When it comes to philosophy, the problem of rights is not that easy to solve. One of the difficulties is that when we were born, we did not come out of our mother’s womb with a warranty card or a manual. Although we claim that we have rights, we do not have a definitive account of where it comes from.
From where do we acquire human rights?
One view is that we have human rights because of our nature. This is the most popular theory regarding rights. This is connected to the phrase unalienable rights. We can see this in the Declaration of Independence of the United States, to wit: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This theory puts forward that because of our very being, whether from a theistic or atheistic point of view, we have rights. Because these rights are founded upon our very nature, these rights are deemed universally true for all peoples, regardless of race, color, age, gender, or any political classification that one can think of.
Another view is that we have human rights because of our society. This view holds that it is one’s culture that bestows human rights. Arguing from the vantage point of social constructivism, this theory gives importance to the autonomy of cultures. This view legitimizes, for example, authority of men over women, higher respect for the elderly and the disabled, circumcision of men and even of women, rejection or acceptance of LGBTQIs, etc. Instead of believing in the universality of human rights, this view holds a rather relativistic one. It is unfortunate that most common human rights violators make use of this view as justification.
A possible compromise between the aforementioned theories is that we have human rights because of laws. This is also known as the legal view. If we find contentious the two earlier views, this third view seems to bridge the gap between universality and relativism. In the legal sense it says: “No matter what your view is, forget about it.” This view is founded upon the idea that laws are needed in order to stop us from destroying each other. A person has human rights because the law, whether national or international, says so. An example of this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, which states in its Preamble: “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…”
But thinking of what happened to 17-year-old Kian de los Santos, I wonder if the theories I mentioned above would suffice to grasp what was really taken away from him. Many Filipinos now do not consider some sectors of society as human beings. Even the President and his Justice Secretary do not consider drug addicts as such, thus, it is futile to use the natural view. The same with social constructs. Reading social media posts makes it seem that we, as Filipinos, have lost our collective decency. Of course, I cannot count more so on the rule of law. Even many lawyers seem to have less regard for it nowadays. Of course, having a lawyer for a president is no help either. Until I remembered Alan Gewirth’s philosophy of human rights, which is founded upon the concept of rational agency. For Gewirth:
(E)very agent must claim, at least implicitly, that he has rights to freedom and well-being for the sufficient reason that he is a prospective purposive agent. From the content of this claim it follows, by the principle of universalizability, that all prospective purposive agents have rights to freedom and well-being. If the agent denies this generalization, he contradicts himself. For he would then be in the position of both affirming and denying that being a prospective purposive agent is a sufficient condition of having rights to freedom and well-being. (Reason and Morality, p.133)
Alan Gewirth believes that we are endowed with human rights, not just because we are born with it, nor because of culture, nor because of laws, but because we are PURPOSEFUL CREATURES. He believes that because of practical reasons we do X in order to achieve Y. Whether X is “eat” in order to Y “survive” or X is “watch a movie” to Y “relax”, or whatever it is that we want to accomplish, there are possible means in order for us to achieve it. In other words, our existence is purposeful. We have reasons to exist. However, Gewirth proposes that in order for us to achieve our purposes, whatever they may be, there is a necessary ingredient. For him, we need to be CAPABLE. And for him, capability requires two things: FREEDOM and WELL-BEING. For Gewirth, this is the reason why we have human rights. Human rights guarantees our capability to achieve our purpose.
Using Gewirth’s theory in relation to Kian, in order for Kian to achieve his life-goals, he has to have well-being. This means that for Kian to achieve his purposive nature, he has to be well-nourished, sheltered, educated, and surrounded by the people he loves and who loves him in return. Well- being here means that for him to do Y (his goal), he should have the potential to do X (his means). However, having only well-being will not suffice for Kian to achieve his goal. Kian should also have the freedom to choose his own destiny and the infinite possibilities to attain it. As such, in order for Kian to be a police officer after he graduates from twelfth-grade, he has to get a high score in his exam the next day. The night before the exam, Kian is free to study or just play with his friends. As such, if Kian fails because he chooses to play around, then only he is accountable for his own failure. In this sense, for Kian to accomplish his own Y, only he can choose his Xs. In fact, as per our own experience, we know that Kian is also free at anytime to change even his goal Y. From being a cop, he can choose to be a teacher or a physician. To sum it up, Kian’s well-being and freedom guarantee that he will be capable of achieving his purpose in life. And if he fails, Kian can only blame himself.
But last August 16, 2017, three police officers took away Kian’s freedom and well-being. By dragging him, amidst the desire to do his Xs, i.e. review and rest for his upcoming exam the following day, his freedom, as a rational agent, was taken away from him. Because of this, Kian won’t be able to accomplish his Ys anymore. By putting three bullets in his head, they took away his well-being as well. Kian cannot have a job, marry his girlfriend, be around his friends, take care of his parents, and probably be a good citizen to his country. The night that Oplan Galugad was conducted by the Caloocan Police, Kian’s human rights was taken away. For good.
Everything that happened that night was wrong. A life that was full of potential and of infinite possibilities was snuffed because he was just there. A matter of just being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Kian became a victim of Duterte’s war on drugs. Crying out “Tama na po, may test pa po ako bukas.” Pleading for his life, “Maawa na po kayo!” He was beaten and then murdered. But it did not end there. Even up to now, he is being accused of (1) being a drug courier and (2) having a father who is supposedly a neighborhood toughie and a drug user. Even Gewirth’s theory won’t be able to explain the depravity of dishonoring the memory of the dead, much more of dishonoring even the remaining love ones. But because of the principle of universalizability, all of us – rational agents – can understand this.
However, not all is lost. Relating this rational agency theory to the cops, the millions of “enablers,” and the President, they also did their Xs in order to accomplish their Ys. Of course they still have their human rights unlike Kian. But in the end there needs to be a day of reckoning. All of them as “rational” agents are accountable. Kian cries out for justice. Let’s make this our collective Y.