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Human Rights: What Are They, and How Do We Know Them When We See Them?


An important thing worth remembering is that protecting life is not solely a religious or political issue -- it is a human rights issue. To have rights is to be human, and to be human is to have rights. That much is not disputed; however, how do we know what a human right is when we see one? Where do human rights come from?

On 10 December 1948, a list of human rights was compiled by the UN General Assembly: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document and new group, the United Nations, were formed as a result of World War II: a vow never to allow a repeated assault on human life and dignity. The document states that: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." It then states that all humans are entitled to these rights, "without distinction of any kind," ruling out exceptions of race, gender, or any other distinguishing characteristic.

The first way to tell a human right: it's universal. Everyone has it. If everyone has it, then a human right must come from something universally shared. Over the centuries, there have been four main sources that scholars have presented: God, nature, pragmatism, and empathy.

The first, God, was the source of human rights in classical thought, and also to those today who subscribe to an Abrahamic religion. According to Genesis, human beings were created in the "image and likeness" of God; in His eyes, humans are "very good," which means that humans are elevated to a status that requires inherent respect.

Since not everyone is affiliated with one of these religions, we are led to the second source: nature. As stated above, to be human is to have rights. Something every human being shares is natural law: a congenital code governing our actions, especially with regard to how we treat one another. Another word for it is conscience. For as long as humans have walked the earth, each one of us has carried a shared sense of right and wrong. For example, it is as wrong in Russia to murder a child as it is to murder in England; this infringes on the rights to life and security of person. While a victim's surviving loved ones might not use the Declaration's technical phraseology to describe the injustice, those are two human rights that murder violates. Every person, regardless of nationality, knows it.

Still, natural law belongs to a classical school of thought, which turns us to the third source: pragmatism. Democracies are more successful than illiberal regimes; the United States, for example, has more power than North Korea. At this time, the US is not performing forced abortions as the Chinese. Steven Mosher, an American anthropologist who exposed this practice, is now banned from China and, if he is seen there, he is to be castrated on the spot. While China is gaining in global power, it is weaker in other ways, with people fleeing for better opportunities in education and work, or immolating themselves in the streets. Even with its own political fractions, the US is still arguably more intact and peaceful domestically than countries that oppress women, withhold from citizens adequate food, or censor media outlets (in more extreme ways than American media).

The final source of human rights stems from empathy. Akin to natural law, it is something inborn. It is necessary for humanity's survival. In her 2008 commencement speech at Harvard University, J.K. Rowling said: "Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise [sic] with humans whose experiences we have never shared." Empathy, stemming from the "uniquely human capacity" of imagination, engenders a global sense of unity. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, thousands of people from all parts of the world sent condolence letters to his widow, Jacqueline. Most people have experienced grief on some level; while not everyone knows what it is like to be First Lady of the United States, those who wrote to her knew what it is like to lose a loved one to death, and they were able to imagine -- to a degree -- how difficult it might be to survive the trauma of an assassination, especially with the level of violence Mrs. Kennedy endured. A squirrel in Dallas would have scattered at the sound of the gunshots, but would not have thought twice about the people in the car, let alone to write a letter of condolence to a widow.

In the same way, the average American may not have ever starved, especially not at the hands of an oppressive government, but that same American knows what it's like to be hungry -- even if it's just waiting for an after-school snack. Naturally, when a commercial comes on the television promoting donations for starving children in Ecuador, that person is filled with a sense of injustice and may consider donating. Empathy -- the ability to understand without fully knowing or experiencing -- drives humans to know a violation against the human person.

A second basic way to know a human right is that, without it, no other human rights are possible. For example, if a person is being denied adequate food, they cannot practice free speech. If they cannot practice free speech, they cannot speak up to their government that is repressing and starving them.

There are two basic types of human rights: civil or political rights, and economic rights. Civil or political rights are so-called "negative" rights because they withhold governments or other institutions from infringing on them. Economic rights are "positive" rights because they are to be government- or institution-supported.

Civil rights include "freedom of thought, conscience and religion," "freedom of opinion and expression," and "freedom of peaceful assembly and association," to name a few commonly-known ones. Economic rights include "a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [a person's self] and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." Again, these are just a few of the fundamental human rights set out by the Declaration. (See "REFERENCES" below for the full Declaration.)

People debate over which group of rights are more important. Those in favor of economic rights use Maslow's Hierarchy for support. If a person does not have health, housing, or an appropriate standard of living, how can they want to belong to an association or care much about practicing a religion? Others in favor of civil rights would argue that even having economic rights is not enough to uphold the dignity of the human person; if a person has clothing, but is unable to associate with others freely or hold an opinion without having a gun against their back, how is life worth living? It is merely existing.

Ultimately it comes down to the fact that each human life -- unborn or on a deathbed -- shares equal dignity and deserves equal respect. Consistent ethic of life is the summation of all human rights and sources: the right to a secure life is indiscriminate, and to live is to be worthy.


Haas, Mark. “Human Rights.” Current Problems in International Relations. Duquesne U. 10 Dec. 2011. Lecture.

“History of the Document.” United Nations. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.

The Holy Bible. Rev. Standard Vers. Catholic ed. New York: Oxford U Press, 2004. Print.

Mosher, Steven. “The Hidden Costs of Abortion.” SEEK 2013. Swan Resort, Orlando. 4 Jan. 2013. Lecture.

Rowling, J.K. “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.” Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association. Harvard U. June 2008. Print. Speech transcript.

UN General Assembly. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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