Either way, universal human rights are essential for human flourishing.
The Declaration of Independence says “all men are created equal”—“endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”—because of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Trees exist whether human societies exist or not. But money doesn’t exist outside of human societies. Money is a social construct.
Are human rights also a social construct?
In the twenty-first century the word “natural” has a scientific connotation. But it hasn’t always been understood that way. Jefferson’s perspective about what is natural is theological.
Human rights in a secular world
A secular basis for universal human rights, however, raises a question: How tenable is the idea of universal human rights if human rights are social constructs, but social constructs are not universal because they depend on culture?
Human rights are more compelling when we see them as independent of any particular government or culture—your rights are still your rights even if your government doesn’t respect them.
Jefferson’s argument is that rights come from God. This provides a basis for saying that human rights are universal. But in a secular context, perhaps the closest we can come to universality is the argument that human rights should be universal because societies that respect human rights maximize human flourishing better than societies that oppress people.
Human rights & human flourishing
To show that human rights maximize human flourishing, I start with some basic observations that are true of everyone everywhere:
- No one wants to suffer. Sadomasochists seek pleasure. People who punish themselves do so to stop the greater suffering of guilt. Even psychopaths don’t want to suffer — they just lack empathy.
- “You shouldn’t do that to me” is often our first moral impulse.
- “You shouldn’t do that to people I love” is also a universal moral impulse.
- But “I shouldn’t do that to you” is frequently an afterthought.
The only society that can maximize human flourishing is one that seeks to minimize the suffering of every individual. And the best way to fulfill every person’s sensibility that “you shouldn’t do that to me or to the people I love” is to incentivize the belief that “I shouldn’t do that to you.”
Universal human rights are the best way to recognize our responsibilities to each other, thereby maximizing human flourishing.
Living in a state of nature
English philosopher John Locke was a huge influence on Thomas Jefferson and other United States founders who produced The Declaration of Independence and subsequent constitution.
Locke claimed that in a state of nature, without societies or governments, people “are perfectly free to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and themselves, in any way they like, without asking anyone’s permission — subject only to limits set by the law of nature.” He goes on to write that nature “is also a state of equality, in which no-one has more power and authority than anyone else.”
Governmental and societal power structures are social constructs, not products of nature like trees are. But what can stop governments from becoming tyrannical?
Power structures—even “might makes right”—are artificial. Counteracting the artificial with another artificial structure—universal human rights—is the most effective way to preserve what is natural—the lack of artificial constraints on our freedom to order our actions as we choose.
Equal rights, equal responsibilities
Of course, if you believe human rights come from God then these rights are not artificial. Either way, rights only works as a two-way street: when doing what we want, we must stop short of imposing ourselves on others.
Rights are rooted in responsibilities. That is, our recognition of other people’s rights is first and foremost about what we won’t do—we won’t impose ourselves on others.
And rights do not extend to insisting that other people give us things or do things for us. So while a gay couple has the right to marry, they don’t have the right to insist that a Christian baker participate in their wedding.