Professor Lynn Hunt's recently published book on rights, titled Inventing Human Rights, is filled with a great deal of very useful, important information about the emergence of the idea of basic human, individual rights but it also perpetuates, perhaps entirely unconsciously, a very serious and hazardous error.
Moral and political ideas are not all that different from ones in the various sciences. Based on better and better information about the world, various new concepts need to be formed. Electrons, for example, hadn't been identified until after atoms were. The pre-frontal lobe wasn't known until instruments were created that helped to search the brain thoroughly enough to take a comprehensive inventory of its innumerable parts. Initially, all that was known was that there is a brain and only gradually did its busy life and large number of attributes and properties come into focus.
In morality something similar happens. From early times it has been clear enough that some kinds of conduct are morally wrong and that some are right. Broadly speaking, whatever promotes the human life of an individual is right, whatever thwarts it wrong. But the details were slow to come to light. Politically, too, the concept of justice was in place quite early in human history − an institution or policy is just if it secures what is deserved among human beings. But this isn't enough to take account of the many details of the idea of justice. In time − starting quite a long time ago, actually − it gradually became clear that human beings have certain rights, based on their nature, which then provided a fuller understanding of justice.
But, of course, there is a problem with all this. Unlike in the physical sciences, in normative spheres there is a great deal of disagreement, some if not most of it stemming from the input from those who want to undermine the very notion of basic norms of human life. So even if at some point human rights had been discovered − not invented − there were many who didn't welcome this fact and mounted all sorts of ways to obscure it. A little of this can also be detected in even the hardest science, such as physics, chemistry or astronomy but in the area of morality and politics it is far more prevalent since the basis of these areas of focus are more complicated and very widely and frequently disputed.
One way to undermine a moral concept, of course, is to maintain that it is merely an invention, a fabrication that serves not to help us understand how to lead a human life but merely to further some special interest. Accordingly, for example, Karl Marx and his followers argued that the human right to private property was invented so as to aid the ruling bourgeois classes to obtain and hold control of other people. Others claim that moral notions are conventional, something people come up with or invent, not anything discovered.
Judging by her book, it is doubtful that Professor Hunt had this same agenda in mind. Yet the claim that human rights are an invention plays into the hands of those who would just as soon dismiss these rights as being without any basis in facts of reality but simply a concocted myth − or, as Jeremy Bentham characterized them, "nonsense upon stilts."
In the case of Dr. Hunt, a historian at UCLA, there is another way that the status of human rights is undermined. She makes a lot of the fact that the Declaration of Independence associates our basic rights with self-evidence. If they were self-evident, as she claims the Founders said they were, then they need not be argued for. A self-evident fact needs no proof. Thus, the fact of the existence of the universe needs no proof − any effort to prove it would already acknowledge that it is true. That's why it is a self-evident truth.
What the Declaration states, of course, is that "We hold these truths to be self-evident," not that they are self-evident. And for purposes of a brief, succinct, inspiring announcement − a declaration − that's all that is needed, namely, to treat those truths as if they were (that is, to hold them to be), self-evident.
In fact, however, they are anything but. Just as John Locke and all of his followers who have labored long and hard to prove that these rights exist knew well and good, the existence of our rights must be demonstrated, shown. It's not enough to assume them.
Dr. Hunt, however, claims that the Founders believed that it is self-evident that we have these rights and proposes that they function, therefore, as religious truths based on faith, not as discoveries − as inventions not as something discovered and real. But this will not wash. Over the centuries basic human rights were gradually identified, as a result of a better and better knowledge of human relations and community life and its role in human affairs. So by now most of us know that all of us have these rights in our communities, apart from some rare cases of crucially incapacitated people. And we can therefore confidently state, for example, that a country in which these rights are not acknowledged and protected fails at being fully just.
It would have been only prudent for Dr. Hunt to have seen the matter along such lines. As it is, she is aiding and abetting those who want to support regimes wherein human rights are violated, left and right since they are deemed to be invented[!], not discovered. If they are a mere invention, what could be wrong with setting them aside and inviting something else, such as the rule of leaders or committees?
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