What are Human Rights?

25 June 2010

Our question this week is  “What are human rights?” The American declaration of independence offers a compelling answer to that question so its the first place one might think to look of for a characterization of human rights.  It says in what I personally find stirring language that  “All men are created equal … they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

 The Declaration is rooted in the Enlightenment idea that every human being enjoys, just in virtue of being a human being, certain fundamental rights.  Of course, not every enlightenment thinker thought that rights were ‘god given,” as Jefferson seems to suggest.   That, however, raises the question that if fundamental rights are not god-given, where exactly do rights come from.  One could, I suppose think that rights are just “natural”  and intrinsic to what it is to be a human being.  Locke seems to have thought something like that.    No doubt during the episode we will explore alternative views about where rights come from and in virtue of what human enjoy various rights.  But I won’t try to get into that very much here.

 I should say  that not everything that is represented as a right, even a universal right could plausibly thought to be a “natural”  right, whatever exactly those are.   For example, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights  says that “the right to rest and leisure,  including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay” is a universal human right.   Paid holidays are certainly a good thing.  But it is at best debatable that the right to paid holidays is in, any plausible sense,  “universal.”  And it seems plainly false to say that such a right is somehow a natural or intrinsic right. 

 I don’t mean to be suggesting that employers have the right to work their employees to the bone, until they drop from exhaustion.  I’m just saying that we need to distinguish fundamental or intrinsic rights from socially or politically created rights.  Workers don’t have an intrinsic right to paid holidays.  But where certain laws and/or collective bargaining agreements are in place, they do have the right.

It can be a little bit tricky to draw the line between intrinsic rights and socially or politically constituted rights.   One’s first thought might that  intrinsic  or basic rights are rights that we enjoy independently of any laws, agreements or conventions.   Socially or politically created rights depend entirely on laws, agreements or conventions.    

 One problem with this attempt at line drawing,  however, is that  until people get together and empower duly appointed bodies to make laws prohibiting murder or slavery, it’s not even clear what it  would  even mean to say that people have a right to life or a right to liberty.   One wants to say, of course,  that even in an imagined “state of nature”  in which there is not yet a political or social order, it would be plain wrong for anybody or anything to deprive another of liberty or life.  There doesn’t need to be a system of laws or courts or even a system of social sanctions  in order for the deprivation of liberty of life to count as wrong.   Or so one might think. 

Perhaps.  But suppose that there were no society and no force of law to back up such claims about rights.   In such a situation if  someone had the power and desire to enslave you or kill you then they might just do so.  You could scream in foot-stomping protest, but without the backing of law and society and government, your protest would amount to no more than impotent screaming.    At a bare minimum,   without the backing of the state or at least civil society,  talk of rights may be ineffectual, even if not exactly meaningless.   Of course,  that is precisely the reason why Jefferson listed not just life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as fundament rights, but also the right to institute governments to secure such rights and even the right to rebel --  to alter or abolish governments that fail to secure fundamental rights.

But let’s  come at rights from a different angle for a second.  Consider two societies with two different sets of laws.  In one society, the law grants women full autonomy over their own bodies.  In the other, the law treats women as the sexual property of men.   Many of us will have the intuition that the second society has violated the fundamental human rights of its female citizens.  And in good Jeffersonian fashion we may conclude that any government that permits such violations ought to be “altered or abolished.”

But suppose that citizens of the relevant society by and large endorse the relevant laws and practices.  We can imagine that the men do so out of a crude kind of self-interest which they believe to be enhanced by the subjugation of women.  And we can imagine that the women either the lack either the power to change things or the will to change things – perhaps because of the cumulative effect of decades or centuries of  subjugation on their self conception.   What do we do when faced with what strikes us as such an obvious violation of human rights and human dignity?   Do we, as outsiders,  have the right to seek to alter or abolish the social system and/or oppressive government in the name of  protecting fundamental human rights and human dignity?   Or would an outsider’s attempt to alter the government of another society amount to cultural imperialism?

This, I think,  is a delicate question.  It’s one we intend to put to Helen Stacy, this week’s guest.  Helen is the author of Human Rights for the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture.  No doubt, she will have a lot to say about the complicated interaction of our conception of universal or fundamental human rights, and cultural diversity.   

Comments (10)

Guest's picture


Wednesday, June 30, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Doesn't this get to Bentham's argument with Locke,

Doesn't this get to Bentham's argument with Locke, the whole thing about individual rights being 'nonsense on stilts?' As much as I would like to believe that we all are born with unalienable rights, Bentham's contention that such rights are always granted and protected by the socio-political group one is born into, and not something innate to being human, seems more correct.
It seems to come down to practical application. Even if one assumes that humans are born with unalienable rights, that makes little difference if those rights aren't protected or enforced. That's where political argument and action needs to occur, at least to convince the parties involved in the social contract that certain rights need to be recognized and protected.
But to assume that humans are born with unalienable rights eventually leads one down the Peter Singer path: If humans are born with unalienable rights, what about other primates who are 99% the same as humans? Are they also born with unalienable rights? What about other mammals who clearly show intelligence and culture, like whales, dolphins, and elephants? Or even non-mammals who show higher intelligence and the ability to learn and teach, like recent studies on octopuses have shown? Either we become specists and hold that rights only apply to humans, or we accept a measure of hypocrisy.
So either the scope of rights needs to be drastically expanded beyond what would seem to be politically feasible in most cases -- especially in an age where the bush meat trade and whaling still thrive. Or we have to acknowledge, qua Bentham, that without a socio-political structure delineating and protecting rights, they pretty much only exist in a Platonic world of forms, and not in practical terms.
That Platonic idea of human rights can certainly provide direction for political debate to establish real legal rights. But it seems participation in the debate over rights is what's unalienable. Besides, if we put the rights-horse before the debate-cart, we run the risk of demonizing those who don't participate in or acknowledge what we might consider to be established rights -- and demonizing the other makes participating in any sort of debate difficult for both parties.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, June 30, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I listened to your show on human rights this eveni

I listened to your show on human rights this evening. As someone trained in biology, it seems to me you are overlooking attachment and prosocial behavior for a social species as an evolutionary foundation for human rights. Your conversation was based in legalities and semantics and history; look into the research on attachment and the development of empathy. I think empathy is our core from which justice and our sense of fairness spring. We don't need God to make it so.

Chris's picture


Thursday, July 8, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

This show asks questions starting from the wrong p

This show asks questions starting from the wrong premise. It's not, "why do we think we have certain rights?", but "why do you think you have any right to impinge on my freedom in any way?"
Freedom is the source of rights. It is also the boundary: when our free actions impinge on or hinder the freedom of other living things, that is where a particular right to act must be curtailed by a civil society.
So it's not enough to enumerate our rights, we have all rights, every right to act any way we choose, because we are free. We must only enumerate which freedoms will be curtailed so that everyone's freedoms are maximized. (By everyone, I include the freedom of the natural environment and species to continue to exist and evolve.)
Freedom, I have seen by observing my cats as kittens leaping headfirst into car windows to avoid being caged and transported, is intrinsic to life and consciousness. There is something so basic about freedom of both body and mind in animals, that animals will often kill themselves or lose their minds to avoid a caged reality. Rights stem from our basic reality of being mobile, and our need to use that mental and physical mobility to survive.
The equality question is also posed backwards.
We are equal at the start because we all come from the same place, whatever that may be, a creator or a series of chemical reactions, and we will all die. Nature, or Death, is the great equalizer. In this way we are also equal with all life forms. So no matter if you feel some animals or people are more equal than others, Death will always bring you down to size.

Guest's picture


Monday, July 19, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

In fact, all men are not created equal since they

In fact, all men are not created equal since they were born and depen on their parents' earlyes education and health protections.

Guest's picture


Thursday, August 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I agree totally with Chris. Freedom is the source

I agree totally with Chris. Freedom is the source of rights and the fact that others feel they have the right to impinge on my (or anyone elses) freedom is unfortunate.
Freedom is what we are all seeking - whether we know it or not.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I notice that Australia boots has been busy with c

I notice that Australia boots has been busy with comments on Philoso?hy Talks postings. Having read only the above comment, I do not know what the others may or may not add to the discussions. I wonder though. If other comments offered by AB are as irrelevant as what it has said about unalienable rights, freedom and such, why should their comments be permitted to take up valuable blog space? This seems to fall within the meaning of one commenter's remarks concerning those whose freedom impinges upon or otherwise adversely affects the freedom(s) of others. This is a philosophy blog, is it not? It certainly does not appear to be free advertising space for retailers. But maybe I have missed the point.
Should we not restrict our comments to the topic(s) at hand? Seems reasonable to me. Other blogs I have visited have provided for moderation of comments. Rxtra work for someone? Yes, I suppose so. But it appears to work to the benefit of the blog and the discourse engaged in.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, October 20, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Neuman makes a good point and I whole-heartedly su

Neuman makes a good point and I whole-heartedly support his position. Let's stick with the program and leave peripheral or non-pertinent comments out of the dialogue. It is confusing enough that some folks choose to demonstrate their knowledge of obscure or technical terms, when plain English would work as well. Just an opinion, though.

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Monday, May 7, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I'd suggest that the reason

I'd suggest that the reason the likes of Jefferson and Locke invented the idea of human rights is because it's better than the alternative, the divine right of kings. If kings rule because they happen to be descended from someone who won a battle, that doesn't make much of a case for divine right. Saying that people are all equal is at least a step in the right direction.
Technology makes a big difference. One of the main reasons kings can rule is because they hog all the good weaponry. The slave trade, which abrogated human rights if anything ever did, was made possible by guns, ships, sextants and so forth. And nowadays, the right to health care, which many people see as a legitimate right, wouldn't even be possible without science and technology. Way back before the invention of the spear nobody had any idea about rights, but maybe they didn't need it so much, the technology to dominate others to any great extent just didn't exist yet. So, by this line of thinking, technology both made the invention of rights necessary and provided the means to implement them.
I think I'm starting to get addicted to this blog.

MJA's picture


Tuesday, May 15, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Human right?

Human right?
Nature's right is the Universal right, is the Absolute right, is the Equitable right of Liberty or Freedom, is the True right of Unity or Oneness, is the inalienable right or Justice of All.
Someday soon the Godess Justice will remove her blindfold and throw away her scale.
Life without measure is right!
Right Is

Guest's picture


Wednesday, May 16, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Jefferson held that the

Jefferson held that the existence of certain inalienable rights was "self-evident" and therefore did not need a proving argument. I think he took the right approach. He was well educated in both philosophy and theology and knew what he was doing. One cannot prove an inalienable right any more than one can prove beyond all rational doubt that anyone but oneself exists. To insist on such a proof is to spin endless arguments to nowhere.
Why did he insist on "inalienable" rights? Because if rights are only a matter of societal convention or political decision, then there is no basis to insist on them and defend them against abuse - there is no sound basis to defend them at all. Like all forms of relativism, rights become a matter of convenience for whoever has power. Inalienable rights are the foundation upon which the political and societal decisions that make those rights effective are built. Thus it is that only societies that accept the idea of inalienable rights have effective rights in practice.
Regarding Fred's argument on technology, I understand it but disagree. Focusing on just the slave trade of Africans by Europeans is to miss the previous 5,000 years of slavery and slave trade as a normal practice, everywhere on earth, in every society. Slavery of Africans specifically was practiced longer and more extensively by Arabs and Turks (still is actually, in Sudan for example) in the eastern half of the continent, without any significant technological advantage. "Knowing" that slavery is "wrong" is a very modern, Western idea, imposed on the rest of the world in the 19th century by the direct or indirect application of superior Western (especially British) force.
Human rights, though, predate modern technology and are not dependent on it. Ancient philosophers were familiar with the idea, whatever the practical realities they saw around them. The Bible insists (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) insist that all people stand equal before God, who "does not show favoritism." So I don't think technology is the driver at all.