If you ask people what the origins or justification of human rights is, they will almost invariably present you with two alternatives: rights are granted to us by our government, or rights are granted to us by [our] God.
People who assert this are generally Americans who are either Democrats or Republicans, and who idolize the US Constitution. In fact, the US Constitution itself (although to be clear, I don’t believe in the validity of the US Constitution) clearly asserts that rights are protections of the individual against the government’s actions, which is a contradiction of the belief that rights are granted by governments. It cannot be the case that governments are both what rights protect us from, and the source of rights! (how does it even make sense to say that the right against unlawful search and seizure, for instance, is “granted” by the government, when it is a limitation on governmental action?)
The Declaration of Independence offers a different story, stating that rights are given to us by God. Putting the issue of whether God exists or not aside, I’ve already proven that it is impossible to turn a divine obligation into an ethical obligation, which means that no divine order can magically turn into a right, which is an ethical concept. Therefore it is illogical to posit that rights are given to us by God. No matter what you believe about religion, it remains, always and forever, a matter of faith, not of fact.
The same general reasoning also applies to government. We assume that rights are “protected” through the use of laws, but as I have proven in my argument, laws cannot confer ethical obligations either. It is an intellectual dead-end.
Equally interestingly, what is the scriptural reference for God granting us rights? This is a serious question. I know of no such reference, and cannot find any. How can a committed Christian put forward a proposition which is not confirmed by the Bible? If God does not say he granted you rights, and God is the sole standard of morality and ethics, then you have no rights. How can any Christian argue otherwise?
To make a serious inquiry on this issue, we must first ask what a right is. There are many different ways of looking at this issue, and many opinions, but once you strip all the ambiguity and the loaded language which pervades pretty much all of them, one basic definition can be arrived at: a right is a justification of force.
Here is a simple example. All human beings have the right to life. What does that mean? One can babble on and on about this means that we are entitled to life (how can we be said to be entitled to something we cannot not have?), that we are allowed to be alive (by who and in what fashion?), that we are owed life (from who, and how can we be owed something no one can possess?), that we are not legally forbidden to be alive (what about the death penalty, what about extreme poverty, what about conscription?), that people must refrain from destroying our life, and so on and so forth.
Now, that last one is the closest to the truth, but in practice it cannot be found to be meaningful unless we incorporate a justification of force. If it represents merely the statement that “anyone who wants to destroy other lives should think about refraining from doing so,” then it may be a true statement but it has no ethical repercussions. Obviously this is not what we mean when we say “the right to life.” We mean it as an ethical statement which should structure our social institutions and generally accepted beliefs about what is right and wrong within our society. The only way in which “the right to life” can have any such consequence is by justifying the use of violence to defend what we are “entitled,” “allowed,” “owed,” “legally allowed” to have.
The right to life therefore reduces itself to the proposition that defending one’s life with force is justified (putting aside the issue of proportional force and so on). The right to free expression reduces itself to the proposition that defending one’s speech with force (against censorship, for instance) is justified. The right to bear arms reduces itself to the proposition that defending one’s possession of weapons with force is justified. And we can continue all the way down the line in the same way.
Rights must therefore be symmetrical. There can be no such thing, for instance, as the “divine right of kings,” for a king, infringing on one of his subjects’ rights, must be made accountable for this action by justifiable force against him. If no use of force is justifiable against a king, then no rights can exist. The concept of a right, by its very universality, precludes such exclusivity. Likewise for the “right” of a parent to aggress upon his child, a right which was accepted until very recently. Any such “right” automatically nullifies any rights for the child and, since we were all children once and rights apply to all persons regardless of age, makes all rights impossible. Principles which justify violence unilaterally should properly be called “powers,” not “rights.”
Likewise, the power of States to impose laws and forms of government which are not approved by the individual is equally fatal to any concept of rights. The US Constitution, therefore, is a contradiction in terms. Either we do have rights, in which case the State cannot have the power to impose laws and forms of government without our consent, or we have no rights at all, in which case there was no point in writing a Constitution in the first place.
It is often replied that we have the right to complain. Of course we have the right to complain; complaining is a use of speech. But this right has no relevance whatsoever to the imposition of laws and forms of government, since complaining has no impact whatsoever on this imposition. You can complain as much as you want, but complaining will not change laws and forms of government. Without some capacity to use force against government, no right against government has any meaning whatsoever, and therefore the US Constitution, which claims to outline rights which protect the individual against government actions, is an absolutely meaningless document.
This so-called political document is therefore ridiculous; it is exactly like a referee claiming, before a sword fight, that you are not allowed a sword or any weapon whatsoever, in fact that you are not allowed to hit back or parry in any way, but you are allowed to complain while your opponent hacks you to pieces. Any situation where rights are claimed but force is not justified in their application falls within the same ridiculousness.
Where do rights come from? For a person on a desert island, the issue of rights is not relevant, since there is no one else for this person to use force upon. Rights are therefore motivated by the fact that we live in society and that we need to define what people are and are not allowed to do when they affect others. It is also clear that rights are not created or granted by society, since the individual alone is perfectly capable of expressing his rights. All that society can do is preserve and amplify the capacity of its component individuals to express their rights. Furthermore, living in society permits the individual to have access to the means to fulfill the needs which are protected by these rights (this is not true of all socities, obviously: capital-democracies are pretty bad at this).
How can we therefore make sense of the claim that rights are given to us by government or God? The government or God does not give me life, or my speech, or my ability to move about or assemble, and it does not give me the ability to defend my life, my speech, my ability to move about or assemble. I already have these things and this ability by virtue of being born and properly raised in a society which has knowledge of these things. The existence or non-existence of government or God would have absolutely no impact on the existence of any of these things.
The more relevant question is, why should governments or God care about human rights? A right is nothing more than a codification of the fact that we should stand up for ourselves, and that society should be constructed so that people can most effectively stand up for themselves. But the goal of all exterior determinisms is precisely to suppress the fact that people want to stand up for themselves, and to force them or cajole them into accepting a moral code which benefits some higher power, in short get them to work and fight for someone else’s benefit.
In practice, governments only pretend to care about human rights insofar as doing so grants them greater legitimacy and stifles disobedience and malcontents. Democratic governments constantly seek new ways to encroach on these rights without complaints. As for God, I already pointed out that the concept of rights is, to my knowledge, nowhere in the Bible, and I think it is pretty obvious that Christianity, being based on faith and fear, has no need for people who stand up for themselves.
Therefore, the statement that governments or God grants us right is not only false, it’s hypocritical as well; by their very nature, governments and religions are ferocious opponents of people standing up for themselves. There can be only one winner between the desire to enforce obedience and the individual desire to protect himself against this enforcement. Freedom or authority, equality or hierarchy, are not multiple choice questions.
People rightly see the issue of rights as fundamental, and this is why we all think that our particular conception of rights proves our political worldviews. There are basically three types of such conceptions: rights as created by some exterior determinism, rights as emerging from custom, and rights as immutable natural laws. The latter view is eloquently expressed by Lysander Spooner in his Natural Law:
Natural law, natural justice, being a principle that is naturally applicable and adequate to the rightful settlement of every possible controversy that can arise among men; being, too, the only standard by which any controversy whatever, between man and man, can be rightfully settled; being a principle whose protection every man demands for himself, whether he is willing to accord it to others, or not; being also an immutable principle, one that is always and everywhere the same, in all ages and nations; being self-evidently necessary in all times and places; being so entirely impartial and equitable towards all; so indispensable to the peace of mankind everywhere; so vital to the safety and welfare of every human being; being, too so easily learned, so generally known, and so easily maintained by such voluntary associations as all honest men can readily and rightfully form for that purpose…
In his famous book Mutual Aid, Piotr Kropotkin also recognized that mutual aid was a “law of nature,” arguing from the plentiful evidence from biology and evolution that man evolved primarily as a sociable animal. This fact has been “rediscovered” so often since then that the mass of evidence accumulated on this topic is irrefutable.
Both men are referring to innate morality, our knowledge of right and wrong, which is the result of the process of evolution, like all other traits of an organism. This is, therefore, the true origins of rights: although they need society to find their full expression, rights ultimately originate in the biological nature of man, as it evolved under the social systems of prior species as well as prehistoric man.
Many people contend that natural law or natural rights cannot exist because they can’t save us from being the victim of a crime. If they can’t act in the world, then the concept of a natural law must be absolutely useless. Comparisons are often made with other physical laws such as the law of gravity, which supposedly acts in the world and therefore actually does exist.
A right is a theoretical construct, like laws. Laws do not protect you from crimes. Only force can protect you from a specific crime, and only a society organized along egalitarian lines can reduce crime as a whole. To say that natural law is flawed because it cannot protect from crimes is as inane as saying that State law is flawed because it cannot protect from crimes. Even from a statist standpoint, it is the police that “protects” us from crimes, not “the law.” Writing on pieces of paper, and principles that exist in the mind, do not act. People act.
Analogies with the physical world fail also. It is not “the law of gravity” that kills you when you fall from a great height, but the fact that you fell from a great height and hit the ground at a given velocity. “The law of gravity” is just an equation, an idea, a writing, and does not interact with you when you fall. Only actual objects can do so.
What befuddles the people who claim that natural law does not exist, therefore, is their profound ontological confusion, their inability to distinguish between a concept or principle and an object.
When we state that all persons have the right to life, we are stating a proposition that is no more or less factual than the proposition that objects fall down. Both propositions can be tested by observation. The concept of human rights is tested by examining our moral instincts:
Through all time, so far as history informs us, wherever mankind have attempted to live in peace with each other, both the natural instincts, and the collective wisdom of the human race, have acknowledged and prescribed, as an indispensable condition, obedience to this one only universal obligation: viz., that each should live honestly towards every other.
The ancient maxim makes the sum of a man’s legal duty to his fellow men to be simply this: “to live honestly, to hurt no one, to give to every one his due.”
Many people oppose natural rights because they are portrayed as universal. In their opinion, such a concept is hostile to freedom because it supposedly prescribes universal rules over personal preferences. The Anarchist does not deny that people should be free to live in the way they prefer: if some people are particularly violent, they are free to live that violence with each other. However, these people would be a very small minority indeed. In a free society, the belief in violence would be aberrant, not normal as it is today.
Someone may point out that rights themselves involve violence, and therefore contradict what I just said. Not at all: in fact, the best way to fulfill the purpose of rights (to protect the individual’s freedom) is by building a social structure and social institutions which makes the exercise of rights unnecessary. Anarchists are not keen to use force to stop crime, but they are very keen to create a society where the motivations for crime disappear.