Pro-life advocates, death penalty opponents, and opponents of euthanasia typically share a moral absolutist position in common; namely, that human beings are endowed with unalienable, intrinsic human rights. However, a critical analysis reveals that the concept of such human rights is flawed and hence, neither unalienable nor intrinsic. In order to demonstrate this, we will first address a definitional issue. Second, we will look at the history of human rights to see whether or not there is any indication that human rights are unalienable or inherent. Then, we will address some counter arguments to the thesis presented herein. Upon this examination, it will be shown that the concept of unalienable human rights has no legitimacy
First we must ask, what are human rights? The United Nations attempted to answer this question in 1948, declaring, “All human beings are born free and equal” (“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”). Adding to this declaration, the United Nations listed twenty-nine articles in defense of negative rights—liberties not to be interfered with—such as the right to privacy, to associate with whom one chooses, and to change one’s beliefs, without obstruction or retribution by another person or institution. To clarify human rights even further, The Boston Review’s Jeremy Waldron wrote of these rights as unalienable; “It means rights that may not be given away by those who have them, and therefore…reasonable people would [not] have found it prudent, in certain circumstances, to alienate these rights” (Waldron). Thus, it is reasonable to conclude from these definitions that human rights are simultaneously intrinsic; they are not meant to be dependent upon instituted legalities or cultural relativism. Human rights are also typically regarded as applying to individuals and are practiced within the confines of an individual’s right to choose their own actions.
Semantics are, unsurprisingly, a challenge to any declaration of human rights. What is meant by “human being”? The definition of “human being” is as notoriously missing from the United Nation’s declaration of rights as the definition of “men” was from the Declaration of Independence. [That is to say, non-white Anglo-Saxon men were not regarded as men in 1776.] Is a human being an autonomous being capable of choice? Is it a mass of living human cells? The fact is, many animals are capable of making choices and can operate as independently as any human. Does that make such animals human? Nor can we regard living cells as human beings. If that were the case—as far as being human relates to having rights—stem cell research, organ removal, and male masturbation would all have to be criminalized. Nothing in any definition of “human being” offered here or otherwise, suggests that human rights are unalienable or intrinsic. If the definition of “human being” presumed human rights, then there would be little need for the phrase, “human rights.” It shall be noted, though, that a failure to define what a human being is does not necessarily preclude rights. However, this does send us looking for another way to validate unalienable human rights.
At this juncture, we might ask where human rights come from. Human rights are generally assumed by its advocates to be inherent in one’s being human and, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, self-evident. As we’ve already seen, any appeal for rights upon the definition of “human being” is superfluous. We might also wonder, if human rights are self-evident, why human rights as a concept didn’t appear in the Western world in writing until the 17th and 18th century. While the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declarations of the Rights of Man (1789) served as the basis for many modern human rights documents, one might be reminded that the rights declared in these documents, “When originally translated into policy, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups” (Shiman 6). If human rights are indeed self-evident, why were so many people excluded from exercising them? If human rights are self-evident, why was the French Revolution of 1789-1799 followed by the Reign of Terror in which 20,000 “enemies of the Revolution” were executed via the guillotine? Certainly we risk an oversimplification of each of these situations, but situations like these do nothing to advance the concept of human rights.
Again, the absence of an idea doesn’t necessarily preclude its existence. In the case of human rights though, it is reasonable to assume (given its timeline in Western philosophy) that human rights as a concept evolved in response to the social, economic, and political inequities that arrived with or were exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution. Egalitarian societies have no concept of human rights because such inequities do not exist. Asian cultures that place the welfare of the community before the welfare of individuals likewise have no developed sense of human rights. Jack Donnelly, professor of International Studies at Denver, wrote in response to this observation, “Human rights ultimately rest on a social decision to act as though such ‘things’ existed…Like all social practices, human rights come with justifications” (Donnelly 20-21). There appears a strong indication that human rights are culturally relative. Human rights, it seems, is the advent of cultures that prize individuality and one’s freedom of expression.
There are any number of objections a human rights proponent may now make, but for the sake of brevity, we will assess a few of the most commonly raised defenses.
Proponents of human rights sometimes claim that human needs dictate human rights. The obvious question arises then as to what constitutes a need. Postulated by renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow, there exists a hierarchy of needs. Fundamentally, humans need physiological needs met first in order to survive, with safety needs and social needs met in that descending order of importance. With respect to human rights, based upon Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the best we can say is that human beings may have a right to air, water, food, and shelter. According to Maslow, “If these fundamental needs are not satisfied then one will surely be motivated to satisfy them. Higher needs such as social needs and esteem are not recognized until one satisfies the needs basic to existence” (Maslow). If this view is correct, any rights beyond physiological needs require justification. This is perhaps why The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in several of its articles that rights shall not be arbitrarily suspended. In other words, there may be conditions in which human rights are suspended and if that is so, human rights are not unalienable.
Another common defense of human rights is for its proponents to claim that those opposed to human rights have other interests at heart. Interestingly, the countries that abstained from voting on the United Nations’ universal declaration in 1948 were among the greatest human rights abusers during that era. [Those countries included the Soviet Union, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia.] It would be outlandish to deny that governments would sometimes obstruct the rights of its citizens, whatever those rights may be. But this is not wholeheartedly the case. If we may appeal to cultural relativism again, it may be that certain cultures have no knowledge of human rights because they have no need for such a concept. In order for the idea of unalienable human rights to hold, it must be shown that participants within a culture are incorrect to place their community’s needs ahead of the needs of individuals; it must be shown that the needs of one outweigh the needs of many. The idea that individual rights trump collective rights is hardly unassailable: it arguably leads to selfishness, greed, and crime.
Thus, individual rights can create as many problems as it helps solve. If we quantify how much good proclaiming human rights does, we are consequentialists. If we are consequentialists, the needs of the many can at least sometimes outweigh the needs of the few. Thus, human rights once again cannot be unalienable, not as they apply to individuals. [Of course, we should be wary of any possible tyrannical effect mob rule could have. It seems reasonable that there should be some formulation of human rights in any system of democratic government.]
Third, even though human rights as they are currently conceived is a secular concept, it is not uncommon to hear the argument that human beings are imbued with rights by a divine creator. Naturally, this begs the question, which god? In order to conclude that some divine authority has imparted rights upon human beings, it would need to be shown that a god or gods existed. If history is any indication, arguing for the existence of God has been fraught with difficulty. Trying to establish God’s relationship to human beings has been even more difficult than that.
The concept of human rights most of all suffers from the is-ought problem. That human beings have unalienable rights is not the case. Even so, we should think a case can be made for what ought to be regarding human rights if we are all concerned about bringing value to individual lives. However, the definitions of “human beings” and “rights” need to be resolved first, or they’ll forever be contentious. We would also need to formulate human rights that do not interfere with cultural practices if we are at all of the opinion that every culture has inherent worth. [We should venture to say that this is usually the way Westerners think even though such thinking does not coincide with the current concept of human rights.] Circumstances permitting, it seems permissible (sometimes even necessary) to conceptualize human rights. There is no need to postulate that such rights are unalienable, though. The desire for rights alone should be sufficient.
Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2nd. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Maslow, Abraham. “Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.” Abraham Maslow: Father of Modern Management. 2005 Abraham-Maslow.com 15 February, 2009
Shiman, David. Teaching Human Rights. 2nd. Denver: University of Denver, 1999.
"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights." The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 2008. The United Nations. 10 Feb 2009
Waldron , Jeremy. "Inalienable Rights." Boston Review. May 1999. 15 Feb 2009
Theory Parker (c) 2009