A world in which all rights are protected isn’t just impracticable – it’s not even conceivable. Freedom of expression is a good thing, but so is protection from hate speech. We all want to be free to voice our views without fear, but we also want to be free from being insulted or stigmatised. The two freedoms will always be at odds, for they protect different and competing human interests. Both are universal human values, but they’ll never be reconciled in any kind of harmonious whole.
The ideal of a world ruled by rights distracts us from an unalterable reality – we’ll always be mired in dangerous and only partly soluble conflicts. Human rights can’t get round the fact that human values are at odds with one another. The freedom from conflict that many people seek in rights is just an illusion.
This doesn’t mean rights should be scrapped. Like the religion from which they sprang, they’re a valuable part of the human inheritance. But rather than thinking of rights as a militant creed that can deliver the world from its conflicts, we should recognise rights for what they are – useful devices that quite often don’t work. Following EM Forster, we should give human rights a rousing two cheers.
John Gray by way of Francisca Stewart: