Human Rights and Natural Facts

Where do human rights come from? And can we establish a firm philosophical base for their existence?

For Hobbes, a thin version of human rights stemmed from the fact that humans want to persist in their existence by doing whatever necessary to preserve their own life. From this, Hobbes deduced that humans have the “natural” right to always protect their own lives. This is generally believed to be the modern start of human rights theories.

Locke added to this basic idea by arguing that human beings are ultimately a sort of “divine loan”. What he means by this is that God created human beings literally loaning them their bodies which they thereby have no right to destroy or to unduly abuse. For Locke, it is this source of original divinity from which in the end all claims to human rights spring. Through God we are famously “endowed… with certain unalienable Rights” ((From the Declaration of Independence, of course)) a thought which profoundly influenced the American and French revolutions.

Locke’s conception of human rights becomes untenable however if one rejects its basic premise: a divine creator. Take away the religious foundation of Lockean political theory and you have no adequate basis for human rights.

Hobbes conception presents us with another problem for human rights theory. If it is a natural “fact” that humans seek their physical preservation it does not thereby logically follow that they have any kind of normative human rights. This is the famous “ought/is” problem of David Hume otherwise known as the “appeal to nature fallacy”.

For Hume, and similarly for G.E. Moore a few centuries later, no moral property can be identical with a natural property, in this case humans’ observable propensity to seek their own physical continuance does not mean, in anyway, that they have any kind of moral and/or political rights. To repeat Hume’s simple argument, you cannot get an “ought” from an “is”, you cannot derive prescriptions from descriptions.

So where does this leave us? Are we at a fatal impasse where we cannot derive any foundation (if we are agnostics and atheists) for human rights at all? Are human rights only willful moral assertions or, even worse, just a form of wishful thinking?

Yet perhaps we can look at the problem in another way. More specifically in an Aristotelian way which recalls Aristotle’s crucial insight that “Man is a social/political animal” (Zoon Politikon). ((From Aristotle’s Politics))

First, we can say that it is a natural “fact” that contemporary humans need what they call political morality to live orderly, productive, and subjectively happy lives in groups. That is an observable fact.

Second, we can say that it is also a natural “fact” that historically not all forms of political morality and/or political theories were equally and practically effective in producing factual situations where a large number of humans flourished for a significant length of time.

Third, if we accept the first and second propositions, this means that “factually” some political philosophies, when put into practice, were better able to produce more effective human groups both in number and in quality and in terms of order, productivity, and happiness and other public and private goods.

Fourth, if it is an historical and thus natural fact in the world that political societies based on human rights were more capable of delivering on what humans generally considered their public and private happiness, then in terms of a combination of historical fact, subjective human well-being (also a natural observable fact) and the overall truth that human beings need some kind of political system/morality to exist that human rights have their independent philosophical basis.

Thus, human rights have their objective moral basis embedded within the natural fact of the way humans are actually constituted, that they are a social species by nature whose modes of sociality develops historically and was in need of ever better solutions as regards order, productivity, and happiness. Such a natural solution to the natural problem of human sociality is human rights.

Dan Corjescu teaches at the University of Tübingen's "Studium Professionale" program. Read other articles by Dan.