‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
United States Declaration of Independence
Laws declaring some protections and freedoms to be ‘human rights’ are very recent – only about 200 years old. Historically, most have endured different legal treatment based on their age, social background, race, or gender. The idea that every human being should have equal legal protection of their basic needs is built on humanist ideas from 18th-century Europe, but it draws on ideas from other parts of the world too.
Human rights are commonly understood to be fundamental rights to which every person should inherently be entitled, simply because of the fact that they are a human being. They are often considered to be inalienable: they cannot and should not be taken away.
Protections commonly found in human rights instruments include the rights to life, liberty, and security, prohibitions on torture and slavery, right to a fair trial and the rule of law. Other rights, which might be qualified with certain exceptions, include the right to private and family life, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of assembly and association. Human rights conventions, declarations, and acts are attempts to stand against inequalities and guarantee the decent treatment of all human beings.
Why should we support human rights?
Human rights may be a man-made invention and therefore have no natural foundation. However, there are good reasons to support them as a way to enable human flourishing. Some might defend them on utilitarian grounds, as a way to promote the happiness of the greatest number. The veil of ignorance thought experiment also provides an argument for human rights, as most people would prefer a society in which certain freedoms and entitlements existed regardless of their gender, race, or the position they held within society. Human rights are instruments that have been created to protect those goods that we have identified through collaborative reasoning about what makes a just society.
Not everyone supports human rights. Some criticise the notion that certain rights should be seen as universal and inalienable. This might be because they are relativists who don’t think that what is right for some is necessarily right for all. They might, similarly, dislike the fact that human rights laws can prevent democratically-elected governments from behaving in certain ways, and so could hamper the will of the people. Human rights defenders, while supporting democracy, would argue that such laws are a necessary protection against the tyranny of the majority over vulnerable minorities. Other critics tend to attack specific rights, often using evidence from cases in which human rights laws have led to results of which they do not approve, for example where they have worked to the benefit of terrorists or other criminals. However, many humanists would argue that for us to reap the benefits of human rights, they have to apply to everyone.
Rights relating to religion and belief
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.’
Human Rights Act 1998, Article 9
Within their campaigning work, humanist organisations focus to a large extent on freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression. Both are necessary simply in order for humanists to manifest their beliefs in the first place. Human rights give a status in society to humanism as a ‘religion or belief’. Humanists believe everyone should have the right to hold and manifest whichever religious or non-religious beliefs they want, so long as they do no harm to others, and that should include the right to change one’s beliefs.
A particularly contentious area where this is important is the freedom of religion or belief for children, and as a result humanists place particular emphasis on children’s rights. Humanists believe children should be given enough information to be able to determine their own beliefs, and this is reflected in many international human rights instruments, particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, other instruments, such as the European Court of Human Rights, give parents the right to determine the nature of their children’s religious upbringing, at least until children are old enough to decide their own beliefs, so there is a tension between competing rights here.
There are other occasions when different rights are seen to come into conflict. When this is the case, the law seeks to balance competing rights by assessing who is experiencing the most harm. This often leads to a perception that the rights of LGBT people, for instance, trump those of religious people, in that, for example, religious couples are not allowed to refuse bed and breakfast services to a same-sex couple that requests it. But, in fact, the issues involved cut both ways: a same-sex couple running a B&B would similarly not be able to refuse any religious customers. Humanist groups support this approach.
Question: Do human rights improve society?