Where do human rights come from?

as . . . answered on Quora. . . .

Rights are human instruments, in law and ethics.

Where do they come from?

Well, they come from human beings’ need to control themselves and others, and from our expressions, judgments, claims, counter-claims, etc. But that isn’t the whole of the story, for just “being an instrument” of purpose and need does not mean that the instrument in question cannot be abandoned, or that all instruments are created equal.

There is something about the inherent concept of a right that disallows many common conceptions. Philosophers and jurists and politicians have been working on the ideas for centuries or longer, but I am going to skip most of that. Suffice it to say that the rightness of a right, so to speak, is not its instrumentality alone.

But let us not forget what a right is, sans its utility, goodness, or justification — let us remember what even an unacceptable right would be.

right is a claim to obligatory treatment. For every right there is at least one obligation — so understanding a right requires understanding obligation, or duty.

Rights are a way of articulating duties.

In law, the obligation marshaled by a right amounts to a legally enforceable — by coercion, compulsion — performance. Or, outside of law but in ethics, legitimately required, with sanctions for non-compliance. If I have a right to liberty, you have a duty not to initiate force upon me. If you have a right to health care, then I must supply you medical aid. When someone fails or refuses to perform the specified duty, at law a case will be somehow made, in criminal or civil court, or merchant law, or the like, to compel the performance of the duty, with penalties.

Now, I wrote above that it is coercion or compulsion that is threatened in the articulation of the right. Well, the threat can be something less than force, but in political philosophy we are usually talking about force, so let’s restrict ourselves to that.

Oh, and I just wrote that word “threat.” Human social systems are dominated by two types of interaction, threats and enticements. Rights are civilized threats. Since we do not like to be threatened, there is a reason that rights that are promoted universally, that all may have, are commonly favored, and, indeed, narrow the field and winnow out many forms of posited duties. Rights that only some may have at the obligation of all are suspect.

So, we can expand our definition somewhat: a right is the positive, beneficiary focus of the articulation of a threat that has as its targeted focus an obligation.

Now we have to make some distinctions. For there are dimensions to rights and obligations: who has the right? who is obligated? what is obligated? To be brief and hastily move through an ideascape that Jeremy Bentham should have covered but did not quite, we have specific rights when the number of rights-bearers are few and the numbers of the duty-bound are few, or singular (I have a right to $1000 from a client; the phone company has a right to $200 from me) and we have rights that all have and to which all are obliged. We have several names for these kinds of rights:

  • natural rights
  • universal rights
  • basic rights
  • human rights

There is something to be said for and against each of these. If one were of a certain type of mind (as I am, on Tuesdays) we could treat each as a distinct term of art. But suffice it, here, to say that these very elementary and foundational rights are what we are most interested in political philosophy, and which deserve most of our attention.

I believe that because of the very construction of this tool, “a right,” most propounded universal rights fail to pass muster.

A human right should make sense in most human societies, and should be performable without causing social chaos and conflict rather than social stability. I have argued, and will argue again, that many of the “rights” some people most desire are mere imposition farded up with the lipstick of effrontery. A right to “healthcare” for example. Folks who talk about these types of rights demand too much of others, literally. For every obligation there is coercion, and it is not reasonable to promote universal servitude. The more rights you propound, the more coercion you thrust into our social reality.

Which is why the right to liberty strikes me as the best contender for a universal, basic, fundamental right: all of us having it at baseline personhood means that all of us have a very simple obligation set, a sort of “do no harm” duty: to not initiate force. This is an easy burden, as obligations go. It requires mainly defensive force for their maintenance in society. Not offensive. It is not imperialistic. It rests upon a tolerant, undemanding, liberal stance.

So you can see where the “imperativeness” comes from, what makes this right a right indeed: universalizability, and a reasonable enticement to all not to promote violence. To reduce the degree of threats in society.

A right to liberty works better than all other contenders because the threat element in the substance of the right is reduced to a minimum for the benefit of all.

Yes. There you have it. Rights are threats, sure, but they must also offer an enticement to reasonable, peaceful people.

I avoid a number of issues of extreme interest to me, but they are not really germane to the question at hand — though they are not utterly tangential, either. These include, especially, what is so “natural” about a “natural right”? and how do we “have” rights?


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