Are human rights government creations? Or do human rights pre-exist government – being derived from nature – with government tasked with protecting those rights?
These are important questions because the answers weigh heavily on what rights we have and whether they can legitimately be taken away.
If we have free speech only because the government says we do then we don’t really have the right to free speech because the government can just as easily take this right away.
On the other hand, if human rights are natural rights then the government cannot legitimately deprive us of these rights. But what’s the basis for saying human rights arise from nature?
These questions have come to the forefront because the perspective of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch gives us clues about how he might rule on various issues.
Reason.com says the debate centers on the question, “What is the good?” One position is that life is inherently good. Another is that human flourishing is the primary good, and human rights are necessary for this flourishing – what Thomas Jefferson called the “pursuit of happiness,” or what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia (which is often translated as happiness even though that doesn’t fully capture it).
This matters, Reason goes on to say, because if life is inherently good with no further explanation needed then abortion and assisted suicide are not rights. But if human flourishing is the good, and life is in service to this flourishing, then a woman’s flourishing gives her the right to choose.
Stoicism and human rights
What would ancient Stoic philosophers think of this debate? That’s hard to say. Eudaimonia is important in Stoicism. But eudaimonia cannot be achieved unless we live virtuous lives. So for Stoics, virtue is more important than happiness.
Natural rights wasn’t a concept in the ancient world, however. Had it been, ancient Stoics might have connected natural rights to justice, which they saw as part of Nature. Perhaps they even would have claimed Logos as the source – the providential universal reason that orders all things.
I wrote earlier that this idea of Logos isn’t as popular with Stoics today because modern science makes it hard to justify. Instead, I suggested that the elusive “theory of everything” – the underlying principle of the universe from which every other scientific principle follows – might be the closest we can come to Logos. But this is not a conscious or providential force – it’s an impersonal force of nature.
So a modern Stoic who rejects the ancient view of Logos can’t argue that natural rights exist as an objective scientific principle.
What I’m left with is my opinion that human rights pre-exist government because every person must have rights in order for human flourishing to be possible. While my position lacks an objective, scientifically provable standard, I argue that the same is true for those who disagree with me.