2.7 Session on “Poverty and Rights”

Joe Gunn, Michael DeMoor
Organised by Citizens for Public Justice

Campaigns against poverty use human rights language, such as the right to food and shelter, to press for changes in public policy.  These rights, called sustenance rights, have a long history in religious thought, but they do not fit easily in contemporary free market societies, which consider property rights as foundational.  Can sustenance rights and property rights, which often come into conflict, be reconciled?  Joe Gunn, Executive Director of Citizens for Public Justice, will discuss the current Dignity for All campaign as an attempt to reclaim the rights of people marginalized in our economic system.  Michael DeMoor will discuss alternative ways to approach the concepts of property rights and sustenance rights and the challenges our market society poses for the pursuit of a broader concept of public justice.

The session began with Joe Gunn, Executive Director of Citizens for Public Justice, posing the important question of whether freedom from poverty could be validly accepted as a human right. He detailed the subtle but enormously significant historical split in rights language that occurred in the Cold War, with the Soviet Bloc championing social, economic and cultural rights (what the governments ought to do for it citizens), while nations like the United States began to distinguish their ethos based on their civil and political rights (what governments could not do to its citizens). This divorce, Gunn said, has now resulted in a long-running practice in the West of according a lower urgency to matters like poverty alleviation. His presentation also posed the question of whether the current rights framework is genuinely useful for concrete problems of poverty, and pointed out that the most obvious challenge of enforcement can only be met when there are both paradigm changes at the policy structure and active voices from the citizenry that force governments to take these commitments seriously.

Gunn described how the invocation of a public justice framework could be useful in dealing with the issue of poverty. He stressed that the conversation needed to be reframed on a broader level so as to connect the issue of poverty to those of labor, the environment, and so on. He ended his presentation with the open question of whether the current discussion could be focused in a particularly strong way by moving in the direction of declaring poverty to be illegal. He suggested that this would ultimately be in keeping with the spirit of the universal declaration of human rights which recognized the importance of a life that is freed from basic wants – a spirit that has itself been unfortunately marginalized in the interpretative climate of the decades that followed its institution.

The following presentation from Michael DeMoor, Associate Professor of Social Philosophy at The King’s University College, attempted to deal with some of the core conceptual issues at work in Gunn’s presentation and the interconnections between rights, politics, and poverty. DeMoor highlighted the crucial indeterminacy that haunts such a discussion as a result of the fact that all kinds of human relationships have a juridical aspect, while not all the resulting social injustices are generally taken to rightly be the government’s business. As a result, he said, we must constantly negotiate the tension that rights as social justice are both pre-political in a sense and yet very much wrapped up in politics. He especially stressed the deliberative nature of politics, which can often be felt as an antithetical piece to the more immediate and inflexible dimensions of a rights demand. He cautioned that rights talk could become like a stacked deck in political contexts, with the result that it remains stillborn in political deliberation where opposing parties often have very different starting points and interpretative frameworks.

The urgent and significant question that faces the discourse, as he saw it, is for rights campaigns to enter into the open, deliberative field of political action in such a manner as to be heard as well as to be recognized as voicing a serious moral claim. Among the many things that might be necessary in meeting this challenge, he said, rights thinker-practitioner-activists would have to shape rights language in such a way as to present the patient-side of poverty – to show that the poor have been wronged. And he also emphasized that this task will need multiple moral languages if it is to be able to talk successfully about the facts of poverty in the kind of world we currently inhabit.

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