What are Human Rights? I see people questioning…

What are Human Rights?

I see people questioning the very idea of "human rights", usually on the basis of a misunderstanding of just what a "right" is. They ask questions like "where do rights come from", as if there must be some authority that makes "rights", and absent such an authority, there are no rights.

These are conceptual confusions, a product of a failure to educate ourselves in basic civics. So let's learn some political theory together!

A right is something that a community thinks is necessary for that community to be just. Rights are the duties that the society owes its members in order to respect their basic dignity, humanity, and autonomy. For instance, we think we have a right to free speech. This right doesn't "come from" anywhere; instead, this is a value our society holds. If we were to stop stop respecting the people's right to speak freely, we've explicitly come to a consensus that this would go against our collective values. If we start repressing free speech, we are in some important sense derelict in our duties to the public. So, for instance, when China violates human rights through internet censorship, the US will openly declare this to be a violation of human rights, and will urge them to change their ways.

There is no "objective list" of what these rights are, and they aren't eternal handed down from some absolute authority. Nevertheless, there are a series of rights that are acknowledged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the official UN document that is signed and endorsed by all its member states. The UDHR lists 30 distinct articles including both positive and negative rights.

You can read the whole Declaration here:


The preamble gives a great introduction to what a right is, how it is justified, and what reasons there are for these particular rights.

The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction."

You can read more about what rights are included in the declaration, including the distinctions between positive and negative rights, here:



The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

PREAMBLE. Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,. Whereas …

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