In various guises and in various forums I’ve had numerous discussions about political and human rights over the years. It is one of those inherently contestable concepts: are there fundamental transcendent human rights that all people have, or are rights there because we assert them, either as an individual or through a government?
I would argue that only one natural human right exists: An individual has a right to do whatever he or she wants, constrained only by ones’ capabilities, conditions, and the consequences of acting.
There is no way to prove that any rights exist beyond that one. What we have beyond that ought statements.
Those asserting the existence of rights (e.g., the right to be free and not the property of another human) are not positing actual transcendent rights in nature. Obviously, throughout history, humans have been treated as property. There is nothing in our nature which prevents that, slavery is probably as old as human history. Instead, we believe an ought statement: humans should not deny the freedom of others by holding them as property.
This right was created by humans, overturning millennia of what was seen as normal human behavior. The same is true about equal rights for women and notions of private property.
Recognizing these rights as social constructs — things we humans have created because we have developed ethical/moral belief systems requiring such rights — does not denigrate them. One gets the impression that if rights are constructed they don’t really exist. The reality is that if rights are not constructed, then they only exist if someone asserts them. Often people aren’t strong enough to assert such a right, so the slave remains a slave. When we have constructed a strong set of rights, we should be proud of the accomplishment. These are our rights, we built them!
People who assert one true set of “natural rights” can be viewed as trying to stack the deck in their favor. You see, if you assert some rights as the only “true” rights, then you do not have to delve into the complex themes, unclear causality and different world views that exist. You simply proclaim yourself right, defend that proclamation, and see those who hold different views as wrong. Instead of conversation about what ought statements are worthy of codifying as a right, it becomes akin to holy war. Yet I defy anyone to prove any right exists beyond the one natural right I list above (and I invite anyone to disprove the existence of that one right). Rights don’t exist without being constructed or asserted.
OK, but what about the ought statement. Is there a way to determine the truth of a particular ought statement vs. another? Yes, but no definitive way. Depending on core assumptions and philosophical values, you may end up saying universal health care ought to be a right, or you may end up saying taxation of any sorts violates human rights and ought not exist.
Therein lies the beauty of our capacity to construct rights. We have the ability to reflect on history, explore different arguments and ideologies, and even test them out. If there somehow is one correct list of ought statements defining what human rights should be respected, we’ll no doubt learn that through the course of history — acting, learning our capabilities, understanding the consequences of action. But it could be that there are so many varied ways of acting or experiencing consequences of the same actions that there is no one clear set of proper ought statements.
Historically, humans have seemed to need a veneer of authority to put forth moral ideas. It had to come from God, or the King. The idea we are free to construct moral codes probably scared people. Well, it is scary. That freedom to construct moral codes is one reason we’ve had so much bloodshed, warfare, holocausts and horror in our history. One can understand someone wanting an authority to just banish all that bad stuff with a set of rights or moral laws that we all follow. But clearly, that hasn’t work. Why not take responsibility for the world we create, and the moral codes and systems of rights we assert and construct? Isn’t that taking on more freedom and leaving less to authoritative fiat?
We’re human. We are in nature free to act as we want, limited only by our capabilities, conditions, and the consequences of our actions. So let’s understand our capacities and limits, reflect on our conditions, and study the consequences of action. Only then can we make a more informed choice in how to construct rights and moral codes. Also, let’s recognize that empathy is important. An ideology might cause a pro-free market person to rationalize the sweat shop life style of a third world worker, or might cause a committed communist to rationalize sending people to the Gulag. But if you really understand the life conditions of that worker, or life in the Gulag, then empathy about the conditions within which people can find themselves might help us construct our world.
Lastly, I think focusing on a small number of broadly defined rights (life, liberty and property, for example) can be misleading. Those things are so broad, and their nature changes in context. Does the Nazi well owner of the right to refuse water to a Jewish man dying of thirst? Perhaps ideas of rights need to be connected more with context. We do it already. War is murder, but in a different context. The context changes the act, the context changes what is regarded as a right.
So arguments about “is there a right to health care” or “is there a right to own guns” are literally non-sensical if one thinks about broad transcendent rights. They only make sense as ought statements (should we construct a right to health care or not — what are the conditions and what will be the consequences of such a construction) or as statements reflecting already constructed systems of rights (does the 2nd amendment guarantee the right to have any sort of firearm one wants?)
People want to look to God, ideology, or some philosophical system for a way to assert their perspective with a veneer of objective authority. I think that’s an illusion. We’re free to construct worlds, and we can’t do it alone. That’s why individuals can only exist as part of a society — even hermits act and think on the basis of how they were socialized — individuals in pure isolation in their formative years die. Individuals and societies co-exist in a symbiotic relationship, and constructing moral codes and systems of rights define how that is done. Because of our one natural right we are world builders.