16 - Individual versus Group Rights in Western Philosophy and the Law  pp. 309-319


By Elazar Barkan

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Western societies and the law primarily recognize individual identity, rights, responsibility, and guilt. It is cognizant though that people also belong to social groups, including nations, ethnicities, religions, a gender group, and they suffer from poverty or enjoy affluence, all of which can determine the course of the individual's life more than any individual attributes or characteristics. This is particularly true when it comes to large-scale group-based atrocities, crimes, and discrimination. The victims of genocide share a group identity that is more significant than any individual characteristic in terms of shaping their survival or demise. Similarly when a minority (or a majority, as in the case of apartheid in South Africa) is subjected to oppression that has everything to do with the group and nothing to do with individual action.

Like responsibility and guilt, privileges and rights are also a matter of group membership. Few aspirational statements are more fictional than “all men are created equal or free.” Politically, most of the rights individuals enjoy are as individuals who are members of specific groups, rather than in terms of universal or natural rights. Most obvious are the rights enjoyed through citizenship. Lack of individual rights is not merely a matter of oppression, but of the conventional social order. We are citizens of a state, not members of humanity, as far as our rights are concerned. This simple observation seems to escape much of the public discussion surrounding human rights where aspirations are confused with political reality.

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