Braille Monitor                                             June 2015

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Human Rights versus Legal Rights

by Ed Vaughan

Ed VaughanFrom the Editor: Ed Vaughan, professor of sociology emeritus, University of Missouri-Columbia, lives in California and is currently the vice president of the San Francisco chapter and has been a Federationist for many years. Here is what he has to say about human rights and civil rights:

The July 2014 edition of the Braille Monitor published a speech by Mary Ellen Gabias to the Canadian Federation of the Blind. She analyzed how the growth of corporate charity has influenced the lives of blind people. Quoting Madame Justice Louise Arbour, former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, “The parallel in America is clear; our citizens must keep in mind that our needs and aspirations are not always the same as those of the charities that serve us and the government agencies that use taxpayer money to perform a similar mission.”

Placing her concerns in a larger context, we will analyze a current economic debate concerning the failure of top-down efforts to reduce poverty. Beginning with the Rockefeller Foundation and gaining momentum with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund programs, the dominant approach is to use experts and their professional planning knowledge to provide programs for reducing poverty in the poorest countries. This approach almost always involves using government leaders who are often dictators or despots, and entrenched bureaucracies are used to implement the programs. In many cases, instead of reducing poverty, governments become worse and ordinary people suffer.

Imposing solutions from the top down and using experts with outside funding frequently does not work. In The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, William Easterly, an economist at New York University, describes this process in great detail.

The ideas undergirding an opposing view other than a top-down approach go back to 1776 with Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson. That all men are created equal and that individuals pursuing their own interests produce the best outcomes have propelled many of the advances in democratic government. The debate revolves around individual rights versus corporate power. What are major ingredients in the concept of human rights?

Society is made up of individual humans, and the basic values that underlie their humanity should inform any collective effort to improve life chances. Since the French Revolution, statements of what “ought to be” have included the idea of human rights.

In 1948 the United Nations established thirty articles defining and promoting human rights. Significant among them were: Article 3—everyone has the right to life, liberty, and personal security; Article 22—everyone has the right to social security and deserves the economic, social, and cultural rights that are necessary for the development of personality; Article 23—everyone has the right to work, to choose one’s employment, to have just work conditions, and protection against unemployment.

Human rights are not legislated rights; they are inherent in the person of each individual human. In this sense it is possible to see human rights as the basic value around which social arrangements can be built and society studied empirically.

At the level of the individual and at the level of interacting with others, what does it mean to say that we have human rights? How is a person being treated when that individual feels that her or his human rights are being violated?

Ronald Dworkin, a well-known jurist and philosopher, has made major contributions to the clarification of the concept of human rights. He notes that there are ways of treating people that are inconsistent with recognizing them as full members of the human community. Weaker members of a political community are entitled to the same concern and respect from their government as more powerful members. No one likes to be disrespected. All should be treated as having the capacity for intelligent self-determination. G. A. Walter has expanded the list of crucial freedoms to include seeing a purpose in life, not being exploited by others, having the opportunity to develop autonomy and self-esteem, having some control over one’s life, and having a level of confidence that aids in that control.

Unfortunately human rights provided in government charters and the writings of scholars are not always implemented in a society. The struggle for human rights is mediated by the legal processes resulting in civil laws. Laws are frequently embedded in the power interests and work settings of experts who are self-regulated. The resulting top-down management minimizes input from consumers. Organizations are more likely to be changed by an open source model in which consumer ideas are a welcome input. When the civil rights process fails, the only recourse may be civil protests and civil disobedience. The legal process is dominated by those with economic and political power. It took a long time to abolish slavery and to give women the right to vote, and we are currently fighting to give blind people working in sheltered workshops the right to equal protection—the right to receive the same minimum wage as other workers.

The history of the NFB is in large part the struggle of blind people for self-determination. We have had to oppose many state and federal laws as well as policies which have impeded our human rights. The NFB has changed both laws and organizations by models we have created—such as our three rehabilitation centers and the large number of agency administrators who now share the NFB philosophy. Happily, more policymakers and lawmakers are being influenced by the humanizing philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.


Dworkin, Ronald. 1977. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge: Harvard University Press    

Easterly, William. 2014. The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Basic Books

Walter, G.A. 1984. “Organizational Development and Individual Rights.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 20:423-439

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