What are Human Rights, and Where do They Come From?

Has anyone else noticed that – at least in the minds of many – our list of “basic human rights” has expanded in recent years? I’m thinking specifically about the ongoing debates over healthcare reform, gay marriage, and the availability of contraception and abortions. For example:

“Affordable healthcare is a right, not a privilege.”

“Everyone has the right to marry the person they love, regardless of sexual orientation.”

“Allowing religious institutions to opt out of providing health coverage for contraception is a violation of women’s reproductive rights.”

These kinds of statements are rampant, yet we seldom hear anyone stop to define exactly what they mean when they say something is a “right”. Clearly they don’t mean legal rights, at least not as the law is currently written. They seem instead to be appealing to something more fundamental to our human existence.

The next obvious question: Where do these rights come from?

“Think of this great flaming phrase: “certain inalienable rights.” Who gives the rights? The state? Then they are not inalienable because the state can change them and take them away. Where do the rights come from? [Jefferson and others] understood that they were founding the country upon the concept that goes back into the Judeo-Christian thinking that there is Someone there who gave the inalienable rights.” -Francis Schaeffer

Unfortunately, I suspect that much of what’s being defined as “human rights” these days is really nothing more than the personal desires of the individual making the claim. Isn’t it just a LITTLE absurd, after all, to suggest that every human is born with the right to an affordable, government-approved health insurance plan? Surely this must come as shocking news to the billions of people who haven’t been raised with our entitled first-world mindset.

Perhaps in a few years we’ll be arguing over the “basic human right to a smartphone”…

See also:

It Is Human Nature That People Are Corruptible

The Federal Gov’t Isn’t #1 In Our Lives


18 thoughts on “What are Human Rights, and Where do They Come From?

  1. Do I have the right to a 20 foot bass boat with a 250 HP Merc — paid for by the gov? And after I get that I have some more rights I would like to claim. Really a thoughtful posting, Matt. Thanks.

  2. Yeah… folks are obsessed with their wants/rights…. If you get the chance check out a book called The Marketing of Evil . . . great book which addresses this concept of “rights” as a marketing technique to promote agendas….

  3. The truth is, we are the source of our own rights. They do not have an objective existence. They do not come from God or Buddha or any kind of sublime character. They are merely social conventions that have been dogmatized over the years so that anyone who questions them is ostracized. They are a form of secular dogma. They have no source other than our own desires and thoughts. But I agree with your post. Many of these rights that people are beginning to claim are not rights, unless they somehow justify them under the 9th amendment.

  4. the rights of life, liberty and the prusit of happiness are granted to all men by their creator. The other rights are outlined in the constitutions’ bill of rights. The constitution is our protection from the government and sadly that same government usurps the constitution more every day. But we do have the “right” to reject this government in favor of one that will secure those rights granted by our creator.

  5. im not sure we have any rights, to be honest. i love God with all my heart, and have put my faith in His word, and not been disappointed. but i dont think that He gave us certain inalienable rights. rather, these constitutional rights were designed to protect us from the government, as bop2112 pointed out, spelled out by people beginning a new government.

    merriam-webster thesaurus puts it like this

    right – noun
    1 something to which one has a just claim
    Synonyms appanage (also apanage), birthright, prerogative

    Related Words call, dibs, due, entitlement, perquisite, pretense (or pretence), pretension, privilege

    2 an entitlement to something
    Synonyms call, dibs, pretense (or pretence), pretension, right

    Related Words birthright, prerogative, title; favor, privilege; refusal

    Near Antonyms disclaimer, quitclaim, release, waiver

    3 the practice of giving to others what is their due
    Synonyms equity, fair shake, right

    Related Words equitability, equitableness, evenhandedness, fair-mindedness, fairness, impartiality; goodness, righteousness, virtue; honor, integrity, uprightness

    Near Antonyms bias, one-sidedness, partiality, prejudice; unfairness, unjustness, wrongfulness; corruption, impropiety; crime, offense (or offence), wrongdoing; disservice, harm

    Antonyms inequity, injustice, raw deal, wrong

    as a Christian, i believe Christ purchased rights for me before God. but as a human, i dont know that the bible backs up any rights i may have among men. if a right is an inborn entitlement … then are we all entitled? and if so, to what are we entitled? must we first agree on those entitlements before we can enforce them? gets back to who defines them and who decides what is a right and what is a privilege. God has given us the right to choose. that is the one right i see.

    • we are not losing our rights, but our freedom. but it is only our freedom to worship publicly. no one can prevent you from worshipping God, testifying of Jesus, or proclaiming your faith.

    • I was thinking in terms to our rights as in the Bill of Rights, which give us the freedom to worship, yes publicly, anyway we so desire.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed your post although I would have liked to see you continue on with the source of rights. I am a little perplexed by some of the comments made. I am reading that we are the source of our own rights (not sure what that means), to those that would accept the existence of God and His creative power yet purport that our rights have nothing to do with that reality.

    If there is no objective source of rights and we are the source of our own rights, is there any limit to or parameters of our rights? And are those rights universal or limited to those lucky few born in this country?

    • we have to define the terms before we can really discuss the matter at length. i think ‘rights; for an american mean the freedom to do smething and be protected or defended by the government. gay marriage rights, for example. it really isnt the right to marry whom they choose that they seek. it os the right to expect the goverment to recognize and give equal benefits to those who have married someone of the same sex as themselves. the birth control issue is about expecting the government to provide or ensure provision of birth control to the specified ages of females desired by those who seek the ‘right’. i believe another word that would suffice would be ‘entitlement’.

      in a country where human life is considered valuable, we feel we have the right to expect certain things as given … such as the right to life, the right to live, the right to choose, the right to speak freely. are these are these given by God? if they are, then surely the Bible would teach it. but the Bible teaches us to seek those things which are above, and all these other things here will be added to us. it doesnt really address what we do and dont have a right to. the idea is to get our eyes off ourselves.

      politically, its a whole different ball of wax. ask this question in syria right now and see what answers you get. if they are allowed to answer. try china, or north korea. they are people just as we are. do they have basic human rights? what are basic human rights? who has the right to decide?

  7. I would just add another angle regarding health care. First understand I am not a fan of the way our “new and improved” heatlh care has been set up. However having said that, I think basic health care IS a right for all. Just because all do not have it does not mean we should not try for it. And by health care I am not saying issues that cross religious boundaries such as the HHS mandate. I just mean the basics. Keeping people alive and comfortable as possible whether we feel that they “deserve” it or not. I would suggest that is a part of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in my view. Not facelifts either by the way–“Nip and tuck” are not universal rights even if some think they should be hehe. I do feel we need to provide protection for those with legitimate medical needs though. And I think it is likely at least many of the Founding Fathers would agree. They could not have envisioned a day when such things as MRI’s or chemo would be common, so the best we can do is to guess, as intelligently as possible, what they would have considered saving “life” to be. I think that would have included basic health needs for each person. Again, not suggesting that the way this plan has been set up is perfect, it certainly is not. But I worry when Christians do not feel that it is even important. And that is not directed at you, Matt. I know you care deeply for all people. Just my 10 cents.

    • I more or less agree with the core of what you’re saying; my differences are mostly grammatical. I do think that we should do absolutely everything in our power to provide medical care for those in need…but I’m hesitant to use the word “right”.

      Part of it might just have to do with what we mean by the word (is it “something that should reasonably be expected”, or “something that’s owed to us by society”?). Part of it might have to do with some of the glaring disparities that pop up when we apply the language of “rights” to healthcare. Does a sick American have a right to a $300,000 cancer treatment any more than a sick African has a right to a $20 treatment for malaria?

    • whether its a right, or we are entitled to it by virtue of being alive and on the planet, or not … i would love to see everyone have access to health care. so, how do we go about implementing that on a global scale?

    • I think we need to frame the term “right” to mean “high priority aspiration”. That takes care of the semantic issue with international economic disparities. I think the African with Malaria and the American with Cancer have equal “right” to healthcare. That doesn’t mean they will necessarily obtain the full use of these rights (anymore than I could obtain the full use of my right to life- perhaps someone will accidentally kill me!), but it’s a high priority.

      I also don’t think we can restrict our definition of “rights” just because someone less fortunate can’t always have access to them, because then societies would never aspire to a higher standard of human dignity. I don’t think it’s good to invoke the “poor African” image every time we want to do something more with our society.

      On a related note, take a look here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbkSRLYSojo

    • “I think we need to frame the term “right” to mean “high priority aspiration”.”

      That pretty much covers the main point I was trying to get at: namely, stopping to define the term “right”. Clarity of language matters a LOT in this case.

      Given this definition, then, doesn’t my smartphone comparison seem realistic? If our rights are derived from our own aspirations, then how does one distinguish between “human rights” and “petty desires”. How is the line drawn?

  8. The way to tell the difference between unalienable rights and entitlements is to ask yourself if anyone else has to give up anything at all for you to have a right to something. For freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, petition, keeping and bearing of arms, due process, protection against unreasonable search and seizure, etc…these don’t cost or infringe upon anybody else for you to have them. The Founders were careful to adhere to this concept of “free” rights in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They were very careful not to impose compulsion or confiscation upon any class of citizens in order to bestow a right upon another class of citizens. They fully understood human nature, and that is why the Constitution is still fully relevent today, and original intent is so important to discern.

    Entitlements aren’t unalienable rights and they aren’t “free” rights, they’re statutory rights granted by legislation. And quite frankly, they’re the slippery slope to socialism. If you want to read the speech that represents America’s political turning point that opened the floodgates of class envy and attitudes of entitlement, please read FDR’s January 11th 1944 State of the Union Address, which is also called the Economic Bill of Rights, or the Second Bill of Rights. There were earlier political beginnings of the progressive/entitlement movement from the 2nd incarnation of Teddy Roosevelt and from Woodrow Wilson, but this FDR speech was the real catalyst that popularized the utopian’s “equality of outcome” distortion of the Founder’s original philosophies of “equality before God” and “equality of opportunity.”

    I addressed these ideas in my first two blog articles 3 months ago (about a week before you posted this article, Matt). If you’re interested, they’re called:
    It Is Human Nature That People Are Corruptable, and
    The Federal Gov’t Isn’t #1 In Our Lives.

    Take care,
    – Jeff

    • Thanks for the links to your articles! I’m going to go ahead and add them at the bottom of my post, if you don’t mind.

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