Brief Rant: There is No Such Thing as a “Universal Human Right”

Right to life. Right to choice. Right to vote. Right to freedom of speech. Right of access to birth control. Right to not be stabbed in the middle of the night.

Can we stop this? Seriously, can we? When people try to argue that we should all be able to vote, because it’s a universal human right, it pisses me off. The idea of a “right” independent of a government is entirely incoherent. It means literally nothing. I can say I have the right to not be stabbed in the eye, and someone can still come up and stab me in the eye.

If rights have any meaning as anything at all, it is in the context of a government or other organized body of people. If they have any meaning at all, it is as elements of an organizational mission statement, and nothing more. We, as a country, think that society works better when we consider everyone to have the right to vote. Because we, as a country, want our society to work well, we try to make decisions that enable everyone to vote. However, the idea that the universe contains some mystical universal right to suffrage that our decision to support universal suffrage is based on makes zero sense.

I want everyone to be able to vote, not because of some magical “right” endowed by…whatever. I want universal suffrage because I want the world to be a better place, and I think it will help. It’s the same reason I want everyone to have access to food, water, shelter, birth control, etc. I want people to stop saying “X is a universal right” as a justification for X, and start saying, “X will make our society better, and here’s why”. Justifying anything by calling it a “universal human right” makes no sense, and it muddles the actual reasons why we ought to be doing things—reasons which ought to be (and much of the time are) fully capable of standing on their own merits.


9 comments on “Brief Rant: There is No Such Thing as a “Universal Human Right”

  1. (I just found this, at random; but I still think it merits response.)

    In corporeal reality, there are no such things as ‘human nature’, ‘humanity’, ‘human rights’.

    However, these ephemeral ideologies are embraced and espoused by religion, politics, law and moral philosophy; and often used to defend the abuser rather than the abused, which makes ‘Human Rights’ into yet another form of tyranny.

    Ethically, I think that you have the entitlement (not ‘the right’) to defend yourself, your kin, your chattels against an assailant, by ANY means necessary, at your own discretion.

    Additionally, when a particular ‘tribe’ (ethnic/cultural/religious/etc. group) claims a special status (i.e. some kind of exclusivity or superhumanity), it should not complain at the inevitable backlash.

    ‘Human Rights’ is surely a thinly veiled version of christianity’s dogma of ‘universal salvation’. If not, then it’s some elitist group’s self-protection racket.

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  3. I know very little abut ethics and philosophy but…

    Well I can’t agree. Rights outside of a governing body able to protect these rights is one thing. But the right, for example, to basic standard of living, isn’t dependent on the whims or wants of that governing power. It’s a right because that’s something people are owed and deserve.

    To argue, as you appear to, that rights lose meaning unless spelled out in something like the US Constitution degrades their meaning. They go from being the basics of what we deserve as humans and become concessions the larger society makes.

    • I think we’re just thinking about them differently. I think “deserves” is sort of right, but still the wrong way of thinking about it. It’s not that I think your conclusion is necessarily wrong, it’s that I think the angle from which your reaching it isn’t very coherent, and I that that has an effect on how well we’re able to make decisions.

      I want people to be happy. I think most of us want people to be happy. It’s not that we “deserve” certain things and don’t “deserve” others, it’s that certain things help people and certain things don’t. If we genuinely want to help people, then we don’t need the idea of people having “rights” or “deserving” things to decide to do the things that would help them. We just have to want to help them. If in wanting to help, we discover that considering a minimum standard of living a “right” is a helpful way to model our government and our actions, then by all means I think we should do it. I just think it’s important to be clear about why we’re doing it. The universe didn’t decide that “minimum standard of living” was or should be a human right. We did. I think that distinction is important.

      • But “happiness” isn’t a very good standard. For one it’s very poorly defined. What qualifies as happiness, what makes us happy and we know we’re happy vary so dramatically between any two people there’s no way to make that a coherent concept. Happiness isn’t even that important to some people. Many will rate it lower than they would other even less tangible ideas.

        Ditto for well being even though it’s slightly easier to (or maybe I just think it is) define. Personal well being for me rates below most of the rights I enjoy (especially the right to an education)

        While the more compassionate are moved to action by the happiness and well being of others, happiness and well being don’t strike as very good bases for rights. I’m not arguing the universe or some other power has given us these rights but I do think we can derive (? gotta be the wrong word. some philosopher somewhere is recoiling in horror) them be looking at the human situation and concepts like fairness and justice.

        And that’s why I objected to your OP and your last line. Rights aren’t a decision (though I do get governments decide which rights they’l recognize).

        • But what are concepts like fairness and justice for? What do they accomplish? I agree that they are good, but the reason I go for happiness is that I think it’s important to find the objective that is the end-in-and-of-itself that we get all the rest of them from. I think we like fairness because we’re generally all happier with societies that are fair.

          We may simply disagree on the fundamentals, I suppose. It seems to me that, really, wanting to be happy/fulfilled/satisfied with life is what drives us, and as such, what it makes sense to base the rest of the rules on.

        • replying to self to avoid too much nesting.

          That’s the thing though, collectively we aren’t all that more fulfilled by things like justice or fairness. We prefer them when we ourselves are given “a fair shake” (although not always) but we’ll balk at others receiving similar considerations. Look at how drug addicts or prostitutes are treated. They’re no less deserving of these considerations but our empathy often won’t extend to them.

          And it’s our collective callousness towards others that makes me think basing rights on concepts that require empathy like the happiness and well being of others problematic.

          Of course what I’m arguing would require a collective commitment to fairness and justice that callousness would wok against so…

        • Yeah, that’s my position more or less—I think we’d have the same sorts of problems with people being callous, etc, with respect to fairness as we would with respect to happiness.

    • For the record, I haven’t read all that much ethics or philosophy myself. A little of Socrates, and a little of John Stuart Mill, but for the most part, I’m just thinking and listening on my own.

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