Why Do We Have Human Rights?

I’ve been away unconscionably long. I’m sorry. I was asked in April to write a book for Humanist Press by July and the result is that my life has been one of chaos. I was also in Vancouver earlier this month to teach a workshop to potential new Humanist officiants as well as give a talk based on my upcoming book Women Are Human: The Case for Female Personhood (this is not the July book, WAH will be out in late 2017). Along with that, I’m still raising an increasingly active toddler.

But with all this on my mind, I’m still always thinking of future articles and future books. As many of you know, I’m a little obsessed with the idea of getting beyond the god question and focusing in specifically on Humanist philosophy – that which sets us apart from the merely atheist. In doing so, one question has continually haunted me. Why do we have human rights? More specifically, how do we decide what those rights are and why do we think they are necessary? The traditionally religious person says, “God gave them to us because we are made in His image,” but this answer does not satisfy the Humanist for obvious reasons. So why do so many Humanists talk of “inalienable” rights? What makes them inalienable? What makes them self-evident? Many Humanists answer that we are the most intelligent creatures on earth and therefore have a responsibility to the earth and each other and rights are necessary to keep us cooperating for a better future. But this still begs the question, what are those rights? How do we decide them? Who, in fact, decides them? What if we decide that some people should have different or no rights so that an end can be achieved? In short, what if rights are not, in fact, inalienable, but culturally and socially constructed? Do they then have the same force? Can they be altered or taken away?

I am still struggling to answer these questions myself and I hope to document that struggle, as well as some possible conclusions, in my fourth book. As always, I would be very interested to hear what your thoughts are.

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