Human Rights Were Not Invented

Human Rights Were Not Invented

Tibor R. Machan

Professor Lynn Hunt’s recently published book is titled Inventing Human
Rights and though it is full of very useful information about the
emergence of the idea of basic human, individual rights, it also
perpetuates, perhaps entirely unconsciously, a very serious error.

Moral and political ideas are not all that different from ones in the
various sciences. Based on better and better information about the world,
various new concepts need to be formed. Electrons, for example, hadn’t
been identified until after atoms were. The prefrontal lobe wasn’t known
until instruments were created that helped to search the brain thoroughly
enough to take a comprehensive inventory of its innumerable parts.
Initially all that was known is that there is a brain and only gradually
did its busy life and large number of attributes and properties come into
focus.

In morality something similar happens. From early times it has been clear
enough that some kinds of conduct are morally wrong and that some are
right. Broadly speaking, whatever promotes the human life of an individual
is right, whatever thwarts it wrong. But the details were slow to come to
light. Politically, too, the concept of justice was in place quite early
in human history—an institution or policy is just if it secures what is
deserved among human beings. But this isn’t enough to take account of the
many details of the idea of justice. In time—starting quite a long time
ago, actually—it gradually became clear that human beings have certain
rights, based on their nature, which then provided a fuller understanding
of justice.

But, of course, there is a problem with all this. Unlike in the physical
sciences, in normative spheres there is a great deal of disagreement, some
if not most of it stemming from the input from those who want to undermine
the very notion of basic norms of human life. So even if at some point
human rights had been discovered—not invented—there were many who didn’t
welcome this fact and mounted all sorts of ways to obscure it. A little of
this can also been detected in even the hardest science, such as physics,
chemistry or astronomy. But in the area of morality and politics it is far
more prevalent since the basis of these areas of focus are more
complicated and widely disputed.

One way to undermine a moral concept, of course, is to maintain that it is
merely an invention, a fabrication that serves not to help us understand
how to lead a human life but merely to further some special interest.
Accordingly, for example, Karl Marx and his followers argued that the
human right to private property was invented so as to aid the ruling
bourgeois classes to obtain and hold control of other people.

Judging by her book I doubt that Professor Hunt had this same agenda up
her sleeve. I am sure, however, that the claim that human rights are an
invention plays into the hands of those who would just as soon dismiss
these rights as being without any basis in facts of reality but simply a
concocted myth—or, as Jeremy Bentham characterized them, "nonsense upon
stilts."

In the case of Dr. Hunt, who teaches history at UCLA, there is another way
that the status of human rights is undermined. She makes a lot of the fact
that the Declaration of Independence associates our basic rights with
self-evidence. If they were self-evident, as she claims the Founders said
they were, then they need not be argued for. A self-evident fact needs no
proof. Thus the fact of the existence of the universe needs no proof—any
effort to prove it would already acknowledge that it is true. That’s why
it is a self-evident truth.

What the Declaration states, of course, is that "We hold these truths to
be self-evident," not that they are self-evident. And for purposes of a
brief, succinct, inspiring announcement—a declaration—that’s all that is
needed, namely, to treat those truths as if they were (that is, to hold
them to be), self-evident. In fact, however, they are anything but. Just
as John Locke and all of his followers who have labored long and hard to
prove that these rights knew this well and good. The existence of our
rights must be demonstrated, shown. It’s not enough to assume them.

Dr. Hunt, however, claims that the Founders believed that it is
self-evident that we have these rights and proposes that they function,
therefore, as religious truths based on faith, not as discoveries—as
inventions not as something real. But this will not wash. Over the
centuries basic human rights were gradually identified, as a result of a
better and better knowledge of human community life and its role in human
affairs. So by now we know that all of us have these rights in our
communities, apart from some rare cases of crucially incapacitated people.
And we can therefore confidently state, for example, that a country in
which these rights are not acknowledged and protected fails at being fully
just.

It would have been only prudent for Dr. Hunt to have seen the matter along
such lines. As it is, she is aiding and abetting those who want to support
regimes wherein human rights are violated, left and right. If they are a
mere invention, what could be wrong with that?

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