The true civilization is where every man gives to every other every right he claims for himself.
There is a modern debate that is ongoing between different views of human rights and law in contemporary society. Essentially the debate has two fundamentally opposing points-of-view. On the one side are those who view certain human rights as intrinsic to the meaning of being human and inalienable for all humanity, regardless of any external social, political or legal influences. This is generally referred to as natural human rights. On the other hand there is a general and opposing viewpoint that human rights are not essential or intrinsic, but rather socially and legally created and determined. To complicate the debate there are various stances and points-of-view that include elements of both these arguments.
Central to this debate is another more subtle debate that underlies the different views of human rights. While the cardinal question of what it means to be human is related to philosophical and ethical issues, it should be pointed out at the outset that the debate on human rights - particularly natural or basic human rights - is intertwined and interconnected with other issues such as historical views about the importance of society vs. The individual and religion. I will also argue in this paper that one of the central aspects that inspire this debate is the change from a religious or theocratic culture to that of a secular society. The fact that the western world has tended to become progressively secular or materialistic over the past two centuries has had an enormous impact on various issues. This applies in particular to the manner in which people interpret the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled and the way we perceive ourselves in a world that should uphold the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law.
The two main opposing views of human rights are expressed by a continual debate between various scholars in the field. For example, in an article written by Delos B. McKown, entitled "Demythologizing Natural Human Rights," he advanced the view that human rights possess no independent existence "they are mere creatures of law that "are neither immutable nor permanent." (Grant, R)
In opposition to this idea we have yet another point-of-view, which states that human rights are basic in that they are inalienable and fundamental to human existence and the meaning of human nature. In direct response to the above assertion, Tibor R. Machan wrote the article "Are Human Rights Real?" In which he denies McKown's proposition. Machan insisted that human rights are unalienable and inherent in human nature, concluding that "without the 'borders' of basic human rights defined between individuals, people would be able to harm others or rob them of their achievements all too easily." (ibid) The debate has continued with another scholar, Anselm Atkins, in an article entitled "Human Rights Are Cultural Artifacts." In this article he rejects the idea of inherent human rights from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. Atkins argued that "a right is... something furnished, granted to, or bestowed upon someone. It comes from outside -- something 'extra' to the being." He concludes his analogy as follows: "Philosophically, the only way to found or establish such a thing as a 'natural right' is to presuppose a god who bestows and secures such rights. In the absence of a god, there can be no natural rights." (ibid)
More recently an article by Fred Edwards, entitled, "Advance of Human Rights," published in the November/December 1998 edition of The Humanist, puts forward the following evidence:
that the whole concept of human rights as we know it is an extremely late development in human history -- scarcely older than the seventeenth century -- and that, even within this context, the idea was "applied in but a few small parts of the globe to a chosen few" until around the middle of the twentieth century." (ibid)
As can be seen from this brief overview, the debate is ongoing and includes various aspects from different disciplines and schools of thought. However, the central fulcrum around which these arguments rotate is the dissention between those who feel that human rights are intrinsic or natural and those who feel that human rights are human creations, which are dependent on other factors such as society and law that overrides the idea of natural rights.
What are basic human rights?
Basic human rights usually refer to the right to life, liberty and happiness. These rights are sometimes extended but commonly include aspects such as the right to freedom and self-determination; the right to self-defense, and so on. These rights centre on aspects that are common to all humanity as human beings; which presents a problem in that there are various differences in contemporary interpretations of human nature.
One definition of natural or basic human rights is the following: "Human rights or natural rights, are rights that some hold to be "inalienable" and belonging to all humans, according to natural law. The word inalienable means incapable of being repudiated or transferred to another" or "not subject to forfeiture "(Onelook)
This quotation refers to the all-important term 'inalienable', which in essence means these are human rights that are not determined by any outside agency or aspects such as social or political factors. These are rights intrinsic to each human being or nature itself. For those who support the idea of natural human rights, these rights are deemed to be essential and important to the very existence of human society and for the continuance of freedom within society. "Such rights are thought, by proponents, to be necessary for freedom and the maintenance of a "reasonable" quality of life. (Wikipedia: human rights)
Scholars in his field also point out that without basic human rights human societies face a very real danger of being dominated by those who have power and who can manipulate the laws to suit their own ends. In other words, it is very important for the idea of individual freedom to maintain and argue for the notion of basic or natural human rights, which are inalienable. The following quotation points out the consequences of not viewing certain rights as inalienable.
What is being denied by the negative statement that certain rights are not alienable? Human beings living in organized societies under civil government have many rights that are conferred upon them by the laws of the state, and sometimes by its constitution. These are usually called civil rights, legal rights, or constitutional rights. This indicates their source. It also indicates that these rights, which are conferred by constitutional provisions or by the positive enactment of man-made laws, can be revoked or nullified by the same power or authority that instituted them in the first place. They are alienable rights. The giver can take them away.
Inalienable means "not able to be removed." Therefore, inalienable rights cannot be interfered with by those who might use the law for expedient purposes. Basic human rights then assume a certain moral fixity or gravity, which defies any attempts to revoke these laws. "Their existence as natural endowments gives them moral authority even when they lack legal force or legal sanction. Their moral authority imposes moral obligations, which may or may not be respected or fulfilled." (ibid)
The idea of natural law formed an essential part of Anglo-American common law. "In the struggles between Parliament and the monarchy, Parliament often made reference to the Fundamental Laws of England, which embodied natural law since time immemorial and set limits on the power of the monarchy. The concept of natural law was expressed in the English Bill of Rights and the United States Declaration of Independence." (ibid) From a theological perspective The Roman Catholic Church understands natural law to be immanent in nature.
The idea of natural law is also related to Libertarianism, which is a political philosophy that advocates individual rights and a limited government. "Libertarians believe individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon the equal rights of others." (Wikipedia: Libertarianism)
Natural law is essentially based on the fundamental premise of the existence of ethics and morals that are greater or extend beyond mankind. In order to fully acknowledge human rights as 'natural' one has to understand these rights as being 'discovered," rather than created by man. Human rights, which are created by man are extrinsic or outside natural human rights and created by legal systems, ethics and philosophy. Natural laws are laws that "seek more to discover a truth that is considered to exist independent and outside of the legal process itself, rather than simply to declare or apply a principle whose origin is inside the legal system. " (ibid)
However, on the other side of the debate there is a very different view of human rights. This viewpoint stresses that the idea of inalienable human…