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What’s wrong with human rights?

By David Warden

David is Chairman of Dorset Humanists and Humanist Adviser to Bournemouth University and Arts University Bournemouth Faith & Reflection Team. In this article, he argues that human rights arose as a response to particular social and economic conditions and that the claim of 'universality' is problematic.

Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 'holy writ' for humanists?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, for humanists, about as close as we get to having holy scripture. Its thirty articles set out the requirements for a flourishing human life: freedom, justice, peace, order, security, equality, democracy, rule of law, dignity, brotherhood, employment, rest and leisure, health and wellbeing, food, clothing, housing, medical care, education, the arts, tolerance and friendship among nations, and the free and full development of human personality. If this comprehensive wish-list could be achieved then everyone on Earth could effortlessly ascend Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and enjoy the full flowering of selfhood.

But there’s something odd about human rights. We seem to imagine them as metaphysical things which, self-evidently, exist in some way. This might, in part, be a legacy of the United States Declaration of Independence which asserted that rights are an endowment from God: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Humanists do not believe in God, so where do rights come from and what is their ontological status? Are they things that we just ‘have’, merely by virtue of being human? If so, are we just born with them or does someone or something give them to us? We’ll try to answer these questions in a moment. But first, let’s notice another odd things about human rights: they are a fairly recent development.

John Locke

The historical emergence of human rights

Although it might be possible to trace the concept of rights back, say, to Magna Carta in the thirteenth century, the modern concept of rights really derives from Two Treatises of Government (1690) by the English philosopher John Locke, The Social Contract (1762) by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it was popularised in Rights of Man (1791) by the English journalist and revolutionary Thomas Paine. YouTube philosopher Jonas Ceika, in his video The Problem with Human Rights, claims that human rights emerged at the same time as the development of capitalism which changed the nature of society from an organic, social, and integrated community to one of atomised individuals and competing class interests. Social solidarity and the pursuit of shared goals, where rights were understood as what is objectively the right thing to do, was replaced with competition and the pursuit of private, individual interests. And it was this development which necessitated the development of rights conceived as something I have been endowed with to protect me from others as well as something I have been endowed with so that I can pursue my private interests in an unfettered way. Society became contractual, and my ‘rights’ were part of the terms of the contract. Marx explained it as follows: ‘Above all, we note the fact that the so-called rights of man, the droits de l’homme as distinct from the droits du citoyen, are nothing but the rights of a member of civil society – i.e., the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.’ So it seems that human rights arose as a solution to a tragic problem, the problem of an atomised society. Yet what are the alternatives? We can scarcely want to go back to a feudal society, and experiments in Marxism and socialism have been tyrannical and murderous in the extreme.

Do human rights exist?

Returning to the ontological question: do human rights exist? Well, no. Not in the way that tables and chairs exist. Human rights are abstract things, like the terms of a contract or the rules of football. OK, so how do I get them and who gives them to me? Well, I can claim to have human rights until I am blue in the face but it is the state (not God) which, effectively, gives them to me. And what the state gives, it can take away. Many of us are fortunate enough to live in countries where human rights culture is relatively benign, but the writers in this month’s edition of Humanistically Speaking have revealed the depressing state of human rights in many countries and continents.

I want to allude, however, to another problem with human rights. I wrote in a recent editorial for the Dorset Humanists bulletin that humanists are in favour of human rights but that we are not human rights ‘fanatics’. What did I mean by this? I was thinking about the angry clash between trans rights and women’s rights. Trans activists sometimes claim that ‘trans rights are not up for debate’ while some feminists claim that trans rights are encroaching on women’s rights to safe spaces. I can’t help feeling that framing this as a struggle of competing rights is fanatical and absolutist. Instead of framing it as a struggle of competing rights, I want both sides to sit down with each other to work out reasonable and practical compromises based on empathy and humanity, rather than the angry assertion of ‘rights’.

I'm also concerned about the way in which the rule of law and social and international order may be compromised by human rights fanaticism. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14) states that ‘Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. This is a good right to have, but it should not mean that people can simply turn up in a country, having left a safe one, to claim asylum. However much human misery is involved, we cannot simply ignore the breakdown of orderly and fair processes, especially when these are being exploited by criminal gangs. In support of my line of reasoning here, I would invoke Article 28 of the UDHR which states that ‘Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised’. To my mind, this requires citizenship, and orderly and fair processes for acquiring citizenship, not a chaotic free-for-all.

Are human rights universal?

In one of his articles this month ('Arguments against the universality of human rights'), Paul Ewans writes that "...the final drafting committee of the UDHR included representatives from China, India, Pakistan, Burma, the Philippines and Siam together with delegates from nine Islamic nations, six communist countries, many South American countries and four African countries." Given the breadth of this representation, it can scarcely be claimed that the UDHR is simply an expression of Western colonialism. And yet, if Jonas Ceika is right to claim that human rights were invented as a solution to the problems of liberal capitalism and individualism, then it’s hardly surprising that human rights are problematic in more traditional societies which value community and solidarity above liberty and individualism.

During my lifetime, same-sex relationships in the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom have changed from being a criminal offence to full equality with opposite-sex relationships. I have a green marriage certificate to prove it. Did this change come about as a result of angry demands for ‘gay rights’? In part, probably yes. But it also came about because gay people came out of the closet and the whole thing simply became normalised. Last year, a member of our editorial team wanted footballers and others to demonstrate their support for LGBT rights in Qatar. Aaron and I both argued that footballers should just get on with playing football rather than politicising the World Cup in pursuit of social change in a host country. However much we would like gay people in Qatar and other countries to enjoy the freedoms we have in the UK, it’s arguable that social change from within will be more effective than human rights preaching from another country. Having said that, I admire the incredible bravery of Peter Tatchell in his campaigning activities for LGBT rights in other countries.


So do I recognise the universality of human rights? I think human rights arose at a particular time and place in history. They are legal fictions which help to protect those of us who live in liberal individualist societies. They are culturally-specific rather than timeless and universal. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an important document but humanists should not worship it as if it were holy scripture. Of course, I would like everyone in the world enjoy the freedoms which we enjoy in the UK and other similar countries. But human rights were invented to solve a tragic problem – the problem of everyone pursuing their own interests in a liberal capitalist society rather than the common good or our common humanity. Human rights treat the symptom, rather than the underlying problem. Humanists should support human rights but we should not be fanatical about them. There are other ways of pursuing the common good and human flourishing for all, apart from strident demands for 'our rights'. Human sympathy, understanding and solidarity are more important and fundamental.

Further information

Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction (2007) by Andrew Clapham

Marx quotation source

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1 Comment

Jeremy Rodell
Feb 01, 2023

"...human rights were invented to solve a tragic problem – the problem of everyone pursuing their own interests in a liberal capitalist society rather than the common good or our common humanity". This seems a strange claim, given that the UNDHR was a response to the horrors of World War II, and in particular the Nazi Holocaust, which were zero to do with liberal capitalism. Only eight countries in the UN abstained when it was voted on in 1948: apart from Saudia Arabia, and South Africa, all the others were communist countries under the boot of Stalin's Russia.

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