We know where legal rights come from: legal systems! (Which is not to say that it’s trivial to identify legal systems. But it’s a problem for the philosophy of law, which is a different course.)
What about human rights? Those are supposed to be prior to legal rights. No tyrant can overturn human rights through legislation or executive order. Or so we say.
The most obvious place to begin is with the natural law tradition. After looking at a series of representative claims from this tradition of thought, we read a more contemporary exponent (Maritain) and critic (MacDonald).
The problems with the natural law tradition boil down to three rough questions:
- Is there really an essential human nature with the features claimed by the natural law tradition?
- If there were, why it follow that it dictates what we must do? Contrast: learning about human nature shows us what human beings are capable of doing.
- If there were such an essence, how do we know what it is and what it requires us to do? How would we settle disagreements, for instance?
Part of the interest in the article by Hart that we’re reading next is that he argues for what he calls a natural right in a way that seems to avoid these problems.
The natural law tradition draws on some views about human nature and its relationship to ethics that are broadly drawn from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. For some brief, but telling, criticism of these views, see Bernard Williams, Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (1972), chapter seven.
Like Patrick, I find the fact that these pieces were written immediately after World War II very interesting. Those people had lived through a terrible time when, among other things, they confronted a stark moral conflict.
There was a very interesting debate among anthropologists at about the same time over the idea of a universal declaration of human rights. In fact, the professional association, the American Anthropological Association, came out against the UDHR. Their reasons for doing so, as well as the reactions they provoked, make for great reading. Here are some links that should take you to the relevant article and letters on JSTOR, provided you are using a campus network account.
- “Statement on Human Rights” American Anthropologist 49, no. 4 (1947): 539-43. [JSTOR]
- Barnett, H. G. “On Science and Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 50, no. 2 (1948): 352-55. [JSTOR]
- Steward, Julian H. “Comments on the Statement on Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 50, no. 2 (1948): 351-52. [JSTOR]
- Bennett, John W. “Science and Human Rights: Reason and Action.” American Anthropologist 51, no. 2 (1949): 329-36. [JSTOR]