Digital Freedom Network has a piece by Luke Thomas on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Specifically Thomas addresses how the signatory nations bridged some deep philosophical divides in order to arrive at the finished document, but in the course of the discussion he mentions something that Viewpoint has questioned in the past and wishes to do so in this instance as well. First some groundwork:
The preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states:
And Article 1 of the UDHR reads:
Thomas provides a gloss on these passages:
He then goes on to quote a philosopher named Jack Donnelly:
As Donnelly sees it, Thomas explains, human rights arise from human action. Donnelly categorically denies that they originate from a deity, society, or nature. Instead, "human rights represent a social choice of a particular moral vision of human potentiality." Donnelly argues that man has profound potential for good towards others and for themselves, a "moral vision" or "potentiality" as he describes it. That potentiality can swing in a number of directions, but under the guidelines of an appropriate moral vision towards dignity and worth, it can largely be used for good. Thus, "human rights are a social practice that aims to realize a particular vision of human dignity and potential by institutionalizing basic rights."
Now here's the problem. When one cuts through the verbal undergrowth it turns out that the ascription of human rights to persons is purely arbitrary. It represents a mere "social choice" based upon the signatories' particular "moral vision" which is, of course, different for different people. Human rights turn out to be nothing more than words on paper. They're not grounded in anything more solid than the subjective preference of the authors of those words. If the writers had other preferences they would've come up with a different set of human "rights", or none at all.
In other words, if we want to live a life which has some dignity, we have to enjoy certain rights, but there's no right, nor can there be, to dignity itself. The dignity of the individual is an arbitrary value in the hands of the state. There's no reason, beyond the preference of those who hold power, why a state should care about the dignity of its citizens. Thus the rights which make dignity possible are contingent upon the whim of the state which grants them.
In this view, human rights can be nothing more than mere conventions. Contrary to the UDHR preamble, they don't really inhere in persons at all. They are not inalienable. If the government is the source of our rights then government can easily strip us of them, and should they do so, they would be doing nothing for which they could be reproached. The state is under no obligation to provide for the dignity of its citizens, and is therefore under no obligation to grant "human rights".
This is a considerably different picture of rights than that envisioned by the Founding Fathers, and the reason for the difference is not hard to spot. Donnelly may deny that rights originate from a deity, but the Fathers, following John Locke and others, were convinced otherwise. They realized that unless human rights and human dignity were grounded in something beyond human predilections, unless they had roots in the firm soil of transcendence, they were simply empty concepts hanging on sky hooks anchored in nothing.
John Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government, which exerted such powerful influence upon the Founding Fathers almost a century after its publication, wrote this:
Locke is telling us that we have dignity only because we are made by the Creator of the universe, in His image. We are loved by Him and belong to Him. That is what gives us value. We have a right not to be harmed because no one has the right to harm what belongs to God, and they do so at their eternal peril.
Thomas Jefferson incorporates this same understanding of the source of our rights into the Declaration of Independence where he writes that "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."
If Donnelly is right then Locke and Jefferson are wrong, and God is not the basis for our rights nor our dignity. But if that is true, then human dignity and human rights are mere illusions, empty conceits, hollow words that we comfort ourselves with to mask the truth that we are just ephemeral gobs of mud and blood, with no significance or value, in a vast, empty universe that laughs at our pretensions to "rights" and "dignity".
If Donnelly is correct then the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights is like a bunch of children saying "Let's play make-believe. Let's pretend that we have rights." Everything goes well with this make-believe fantasy until someone says that he doesn't want to play the game any more and then the fantasy collapses.
The attempt to ground human rights in something other than the transcendent is doomed to failure and frustration, and any rights not so grounded are chimerical. They have no reality, no substance. They are mirages of oases in the moral desert that is the history of human oppression.