corrections, judicial, and legal activities. Based on these statistics alone, the annual per capita expense for security in the United States is, at minimum, $2,311. In contrast, the United States spent $49.9 billion in total foreign aid and its domestic food stamp program in 2007. Assuming all U.S. foreign aid went strictly to subsistence, this equates to an annual per capita expense of $161 or 7.1% of the per capita expense of security. As Shue has shown, security and subsistence rights both involve positive and negative duties thereby defeating the argument against subsistence rights on the grounds of redistribution of wealth. Further, as the numbers indicate above, a simple shift in expenditures would go far to achieve subsistence as a basic right without any further cost to the American taxpayer. For example, a 9.5% decrease in military spending could effectively double the current U.S. expenditures for both foreign aid and domestic food stamp program. One could argue that U.S. security expenditures are necessary and the funding required to achieve subsistence as a right, even domestically, would overburden the taxpayer and more specifically the wealthy. With over 700 military bases in 130 countries and an unpopular war in Iraq that costs approximately $5 billion a month, I find arguments either against subsistence as a basic right or as an unachievable ideal both weak and immoral especially since it is clear that shifts in expenditures could make a difference without any further taxpayer cost.

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