On the Nature of Human Rights

Human rights have no existence independent of individual human minds. Like moral judgments, they are perceived as real, objective things, but do not exist as such. Rather, they are subjective mental constructs, existing in our minds in the same way that similar constructs exist in the minds of other animals. They exist because our minds evolved in a way that enabled their existence. Like morality, much of the basic mental machinery responsible for their existence likely came into existence long before the emergence of the genus Homo. And also like morality, the sophistication of the expression of this aspect of our nature in our species compared to others is due to our advanced cognitive abilities rather than any fundamental difference in the emotional mental processes involved. Our notion of rights seems superior to that existing in other animals merely because our ability to think about how we act is superior to that of other animals.

The human rights perceived by each individual mind cease to exist once that mind ceases to exist. That does not mean they are mere figments of the imagination, or that they should not be taken seriously, or, for that matter, that they should be taken seriously. It is a mere statement of fact.

Because rights are perceived as real things, and because of the significance we attach to them, attempts are often made to portray them as legitimate in themselves. A familiar example thereof is the US Declaration of Independence, which includes the passage:

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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

In fact, given their nature, it is impossible for them to have any such objective legitimacy as that claimed in the ringing words of Jefferson. Because they have no objective existence as real things, they can be neither alienable nor inalienable. Similarly, because they do not actually exist as independent objects in the way that we perceive them, they cannot be endowed, whether by some super being supposedly responsible for the creation or by any other agency.

Presumably the basic mental machinery necessary for us to conceptualize the concept of a right evolved because of its effectiveness in resolving conflicts. For example, the wolves in a pack do not fight to the death each time there is a conflict of individual interests over such things as who will eat first, or who will have access to females in heat. Dominant wolves have the “right” to take precedence in such matters. Such rights are certainly not inalienable in wolves. As dominant wolves weaken with age, their status can be successfully challenged by younger, more powerful individuals, resulting in the alteration of previously established rights. Rights are no more inalienable in our species. With us, too, they can change within the limits set by our nature. For example, in the late 18th and early 19th century, there was much debate over how to compensate the loss to slave owners of their “right” to the possession and service of their slaves. In our own day, the idea of the existence of such a “right” would be considered absurd. Similarly with the “right” of the Russian nobility to buy and sell landed properties that included serfs, and their “right” to demand the services of these serfs. Today such “rights” are dismissed as an evil and unjustifiable form of exploitation.

Given their nature as evolved emotional traits that emerged at times in which our circumstances were radically different from those we now find ourselves in, it would behoove us to be as circumspect in the establishment of rights as it is in how we distinguish between good and evil. Like good and evil, the perception of rights as real things will exist because it is our nature to believe in their existence. They exist, not in the way that we perceive them, but as subjective mental constructs, but are not any less relevant to our condition because of that. One way or another, they must be taken into account.

The U.S. Bill of Rights is an interesting example of how this was effectively accomplished in practice. Its authors considered such things as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly in their own best interests. To a large extent, the authors believed they already existed in the form of rights. They were accordingly codified in simple, easily understandable form by individuals whose claim to represent the people as a whole was recognized as legitimate. British Tories at the time dismissed these rights at the time as mere addenda to a “silly paper constitution.” They were, however, embraced by the people and have been hallowed by a long existence of more than two centuries. In a word, they are effective rights.

In contrast, the laundry list of contradictory “rights” set forth in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights are expressed equivocally, in a much less straightforward and simple manner, and were created by individuals who had no generally accepted license to represent anyone. They have been observed by the participating nations more in the breech than in the observance, are unfamiliar to most of the people in the world, and are, therefore, for all practical purposes, moot.

While I am hardly certain that they are best, my personal preference is that the rights we establish and defend maximize individual autonomy and minimize interference in our lives by the state or by other individuals, limited only by the proscription of acts that unduly harm others. The principles set forth in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Utilitarianism are a start in the right direction.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

4 thoughts on “On the Nature of Human Rights”

  1. You miss the point, and in so doing accept a proposition that is false and leads directly to the UNGCHR: that “rights” are a construct. It is precisely the opposed view that Jefferson was trying to articulate. Lovelace approaches the matter from a different direction:

    Stone walls do not a prison make
    Nor iron bars a cage
    A heart both innocent and quiet doth take
    These for an hermitage…

    The “natural” rights, like speech, are those that can be deterred but not prevented — it is possible to make people afraid to speak by setting up punishment for doing so, but a sufficiently determined person can speak anyway.

    This leads to my formulation of them as “two-party rights”, because they exist unless a second party intervenes. Most of the “rights” in the General Declaration are then “three-party rights”, which require the intervention of a third party to provide them — a “right to nutrition” cannot exist in the face of the second party’s refusal to provide it, unless the third party steps in to require compliance. Three-party rights thus inherently require violation of “natural” or two-party rights.

    Regards,
    Ric

  2. I’m well aware that Jefferson did not agree that rights were a construct. My point is that he was wrong in that regard. Those who consider rights other than subjective constructs must provide a reason for that opinion or, as E. O. Wilson puts it, “lay their cards on the table.” No one has succeeded in presenting a convincing argument to that effect to date.

  3. Hi Helian, is this more like it?:

    “We hold these truths to be s[cientifically demonstrable], that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Cr[omosomes] with certain [instinctive desires], that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these [instinctive desires], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is [in the interest] of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

  4. Not bad, Germerican, but somehow your version doesn’t have the same charismatic ring to it as Jefferson’s.

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