Reading Time: 4 minutes Human Rights by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Human rights don’t exist. By this, I mean, as I so often state, they do not have ontic existence – they do not exist outside of our minds. Like all abstract ideas, for a conceptual nominalist like myself, the existence of such mental entities (labels, morality and so on) is entirely in our minds.

This is an article I have been meaning to write for a long time.

I, and most other humans, often talk about human rights as if they exist as objective entities. However, this is lazy language. They, like any aspect of language itself, are arrived at by consensus. When we agree on the meaning of any word, we codify that by putting it in a dictionary.

Actually, it’s even more descriptive than that. When humans use language – words and whatever spelling we choose often enough – dictionary compilers recognise a certain level of frequency and deem a word and its spelling common enough to be included in the dictionary. For example, the word “gamification” recently made it in after being coined and utilised enough that it reached a tipping point of acceptance into codification.

It’s similar with abstract concepts like human rights. We think and observe and take part in society and then we make moral proclamations. I don’t know, something like these generic ones:

  • The right to life
  • The right to liberty and freedom
  • The right to the pursuit of happiness
  • The right to live your life free of discrimination
  • The right to control what happens to your own body and to make medical decisions for yourself
  • The right to freely exercise your religion and practice your religious beliefs without fear of being prosecuted for your beliefs
  • The right to be free from prejudice on the basis of race, gender, national origin, color, age or sex
  • The right to grow old
  • The right to a fair trial and due process of the law
  • The right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment
  • The right to be free from torture
  • The right to be free from slavery
  • The right to freedom of speech
  • The right to freely associate with whomever you like and to join groups of which you’d like to be a part.
  • The right to freedom of thought
  • The right not to be prosecuted from your thoughts

You might want to get more specific still.

If I thought up these ideas but no one else did, or no one else agreed, they are not really human rights in any pragmatic sense, and they certainly aren’t universal. You could argue that there is a set of human rights that exist in some kind of ether or Platonic realm of truth. Perhaps in God. Of course, the Bible contravenes even some of the most basic human rights of, say, the UN (that seems infinitely more sensible and moral in its/their proclamations). So there is a problem of the observable data of the holy book of the Bible. Let’s scrap that book as a source of information about human rights.

Indeed, this whole post is equivalent to my writings on the ontology of morality since human rights are merely moral proclamations that any assume are objective that somehow transcend time and culture.

Over time and thought and society, people tend towards agreement on moral matters. Unless you’re America right now. In fact, the States is a great example of how, in reality, human rights are conceptual, how they aren’t written into the ether. The country is divided on abortion, and the right of a woman to their own body and the right to life of a foetus. I have discussed this, with connected ideas, in terms of personhood 9as a word ascribed to a set of properties, and how this is subjective) in “What Is Personhood? Setting the Scene.

Human rights sound lovely, but until we do something with them, they are meaningless, or they have no ramifications.

Human rights, therefore, are the philosophical underpinnings of moral thought that form the foundations to law. As we grow into a global society, the term “human right” takes on a more transcendent quality that dismisses borders in favour of the human race: it becomes a universal term. This is why it is often connected to the UN, an organisation that sets to unite the world and see humanity as one. This international law, it is hoped, somehow trumps the national and parochial laws of individual countries.

Until we codify human rights into law – first into local and national laws, but more usefully into more universal, border transcendent laws – the thinking, the philosophy, behind those human rights is ineffectual and pragmatically impotent.

In short, “human rights” is a term that signifies “moral philosophy”, but the “right” part of it only means something when there is a legal framework to make the moral proclamation binding. We all know what a legal right is:

1aa claim recognized and delimited by law for the purpose of securing it

bthe interest in a claim which is recognized by and protected by sanctions of law imposed by a state, which enables one to possess property or to engage in some transaction or course of conduct or to compel some other person to so engage or to refrain from some course of conduct under certain circumstances, and for the infringement of which claim the state provides a remedy in its courts of justice

2the aggregate of the capacities, powers, liberties, and privileges by which a claim is secured

3a capacity of asserting a legally recognized claim — compare LEGAL DUTY

4a right cognizable in a common-law court as distinguished from a court having jurisdiction in equity

The law works to enable an entity within its jurisdiction the capacity to do, have or be something. Without that, you just have one person or people making moral claims to another person or people. Law makes these things binding.

To mention God, theists often claim morality is only binding when objectively embedded within the entity of God.

This is patent nonsense and is at very best a promissory note. Secular, legal rights that are binding in light of legal organisations such as law enforcement and jurisprudence, as well as prison services and suchlike, are far more tangible than what is claimed within the theistic notion of binding morality. There are real-world ramifications to not adhering to such rights as laid out in any given legal code.

In conclusion, then, set out your human rights as a philosophical endeavour and then write these into law, preferably international law that transcends borders so that they become, as much as possible, universal. The reality will be that we arrive at these agreements by consensus. Hopefully, the consensus utilises the tools of logic and reason, observation and data analysis.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...