Origins of Human Rights
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Origins of Human Rights

The emergence of rights in political thought is generally regarded as relatively recent, though any historical study of rights reveals how indeterminate the philosophical charting of the evolution of rights has been (Renteln, 1988). Human rights are considered the offspring of natural rights, which themselves evolved from the concept of natural law. Natural law, which has played a dominant role in Western political theory for centuries, is that standard of higher-order morality against which all other laws are adjudged. To contest the injustice of human-made law, one was to appeal to the greater authority of God or natural law.

Eventually this concept of natural law evolved into natural rights; this change reflected a shift in emphasis from society to the individual. Whereas natural law provided a basis for curbing excessive state power over society, natural rights gave individuals the ability to press claims against the government (Renteln, 1988).1 The modern conception of rights can be traced back to Enlightenment political philosophy and the movement, primarily in England, France, and the United States, to establish limited forms of representative government that would respect the freedom of individual citizens.

John Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government (1690), described a “state of nature” prior to the creation of society in which individuals fended for themselves and looked after their own interests. In this state, each person possessed a set of natural rights, including the rights to life, liberty and property. According to Locke, when individuals came together in social groups, the main purpose of their union was to secure these rights more effectively. Consequently, they ceded to the governments they established “only the right to enforce these natural rights and not the rights themselves” (“Human Rights: Historical Development,” n.d.).

Locke’s philosophy, known as classical liberalism, helped foster a new way of thinking about individuals, governments, and the rights that link the two. Previously, heads of state claimed to rule by divine right, tracing their authority through genealogy to the ultimate source to some divine being. This was as true for Roman emperors as it was Chinese and Japanese emperors. The theory of divine right was most forcefully asserted during the Renaissance by monarchs across Europe, most notoriously James I of England (1566-1625) and Louis XIV of France (1638-1715).

Locke’s principles were adopted by the founding fathers of the United States in the Declaration of Independence (1776), which stated:

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…2

The echoes of Locke are unmistakable in the language of the Declaration of Independence. Similarly, the language used both by Locke and by the Founding Fathers clearly foreshadows the creation of a document like the Universal Declaration. These principles were further expounded and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution (1787) and Bill of Rights (1789).

Natural rights theorists have asserted the existence of specific rights — most notably the right to self-preservation (Hobbes) and the right to property (Locke). Because such theorists take the validity of fundamental rights to be self-evident, there has traditionally been little tolerance for debate. One scholar notes that natural rights “seemed peculiarly vulnerable to ethical skepticism” (Waldron 1984: 3). Nevertheless, natural rights were not widely contested as they were asserted in a limited universe of shared Western values (Renteln, 1988).

What, then, is a right, and how are human rights distinct from natural rights? For many philosophical writers, a right is synonymous with a claim. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a right as “a justifiable claim, on legal or moral grounds, to have or obtain something, or act in a certain way.” The classic definition of a human right is a right which is universal and held by all persons:

A human right by definition is a universal moral right, something which all men, everywhere, at all times ought to have, something of which no one may be deprived without a grave affront to justice, something which is owing to every human being simply because he is human. (Cranston 1973: 36)

One frequently cited definition of human rights posits four necessary requirements:

First, it must be possessed by all human beings, as well as only by human beings. Second, because it is the same right that all human beings possess, it must be possessed equally by all human beings. Third, because human rights are possessed by all human beings, we can rule out as possible candidates any of those rights which one might have in virtue of occupying any particular status or relationship… And fourth, if there are any human rights, they have the additional characteristic of being assertable, in a manner of speaking, ‘against the whole world.’ (Wasserstrom 1979: 50)

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights defines humans rights as:

… rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. (“What are Human Rights?” n.d.)

The primary element recurring throughout each of these definitions is universality — human rights are inalienable and fundamental rights to all persons are inherently entitled simply by virtue of being human. As we will soon observe, this crucial and existential element of universality is profoundly controversial and thus quite tenuous.

The innovation of human rights in the twentieth century extended the idea of individual rights to include all human beings, regardless of citizenship or state affiliation. Human rights helped reconstitute individual identity and freedom as something transcending national borders. As the atrocities of the World Wars made clear, there were times when the state became the citizen’s greatest enemy and outside protection was his or her best and only hope.  Before examining universality and other ideological conflicts concerning the idea of human rights, let us turn our attention now to the various kinds of rights that human rights encompass.

1  For more on the relationship between natural law and natural rights, see L. Strauss (1953), M. Roshwald (1959), and J. Donnelly (1985).


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