Where do human rights come from?

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Phoenix, Arizona

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?

The Good

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.

We are a tribal species. But it doesn’t have to be our downfall.

Us vs. them is human nature. Human rights, equality & democracy are the answers.

Us versus them is one of the most common themes in politics, history, IMG_0472sports, business, music – in human nature in general. But people also can be amazingly generous, compassionate, and cooperative.

In the 1970s E.O. Wilson proposed sociobiology to explain this contradiction. We’re a super social species, and just as adaptations to the environment drive our physical evolution, adaptations to the demands of our social group drive psychological evolution. In other words, our social behavior has biological roots.


Today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past.


But this social behavior has its limits. In The Social Conquest of Earth Wilson notes, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

Social skills are key to human survival. The most socially cohesive tribes surpassed less adept tribes. And today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past. But cooperation, while valued among members of the ingroup, is valued far less with the outgroup. Often there’s violence.

And we mustn’t forget about competition within a tribe for power and social status. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to quote a Bedouin saying: it’s me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother, and our cousin against the stranger. The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.

This is why Wilson tells us that human beings seem to be of two minds: self-sacrificing and viciously selfish, altruistic and self-interested, peacemakers and warriors, empathic and uncaring, and so on.


The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.


I don’t think argue pure altruism exists. Evolution ultimately is about the perpetuation of an individual’s genes, so it all comes down to self-interest. But there’s narrow self-interest, or competition, which is win-lose; and there’s broader self-interest, or cooperation, which is win-win.

Both cooperation and competition can be good. But narrow self-interest is our default. And this can be problematic. Our shared humanity (and shared DNA with other species) means we’re closer to others than we often think. But failing to realize this leads us to think that others don’t matter, and we can do whatever we want to them. This is how rape, murder, genocide, torture, and any number of horrible things happen.

Human societies have tried to solve these problems. It took us thousands of years, however, to figure out that democracy, equality, and universal human rights are essential to mitigate the dark side of human nature.


Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe.


And we can do better still. Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe to contend with. What can we do about this? Wilson suggests:

  • Challenging the claims of those in power that they speak for God, are God’s special representatives, and have exclusive knowledge. This includes challenging the alleged special status of the pope and even the Dali Lama.
  • Acknowledging that we are solely responsible for our actions, which includes how we treat others, animals, and the earth.
  • Accepting that science is the best method we have for discovering objective truth about the world.

To this I would add that we should try to figure out what encourages cooperation, and what encourages competition. After all, competition is often good. Competition drives us toward something better. But competition can get out of hand. Where is the line, and what leads to us crossing it?


We need democracy on a global scale, and a universal bill of human rights.


We need democracy on a global scale. There are still too many undemocratic countries. And most corporations are not democracies even though there’s no reason why corporations can’t be run more democratically.

I don’t advocate a strong world government, however, because that would be too big of a temptation for a would-be dictator. But we could have a universal bill of human rights that we would strive for all nations to amend into their national constitutions.

Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.