Security as a Basic Right

Henry Shue formulates an argument in “Basic Right Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy,” for the claim that each person has a right to physical security. This right would protect people from being subjected to murder, torture, mayhem, rape, or assault. Although this right seems to need no argument for it as it is seemingly such a fundamental right Shue states that in going through the steps of arguing for the right and looking at the presuppositions involved, may provide guidance in the form of general principles which may be of use in other areas. His argument then is not so much for the claim that we have a right to security but rather why it is rightly assumed that this right is basic. Shue takes basic to mean the very reasonable and minimum demands everyone places upon the rest of humanity.

Shue’s argument goes as follows:

P1: Everyone is entitled to enjoy something as a right

P2: Everyone is entitled to the removal of the most serious and general conditions that would prevent or severely interfere with the exercise of whatever right the person has


C: Anyone who is entitled to anything as a right must be entitled to physical security as a basic right so that other rights may be enjoyed

Shue claims that for there to be any rights there must be a right protecting the ability of other people to exercise their rights, a right which is more basic and fundamental than the others, that being the right to security. The reason for this is that he believes if people were left free to their own devices, able to murder, rape, beat, etc. then it would inhibit everyone else from fully enjoying their rights. Others would not be able to fully enjoy their rights because they would have to worry about their safety. This would at the very least inhibit their choice of actions if not cause even greater disruptions in other cases. Furthermore, on the aspect of enjoyment, Shue recognizes that regardless of whether the right for security would be enjoyable on its own and desirable, it would be desirable on the basis of its role in the functioning of every other right. The enjoyment for instance that comes out of having a right to security is thus not present in itself put rather its ability to bring about enjoyment through the fulfillment of other rights. Shue goes as far to say that “No rights other than a right to physical security can, in fact, be enjoyed if a right to physical security is not protected.”.[1] Having ones right to security protected thus becomes a necessary condition for the possibility of any other rights to be exercised. Since the right to security is needed to have other rights it must itself be a basic right. This is how Shue argues for the right to security being a basic right.

[1] Shue, Basic Rights, second ed. (Princeton, 1996), ch.1; pg.21

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