The group rights versus individual rights issue is currently a hotly contested topic among modern democracies around the world. The United States itself is founded on the concept of individual rights, as the Declaration of Independence declares “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the most essential rights of all individuals (Eads 2005). Our nation did have a temporary sway towards group rights during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Supreme Court has taken a solid stance in favor of individual rights since then, and protecting these individual rights first will give rise to the protection of group rights.
Why do group rights follow from individual rights? Simple, because “…interests matter only because individuals do” and groups’ “…moral claims have weight only to the extent that this bears on the lives of actual individuals…” (Kukathas 1995, 234). Kukathas basically feels that groups only exist because individuals associate with them freely. Kukathas (1995, 238) defends his views in regard to non-chosen groups by saying ethnic groups have rights not because they are a distinct minority group, but because the individuals “should be free to associate.” He also claims the right of an individual to freely leave a group guarantees his association with the group is voluntary, and he views ethnic groups as individuals freely choosing to live according to the same standards.
Overall, Kukathas has a logical stance, but while the ability to leave a group is very critical in determining the group’s power, it is not always a very realistic option. Take a look at a hypothetical example. Say some particular individual was born, raised, and is still currently a Lutheran. Say that person has learned about many other religions and world views in his lifetime through experience-Catholicism, Methodism, Mormonism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and so on. Say the individual has learned enough about these different views to know that being a Lutheran is the best thing for him. From this information, it could be said this individual is freely choosing to be a Lutheran. Hypothetically, say he wants to convert to Islam. According to Kukathas, he can simply leave and join another group, giving that new group a little more power. Sometimes, individuals can exit groups with little difficulty. Other times, however, this individual may encounter problems when choosing to exit his current group. His parents may express their disappointment towards him, friends and acquaintances may be lost, and he may have to cultivate an entirely new social sphere in the Muslim world. Other individuals might experience similar persecution and possibly worse. The point is that leaving any large group with any kind of power is in theory possible, but can sometimes be quite taxing for the individual. The exit option is possible and does give individuals power, but is not as viable as Kukathas believes it to be.
Leslie Green takes a different stance than Kukathas and feels there is no way to reconcile group rights and individual rights. According to Green (1995, 266),”…the mere existence of an exit does not suffice to make it a reasonable option.” Green elaborates the case of David Thomas, who was a member of the Lyackson Indian Band in British Columbia. The Lyackson Band captured David and assaulted him in one of their ceremonies. David Thomas filed a lawsuit against the Lyackson because this ceremony was performed against his will. The Lyackson defended their actions based on the belief it was their collective right to perform this ceremony on any of their members. The judge presiding over the case ruled in favor of Mr. Thomas by saying “[h]e cannot be coerced or forced to participate…by any group purporting to exercise their collective rights in doing so” (Green 1995, 264). In this example, Green believes he has shown exiting was not a reasonable option for Mr. Thomas. However, Green is mistaken and in fact, this is a strong case in support of individual rights. David Thomas said he knew little about the Lyackson Band, despite his ethnic heritage of being Lyackson, and had clearly already made an exit from the group. He had his individual rights violated, brought his case to court, and his view based on individual rights was upheld. Nothing is ever easy and simple, and taking a stance of upholding individual rights will certainly be tough at times. David Thomas did exercise his individual right to not freely associate with the Lyackson Band, and the Lyackson Band lost its power because it violated his individual right to exit a group and freely associate with any other groups of his own choosing. This strongly supports Kukathas’ view of free association, and it shows that while leaving a non-chosen group can sometimes be difficult, it is possible and operating at the individual rights level has worked in support of Mr. Thomas.
Another case Green points to is Mormon polygamy. In this case, Green argues that non-chosen internal minorities such as Mormon women need to have group rights, as exiting the internal minority will be very costly to them. He feels that if a certain “…social structure is unjust, it cannot become just merely by becoming avoidable,” (Green 1995, 266). Green is certainly correct in saying that avoiding an unjust internal minority does not make its existence just. But, neither does this mean that group rights need to be protected. If an individual’s rights as a human being who has free will to make his or her own choices are protected, then group rights again become unnecessary. This may compete directly with the stance of the Mormons, but sometimes the dominant minority group is mistaken and is in violation of individual rights. Polygamy, in and of itself, is unjust toward women, and since these women do not have a reasonable ability to make their own free choices due to oppression by a more dominant group, their individual rights to make free choices must be protected. So, in actuality, any group rights issue can be reduced down to the individual level, and that is why all issues should first be approached from the individual level.
In sum, trying to lump individuals into some sort of categorized group and then giving that group rights will always force some members of that group to relinquish some of their beliefs in order to maintain the stability of that group. When dealing with any issue as complicated as this one, it is wise to start from the bottom with the individual. The individual has certain rights as a human being which are guaranteed, and any group that is formed of individuals only has rights because the individual first has rights. The minority group must respect the rights of the internal minority all the way down to the individual level, just as the majorities in America respect the rights of the minorities.
Eads, Thomas. 2005. “The Declaration of Independence.” The Declaration of
Independence: Full Text. http://www.eadshome.com/Declaration.htm (October
Green, Leslie. 1995. “Internal Minorities and Their Rights.” In The Rights of Minority Cultures, ed. Will Kymlicka. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kukathas, Chandran. 1995. “Are There any Cultural Rights?” In The Rights of Minority Cultures, ed. Will Kymlicka. New York: Oxford University Press.