A SHORT HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS

By Kenneth Harper Finton © 2014, rev 2015

4874028-portrait-of-thomas-jefferson-2-dollar-note“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”   

 – Thomas Jefferson

This famous quote by Jefferson, the opening line of The Declaration of Independence, has long been the battle cry for freedom and equality.

Since the time I was a child I felt chilled by the power and the wisdom in these words. I never doubted for a moment that these words were true because I wanted them to be true.

Is this really true?

Is it self-evident that all men are created equal? What if we substituted ‘gorillas’ instead of men.  Are all gorillas created equal? Are all snakes created equal? What about women? Are all women created equal as well?

This declaration says that all men are created equal. What it fails to reveal is that the instant this life is created, some are more advantaged than others by DNA, parental wealth and upbringing, and the social circles into which we are born.

What of “inalienable rights?” 

Are these natural rights derived from natural laws? Natural law and natural rights are not interchangeable. Nature itself knows nothing of rights. Nature simply creates and destroys and recycles the materials to create again. Where are these “inalienable rights” in nature?

The idea that there are natural rights was constructed by the Greek Stoics. These rights did not apply to nature, but to the social world that man created. The Stoics held that no one was made a slave by nature, but that slavery was an external condition imposed by society. These Stoics were among the first to declare the equality of men. They declared that there was an inner part of the human being that cannot be restrained by either the body or imprisonment. That this inner spark cannot be delivered into bondage was revived by the Reformation and Martin Luther.

Immanuel Kant claimed that natural rights were derived by reason alone, but Kant failed to realize that this kind of reason is also a human construction. That there is a right to life and liberty became a popular theme in philosophic thought.  John Locke declared that natural rights were:  “… to Life, Liberty, and Estate.” [i.e., property].


HitchensonFrancis Hutcheson 

In his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), Francis Hutcheson wrote: “For wherever any Invasion is made upon unalienable Rights, there must arise either a perfect, or external Right to Resistance . . .  Unalienable Rights are essential Limitations in all Governments.” 

Knowing that one person’s rights were often in conflict with another, Hutcheson said, ‘There can be no Right, or Limitation of Right, inconsistent with, or opposite to the greatest publick Good.”

In an attempt to prove that there are inalienable rights, Hutcheson said, “Thus no man can really change his sentiments, judgments, and inward affections, at the pleasure of another; nor can it tend to any good to make him profess what is contrary to his heart. The right of private judgment is therefore unalienable.”

I find this unconvincing. We have private judgments and opinions, but these do not have to be inalienable. We are not born with opinions or judgments. They come from our experience, our learning and our social bias.

Thomas Paine (1731-1809) wrote about natural rights as well. In his book Rights of Man (1791) he recognized that if rights were promised by a charter or a constitution, this would mean that these rights could also be revoked. Right would then become mere privileges:

It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect—that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few … They … consequently are instruments of injustice. The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a contract with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.

Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939) was among the first to abandon the case for natural rights and declare that there are only two rights (1) the right of might and (2) the right of contract. The right of might only existed until it was overridden by the right to contract.

180px-Erich_Fromm_Erich Fromm (1900-1980) argued that some powers over human beings could be wielded only by God. If there were no God, no human beings could wield these powers.

An early libertarian view of inalienable rights was laid out in Morris and Linda Tannehill’s book The Market for Liberty. This book attempted to fuse capitalism with anarchy and is known as anarcho-capitalism. They claimed that a person does have a right to ownership over their life and property, because they invested a part of their life into it. By doing so, they made it an extension of their life. However, if this person uses force to the detriment of another person, then they lose that right to ownership and they are required to pay a debt: “Rights are not inalienable,” Tannehill wrote, “but only the possessor of a right can alienate himself from that right–no one else can take a man’s rights from him.” The Tannehills believed that there are such a thing as natural rights and that our society would be best off without governmental controls [See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Market_for_Liberty]

Rights Are an Idea

Logic dictates that rights are an idea, a human construction, not a natural law. Rights are freedoms we have demanded from the established order and we have fought battles to protect these rights by social laws.  Rights are only as strong as the society that grants these rights and they can change with social evolution. Rights and entitlements are those things the social establishment allows us to have, those freedoms given to us by political laws.  They change with the political winds. Nature is free, but we are not free so long as we subscribe to a social contract for our cooperative existence. Our social contracts attempt to displace nature as the rule maker as much as is humanly possible. We are a part of society. We subscribe to social contracts and the laws governing our behavior to coexist in the greater world.  These social laws are local and change as we move forward in time.

TJquoteJefferson said that there is a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

These are not rights at all, but rhetoric designed to inflame the masses and instigate revolution.

Does nature respect the right to life of the individual?

List examples here: ___________________.

Beginnings and endings are the order of time itself. We exist in order to perish.

The right to life is not a natural law, but a human conception based upon conflicting values. If there is a right to life, then war is violation of those rights, as is execution and murder. Social values are conflicted by individual interpretations as to what a right to life might entail. The first assumption that is made is that there is a right to life–when nature makes no such assumption. Having agreed to the fallacy that there is a right to life, they must then make exceptions to this right for war, executions, self-defense, madness, irresponsibility, abortion, etc.

How much simpler it would be it God and Nature were not brought in as arbiters of human morality and we accepted the basic truth that we are responsible for our world and the entitlements that we enjoy.

The right to liberty is given us by society as well.  Society may take our freedom and put liberty at will, should the governing bodies decide to do so.

As to the right for the pursuit of happiness–this is an a priori right that we can give ourselves and establish within the confines of our own minds. We create our own happiness and we may pursue it or not at will. Even if our liberty has been removed and our lives are scheduled to be forfeited, we may still pursue and achieve happiness.

Rights come and go.

They must be earned.

They must be fought for.

They must be accepted into social law to have any meaning at all.

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2 thoughts on “A SHORT HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS

  1. You never mention Hobbes in relation to the social contract. I also think the “right to life” discussion could use some further clarification. If we assume no “given” rights at all, then “might” wouldn’t be a “right” either. Just a condition. I’ve got too much libertarian streaks in my thinking to dispense too easily with “natural rights.” My friend Richard Boddie is a dyed-in-the-wool anarcho-capitalist after trying about everything else. Ha. Good discussion here–keep honing it.

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