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Self-Determination Is NOT a Basic Human Right

It's much more fundamental than that.

Commonly, in organizations and communities, various rights are frequently promoted. Wikipedia describes rights as “legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement” (https://en.wikipedia/org/wiki/Rights). Various types of rights are often discussed and differences can occur regarding what exactly is meant by the term “rights”.

Despite the uncertainty that may exist about what a right is and which things should be rights in any given context, the value of rights is clear. Rights are important. Rights help people in social contexts know how to get along with each other so that everyone has the best chance of living the life they want.

But it is not the value of rights that I want to draw attention to in this discussion. Rather, the main feature of rights that I want to highlight here is the fact that rights are things that are agreed to do or established by some authority or other. Within discussions or statements about rights it is not unusual to find the “right to self-determination” in the inventory. The Australian Human Rights Commission, for example, lists self-determination as a right (

Self-determination, however, is not the same as a right. Self-determination is not something that can be bestowed by people in positions of sufficient power to make decisions such as this. In fact, self-determination can’t be granted or taken away. Self-determination is not something that can be switched on when it is convenient and off when we need to take a break.

Self-determination is not a human right. It is a feature of our endowment as a living thing. Describing self-determination as a “right” is akin to suggesting that: motor neurons have the right to transmit signals to muscle fibres; enzymes have the right to accelerate biochemical reactions; and kidneys have the right to regulate electrolytes in the blood.

Self-determination is a fundamental property not an ordained right. And, we are much, much more than self-determining. We are marriage-determining (and divorce-determining) and avoid-peak-hour-traffic-determining and career-determining and decaf-soy-latte-with-an-extra-shot-determining and run-the-New-York-marathon-determining and turn-up-to-work-on-time-determining and scratch-that-itch-determining and whistle-a-happy-tune-determining and keeping-fit-determining and spend-a-day-in-my-pyjamas-determining and tell-someone-I-love-them-determining and tie-a-double-bow-determining and shop-til-you-drop-determining and so on and so on and so on.

Ironically, we are even rights-determining. The fact that we have concepts like “rights”, and that we go about establishing them and enforcing them is because we determined that they would be useful things to help us conduct our daily affairs.

CC0 Public Domain; Free for commercial use; No attribution required
Source: CC0 Public Domain; Free for commercial use; No attribution required

Ultimately, we are determinators by design. Other creatures are determinators too. A turtle might not have a “self” but it is still turtle-determining as it cruises about the reef. Single cells are cell-determining, white cheeked gibbons are white-cheeked-gibbon-determining, and puffins are puffin-determining.

Life, in fact, for as long as it exists, is an ongoing process of realising the experiences or outcomes that we have determined must be established. Other people cannot remove our determining nature. We can certainly be bound and chained but the reason being restrained in this way is such a problem is because we remain self-determining within the shackles that confine us. As Viktor Frankl famously wrote in his classic text Man’s Search for Meaning “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. (

Garden gnomes and store mannequins are not determinators. They don’t mind where you put them or how they are arranged. Actually, they don’t mind anything. People, however, do mind. And people mind because they are determinators.

To state that other people cannot remove our determining disposition is not to suggest that things are always ideal. Our determining propensity can certainly be compromised just as a kidney’s functioning can be impaired for various reasons. The way to help, however, in situations where determination is not occurring as it otherwise might is, firstly, to recognise that there is a determination process going on.

Effective treatment for reduced kidney function must be based on what satisfactory kidney functioning actually achieves. Similarly, effective assistance for a person whose determining is somehow diminished must hinge upon an understanding of what that individual seeks to achieve. Help will only be experienced as helpful if it creates the same outcomes that the determinator being helped would otherwise have realised independently.

Recognizing and understanding our day-to-day activity as the never-ending busyness of determination may be the key to more harmonious social living. Problems occur when we thwart the determining efforts of others but, just as surely, we are capable of boundless magnificence when, as determinators, we assist each other in our determining quests.