The Human Rights Campaign Documentary, What Are Human Rights, included a narration describing the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):
“Human rights were born. The idea spread quickly, to Greece, to India, and eventually, to Rome. They noticed that people naturally followed certain laws, even if they weren’t told to. They called this ‘natural law’…”
Watch the video: Human Rights Defined.
According to the video, “natural law” eventually evolved into “natural rights,” which is directly related to civil rights and human rights on several levels. The problem is, everyone seems to have their own interpretation of what constitutes “natural law.” In his book, Political Theory: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary and Classic Terms, Scott Hammond points out multiple different perceptions of what “natural law” can mean.
Some people believe they’re the divine rights each human is entitled to “because of our status as creatures of God.” In other words, we have the right to equality because we were all “created equal” by God. (This gets tricky when we consider free will.)
Some people go so far as to say that the political system is a creation of God and that “human beings give their consent [to authority] because it is natural for them to do so.”
Cicero said that natural law was “nothing less than “right reason,” meaning that everyone has their own system of morality and that they’ll act and live according to the “ability of their own intellect.”
Jeremy Bentham “rejected any moral or legal principle incompatible with the doctrine of utility,” which meant that “all values are to be traced back to the expansion of pleasure and the reduction of pain.” So basically, if it makes me happy to kill you, am I maximizing utility? Probably not, since your murder will likely hurt a lot more people than it’s going to make me, as one individual person, feel good.
John Stuart Mill believed that we should behave according to what’s going to yield the greatest amount of happiness for everyone. So even if killing you would make me happy, it would make a bunch more people sad and therefore, I shouldn’t do it.
This gets a little bit into the “nature vs. nurture” debate, which I’ll try to avoid here, but in the paraphrased words of Aristotle, every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good, and for this reason, the good has rightly been declared that at which all things aim. I love this because it expresses a belief that people are inherently good (which, okay, yeah, is super debatable, but just go with it). We can go further and talk about how there are even different interpretations of what is “good,” right? (This rabbit hole gets pretty deep.)
Thomas Hobbes’s theory actually opposes Aristotle’s. He said that by nature, you and I are not friends. He claimed that naturally, we’re actually enemies. You are simply an obstacle for me to overcome so that I can venture on my path to self-interest and personal gain. (I give this guy the “most depressing philosophy” award for his negative, skeptical, evil combination of Machiavellianism, natural selection, and Ayn Rand’s objectivism.)
When I think of “natural law,” however, I think of laws that should just come naturally for people to follow, instinctively. I think of the things that are really difficult for the opposition to argue. For example, no one’s ever going to make us believe that sexually molesting children is a good thing, right? No one is ever going to convince us that slavery has a place in nature. And we can’t imagine a valid argument for rape, regardless of how “legitimate” Todd Akin thinks it is. You don’t force someone into marriage. You don’t let your neighbors starve. You don’t intentionally abuse and oppress people. It’s not quantum physics, right?
So when it comes to ‘natural law,’ I don’t believe God’s presence is absolutely necessary to reinforce it. I don’t think people shouldn’t do certain things simple because they’re afraid that if they do, they’ll go to Hell. They just do it naturally. Does a child know the threat of God? If not, how do you explain his kindness? How can he possibly be kind without someone promising him a fiery eternity in the absence of his kindness? And yet, he’s still kind.
It’s actually crazy to me that we haven’t evolved beyond the repercussion motive—regardless of our religious beliefs—and just do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. I believe people should act according to their own moral compass and if that fails them, then it’s time for justice to step in. Ah, justice. There’s another one of those vague words again. The line between just and unjust is so blurry sometimes that it’s exhausting. Personally, I encourage a little civil disobedience when it’s in order. (Which is pretty frequently.)
As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail cell, “One may ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
I use King because he believed that the rights for which he fought impacted the people fighting for rights all over the world. He truly believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And sure, he was an activist for “civil rights,” but is there really a difference? He might as well have been advocating natural rights, right? Or human rights. For me, they’re all the same, and I’m inclined to use them interchangeably based on my interpretation of them.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Civil rights are personal rights guaranteed and protected by the U.S. Constitution and federal laws enacted by Congress, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.”
Here are some that they list:
- FREEDOM OF SPEECH
- THE RIGHT TO VOTE
- DUE PROCESS OF LAW
- EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAWS
- PROTECTION FROM UNLAWFUL DISCRIMINATION
Sound familiar? Sounds an awful lot like the Magna Carta and all those other documents we’ve discussed. By the way, to my friends in same-sex relationships, did you catch that last one? See, sometimes (like the UDHR), we don’t really adequately enforce the “rights” we put on pieces of paper. So, it’s up to small people like you and me to bring these inconsistencies to the attention of bigger people until the necessary changes are implemented.
Here are some good ways to get started in the right direction:
- Be politically educated.
- Stay informed about current events.
- Use the rights you currently have to their fullest extent.
- Call your representatives out.
- Spread social awareness to shed light on the injustices you witness.
- Don’t be a dick.
Click here to learn all about the human rights you probably never even knew you had!