Where Do Our Rights Come From?

The title of this entry is something I’ve been thinking about for a while — in brief spurts — but haven’t had a chance to sit down and really mull it over. What spurred me to finally deal with it was a post on Facebook, in which the American Humanist Association said “Nope” in response to a quote from our president (see image below).


From God In Heaven
This image, from the American Humanist Association’s Facebook page, contains a quotation from President Donald J. Trump, expressing a very popular opinion.

In the comments below that post, several interesting assertions were made:

• “…our rights were granted by a Constitution…”
• “Our rights are most certainly not granted to us by any document or institution.”
• “Rights are inherent, they aren’t granted by the Constitution.”
• “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…” (quoting the Declaration of Independence)
• “Freedom does not come from the government or a sky monster, it is inherent in being human.”

Each person was sure they knew the answer. The Constitution grants our rights. Rights are inherent, not granted. The “Creator” endowed us with rights. Reading through this thread — and searching the internet for other input, it looks like these are the three major choices: God, government, or nature.

The conclusion I eventually came to is: Everyone is wrong. More fully stated, I discovered that few of these positions are supported by evidence or reason, and none of them are well-supported. I hope you’ll follow along with me as I attempt to sort this out, and as always I hope you’ll share your own views in the comments.

• The Number Of Claims

Cuban-American scholar José Azel claims: “There are three principal epistemological traditions on the origin of human rights: (1) Rights are moral laws, and they come from God. (2) Rights are political laws, and they are created by governments. (3) Rights are moral laws inherent in man’s nature.” This matches with what I observed. Which of the three is correct? Are any of them correct?

On a side note, I noticed that quite a few web pages arguing this topic condense the choices down to only two: God or government. All of these pages were written by conservatives, usually aligned with the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party, or the “Tea Party” (almost all of which are Republicans). One example is this Tea Party site, which says there are “four” possibilities: 1. God, 2. the Constitution, 3. the Supreme Court, or 4. the government. Note that this is only two, because the latter three are all examples of “government”. (Another example, from the New American, frames the argument as “God vs. government” in order to assert “there is a God who has created us and is the source of our unalienable rights” — as usual, no evidence is offered that such a God exists, or that such a God granted any rights to anyone.)

I assume that the reason conservatives leave out the third option (nature/inherent) is because it’s easier to argue against “big bad government” than anything else, and because — to them, anyway — “nature” is just a secular way of saying “God”.

One thing that both liberals and conservatives had in common on this topic was a complete lack of evidence or reason for their claims.

• Why Is This Topic Important?

This question — where do our rights come from? — is important to me because I don’t like to believe something or advocate for something without having a sound, reasonable basis for it. If I’m going to advocate for fundamental human rights, I need to know where they come from. As a humanist, I do advocate for these rights.

Like you, I’m most familiar with the “God-given rights” claim. We’ve heard this from politicians, preachers, parents, and friends, not to mention a thousand movie characters or TV commentators. And, of course, it’s in the U.S.’s Declaration of Independence:

“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.”

When I was a Christian, I saw no reason to question this claim. But once I realized that I no longer believe in any god, it follows that I can no longer believe that our rights come from God.

• Following The Train Of Thought

Obviously, the opinion of the men who signed the Declaration Of Independence — including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and others — was that our rights come from God. Today, their phrasing is quoted as if the existence of the quotation proves itself to be true (it doesn’t). It only shows the opinion of the men who wrote the document.

The Constitution of the United States, just as notably, does not say our rights came from God. In fact, it doesn’t mention rights at all. Not once. Rights and freedoms aren’t mentioned until the Amendments — changes or additions to the original Constitution. But even then, the amendments never say what the basis or source of the rights are. (The only one that even attempts a justification for the right is the Second Amendment.)

At about the same time our Constitution was being ratified by the states, France was putting out its own statement of rights, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It likewise doesn’t say where the rights come from, simply calling them “natural, unalienable, and sacred”. About 160 years later, when the United Nations made its Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, it also didn’t state a source for these rights.

I attempted to follow the reasoning of our nation’s founders, and I’ve had a hard time coming to the same conclusions at which they arrived.

I understand from history that these men relied on the concept known as natural law — the idea that “certain rights are inherent by virtue of human nature” and “can be understood universally through human reason”. This idea has been around for a long time, thought by some to date back to Plato and Aristotle, but definitely spelled out by the time of Cicero. Men far more educated than I am have written more than I will ever have time to read on this topic. At best, I can hope to gain a surface understanding of this moral philosophy. I doubt I will ever understand how men like Thomas Hobbes could derive a list of 19 specific “natural laws” (a list that was quickly rebutted by other learned men of the time).

By the 1700s, plenty of ink had been spent fleshing out the topic, but it looks to me like each philosopher was simply using the term “natural law” as a way of backing his personal opinions. Several, like John Locke, specifically injected their own religious principles into the idea (“To Locke, the content of natural law was identical with biblical ethics as laid down especially in the Decalogue, Christ’s teaching and exemplary life, and St. Paul’s admonitions.”) Oddly, even non-Christians like Thomas Paine (a deist at most) depended upon the Creation story in Genesis as history when formulating their ideas of natural law and liberty. For example, in Rights Of Man, Paine claims that the rights of man were granted by “the Maker of man”, at the time of Creation, but never makes any attempt to prove this assertion or even to lay a logical framework for assuming it must be true.

I don’t think anyone at the time was claiming that rights came from the Constitution or other government documents, so I don’t know how that viewpoint arose — but there are clearly people today who believe it. Obviously, from a legal standpoint, it is legal documents that provide direction on how (and which) rights should be acknowledged, protected, and (sometimes) removed. But, primarily because I’m not an attorney, I’m not discussing legal issues here, but rather philosophical ones.

• I Just Don’t Buy It

I suppose I have the same issue with people claiming “natural law” (or “natural rights”) as I do when people claim a “universal, absolute morality”. They typically claim it’s self-evident, which is another way of saying “I can’t really explain it; it just is.”

Very little in this life is “self-evident” to me. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve asked someone “why?”, and the response was “It’s obvious!” When people told me gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to marry the consenting adult of their choosing, and I asked “why?”, the answer was “it’s just not natural” (which isn’t true).

Even if the existence of any particular god was self-evident (it isn’t), we can’t jump from there, logically, and state that certain rights must also be self-evident. Nothing about the existence of any god, nor the origin stories that were written about them, says anything about inherent rights in humankind.

Anyone who continues to assert that the rights come from “God” will need to start showing evidence at some point. I have seen zero evidence that Thor is the reason for my right to free speech, that Shiva granted my right to peaceably assemble, or that YHWH (the Christian/Jewish God) came up with my right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

And I haven’t been convinced of any secular line of reasoning that concludes rights and freedoms are inherent in our nature. “We exist; therefore we must have rights” is a non sequitur — the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise.

The Tea Party (mentioned above) is certainly correct when they argue that the government isn’t the source of our rights. Almost everyone who’s given this any thought agrees that rights don’t come from documents. The U.S. Constitution, the similar document that governs France, and any declaration by the United Nations, are simply statements, lists. They declare the rights, and legally help to ensure those rights are protected, but the rights themselves did not arise magically from these papers.

Governments sometimes ensure or protect rights, and sometimes acknowledge previously unenjoyed rights. But they also violate human rights, remove or suspend them, and generally ignore many enumerated rights.

The only halfway decent argument I saw for government being the source of rights was this: you have exactly as many rights as your current government allows you to have. But it only appears to be true, and only if you think “my right” is exactly equal to “what I am legally allowed to do”. It also ignores that governments are made of people and can govern only with the consent of the governed.

So, of the three “principal epistemological traditions” mentioned by Azel, I can’t agree with any of them.

To summarize: (1) Even if a god exists, there’s no evidence that any of them grant any of the rights or freedoms that we currently claim as “fundamental human rights”. (2) There’s nothing in nature that indicates in rights or freedoms are inherent. (3) Governments are instituted by humans, and often deal with rights, but clearly aren’t the source of them.

• Another Look At ‘Inherent’

While I don’t see that any rights are necessarily “inherent” in humanity, certain rights could easily be said to be inherent in certain forms of government or specific goals for society or humanity as a whole. If someone says “society should exist for the good of the greatest possible number of us”, then there a few freedoms or rights that could be derived from that goal. But the goal itself is not inherent in nature or humankind. In other words, the goal is arbitrary; once it’s agreed upon, then rights flow naturally from that. On that framework, certain principles for governance can be derived, including the protection of the inherent rights.

In nature itself, the only implicit goal I can see is the propagation of species — the continuance of life through offspring. Each species does this a little differently, and some seem to be better at it than others. But observation of life on Earth does not imply — to me — anything beyond that, especially any method of government or any set of “inalienable rights”. It doesn’t even imply the “right to life”; it just shows that life is a goal of living things.

• So Where Do They Actually Come From?

So what are we left with?

We are left with the very real facts of human history: that for much of that time, no rights existed at all, for anyone. Each family group or tribe governed itself as it saw fit, struggling for survival amongst the other animals. Once agriculture was developed (starting about 15,000 years ago), so did more complex societies — eventually leading to technology, writing, industry, job specialization, and government. We don’t actually know when the concept of rights first arose, but we do have documents that date back to antiquity — showing with a certainty that the idea of rights has fundamentally changed over time.

We’re left with the fact that our morality is still evolving over time. As human groups — nations, cultures, governments, and phenotypes — continue to collide, intermix, and divide again, we keep coming up with new ideas, and those ideas continue to spread throughout the population, some with more success than others. And the idea of “basic human rights” is based on our ideas of morality.

At one point (no one knows where or when), a group of humans agreed amongst themselves that it should be a right to express themselves as they saw fit, and that no government should have the power to shut them up. It was a new idea; prior to that date, no one had ever thought about it before. Perhaps it was a reaction to a local edict that limited speech/expression. The idea spread. Naturally, many in government don’t like the idea of free speech. Surprisingly, many outside government still aren’t sold on the idea. But the idea itself has spread round the world. It’s been taught and discussed so long in certain quarters that it is now understood and assumed by many to be a “natural” human right. But the idea has only existed for a small fraction of our species’ existence.

The same process has occurred for every right we can think of. (1) The idea first arose — usually in ancient times, a few thousand years ago. (2) The idea languished for centuries, perhaps due to widespread illiteracy, sometimes due to overbearing governments stamping out the rights, and sometimes due to religion or other superstitions. (3) The idea made a resurgence — usually during the Enlightenment, and (4) then was enshrined in a document like a Constitution. (5) Eventually, it makes its way out of pamphlets and political speech and into textbooks and every day conversation. (6) Today, it is considered “basic” or “fundamental” to humanity — at least by many of us.

There is a danger here of assuming the homogeneity of the human species at any given time. Clearly, humanity’s culture and government has never been homogeneous, and it isn’t now. What one culture accepts as a right, another clearly doesn’t. Even within communities, states, nations, etc., there are often strong differences of opinion — another reason I resist the idea that any of these rights are “self-evident”.

For example, one of the UN’s human rights is: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Yet not long ago — just a few generations back — it was considered so acceptable to a large number of people in the United States, that the suggestion that any new states must be non-slavery states was enough of an affront to break away from the nation and form a new government based on slavery’s acceptability. (This refers, obviously, to the Confederate States Of America, about which its vice president said: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”)

My point in the above two paragraphs is to show that even while one group of humans asserts a fundamental human right, another group at the same time in history might deny that right. Also, that what is accepted as a right today was not necessarily thought of as a right at other times in history.

But in all cases, our rights originated with a person or group of people who began demanding that particular right or freedom. Some demands are so new that they haven’t yet widely caught on; perhaps they will someday. Others have been around long enough that they are now part of our history and founding documents of many nations (though in most cases, there remain nations where those rights aren’t observed).

While we still argue about the exact details of even the older freedoms (freedom of speech, for example), new ones are still growing in the public imagination — the “right to healthcare”, for example. They might someday be accepted as universal, but they might not. And even long acknowledged rights are often completely ignored by nations, even nations that nominally signed onto recognition of those rights.

• Conclusion

I’m not entirely alone in my conclusions, though they do seem very uncommon. Azel notes: “Human rights may just be an aspiration or an artifact, but in a social context, they are what we require to live in freedom.” If living in freedom is the goal (however arbitrary), then rights naturally flow from that.

After going through my thought-process above, I was encouraged to see that some answers to this question on Quora went along similar lines:

• “They [rights] exist because we, collectively, agree that they should, and shall always exist. The people’s rights come from the people’s desire for the ideal of: ‘a decent standard of treatment for all human beings’.”

• “Rationality speaking, rights come from humanity itself. That is, rational beings agree to a theoretical contract (where right are granted) when agreeing to be part of society.”

Regardless of your view on the origin of rights, I hope we can agree that human rights are necessary in any moral framework for society, and that furthering the acceptance of human rights all over the planet must be one of our greatest efforts.

8 Comments
  1. It’s not that I have a logical mind, I just see things a certain way; a kind of mathematical way. 2 and 2 makes 4. So, if you want 4 and you have 2, you must add 2. From the givens, there is no other way. Similarly, any ‘right’ that we have must be from the recognition of a ‘wrong’ and our desire to avoid it. Our ‘right to life’ recognizes that it’s wrong to kill one another and we don’t want to die. Our ‘right to bear arms’ is a recognition that it’s wrong to bar a person (well, state actually) from defending itself. By my thinking, a ‘right to healthcare’ would be a recognition that it’s wrong to force a person to suffer. Anyway, I don’t really have an answer for where ‘rights’ come from because I don’t know why I feel things are ‘wrong’. Some things just “are” and that’s all there is to it. Paisley and stripes, for example.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      This is a very effective way of thinking of it, Michael. I briefly alluded to this idea above (“Perhaps it was a reaction to a local edict that limited speech/expression”), but I didn’t stop to think that all of the ideas of rights might have arisen in reaction to negative acts.

      While we can’t mind-read our ancient ancestors who wrote nothing down, it does look like what we think of as “rights” today originally started out as common-sense rules for living. I imagine it might have gone like this:

      1. “He took my sharpened stone and I feel bad about that.”
      2. Others: “We agree; it’s bad when people steal our sharpened stones.”
      3. Top people: “New rule: no one can steal stuff.”
      4. (lots of time passes)
      5. “Right to property”

  2. Mammon says:

    On the most primitive level, rights are anything that an individual can physically or mentally perform, but when we come together in groups of two or more I think social contract takes precedent. The purest expression of social contract would be to seek equity by limiting only those rights that would otherwise allow an individual or group to take away one or more of the permitted rights from others (e.g. You have the primitive right to kill another, but the social right to life means declaring murder a punishable action). Of course, the notion of “purest expression” is entirely abstract. That’s where government comes in to judge the complexities of cause and effect (e.g. Drunk driving increases likelihood of accidental death, therefore it is a threat to others’ rights and a punishable action). What remains is a lot of debate over those complexities. Then like you mention, different governments and international organisations have differing judgements. I think our next step to clarifying rights is acknowledging how science can further our understanding of the complexities, and actually using the models it provides (e.g. Human driven climate change is real and is already causing harm and increasing deadly events, therefore contributing actions are a threat to others’ rights and we should punish those which are reasonably avoidable).
    Not a very succinct answer for where rights come from, but I think it’s a supportable one.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Thank you for your contribution.

      If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that a person *alone* has, in essence, a right to anything and everything, but persons *together* must reasonably mitigate those rights in order to facilitate other people. If so, I do understand this on some level.

      I dealt with the idea a bit in my 2014 entry Why I Can’t Be A Libertarian (starting about halfway down the entry, with “One person, existing in the world by himself…”) That train of thought, to me, was more relevant to “Why do we have/need government?” rather than where our rights come from, but of course the two ideas are intertwined.

      • Mammon says:

        Admittedly, my grievances with Libertarianism were on my mind while writing the comment. Took the time to read through that entry today. You pretty much addressed my issues with the concept and my BIG issues with the party.

        • Wil C. Fry says:

          I just now put 2 and 2 together and realized who you were. Chalk me up for being slow on the uptake… Thanks for reading regularly and commenting when you can. I really appreciate it.

  3. Dana says:

    Just a little legal niggling (from your friendly criminal defense attorney). First there are “Rights” (absolute) and there are “rights” (as practiced). I’m not going to join in the debate about where “Rights” arise from as it’s been 27 years since I earned a B.A. in Philosophy (and my concentration was in theological philosophy). But, I think your analysis conflates the two ideas a bit.

    Most “rights” that we currently enjoy do come from man, usually in the form of government, but certainly in the form of society, and expressed as law. For example, your right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure isn’t absolute (isn’t a “Right”) and exists solely because the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants it (and the reason that Amendment exists, is at some point as a society, we decided it was of value). That right is defined and constricted by interpretation through the courts and subsequent legislation and litigation. As a criminal defense attorney, I can state that as practiced and enforced in today’s society, the 4th Amendment grants very little actual protection to individuals as the courts have carved so many exceptions to its rule. While in theory one is still free from “unreasonable” searches and seizures, current society has found that very little actually qualifies as unreasonable. Most government invasions into personal privacy are considered reasonable and therefore do not infringe upon an individual’s 4th Amendment “rights.”

    (Further “evidence” for the argument that there is a difference between “Rights” and “rights” is that not all societies even grant individuals “the right to remain free from unreasonable searches and seizures;” or the right to an attorney when one is charged with a crime; or the right to be tried by a jury of ones peers, etc. These rights clearly are relative rather than absolute, and depend and derive from specific cultural and societal mores.)

    Personally, when I’m faced with the question of “is x, y, or z a right or a privilege” I find it more useful to analyze the issue in terms of current society, rather than looking for an absolute. For example, the question currently posed most often (in the media and discussions) is “whether healthcare is a right or a privilege.” Currently, it is not a right in the U.S., while it is a right in other Nations. I certainly don’t think there is anything “inalienable” about access to healthcare in and of itself. I am, however, more concerned about what it says about us as a society that we (if we do not consider healthcare a right but rather a privilege) are okay with people dying simply because they cannot afford or do not have adequate access to healthcare.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Thank you for the input, Dana.

      (I hope it was clear that at no point did I intend to speak of the *legal* interpretations of rights, but rather only the philosophical, layperson’s understanding.)

      Concerning the delineation between absolute Rights and practiced rights, I really don’t see the difference — in practice. (Any difference in legal theory would be lost to me anyhow.) In practice, every right is somewhere unrecognized, elsewhere not enforced, and otherwise disagreed with by many.

      On the “heathcare is a right” front, I think the beauty pageant winner would have served herself MUCH better had she answered “both”. She was given 30 seconds (I think) to respond, and could have easily clarified:

      “I think it *should* be a right, in that everyone should have access to quality healthcare. But in reality it is very clearly a privilege that is inaccessible to many. One of our goals as a global society should be to change this sad fact.”

      (Or something along those lines.)

      I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole, but in practical application, “privilege” and “right” aren’t mutually exclusive.

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