By – Adam Kaiser
In our current political discourse the claim of human rights is often used to describe something as sacred or inviolable, express a sense of entitlement, and shape ideas of justice. However, there is much dispute over what counts as a right, where they comes from, and what moral weight we ought to credit them. Much of this dispute has originated from the transition from a natural rights framework to a human rights framework, which has blurred the line between negative and positive rights. This transition has weakened our social valuation of rights and more distressingly, threatens our fundamental natural rights in favor of efforts to guarantee certain levels of material comfort.
The concept of rights emerged over time from natural law doctrine that originated with Greek philosophers but primarily developed by British thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke during the Enlightenment. These thinkers imagined how mankind would exist in an idealized, pre-historical state of nature. Here, they posited, one could look at mankind’s original condition and see what gifts God has seen fit to guarantee to mankind. Through this, John Locke claimed we all possessed the divine right to life, liberty and property. As he theorized humans are born alive, in a state of perfect freedom, with the full capacity to use reason, do absolutely whatever they please as well as to gather and use property. Furthermore, since in a state of nature all humans are born equal in status and rational capacity, no human has any moral license to interfere with another’s exercise of the three basic rights listed above. In Locke’s conception you are free to do anything except to harm another’s life, liberty or property or do or use things you have voluntarily surrendered contractually. This is all very fine and well but it is important to note what is not included in here. There is nothing about food, water, shelter, police protection, health care, Internet access, etc. etc. These items would never have occurred to Locke or Hobbes to be rights, as human beings are not divinely provided with any of these in a “natural state.” In nature humans are not guaranteed that they will have access to any sort of material goods or services from other people, even ones necessary for survival. So for the most of the enlightenment and early modern period rights were exclusively thought of in Lockean terms. This is seen in our own Bill of Rights where all the enumerated rights involve things that would fall under a Lockean conception of liberty (with the notable exception of things to be provided in certain legal proceedings). Even radical leftist thinkers through the end of the 19th century usually used these terms. Marx was generally skeptical of the concept of rights, but when he spoke of them he talked about the workers right to the product of their labor (reframing the concept of the right to property) as opposed to the right to any specific material goods.
This all began to change around World War II when a trend started that interpreted Locke’s “right to life” as the “right to things required for life” during which our modern sense of human rights was created. In 1941 FDR gave his famous Four Freedom’s speech, which included things such as the “Freedom from Want” and the “Freedom from Fear.” In 1948 at the end of the war the U.N. passed the Universal Declaration of Human Right that claimed everyone had the right to food, shelter, clothing, health care, education, social welfare, a living wage, equal pay, and rest and leisure among other things. Since then people have claimed the human right to other things such as a college education, free birth control, a clean environment, internet access, and so on and so forth. In our modern discourse we’ve reached an impasse in how to think about rights and I would argue we’ve stretched the concept far beyond its limits.
Now no one would argue that the newer “rights” listed above are not good and desirable things but it is very hard to justify them as rights in the traditional Lockean sense. They are goods and services that must be provided by the positive actions of others whereas Lockean rights such as the freedom of speech or property are possessed by us until they are negated by others, hence the distinction between positive and negative rights. First, natural rights clearly do not cover things unnecessary for human survival. Education, Internet access, and equal pay are not physical needs necessary for the right to live or to your possession of the limitless number of negative rights covered under liberty and property. However, even designating things humans require for survival as rights misunderstands natural rights theory. The right to life means that we are free from someone acting to negate (terminate) our lives, not that our lives are guaranteed from all sorts of natural harm and danger. Under this framework we are allowed to act to preserve our lives when threatened but we do not have the right to another person’s help when in distress.
This is all well but then the question comes up, “suppose these are not covered under our traditional ideas of rights but if they are all desirable things then what is wrong with adding more rights to our existing ones?” The problem with this is two-fold. First, the reason the idea of human rights holds such power is that they are conceived of in metaphysical terms as something absolute and universal that we are entitled to prior to anything else. In the classical sense they exist regardless of any human thoughts or attitudes towards them and should be guaranteed even under the worst of conditions. Assuming this we are powerless to decide what are or are not rights as they are something we fundamentally possess on a higher level. We could reject this idea of rights as metaphysical properties but if we have them then it will not change what they are or if we possess them and we would lose our moral basis for holding human rights in such high regards. They would cease to be relevant beyond representing our social and political preferences. The second and more important reason positive rights fail as valid concept is that their very existence contradicts our negative rights to life, liberty and property. If we actually possess an inalienable right to food or healthcare or anything else then we are entitled to have it provided to us regardless of our wealth, productivity, popularity or anything any other superficial factors. If this is the case then someone else is absolutely obligated to provide it for us, which fundamentally contradicts that person’s rights to liberty and property. If these positive rights were not voluntarily provided it would require the confiscation of someone else’s property and conscripting another person to force them to provide the positive right to the other. To use a popular example, if we are guaranteed a right to health care then at the very extreme someone would be justified in holding a doctor or nurse at gunpoint until they received their flu shot, gastric bypass, MRI or whatever else they needed. If we universalized this idea of to all of society we either would have a society where everyone is simultaneously guaranteed materiel rights regardless of their ability to work but also obligated to provide for the rights of everyone else. It borders on self-contradictory. Everyone would be at the mercy of the needs of everyone else and nobody’s property or liberty would be secure in such a society. In short, the two types of rights are mutually exclusive. If we have innate positive rights then we have none of our important negative rights and if we have negative rights, we cannot have innate positive rights. This basic contradiction led Thomas Hobbes to famously remark, “And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to everything endureth, there can be no security to any man, how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time which Nature ordinarily alloweth men to live.”
One may disagree with the idea that rights are based upon the supposed natural state of human existence but if one wishes to maintain the concept of human rights they must present an alternative conceptualization of their origin and justification. In doing so they can take the position that they are either metaphysical properties humans possess or that they are purely social constructs we have developed for utilitarian or personal reasons. If they are regarded as entirely social constructs then there is no categorical reason for people, corporate entities, or states to respect them as outlined above. On the other hand, if one wishes to construct an alternative theory of metaphysical rights they must either appeal to a different sort of divine or supernatural revelation. Anyone is free to attempt such a task but if people truly value natural rights then we seriously need to rethink how we currently conceive of human rights.