Human Rights are not a Pie: against the Antinomical Vision of ‘Women’s Rights’ versus ‘Trans Rights’

Dr. Francesca Romana Ammaturo is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and human rights at the University of Roehampton. Her expertise is in the field of LGBTQI issues and human rights, LGBTQI social movements, European human rights, and European Citizenship.  During the last few years, she has been contributing to the field of LGBTQI+ studies by writing on a range of issues, from homonationalist sexual citizenship in Europe to debates on “gestational surrogacy” in Italy, Pride Events, as well as children’s rights in relation to gender and sexuality. She has published several single-authored articles in international peer-reviewed journals, as well as authored the monograph titled “European Sexual Citizenship: Human Rights, Bodies, and Identities” for Palgrave in 2017. Currently, her research focuses on LGBTQI activism and human rights in Southern Europe.

In recent years, an interesting quote has become popular on social media: ‘equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie’. Beyond its use in popular culture, this statement addresses a relevant question in the philosophy of rights. Namely, whether human rights are a finite resource to be fought for by competing groups who may have partial – or complete – disagreement over their values or needs. 

Human Rights and the Antinomy of Values

In his 1990 book ‘the Age of Rights’, the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio addressed the idea that the existence of what he calls the antinomical and heterogeneous character of values, leading to a situation in which concessions made to a specific group of individuals in terms of their human rights would correspond to an undeniable loss of rights for another corresponding group of individuals. In Bobbio’s own words: 

“(…) Final values are antinomical, and cannot all be accomplished universally at the same time. It is necessary for both parties to make concessions in order to achieve them, and the concessions required for this process of conciliation involve personal preferences, political choices and ideological orientations.”
Bobbio, Norberto. 1996. The Age of Rights. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 5–6.

Under human rights law, this principle is often embodied in the existence of restrictions to some rights that cannot be exercised in an absolute manner. An example is Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protecting freedom of expression. According to an antinomical vision of rights suggested by Bobbio, for instance, LGBTQI+ friendly speech would be irreconcilable with homo- or transphobic speech. The two are fundamentally rooted in alternate visions of reality: one in which the lives of LGBTQI+ persons are valued and cherished, and one in which they are denied, mocked or vilified.  Whilst this logic seems to make sense, defining in practice what ‘values’ are, is far from being straightforward. 

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