The Source of Human Rights
J. Wesley Evans
Postulant for Holy Orders, The Episcopal Church
There is plenty of discussion about human rights in the world today, but seemingly little reflection on the underlying philosophical foundations. It seems activism and law develop before ideas. Where do these “rights” come from? To ask what these rights are without asking where they derive from is to beg the question. I propose that there are three main possibilities: governmental, natural or transcendent, and that only the transcendent is an adequate foundation.
If rights are governmental, then they are in essence arbitrary. Under this paradigm, humans only have rights in so far as a legal society allows particular things and disallows others. For instance, if rights derive from government then a government that allows child trafficking could not be held accountable, as there would be no outside standard by which to judge the government’s laws. Thus for legal rights to have any meaning they must derive from something other then governing bodies themselves, even democratic bodies and nations. For instance, the United Nations must be able to be judged by something outside of itself, and the mere fact that it declares something to be a “right” or something to not be a “right” is no evidence that it either is or is not a “right”. This leads to the conclusion that governments, the United Nations included, cannot create “rights” or define them, but only discern and enforce them from some other source. To argue otherwise is self-defeating because then there would be no set of “rights” outside the laws of nations by which to judge those nations. Without no outside set of “rights” is to make human rights relative and thus irrelevant.
Natural rights, deriving from natural law, is certainly better then governmental basis but cannot suffice. Natural law can either be valid in itself or incidentally. The classic Western distinction here would be “per se” or “per accidens”. Do human rights derive from the person themselves, per se or are they derived from something outside the person and so only belong to the person per accidens? It is difficult to ground these rights in themselves, as it would seem to be a tautology. Humans have rights because they are human, but what makes human nature such that it deserves these rights? Where do these rights come from and how do we determine what they are? The best way to approach the issue is by positing human rights must derive not from human nature itself but by human dignity. Having worth and dignity is what allows us to talk about human rights. Human rights must not be in humans themselves but derived from the worth and dignity of the human person. Even here, however, the foundation cannot be found. Where does this dignity and worth come from? What part of genetic material or aspect of the human body gives the type of dignity that must be respected by all others. If this dignity is based only on social constructs then there will be no ground from which to make judgments on world nations who commit human rights violations, as these nations would merely have a different social construct for “rights”. The same would be an issue for a purely materialistic view of human beings. Why should a group of random biological constructs be granted any rights at all?
The final, and better, alternative is a transcendent source. Human dignity and worth, as the foundation for universal human rights must come from outside anything human itself. It cannot be grounded in human emotions, nor human nature itself, nor human society or government. All of these lead to a relative morality that is unable to act as a foundation for universal human rights. For Christians, this is especially important during Easter Season. Christians believe that God, the transcendent one who grants human dignity, became a human being himself in the Son, Jesus Christ. This event led up to his violent execution, and during Easter Christians celebrate the power of life over death, the ultimate victory for human dignity and worth. Human beings have rights because they have dignity. God’s will in becoming fully human grants a value to human nature beyond what all of nature or human governments could ever grant. God taking on human flesh is the ultimate vindication of the dignity of humanity and the foundation for any discussion on inalienable rights.
Ultimately then, people are given rights as a gift. This implies people really only have two things: privileges and responsibilities. Neither other people nor governments can abrogate these rights because these rights do not derive from other people or governments or even the people themselves. They are privileges granted from God and derived from his person who grants them. This also implies, however, that humans not only have rights but responsibilities. People do not own these rights in themselves but are given them as expressions of both their own dignity and for the knowledge and service to the dignity of others. People are not given dignity to serve themselves, but to love and serve others.
Thus, people have responsibilities to God, fellow human beings and to the natural world. It is only under the foundation of granted dignity that human rights can be universal and meaningful. For Christians the greatest expression of both this dignity and responsibility is found in the event where God took on this human nature itself, served humans while on earth, went willingly to his own death, and rose again in a human body. Humanity is proclaimed not something to be freed from but something to embrace, as a real and good part of God’s creation. Christ expresses the ultimate standard for the value of human beings, because God became fully human, and humanity is made holy by this act of God.