Human rights were first formally spelled out in the Magna Carta of 1215 (we are marking its 800 year anniversary), a forced agreement between King John and a group of rebel English barons. So it was human rights, but like rights in more modern times, it didn’t include all humans, only the barons and the king.
When Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke began their frequently acerbic written debate about such things, in the era of American Independence, one of the primary disagreements between liberals and conservatives was first defined, about rights. This is a dispute that is very much alive today. In essence, Burke thought that human rights were not a contract between people, but a function of a long social history. Sudden change to grant new rights risked the loss of these “sentimental attachments”. Paine believed in “natural rights” from a time before society, which had begun to be defined by earlier Enlightenment thinkers.
In my view,
human rights are a
completely artificial construct.
Personally, I don’t agree with either of these positions. In my view, human rights are a completely artificial construct, that cannot be found by going back to first principles. There was never a time when humans (or even animals of any species) lived outside of their social setting, and therefore when we claim there was this previous natural setting, we err. In that respect, my view is more in agreement with Burke’s. Burke also believed that revolution was the worst thing that could happen, and I agree that it should only be a very last resort, and even then, results may vary.
But Burke, in my opinion, had far too much faith in the wisdom of society as it existed. Even though there was egregious inequality in his day, he thought that time would improve all, and change that was too rapid would throw out the baby with the bath water. This reluctance to change is characteristic of conservatives today. But Burke’s idea of the proper pace of change was rather like the flow of glass you see in the windows of old houses. Most of us have “sentimental attachments” to places and people—but not to injustice, and that’s what Paine objected to. Equality and justice did not exist for large parts of the English population—they had no “sentimental attachment” to inequality—but Burke was content to wait indefinitely for history to change that. Paine was not, nor am I. He wanted to define human rights as natural and universal, and thought that any government that did not honor them could not be valid. I’m much more aligned with Paine in this way.
We stand a better chance
of reaching a useful agreement
when we define what rights should be.
I think that we stand a better chance of reaching a useful agreement about what human rights are when we attempt to define what they should be, regardless of whether they are “natural”. In the long history of democracy, the idea that there should be no slavery is a recent development, but human life was greatly improved when it was agreed that slavery could not be part of the just society. But an agreement does not make it so.
Slavery was abolished by Lincoln, but full respect of the rights of former slaves was honored only after long battles, and the fight continues even today. It took a campaign lasting decades for women to gain the vote, because they were considered inferior to men (by men), and incapable of understanding government. Later ML King led the campaign to demand civil rights for all. Are we done yet?
Many people think that there should be
restrictions on people who are not heterosexual.
Not at all. Many people today think that there should be restrictions on the 5% or so of all people who are not completely heterosexual, which comes to nearly 16-million people in the US. These deniers are people who believe that alternative sexuality is a choice that one can make, although there is not a single person of their 300+ million who could choose to change, and not one of those 16-million did choose. They believe that any deviation from complete heterosexuality should be grounds to deny the routine human rights that others enjoy, not unlike discrimination because of race or religion. Among these are marriage, equality of rights under the law, and the right to be with one’s partner. (For example, hospitals have cruelly denied visiting rights to dying homosexual partners who have been together for decades, and partners have been denied common legal and financial rights in various circumstances.) At this point it appears that the slow progress of history will eventually win out over the rights deniers, but a few good court rulings would speed things along.
Burke’s great weakness, in my opinion, was that he failed to appreciate that correction of social evils is not something that can be put off until the glacial progress of “natural” social change finally got around to it. Correction of the conditions that deny common rights to any group of people is not something that can wait, no matter the “fondness” for the status quo, because every day that they are denied brings additional burdens to those affected, and the effect is often cruel, and sometimes so terrible it costs lives.
Rights are not a product
of society as it exists,
but of a universal yearning
for the fairest society there could be.
Enlightenment thinkers were naive in imagining there was a time before society. We, in fact, declare that our rights are universal, because by very broad agreement among many nations and billions of people, the absence of any of them lessens the quality of human life. It is far better to have a list that includes unmet rights than to neglect defining them at all, because rights are not a product of society as it exists, as Burke believed, but of a universal yearning for the fairest society there could be.