Being Human? Essay, Research Paper
Do people have some rights just by being human?
This question is concerned with whether or not it is possible for ‘natural rights’ to exist. ‘Natural’ rights are rights which we have ‘naturally’ as humans, in other words rights which we inherently have, just by being human. A large problem with answering this question is that of defining the term ‘rights’, a question to which the answer has been very elusive throughout the history of political analysis. The following investigation into the possibility of ‘natural rights’ will begin with an attempt to create a working definition of a rights, and will then proceed to examine the essence of humanity and the roots of what is a ‘right’, to see if it is possible to have a ‘right’ simply by being human. Questions concerning society, freedom and morality will all be seen to arise, and will be dealt with accordingly.
A most important attempt at defining rights is Richard Dworkin’s metaphor of ‘Rights as Trumps’. This is essentially comparing a rights to a trump in a card game, one which overrides what would otherwise have one the hand. Put in a political scenario, this metaphor functions as thus: Society may have and hold a set of rules and laws imposing on and restricting individuals behaviour. A right is something to which the individual is entitled that will be ensured over and above the civil laws and rules of the land. The existence of these rights is a way that individuals have a degree of sovereignty over the state, where civil laws are the tools of the state’s sovereignty over individuals. This balance should create a situation which is morally justifiable.
A problem with this doctrine when it comes to ‘natural rights’, however, is the reliance on the existence of society to provide a definition of a right. A ‘natural right’ is one which should be able to be derived without the existence of a society, since it should be inherently clear from our humanity. It is possible to conceive of a situation in which a human being exists outside of society, indeed many philosophies are based on there having been a pre-social period of human existence. Although this is dubitable, it is important to justify a natural right through examining a single human being, since it is in the essence of humanity where the ‘natural right’ must be found.
Another problem with this attempt at a definition of rights, is that it puts little emphasis of the importance of morality when making statements about rights. Dworkin’s thesis defines a right without reference to any morals, yet any judgement over rights is almost always a moral judgement. It shall be seen that any investigation of rights boils down to a moral investigation, and this presents significant problems. These shall be tackled at a later stage, but first this analysis will see how deep it is possible to penetrate the question of ‘natural rights’ without drifting into moral arguments.
The historically most significant way of justifying ‘natural rights’ is through statement such as ‘Men are born free’. This kind of statement, although not explicit in stating a ‘right’ as such, nevertheless has been the root of a number of political institutions, such as the French and American revolutions. The statement above implies an inherent equality and freedom in mankind, and this has been taken by scholars to means that it implies certain ‘natural rights’. Equality is seen from the implication of statements such as the one above that there is no reason for society to arbitrarily assign a certain individual higher status – from the colour of their skin, gender, or situation into which they were born.
Possible objections to the use of statements such as these are rarely publicly voiced, as they would seem to clash with what seems to be the basis of any just society, yet it is not difficult to find problems with assumptions like ‘men are born equal’. Firstly, and perhaps most significantly, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that this statement is true. If anything, evidence shows that humans have widely varying attributes such as intelligence, physical ability, beauty, etc. Also, it could be argued that the statement by no means implies equality – the statement is simply a moral picture of what the world should be, but in actual fact is not, like. Therefore, as this statement is not a reflection of what human kind actually is, it is then not possible to derive the existence of ‘natural rights’ from it, as any conclusion must be of the form: It is morally desirable that mankind should have natural rights. This does not mean that there are natural rights, simply because we are human.
A more detailed examination of natural rights can be done by scrutinising a pre-social individual – a hypothetical human who exists on his own. It must be seen whether or not it is possible to derive any ‘rights’ from this person’s existence alone, and any rights thus derived are clearly ‘natural’. One common definition of what it is to be human is that humans have free will. Clearly, this individual who lives in the world by himself has this attribute – he is capable of choice, and therefore has a degree of freedom. This does beg the question, however, of whether or not the fact that this man is inherently free due to his capability of choice means that he has the right to be free. Many political philosophers point this out as the one right that can best be described as ‘natural’. This assertion shall be scrutinised here.
The right to freedom, although it immediately appears to be a very desirable attribute for any individual to have and for any society to guarantee, upon further examination proves to be more controversial. Firstly, a definition of freedom is required, and this question alone has created veritable mountains of philosophical argument. For simplicity’s sake, here, the definition of the right to freedom shall be the right to be without obstacle to fulfil one’s wants. This raises several questions which cast doubts on the practicality of speaking of an inherent ‘right to freedom’.
Firstly, there is the question of internal obstacles to fulfilling one’s wants. Internal obstacles are those such as weak-heartedness and selfishness which must be overcome when trying to achieve some long-term, higher goal. It would seem that these obstacles, as they deal with conflict in one’s own wants, are irrelevant to the question of rights, although they do have a bearing on freedom. To solve this problem it is necessary to leave out internal barriers from our definition of freedom when discuss a human’s right to freedom.
The second such problem is that it may be, in some circumstances, for society to be morally justified in placing external barriers to an individuals freedom. This is a fundamental problem, as can be seen by referring back to the original definition and purpose of a right as stated above. If a right is a ‘trump’ that protects against state oppression, and is by definition morally correct, then it can not be the case that it is possible for the state to be morally justified in violating an individual’s right to freedom. This does seem to raise doubts that it is justifiable to speak of a ‘natural’ right to freedom.
This final point seems to show that it is impossible to proceed in our discussion of natural rights without beginning to make moral statements. It can be seen that in every case of conflict between rights of individuals, and civil laws, there is a moral assumption over what is most beneficial for society. This reflects the fact that most society function on a form of utilitarianism, where the greatest good for the greatest number generally seems to be the aim of state and society. This is not followed in its strictest from, but when making judgements over whether or not it is allowable for a form of the right to freedom to be violated, it is generally investigated to see if more people in the society will benefit from the violation of that individual’s rights. One example is traffic codes. The restriction on any individual from driving however they please, although a violation of their right to freedom, creates greater safety for a great number of people, and thus is morally desirable.
As can be seen, then, the discussion of natural rights is an inherently moral one. Moral question create fierce arguments, as it is nearly impossible to define a complete set of definite moral standards, taking into account different cultures and conflicting beliefs and interests. It is possible, however, to take the investigation of natural rights a fair distance before reaching the trap of making moral statements. It can be seen that a right, although it is only functional as protection against state oppression, can be derived from that existence of a single individual, in the form of the right to freedom. This does raise many other questions about freedom in general, and how it is possible to relate the roles of the individual and society using the rights of an individual and the laws of society.