We hear much talk of human rights in the media and among people so inclined to discuss political and human events. Nevertheless, do people really know just what human rights are? When asked most people simply make a list. They cite the freedom of speech as a human right or the freedom to assemble peaceably. They can list any number of things that they believe to be 'basic human rights' but lists are rarely if ever exhaustive. Few can actually define the term. Surely we can do better than Justice Stewart's "I know it when I see it" in the US Supreme Court decision of Jacobellis v. Ohio. Moreover, just what is a 'basic' human right? Are there 'advanced' human rights? I would say not. So then, what we really have are just 'human rights.' Nevertheless, what is the definition of human rights? What systematic method may we use to determine what falls under this banner? I would propose the following definition:
Those essential qualities intrinsic to the individual by virtue of existence, which are possessed and exercised independently of others.
I have little doubt many people will believe this to be an insufficient definition or perhaps just wrong. However, I would appreciate a fair hearing on the merits. Let us start by breaking down the definition into its component parts. "Those essential qualities..." What do I mean by that? Essential, necessary, of highest importance and most elemental of features. Qualities are characteristics that make up the indispensable identifying nature of the human ethos. The human animal and human rights are so interwoven and melded that one simply cannot be separated from the other and thus we have:
"...intrinsic to the individual..." Part of the very nature of the individual. Inseparable from the individual. Why the individual? Because it must be the individual. If there were only a single human being on the entire face of the planet, would that individual have human rights? I say most emphatically, yes! Furthermore, human beings have the exact same human rights and can exercise them in totality whether there be one or one hundred trillion human beings in existence. Each and every individual has human rights inherently and intrinsically. But why is this so?
"...by virtue of existence..." It is simply so by definition. Human beings have human rights. Nothing can change that. They may be trampled. They may be forgotten. They may be denied. They may be unrecognized by whatever authority exists but they exist nonetheless. Because you are human. Because I am human. Because we are human.
"...which is possessed and exercised..." I say possessed and exercised because it is pointless to posit the individual has rights and then deny that he can exercise them. As in the possession of human rights, if there were a single individual, that individual can completely possess and exercise his or her human rights in totality. To demand that others must participate in order to exercise a right in effect denies the individual right exists which brings us to:
"...independently of others." This will be the real sticking point for some. Rights are individual. They of a necessity must be. If another person or entity is required for the exercise of a certain right, then that right is dependent upon that other person or entity. That other person or entity can then remove or impart that particular human right. I would posit here, also, that there is no such thing as 'group rights.' For example, a group cannot have the right to free speech if no one in the group can speak. If the individual cannot speak on his own, who then empowers the individual to speak for the group? Could it be from some outside authority? But rights do not proceed from some outside authority else they be given and taken at the will of that outside authority. Could it be the cumulative authority of the group? Absolutely not. A group of humans has no more moral authority than any single human. To posit otherwise is simply to proceed under the ill-fated tenet that 'might makes right.' Rights proceed from the individual. They are intrinsic to and inseparable from the individual. This of a necessity must be true else, human rights can be given and taken at will by whoever is deemed by himself or others to be empowered to do so. However, groups may yet exercise human rights. Individuals already possessing the right of free speech may assemble to propagate a certain message, to work together towards a common goal and share the fruits of exercising their individual human rights.
Three Categories of Human Rights
Now that we have a working definition of human rights, we can go about determining just what specific human rights exist; of just what exactly our rights consist. I would posit we have three rights from which all others spring. These would be the right to life, liberty and property. These are, I suppose, blatantly stolen from Locke although he proposed a fourth right which I do not.
The right to life would seem self-explanatory but it may not be. Each human is a separate entity unto himself or herself. Each human is sovereign in and of himself or herself. Once we exist, through whatever means, we have life and no entity has the just authority to end that life save through forfeiture of the one who lives it. Notice I say "just" authority. Most people have heard the phrase, "the end justifies the means." Many things are done and attempted under color of authority. However, authority, no matter whence it comes and no matter what the intent or aim, cannot go about unjustly curtailing anyone's human rights and yet do so in a just manner. This may seem obvious upon first reflection but it is not. While most would eschew such a philosophy as "the end justifies the means" if asked publicly, many of us, if not all, engage in such practice as suits us from time to time while out of the public eye.
Liberty is the freedom to act or think without coercion from any other entity, be that entity an individual or group. Liberty is the most elemental of freedoms; the most necessary and basic part of an existence based in freedom. In the beginning, organized society was intended to secure human rights; to protect the individual from those who would unjustly constrain one's rights. This is so even though the idea of human rights was not actually recognized at the time. The effect desired was to protect these rights. It has much more often than not ensured the opposite. Man has striven for freedom, for self-determination, for independence from unjust governmental and societal authority for most of history and yet freedom from this unjust authority is something we in the United States take largely for granted. We assume our liberties and freedoms will always be protected. History declares such a belief to be pure folly and yet most persist in it.
Is property really a human right? The answer is yes and no. One does not have a right to own property. What I mean by property is that once one justly owns private property then that one has a right to be secure in that property, to know that no individual or group can use color of authority to take it unjustly. This is one of the most ignored, unrecognized and violated rights in our society. Sure, everyone knows that if one owns a home that home is his and cannot be taken without what our constitution and laws call due process. Well, at least we used to know that. With the Supreme Court decision of Kelo v. City of New London, real estate may essentially be taken from anyone when the government can show a likely increase in tax revenues from transferring real property from one private owner to another private owner. However, I am not only talking about real estate. Private property is everything one has under his ownership or in his possession that has been justly obtained. This includes real estate, automobiles, clothing, cash, labor, time and anything else of value or not to the owner. In this sense, property is the totality of every resource at the disposal and under the just authority of the individual owner.
How Our View of Human Rights Impacts Government
What does all this have to do with government? Everything. The understanding of human rights is the very foundation of the concept of government. It determines what the government can and cannot justly do; what authority that government may wield; what actions that government may or may not take. One's concept of human rights parallels one's concept of government. It determines what one believes to be the proper role and function of government. For instance, recently US Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor was asked during her confirmation hearings the following question: "Do I [the questioner] have a right to personal self defense?" What was her answer? ""that is sort of an abstract question with no particular meaning to me outside the law." Outside the law? This struck me profoundly causing me to contemplate the broader implications of her answer. Perhaps if Justice Sotomayor would revisit the subject she would clarify her answer and make it clear my conclusion is less than accurate but nonetheless she seems to be saying that rights are dependent upon the law. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human rights precede the law. The law actually proceeds from our view of human rights, or more accurately, our understanding of ethics that proceeds from our understanding of human rights. Therefore, the progression we have is this: Our understanding of human rights leads to our understanding of ethics, which leads to our formulation of the law.
In order to formulate law we must first institute government. The single most important role of any government is to secure the rights and freedoms of the citizen. By doing this, the government secures each individual's human rights. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" This was a radical idea at the time and stated as a refutation of the widely accepted theory of the "Divine Right of Kings." In keeping with this ideal, the government must secure rights and freedoms equally among all citizens. Concurrent with this, the government cannot justly secure the rights of one citizen at the expense of the rights of another. While it may seem obvious that this cannot be done while keeping all rights equal, this concept has severe consequences for government.
Critical to the formulation of government is the origin of its power and authority. The only just government, and thus the only government that can truly secure the rights of the citizen, is a government based on the consent of the governed. This is hardly a novel idea but it is true nonetheless. The power and authority of government is gained through the consent of the individual. When giving this consent, the individual loans or confers a portion of his or her human rights to the government. This is the one and only just source of government authority. Therefore, a just government can only do what each individual has the right to do him or herself. No individual has the right to violate another's rights. In addition, no individual has the right to secure his or her own rights at the expense of another's rights. Therefore, government cannot justly secure the right of one citizen at the expense of another's rights. This applies to groups of citizens as well. Government cannot justly secure the rights of one group at the expense of another group's rights. Since all men are created equal, no individual and thus no government can justly treat individuals or groups differently.