I have been thinking about the topic of human rights lately. Victor Reppert has raised the issue recently, first by pointing out an article in The Guardian from 2010 titled Do human rights exist? that denies the existence of human rights, as if to note the absurdity of the idea, and then writing a short post of his own that continues the same line of reasoning. Victor says:
We might ask what evidence there is that rights exist. You have a feeling that everyone ought to be treated equally. Isn't that just your social conditioning? If you grew up in India, and were raised to believe that people occupy different positions in the caste system based on the Law of Karma, wouldn't you think that the idea that everyone was created (or evolved?) equal was slightly ridiculous? - ReppertIt is clear, at least in Victor's case, that this is intended as a kind of satire. Victor is slaying two dragons with one arrow. First, he seems to be ridiculing the notion that human rights might not exist, since they are self-evident by his way of thinking, even if some cultures may not agree. Second, if you can accept that argument, then you can agree with him that John Loftus' Outsider Test for Faith is faulty as well. I won't address the merits of Loftus' OTF in this article, but I would like to consider the question of human rights.
I think it's worth first looking at human rights from a historical perspective, to get an idea of how universal the concept is. Many articles you can find on the Web tell us that the Magna Carta of 1215 marks the first emergence of the idea that people should have some kind of rights enshrined in law. Actually, there is one notable precursor. In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great who conquered territories that became the Persian Empire, in an effort to assimilate those territories, made some inroads toward the recognition of certain rights of the conquered people, including racial equality and allowing freedom of religion. These rights are preserved in writing on the "Cyrus Cylinder", which may have been somewhat influential in the cultures of India and Greece. But that influence doesn't seem to have had much of an impact in Europe. Throughout the dark ages in Europe, the were no human rights to speak of. People lived and died at the mercy of their feudal lords.
Even the Magna Carta only applied to "free people" in England. But it was a significant milestone in the establishment of secular constitutional law. It separated government from religion, and the king was no longer seen as the sole arbiter of the rights of his subjects. The Petition of Right, in 1628, set further constitutional limits on the power of the king by establishing additional civil liberties. The 18th century ushered in the Age of Enlightenment, which most notably influenced secular thinkers to declare the existence of (God-given) natural rights in the Declaration of Independence, produce the the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and enshrine civil rights in the US Constitution. Of course, those rights still didn't extend to slaves.
In 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which applies to all human beings, and has served as a model for the constitutional laws of various democratic nations. Its preamble says:
Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people ... All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. - The Universal Declaration of Human RightsSo what does history tell is about the existence of human rights? First, it is clear that for most of the history of mankind, there were no universally established human rights to speak of. Second, when rights were codified, it was a consequence of moral outrage or dissatisfaction against conditions that were prevalent at the time. Third, the establishment of rights has always been an action of government, especially secular governments - not of religious institutions. I will address these points briefly.
It seems evident that the concept of human rights is an extension of human morality. Basic morality is a naturally evolved aspect of human behavior, but is subject to influence by cultural and societal norms. It is the norms of culture that often place economic or other needs ahead of any universal recognition of human rights, and so we see institutions like slavery and all manner of barbaric behavior toward others, that come to be accepted within a given culture. For those living in such a culture, even if they are the ones subjected to inequitable treatment, it may be viewed as their way of life, and even regarded as being morally correct. This is evident today, for example, in the second-class treatment of women in Islamic societies, and its moral acceptance by those women.
But it is that evolved sense of basic morality that sometimes ventures outside those cultural norms, and recalls the instinctive feelings of conscience that guide our behavior toward social cooperation. This sense of conscience is what spurred the Magna Carta and other historic declarations of human rights, as well as the abolition of slavery in most modern societies. And just as is the case with moral truths (as I discuss in this article), there is no objective existence of human rights. Rather, the existence of human rights is a matter of opinion. In many cultures in our history, there simply was no notion of human rights. In some cultures there was a limited acceptance of rights that didn't apply equally to all people. And in much of modern society, we have the notion that human rights are self-evident, in the same way that our understanding of moral facts is often regarded as objective truth. Typically, this belief translates to the idea that they are granted by God. But the reality is that they are a reflection of our culturally-influenced beliefs.
That does not imply that there are, or that there should be no human rights. Reppert's understanding that naturalism implies an absence of human rights (as well as morality) is simply wrong. We evolved as social creatures who survived best in a cooperative society. And that evolutionary background doesn't just vanish when society adopts religious beliefs that ascribe our sense of morality to God. We may abandon parts of our sense of morality when certain economic and cultural influences come to dominate our behavior and our beliefs, but in the long run, especially when our more basic needs are met, we return to the moral instincts that are part of our nature. And it isn't religious belief that brings those instincts to the front. That should be obvious from the absence of human rights during the dark ages, when Christian belief dominated society in Europe.
When human rights are recognized by society, it is mankind making that recognition, and through human institutions of authority and government, we grant those rights to our fellow humans. While religious people like Victor think that it is absurd to think that human rights could exist in a naturalistic world, a realistic look at history reveals that it is absurd to think that religion has played any significant role in the establishment of human rights, but much more reasonable to make a such a link with secular governmental institutions. Human rights exist because enlightened people believe they should.