Thursday, March 13, 2008

Talking about group rights

Norm argues that groups may have rights, and that they may do so in a way that isn’t a mere aggregation of individual members’ rights:

The right of nations to self-determination is a case in point. The right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and the right of the Jews to a state of their own includes an entitlement to some territory; but this is, irreducibly, a group right. Individual Israelis and Palestinians don't each have a right to a 'bit of a state' that then gets aggregated with all the other rights to other 'bits of a state' into one overall right to a whole state (and territory).

This I find a bit unsatisfactory, not just because of the vagueness of “the Jews” and “the Palestinians”. Are, for instance, Palestinians living as Israeli citizens in Tel Aviv entitled to a Palestinian state? Are Jewish settlers in the West Bank entitled to the ‘Greater Israel’ they claim? What about Jews or Palestinians who’d prefer a one-state solution? To which state does which group have a right?

(I’m talking, as I presume Norm is, of moral rather than legal rights; of the way things should be rather than the way things are.)

The question of definition has to come down, at least in large part, to one of territorial boundaries, as indeed Norm nods at parenthetically: states are, for very good practical reasons, based on physical spaces (even if they might define themselves in terms of religion, ethnicity, ideology, etc.).

So, who has the right to what?

If states are territorial, then the people of that territory have the right to citizenship; that, certainly, is individual. Those of us who believe in democracy will add that citizens have the right to shape the nature of their state and its government; democracy is inherently collective, but participation is individual – and hence the right to participate is too.

Here’s how I’d cast the Israel/Palestine situation: every person of this region has the right to influence the way they are governed, and to form groupings with others in order to do so. The question of what state boundaries should exist here is part – a fundamental part – of this. If the majority of people living in a geographically well-defined area favour separate statehood for that area, then denial of such statehood is an infringement of their democratic rights. These rights, though, are individual: if enough individuals changed their minds, then the moral case for statehood would fade.

‘The people who want to belong to a Palestinian state within such-and-such borders’ is an operative category here, rather than ‘the Palestinians’. The existence of an ethnic group doesn’t create any irreducible collective rights, but voluntary membership of a political group (defined essentially by opinion, even if the focus is on ethnicity) means that rights can be exercised collectively – any talk of a group right here is, I suggest, derivative from the individual rights of the members.

(A complicating factor, of course, is that some people have been unjustly displaced from their land to make way for others. This is, among other things, gerrymandering. It’s hard to say how long it takes for such a state of affairs to turn from an injustice that should be undone to one that cannot reasonably be undone but whose victims should be compensated, and then to a historically uncomfortable status quo. There’s a distinction well worth making between the people of a territory and the people in it.)

I think that everything one might want to say about ‘group rights’ can be said more compellingly and accurately (albeit at greater length; such is life) in terms of the rights of individuals choosing to join together; otherwise there are problems to do with dissenting weaker members.

Norm’s other example doesn’t convince me either:

Equally, an organization can have certain rights - property rights, for example - which the members of the organization only benefit from while, and in so far as, they remain members of it.

I’m not going to get into this in any depth, because it would become too legalistic quite quickly, but I think the rights of an organisation are wholly parasitic on those of its members. If you look at where ultimate power in an organisation formally lies, be it with the director, the shareholders, the trustees or all the members, there you will find individuals. To the extent that these individuals have to defer to the structures of the organisation, this is a matter of legal agreements that they have chosen to enter into.

But whatever the reducibility or otherwise of group rights, I agree wholly with Norm that these “cannot cancel or override fundamental human rights, which are, these, for individuals”. That’s the key point, and it’s another way of bearing in mind my concern about dissenting weaker members.

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