Home > Life, Politics, religion > Where Do Human Rights Come From?

Where Do Human Rights Come From?

In a recent blog article about health care reform, I wrote that people have a right to medical care. A regular reader asked a very deep question: Where do our rights come from?

I think that he asked the question because he doesn’t believe medical care is a right. He wants to know why I believe that it is. Fair enough. This is my answer. Maybe it’s not a very good answer, but it’s the best I can do. I will be grateful for any corrections.

Special thanks to my uncle, who is a philosopher and mathematician, for suggesting things to read and helping clarify my ideas. He also read my draft of this blog and improved it a lot.

What are rights?

Before we ask what rights we have, we need to figure out what rights are. Otherwise, we don’t know what we are talking about. It’s surprising that even though people have argued about rights for centuries, most writers never bother to define the idea.

How would we figure out a definition? Well, suppose that we wanted to define the idea of a chair. We’d probably look at some chairs and see what they all had in common:

  • Piece of furniture.
  • Suitable for a human being to sit on.

We’d leave out things like “made of wood” and “has four legs” because they don’t apply to all chairs. We’d also leave out “built by people” because even though it applies to all chairs, it’s included in the idea of chairs as furniture.

We can do a similar thing to figure out a definition of “right.” Let’s look at some things that people have said are rights:

What do all those things have in common? It seems to me that they are all demands on someone to do something or not to do something. Therefore, rights are meaningless outside of a group of people.

A right is a moral demand on someone to do something or not to do something.

Different Types of Rights

It also seems to me that there are different types of rights. We get different types of rights in different ways.

For example, I have a right to life simply because I am a person. Rights that I have because I’m a person are inalienable. If I’m alive, then I have them automatically. Whether you think it’s because of natural law or because God ordained it, my right to life is the same.

Of course, saying that I have a right to life doesn’t make it completely clear what that right means.

It’s a demand on someone (who?) to do something (what?) or not to do something (what?). But there are lots of blanks to fill in.

At a bare minimum, it’s a demand on other people around me not to murder me. But that’s the minimum it can mean. Depending on the situation, it can mean more than that. Instead of just imposing a negative duty on people not to do something to me, it can also impose a positive duty on people to do something for me. And that’s where the situation becomes important.

Rights from Groups and Situations

In addition to minimum and inalienable rights, I have other rights because I belong to groups or am in certain situations. I have a right to help from my professors because I am a student at my college. I have a right to enter the hospital office where I work because I am a summer intern. I have a right to the love and support of my parents because I am their daughter. I have a right to date Penn Badgley because … oh, wait, I don’t have that right. Yet. 🙂

Notice that rights we have because of situations or group membership are usually not inalienable. If the situation changes, or we leave the group, we no longer have those rights. But as long as we’re in the situation or the group, those rights are real.

Edmund Burke, a political philosopher, wrote about the rights we have as members of society:

If civil society is made for the advantage of human beings, then all the advantages for which it is made become their right. … Whatever people can do separately, without trespassing on others, they have a right to do for themselves; and they have a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in their favour. (Reflections on the Revolution in France)

Burke’s point is that society is established to achieve certain benefits. As members of a society, we have the right to enjoy our fair share of those benefits.

And notice the common sense embodied in that idea: the benefits we have a right to enjoy depend on the society in which we live. In a very rich society like ours, we have a right to things that we would not have as members of a very poor society. People in poor societies are just as important as we are, but their societies simply lack the ability to provide for them as well as ours can provide for us. So a sensible theory of human rights doesn’t demand that their societies do things that are impossible for them.

What Rights, and Why?

Jack Donnelly, in his book Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, summarizes the kind of rights we have as members of society:

The scientist’s human nature says that beyond this, we cannot go. The moral nature that grounds human rights says that beneath this, we must not permit ourselves to fall.

Human rights are “needed” not for life but for a life of dignity. “There is a human right to X” implies that people who enjoy a right to X will lead richer and more fully human lives … a life worthy of a human being.

That states very clearly the kind of rights we have as members of society: as much as possible, our society should help us to lead fulfilling human lives. It should do that because that’s the purpose for which we have a society in the first place. If we wanted to eke out a meager life alone in the forest, we could do that, but it would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Joining together with other people in society makes it possible for us to lead better lives than that.

Tell Me a Story …

Ironically, after making such a strong statement of human rights based on human nature, Jack Donnelly says that it’s almost impossible to prove:

The obvious “solution” of presenting and defending a theory of human nature linked to a particular set of human rights forces us to confront the fact that few issues in moral or political philosophy are more contentious or intractable than theories of human nature.

Put more clearly, he’s saying that we can’t prove any particular human rights come from human nature because we can’t prove what human nature is — at least, not to anyone who doesn’t already agree with us.

But that’s not really such a bad thing. Here I have to give all the credit to my uncle, who has a strange but convincing theory about human rights and morality: We can’t prove moral truths to anyone who doesn’t agree with them. We just aren’t smart enough. Our logic just isn’t good enough. But one thing we do know for sure is that love is good. If we treat people in a loving way, we know we are doing right: we don’t need any proof for that. So when we talk about morality and human rights, we are telling a story about how a loving society should be; about how we want our society to support and care for its members.

That’s why people have argued back and forth about human rights for centuries, but no one has ever been able to win the argument.

Human rights aren’t about logic: human rights are about love. They’re about treating all people in as loving a way as we and our society have the ability to treat them. And treating people with love is not a logical conclusion: It’s a choice. You can either make that choice, or not make it. It’s only after you make the choice that logic comes into play.

I can’t prove it, but you know it’s true. And therefore, you know about human rights.

It’s as simple as “love your neighbor.” That’s all you need to know.


Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

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  1. June 2, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    I don’t think you went far enough back, as it were. The first question, in my opinion, should have been where do our rights come from.

    As an American I believe that we were endowed with them by our Creator and that our rights are inalienable. That fact directly impacts what our rights are.

    If our rights are inalienable, then they are independent of society or other people. Therefore, my rights can be described by what I can do in the absence of any other person.

    • Rinth de Shadley
      June 3, 2010 at 6:24 pm

      Hi, Jonolan —

      Thanks for the excellent comments! I’m not sure how much we really disagree. As a Catholic, I certainly agree that our natural rights come from God. As I mentioned, however, it’s not easy to prove it to anyone who doesn’t already believe it.

      The fact that natural rights come from God doesn’t mean we can have only those rights. Depending on the situation, we can have other rights as well. I listed some of them. You don’t really touch on that issue so I’m not sure what you think about it. It seems like common sense to me.

      • June 3, 2010 at 7:24 pm

        I didn’t specifically touch on those other rights, true. That’s because I don’t accept them as rights; I see them as privileges that are either granted by someone else’s largess or earned through one’s own efforts.

        Food and drinkable water, housing and security, self-determination and independence, and trial by jury are all privileges as far as I’m concerned because they are all demands on someone to do something and are, therefor, all alienable by circumstance.

        Of course the above statement does not imply that that anyone has the right to take such things from you for reasons not pertaining to your own choices or to have the chance to garner them for yourself through your labors or luck.

      • Rinth de Shadley
        June 4, 2010 at 6:55 pm

        Hi, Jonolan —

        It really sounds like we agree except that you’d rather not use the word “right” in some situations where I would use it.

        I even said in the article that some “rights” are not inalienable but depend on the situation. So we seem to agree there, just not about the words we use. 🙂

  2. David
    June 3, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    First, thanks for being a thoughtful person. I commend you for taking the time to read and reason this article.

    The only rights we have are those which only God could take away-Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. While someone could take away your physical liberty, they cannot control your mind, so you’re free to think what you want. They could kill your body, but your soul lives on. They can take away physical comfort, but they cannot remove your ability to dream.

    I think everything else is a legal right, including the Bill of Rights, and all the other rights people have been claiming for themselves lately.

    For the record, I don’t think that people shouldn’t have health care, I just believe that it’s not a right. I want our poor to be secure, with at least basic care, especially for children.

    This is a debate that’s been going on for millenia, and we won’t solve it here. But so great you took a stab at it, Rinth. I admire that.

    • Rinth de Shadley
      June 3, 2010 at 6:36 pm

      Hi, David —

      Thank you for the great comment and the nice words!

      When you say “the only rights we have,” it’s clear that you are talking about natural, inalienable rights. I agree completely about that. And you also mention what you call “legal rights,” which include pretty much all other rights. I probably wouldn’t use the word “legal,” but apart from that, we seem to agree again. By the way, Hannah Arendt (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Arendt), who is a hero of mine, thinks that rights are mainly based on human law. She would agree with you about legal rights while disagreeing with you about the existence of natural rights. And then, of course, there’s the Church, which seems to support the idea of more rights than just life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

      I never thought that you didn’t want poor people to have medical care. For one thing, I know you better than to believe that. For another, whether or not people should get medical care is a different question from whether or not they have a right to it.

      That’s one of the issues that Jack Donnelly talks about in his book: just because something is desirable, or would be true in a perfect world, doesn’t mean it’s a right. Of course, then he goes on to say that rights are pretty much whatever you want them to be, which means that his book is very clear in some places and kind of confusing in other places. 🙂

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