As I believe the adoptions of human rights to be possible only at the tip of a conceptual amelioration, I’ve decided to roughly trace the component of dignity, liberty, and equality as benchmarks for understanding the evolution of concepts and lay out my findings here. The reader may be able to more neatly organize these ideas and map a pattern of development. Please forgive the seemingly drunken stagger of ideas, as I did not pour enough time into this. 😉 Charting memes—insofar as it implies a more thorough understanding—seems a legitimate path toward prosocial outcomes.
Claude Lefort describes rights as unfolding in an irreducible space between power and law and knowledge, and therefore incapable of foundation (Arendt, 2006). The idea that rights are unfolding suggests they are in motion through time, evolving in response to shifts in power, laws being redefined, and the proliferation of knowledge and liberation of deeper truths. Indeed, it is through processes of evolution that the conceptual groundwork for rights has been developed, and perhaps this structural procedure reflects powerful overarching biological human imperatives. Language, it is worth mentioning, is the primary vehicle used to describe subjective experiences from which we can distill shared truths.
Dignity as a preeminent human rights component emerges in various forms of historical narrative and though it does not provide a complete picture of human rights’ foundations, it operates in union with other core aspects like equality and liberty. We consider dignity a foundational concept of human rights largely because it is so clearly and repeatedly articulated in the language of international legal instruments. Cruft (2009) states that “human rights are grounded in universal interests, each one possessing an equal moral status arising from their common humanity,” espousing self-interested view of human nature reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes and Benjamin Tucker. A rationalist approach to dignity, most influentially introduced in Immanuel Kant’s 1785 Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals, sees humans as ends in themselves, driven by personal agency whose value is not relative to anything, but transcendent; that is, with a purely moral dimension. The popular acceptance of this Kantian theory hints at an important aspect of the human condition, that we have the capacity to recognize truths, a crucial discernment we acquire throughout various life experiences.
Religious voices use theistic accounts of dignity to express how a relationship with God provides a basis for human worth. The Catholic notion, for example, that the dignity of a person or one’s respect for the dignity in others is rooted in respect for God, is embedded in the fabric of popular culture (John 4:19–21). In the eastern tradition of Buddhism, dignity is associated with proximity to perfection, a divine state embodied by the Buddha that manifests itself in moderate action and doing no harm. Respect for human worth, however, needs not be anchored in reverence for a deity. Though strengthened by aspirations to self-perfection, the realization of respect for dignity is achieved through the inherent recognition of its truth, which has been articulated within the language of human rights in secular traditions as well. In the essay “On the Immortality of the Soul,” David Hume describes faith and scripture as recourse to Truth, respecting an individual’s capacity of self-determination, a conviction honoring the notion of human rights and the innate capability to discern transcendental truths from subjective bias. It must be addressed that, despite humanity capacity to discern truth from falsehood and therefore identify objectively with human rights concepts, a universal realization of rights remains far removed from our practical realities. The failure to respect human rights does not stem from the illegitimacy of concepts like dignity, but are the result of flawed human capacities. The failure to accurately discern truth from falsehood can be the result of inadequate intellectual development, emotional inhibitions, insufficient experience, and many other possible shortcomings each person experiences individually.
Equality motivates and grounds influential speech and action on its way to merging with other core human right elements. Linguistic elaborations on the value of equality are easily identified in Western political tradition, positioning it as a core element in the foundation of human rights. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Aspirations to equality are echoed in the preamble of the United States Declaration of Independence and are the first right enumerated by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.
A shared recognition of the truth in equality may stem, in part, from the predominantly symmetrical aspects of the biological and visual world, around which human neuro-capacities have been shaped. In his study of early man’s first demonstrable concern with symmetry, more than 500,000 years ago, Derek Hodgeson (2011) explains how symmetry “appears to provide a useful means by which the visual world can be encoded for the purpose of efficient recognition” serving “an early warning signal that something of interest may need to be attended to.” Similarly, the values of reciprocity and justice demonstrate an observable human will toward equilibrium. The desire to right wrongs and achieve symmetry also speaks to the self-perfection religious teachings tend to venerate and inspire. Evolutionary explanations of how humans developed a sense of justice are explored by Allan Gibbard (1982), who makes an important point, “we are concerned with justice as something to practice and defend, not merely as something to understand.” Indeed, the experiential practice of justice dating far back in recorded human history demonstrates an imperative not motivated exclusively by concepts, but by subjective emotions, impressions, passions, and biological realities. There is much more that can be said about biology, symmetry, and the role of neuro-cognition in human’s ability to recognize objective patterns, which undoubtedly contribute to a more thorough understanding of the origin of rights. Unfortunately, such an exploration exceeds the scope of this work.
In David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which became popular after his death, he describes passions as overarching guides of human behavior, inborn characteristics such as a mother’s innate love for her children. The popular stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger encouraged the notion of equality by writing in his letter “Slaves” that he values slaves as people for their character rather than judging them for their jobs, and he advocates for treating them “with compassion, even with courtesy” (Lopate, 1994). Cicero, who was widely acquainted with stoic philosophers, reflected the same notion with respect to political justice in his widely-read works, On the Laws, and likely had impacted subsequent positive law formulations. The human desire for equality, realized by a recognition of universal and inherent dignity and a natural propensity toward symmetry, has been formulated on subtle and nuanced foundations; a phenomenological study has the potential to quantify Hume and Seneca’s assertions and shed more definitive light on the nature of equality. Meanwhile it is safe to conclude equality is a crucial concept to the foundation of human rights.
Liberty, conceived as a right, has taken on numerous morphologies. Epictetus describes that even a man in bondage is not in bondage if he does not believe himself so. Conversely, it can also be argued that a man unaware of that which binds him, is bound nevertheless. In both instances, understandings of liberty are filtered through individual perception, and therefore subject to bias. During the American Revolution, numerous appeals to the notion of liberty reasoned from natural law demonstrate human rights as coming from objective human experiences. For example, in 1776, Richard Price published Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty: The Principles of Government and the Justice and Policy of the War with America, a best-selling pamphlet that explicitly advocated the idea that every member of society has a natural and unalienable right to liberty.
Through personal liberty, social contract theory and reason are brought together explicitly by Immanuel Kant’s articulation of a legitimate government through personal liberty: he described a legitimate government as necessarily having a covenant with citizens based on three principles:
- 1. The liberty of every member of the society as a man.
- 2. The equality of every member of the society with every other, as a subject.
- 3. The self-dependency of every member of the commonwealth, as a citizen.
Rights, Kant believed, follow from an individual’s personal agency. The set of principles, then, illustrates that where human rights are violated a contract is broken and a government is no longer legitimate, congruent with John Locke’s conclusion. This influential idea was widely-read, and is, at least in an influential sense, part of the foundation for modern human rights conceptualization.
Other Conceptual Events
Political movements that underpin modern conceptions of human rights have been motivated by the idea of inalienability, on which the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson elaborated directly in his An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), influencing an anti-slavery agenda in in the British Empire before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and in America before the 13th Amendment of 1864.
Inalienability has been reinforced as a core concept of human rights through rational legal arguments that reasonably reflect on the human experience. For example, to the United States Supreme Court, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase defended John van Zandt in a famous case regarding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by saying: “the law of the Creator, which invests every human being with an inalienable title to freedom, cannot be repealed by any interior law which asserts that man is property” (Tutu, 2015). The belief that human worth, as a consequence of man’s special relationship with God, is immutable and inexorable, strengthens the overall foundation of rights but ought not to be the only grounds on which inalienability legitimized.
This submission would be remiss if it did not mention Life itself as a core human rights concept. The social contract, as articulated by Thomas Hobbes, emphasizes a right to life by describing a chaotic natural state where, along with basic self-interest, self-preservation is at stake; that is, until government fills citizens’ basic needs. John Locke later emphasized the imminent logical conclusion: a governance is illegitimate if it breaches this social contract. The value placed on life itself is derived primarily from the shared struggle for survival, a concept best explained in the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, and subsequent evolutionary studies of nature. This paper argues that living itself is an objective reality shared by all humans, and life, therefore, becomes a primary concern for the language of universal rights.
A phenomenologically oriented approach undertaken by Hannah Arendt, perhaps more obscure-philosophical than modern-scientific, informs us that natality is the foundation of human rights; as representative not only of a physical event but also a “linguistic birth” (Birmingham, 2006). The power of human rights lies in its articulation and proliferation through a common language that conveys ideas inherently understood as true based on objective patterns distilled from a multitude of subjective experiences. A deeper look at the origins of these core concepts reveals a complex interplay of biology, subjective perception, and shared experience that cannot be summarily explained by faith-based assertions. The majority of countries in the world recognize the human rights foundation formalized in the United Nations, even if the progressive realization of the rights is plagued by delay and philosophical disagreement. By recognizing the inherent truth of human dignity, equality, and liberty, humanity demonstrates an ability to discern fact from falsehood—a capability which has evolved over time partly because of theoretical contributions, emerging from different experiential contexts throughout history and building upon each other in an evolutionary process.