The Scope of Human Rights

Frank Hutchins, a housing and tenant leader in New Jersey, greatly shaped Cory Booker as he entered politics. Booker recalls several stories of Mr. Hutchins in his book United and offers several quotes from Frank that shaped the way that Booker’s came to understand and approach the world. Regarding human rights, Booker shares the following thoughts, shaped by Hutchins, in United,


“Frank asserted that civil rights — indeed, human rights— were not just about equal access to public accommodations and equal employment opportunity. Human dignity, security, freedom from fear, environmental toxins, and physical deprivation were also rights that should be defended and fought for. It was then that he said to me, looking at me with his kind eyes, ‘Cory, housing is a human right.'”


We often think of civil rights in the context of the Civil Rights Movement which frames our thoughts through black and white television footage of marches to end segregation. The black and white tv and fuzzy audio recordings make the Civil Rights movement seem so far behind us, but the reality that Frank expressed to Booker is that civil rights issues continue to this day and continue beyond racial categories. Civil rights was never just about segregation as we mistakenly think about it today, but rather it was about everything Frank expressed to Booker, about sharing with everyone on the planet a life that we would find acceptable.


When we think about human dignity, security, freedom from fear, toxins, and physical deprivation we are thinking about the things that make us human. We have our differences and we are not born equal in terms of our biological abilities and economic opportunities. We will have different material advantages, different social advantages, and different genetic advantages, but despite our inequities we deserve to all be treated as human and not somehow be treated as less than human because of our differences and starting points. We all understand this, yet it is hard to recognize our inequities, see our advantages, and understand that the reality we experience is not shaped wholly by our own doing, but often by acts and circumstances over which we have no control.


The reason we have trouble viewing the expanded idea of human rights that Frank shared is the same reason that road cycling is hard. Even when we are biking with a tailwind, we still feel air against our face, and still feel resistance from the air ahead of us, even though we receive a push from behind. Recognizing our own advantages, accepting that others lack those advantages, and seeing that though we still struggle we are greatly helped by our circumstances is challenging and humbling. But it is necessary if we are to update our views of human rights and share our humanity with those across the world.


Tackling human rights issues require that we expand our visions of equality. We must also recognize how much we are impacted by the social world around us and how much our society influences the opportunities we have. It is easier, and often encouraged in the United States, to turn away from the true human rights shortcomings in our country and assume that everyone can overcome any obstacle on their path. It is much harder, but incredibly necessary, to recognize the ways in which environmental hazards or the lack of adequate housing impact the lives of millions of people living in our society and how that reflects back on those of us who have adequate housing and advantages within our system.

The Value of All Lives

Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do quotes Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University, who responds to the idea of a global society in which all people extend empathy toward all others. Bloom writes and is quoted by Singer, “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as a family — that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.” What Bloom and Singer would argue is that we need to be able to look at the world as a whole and our position in the world to understand that no matter what, our life holds the same value as those around us and those in distant countries.


It is challenging, and something I have struggled with overtime, to recognize that all human beings are equal in terms of the value of our their lives. It is written into the United States Constitution and something we seem to carry with us wherever we go, but actually diving into the meaning of equality and following through on that meaning is quite difficult.  It is hard to see someone asking for money on the street and remember that their life is just as important as our life.  I think that part of the challenge lies in the ways we count success.  Looking at the monetary value of someones life, their status as a leader or policy maker, or even the influence of another’s life distracts us from the idea that everyone’s life is of equal value.  We are not equal in terms of our talents, desires, opportunities, or in the value we return to the world, but we should all be equal politically, in the eyes of the law, and when we truly stop to reflect, in the respect we garner from every individual.


I think one of the reasons we struggle with equality is because we are not willing to see the inequalities in our lives.  We like to say that everyone is equal to us and assert that we are good people who treat everyone the same because we don’t notice the inequalities. The truth is that we do recognize inequalities and they factor into our decisions. If we can be honest with ourselves about the way that our inequalities impact our decisions then we can begin to better recognize what equality means between human beings, and we can better respond and act equally towards others.


Singer and Bloom would argue that we need to build a level of self-awareness in our lives to recognize the way we treat ourselves, those we love, those who are close to us and belong to the same tribe, and those who are distant, look differently, and come from underserved backgrounds.  If we do not recognize how we are treating not just those close to us, but everyone in the world, then we are not able to take steps to improve the way we act toward others.  By understanding that those in other parts of the world should be treated with the same respect and value as those in our community, we can meaningfully incorporate everyone into the progress of the world. We can use our resources to better the entire planet and we can decide to use our resources in the places where they will have the greatest impact.