Human Rights Without God

My thesis in this post is that any secular philosopher or ethicist who tries to make an argument for human rights ends up making dangerous assumptions that undermine their goal

I wrote my previous post about visiting the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.  Overall, it was a great experience, but it left me with a lot of questions about what makes something a human right, specifically for a secular organization.  So I started reading about philosophical and ethical arguments for the existence of human rights, and I was surprised by how narrow the chain of ideas really was.

My thesis in this post is that secular philosophers or ethicists, especially liberal capitalists who try to make an argument for human rights ends up making dangerous assumptions that undermine their goal, eventually leading to secular totalitarianism and genocide if their logic is extended to its conclusion.  Most of my reasoning for making this extreme logical jump comes from books and articles that I have read by philosophers John Nelson and Slavoj Zizek that I have re-worked and extended here.

To begin, we have to define “human rights”.  What makes any potential idea/action a human right instead of just a personal preference?  The United Nations presents it nicely here.  In summation:

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law , general principles and other sources of international law. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.


According to a utilitarian ethical model, a human right is a right that “naturally causes the most happiness for the most people.” One of the hidden assumptions of this model is that it includes assumptions about human nature.  How are we to know what ‘naturally’ causes happiness in people?  To answer this, we have to take a quick look at philosophical understandings of human nature.

In the West (where almost all assumptions of human rights come from), most ideas about human nature condense to ideas of reason.  Plato’s Republic, identifies rationality as one of the three characteristics of the soul, and Aristotle is famous for calling humanity the “rational animal.”  So obviously any Western argument about human nature is going to have to talk about reasoning and rationality.

Tibor Machan in his 1987 article Towards a Theory of Natural Individual Human Rights extends Plato and Aristotle’s arguments to define the essence of humanity as reason.  Using this essential part of human nature as a starting point, he claims that a naturally good life is one that allows the exercise of reason without infringing on the ability of other people to also reason.  This forms the basis for all ideas about human rights.

But, all of this modern theory of human rights is based on the classical identification of human nature as reason.  If it can be shown that reason is not actually the essence of human nature, then the arguments for human rights built on this assumption also fall apart in a dangerous way.

The movement of post-modernism has shown that human nature is complex.  Humans are not simple, consistent cross-culturally, or even consistent internally.  Development of computers and research on non-human animals has shown that our previous definitions of reason as a characteristic exclusive to humanity are too narrow to be useful.

Thomas Hobbes argued that we can figure out human nature by examining ourselves.  When I examine myself, I generally see competing desires.  Good and evil fight for supremacy of my body.  Sometimes I’m good at loving people, and sometimes I just want to act selfishly.  Often I am impatient.  I love the feeling of being productive; other times I enjoy doing absolutely nothing for hours at a time.  Sometimes I am rational in choosing a disposition to enact, but other times I’m irrational.

Human nature is wild, crazy, dangerous, and sometimes self-destructive.  If rights are derivations of human nature, then what rights can be derived from this nature?  Its really very open ended.

Suppose that instead of examining the nature of an individual, we were to examine the nature of a group.  If this arbitrary group were to discuss what they think should count as a human right, they would probably share some of their more prominent desires, and may even be able to come to a consensus in the form of a short list of desires that they all consider to be especially important.   But, then to arrive at the claim that their list of desires actually is a list of rights for all of humanity, they would have to speculate about others.

If a group of friends decide that because they love pizza, then everyone has a right to have a pizzeria in their town, this does not make access to pizza a human right.  Modern societies may arrive at the idea of freedom of inquiry being a human right, but not freedom to torture political prisoners.  But, clearly this is not a decision that was made by all groups of people through all of time.

Another option that you may be considering at this point is: What if instead of needing 100% agreement among all people to arrive at the legislation of a human right, instead we democratically chose human rights?  The simple answer is that this is the basis for the justification of genocide and erasure of minority ideas within the democratic process.  The Nazi’s were in fact democratically elected, and they used the democratic process to give Hitler the power to imprison people without trial, censor the press, and create new laws without requiring approval from the legislative branch.

When a group with power declares that rights they consider important be enforced everywhere, the command is really that their own community’s code of rights be imposed on all other communities, and that all other codes of rights be eradicated.

If human nature is authentically examined in its entirety, and not just carefully selected by ivory-tower humanists, then a much wider variety of rights have the ability to emerge including extreme terrors like suicide, patricide, infanticide, and genocide.

Of course, I hope that you find this to be a disturbing thought.  If so, then you will have to either throw out the idea of universal human rights, or come up with a different theory of how to arrive at them.

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