Escape your life for a little while — come play in mine.

Food is not a human right.

Posted by Lissa on September 1, 2010

That’s right, I said it. I’ve gone halfway before – remember this post? – but I’m feeling wild-and-crazy today.  Full damnation, full speed ahead!

Walls of the City linked Joe Huffman’s ruminations on the UN Bill of Human Rights, the first of which is:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Joe goes on to discuss Communism and redistribution, but my reaction is far simpler (of course):

No.  No no no. Food is not a human right.

After long (muddled? unfruitful?) rumination, I’ve decided to differentiate between human rights and moral imperatives.  (Other folks will describe them as “freedom to” and “freedom from.”)

The right to defend yourself, the right to speak your mind, the right to worship any god you damn well please – I consider these human rights.  You can do these while sitting alone in the woods — all it requires is that the government leave you in peace.

The obligation to feed the hungry, to support the poor, elderly and infirm – I consider these moral imperatives.  You can call them the duties of citizenship or the social contract, if you like.  They are covenenats imposed on us, by us, a decent people, and are integral to being a decent society.

That obligation on the provider does not translate equally to rights for the recipient. 

I think it is morally and ethically desirable to help alleviate hunger.  As I posted a while back:

As you can probably tell, I am still susceptible to accusations of heartlessness and feelings of guilt.  There’s a panhandler outside of South Station who holds out his Dunkin Donuts cup every day.  I felt less guilty about never giving him money once I discovered that he’s been doing that for at least SEVEN YEARS.  He has no physical deformity and he wears warm and sturdy clothing.  Intellectually, I know there is no reason for me to feel guilt or shame for refusing him charity.But emotionally, I still found it difficult.  I studiously avoided his eyes every time I walked past.

The solution?  I’m now donating every month to the Boston Food Bank.  At a rough glance, they seem to have an acceptable level of efficiency — my crude calculations guestimated about 87% of their budget went to food distribution/storage — and it’s a worthy cause.  I don’t want people to go hungry, so I chose to help feed them.  (CHOSE.  Choice.  It’s a good thing.)  If the guy at South Station is hungry, he can go over and get something to eat.  I walk by him now and my conscience makes nary a peep.

But a societal obligation on my part (“We should provide food for hungry people”) does not translate into a right for the South Station guy.

If food were a human right, then the panhandler could sit on his butt outside South Station and demand not only that I provide him bread, but that I walk over and place it gently in his mouth, physically move his jaw up and down and then rub his throat to make him swallow. 

If he has a right to it, then why should he have to do such onerous work as standing all day while cadging handouts? Why should he have to walk to the Food Bank?

If he has a right to it, then the makers of that bread  (including the truck that delivered the bread to Boston, the company that manufactured the plastic wrap, Wonder Bread Inc., the manufacturers of kneading machines, the inventor of the kneading machine and the slicing machine and the conveyor belt, the growers of wheat and sugar and yeast, the chemists who perfected preservatives; hell, the inventor of the internal combustion engine and the workers at the petroleum refinery) then they must do their jobs no matter their preference or wish for compensation.  Because he has a right to it.

I say no.

Your thoughts?

11 Responses to “Food is not a human right.”

  1. Brad K. said


    Nicely put.

    The UN statement is mere weasel-words. Reading it, I was struck that what they call “rights”, I consider obligations of an ethical government – and reason for a nation to change that government if it fails its duty.

    But the UN cannot say that. Too many member nation governments fail in those obligations, and especially they fail at acknowledging that kind of obligation to their own people.

  2. mike w. said

    Good post Lissa.

    It boils down to the basic difference between negative rights and positive “rights.”

  3. Jay G. said


    Thanks for the heartburn before lunch.

    Food is a human right. BAH. Bullhockey.

    Marko put it best – a right simply cannot come at the expense of someone else’s hard work. It cannot. A right cannot require someone else to toil without recompense.

    Saying that food is a right means that food needs to be provided whether or not the recipient can pay for it. If the recipient cannot pay for it, then either the food is forcibly taken from the producer (which is, when you boil it down, slavery) or someone else pays for it (government=taxes=my damn money).


    That food doesn’t grow itself. That food doesn’t process itself. That food doesn’t transport itself to market.

    Saying that someone has a right to food does not equate to food being free.

  4. staghounds said

    My thoughts are that this is PROFOUNDLY creepy. Because I’ve not looked here for a few weeks, and yesterday afternoon I was talking with someone about this exact topic, and I said “So if someone has no food do the rest of us have to hunt him down? Put the food in his mouth like a dog’s pill and make him swallow it?”

    Cue twilight zone music…

  5. Lissa said

    Brad, a very good point!

    Mike, I should have listed those as other alternative phrases. I think we’re all on the same page here.

    Jay, if food doesn’t grow and process itself, does that mean money doesn’t grow on trees either?!? *mutter mutter*

    Staghounds . . . doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo! Weird AND funny that we stumbled on the same analogy!

  6. “UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
    Article 24:
    Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”

    Just when we thought a “HUMAN RIGHT” to food was rediculous, a little extra reading informs us that we all have a HUMAN RIGHT to a VACATION! I here-by demand a couple of days on an un-crowded island beach with a number of scantily clad native females bringing me that food I have a HUMAN RIGHT to!

    what? cmon… the UN SAYS I have a RIGHT to it.



  7. Sarah said

    The U.N.’s overwhelming entitlement is really stinking up the joint.

  8. Linoge said

    Thanks for the linkage!

    … a right simply cannot come at the expense of someone else’s hard work. It cannot. A right cannot require someone else to toil without recompense.

    That, right there, is the major disconnect – UBU52 flat refuses to acknowledge that simple fact, and defines a “right” as “anything I want”.

    Suffice to say, she is occasionally good for blogfodder, like Joe’s post and this one, but scant little else, given that trying to hold a conversation with her is much akin to trying to explain the Theory of Special Relativity to a two-year-old…

  9. mike w. said

    Under that kind of definition of a “right” I have a “right” to a Dan Wesson PM7. Since I can’t afford to drop ~$1100 on a gun I fully expect someone to buy one for me, since it’s my “RIGHT.”

    Linoge – UBU52 is a standard issue “useful idiot” good for blog fodder and little else.

  10. dr mac said

    Written eloquently.

  11. You have presented this so nicely….thanks for sharing it…

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