What Are Human Rights Anyway? Here’s a Refresher

Human rights are a creation of the human intellect, it is difficult to argue that they are universal and that governments are obligated to honor rights they disagree with. (Pinterest)

Some years ago I published an article outlining the principal epistemological traditions on the origin of human rights: (1) Rights are political laws and they are created by governments. (2) Rights are moral laws and they come from God. (3) Rights are moral laws inherent in man’s nature.

I noted then that if human rights are a creation of the human intellect, it is difficult to argue that they are universal and that governments are obligated to honor rights they disagree with. On the other hand, if rights emanate from God, and exist distinctively from man-made law, they cannot be granted or repealed by government fiat. But, no divine origin can be judiciously offered since there is no evidence of rights that demonstrably emanate from God. Aware of these issues, Enlightenment thinkers and the Founding Fathers sought to anchor human rights in nature as a matter of natural law.

Here I want to step back and ask a more basic question: What are rights? The many conflicting answers to this question are the source of much controversy as many diverse things are claimed as rights: The right to vote, to work, to strike, to life, to choose a sexual identity, to own weapons, to be left alone, and infinitely more. A practical starting definition is that rights are rules about what is owed or allowed to people. Rights are principles of freedom or entitlement. Let’s explore.

To political scientists the right to do something, or an entitlement of some sort, is a positive right. The right to do nothing is a negative right. In the United States, we have the positive right to vote and the negative right not to vote. In countries, such as Australia, where voting is compulsory, citizens have the right to vote but do not have the right not to vote.

Another rights controversy pivots on the right to equality. Believers in free markets identify equality with the right to equal opportunities, understanding that equality of rules will lead to unequal outcomes. Socialists identify equality with equality of outcome arguing that people have a right to an egalitarian distribution of incomes.

Yet another rights dispute is whether rights are individually or collectively held. Is there such a thing as group rights, where groups are distinct beings with a separate will and power of action that can trump individual rights? When a labor union negotiates a wage rate that an individual member deems unacceptable, whose right shall prevail?

Rights can also be perceived as liberty, or as claims. A liberty right is simply the freedom to do something without imposing any obligation on anyone else, e.g., the right to free speech.  In contrast, a claims-right imposes an obligation on someone else to do something for the benefit of the claims-right holder. If I have the right to receive welfare benefits of some sort, that requires someone else to contribute a portion of their income to pay for my benefits.

Libertarians believe that rights are simply claims to liberty of action without interference. For example, I may need a car to go to work and I have every right to acquire a car by legitimate means. But I have no right to a car even if it is clear that I need one. Socialists may claim that I have the right to a car because I need one to earn a living. This view necessarily violates the rights of those that will have to be coerced, say by taxation, to pay for my car.

Libertarians also believe that rights are held only by individuals. This is because so-called group rights are necessarily a negation of individual rights. Group rights create conditions where some individuals (the group) can force other individuals to obey their edicts. It is oxymoronic to speak of collective rights.

In this understanding, rights are only an individual’s freedom to act on his own judgment as long as he does not violate anyone else’s rights. Rights are claims to freedom of action, and not to desired outcomes.

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