According to the Declaration of Independence, the basic human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are God-given.
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.