The Dissident

Lover of philosophy, politics, and spirituality


Part I: Where Do Rights Come From?

Deep question of the day: Where do rights come from? At Starbucks (grande blonde roast)  in San Jose just before work, and finished up a 2-day short thought on rights.

“A right is something that is due to a person by just claim, legal guarantee, or moral principle … A power, privilege, or immunity secured to a person by law … A legally enforceable claim that another will do or will not do a given act; a recognized and protected interest, the violation of which is a wrong.”

Do rights come from God, nature or neither?

It is hard to believe that we live in a country that once approved of slavery and refused to allow women to vote. Despite rights given to minorities and woman in the 20th century, we continue to have pressing issues surrounding human rights. How is a society in 2015 able to decipher what is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to immigration, prison overcrowding, rights of LGBT, and the seemingly never-ending debate on the right-to-life? Consider this: does an 88 year old diagnosed with stage four cancer living in persistent pain be allowed to take medication that will hasten a peaceful death? In the majority of states in the U.S., this patient will be forced to continue to “live” despite their wishes. But is this really “living”? And why is the right to die peacefully not a viable “right” for this patient? Will divine law make this issue clearer?


The history of divine law is a history of repeated corrections of yesterday’s lethal misreadings and misapplications. To be an advocate of divine law is constantly to have to say you’re sorry for the mistakes of your predecessors, as your successors will inevitably have to apologize for the mistakes you are now making when you claim to know God’s true intentions. Divine law has a brutal history of justifying racism, the inquisitions, misogyny, and a multitude of bloody wars. Contemporary apologists for divine law argue that some past claims – especially those of which they disapprove – were misreadings or misapplications of God’s true will. But how can we be sure that today’s “correct” reading will not be subject to tomorrow’s correction?

A great Hasidic rabbi was asked if it is ever proper to acts if there is no God. He replied, “Yes. When a poor man asks you for charity, act as if there is no God – act as if only you can save him from starving.” I would extend the rabbi’s answer to all moral decisions about repairing the world.

In 1873, the Supreme Court, in denying a woman the right to be admitted to the bar, relied on a divine concept of natural law: “God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action,” and “It belonged to men to apply and execute the law.” Woman’s divinely assigned role was in the “domestic sphere.” Beyond “the divine ordinance” and “the law of the Creator,” it is “in the nature of things” that women must stay at home. What “things” the High Court never tells us.

Do rights then come from nature? It is interesting how religious fundamentalists credit God with beautiful or positive results of nature, but only rarely blame him for the ugly and the negative. How frequently we have heard survivors of natural disaster credit God for saving them, and how infrequently have we heard them blame God for killing those who did not survive these very same “acts of God.”

“Anyone observing nature with an objective eye will see that it is morally neutral. It is full of beauty and wonder, but it thrives on violence and predation. Nature is a mother animal nursing her helpless cub and then killing another helpless animal to survive. Nature is life-giving sunshine followed by death-dealing floods. Human nature is Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler; Jesus and Torquemada; Kant and Nietzsche; Confucius and Pol Pot; Mandela and bin Laden; the early Martin Luther (King), who reached out to the despised, and the later Martin Luther, who advocated rounding up the Jews and making them “miserable captives” in forced-labor camps.” – Alan Dershowitz

Perhaps rights come from neither God nor nature. If not, then where?

~Wes Fornes


3 Responses to Part I: Where Do Rights Come From?

  1. marklevell says:

    To say that “Rights come from Wrongs” is to imply that there is some destiny… some plan, or that man has some innate capability to correctly judge what is right and what is wrong. History shows us otherwise. Rights don’t come from wrongs.

    Rights are a human creation. A creation of thought, circumstance, safety, wealth and culture.

    I think you got it closest to correct in the sentence “Rights are invented by human beings, based on experience.” More precisely, rights come from culture which are agreements that occur among large quantities of people. Certainly Wrongs can inspire humans to reshape and rethink their culture. But Wrongs are not the causes of the rights… if that were true, slavery would’ve ended in Egyptian times or earlier.

    For example, and sadly, if the German’s had won WWII, I believe “human rights” today, would be very different than what they are. But the wrongs committed in WWII would still have been committed. The winners write history… create culture, and define the direction of human rights for future generations.

    Since 9/11 the USA has held prisoners without due process for a variety of reasons and by using a variety of justifications. We’ve even committed torture. I would argue that all human beings, not just US citizens should receive due process and that along with freedom from torture should be a basic human right.

    But today due process is circumvented even for some US citizens. And while their are some “inquiries”, going on into torture, the American Culture has largely accepted these actions with no jail time, very few protests, and no arrests for the people responsible. We even gave Bush and his administration a second term. Our country and culture… we the people, chose to diminish our human rights.

    In the USA, the right to due process and freedom from torture are human rights that our culture is redefining… even as we speak and IMHO, not in a positive way. Here the wrongs did not create the rights.

    A culture tends to shift its definitions of Rights based on it’s wealth and safety. Generally speaking a culture that feels safe, tends to raise the bar on human rights. But conversely for the decade after 9/11 a fearful USA populace allowed their rights (and the rights of civilians in other countries) to be eroded. Today, as 9/11 becomes more of a historical event, outrage against the loss of those rights is returning.

    The same thing happened after Pearl Harbor to the Japanese and during the Cold War with McCarthyism. When security returned, the rights returned as well. The wrongs did not cause the rights to return, the people, when they felt safe again, chose to reinstate those rights, and even, eventually and sometimes, pay “reparations.”

    Many “rights” today were culturally ridiculous and generally inconceivable 100-200 years ago, but today are generally accepted worldwide. We can see that even today that LGBT rights are changing. Thus it’s virtually a given that the changing of human rights will continue. It’s silly to think that suddenly we are at the pinnacle of man’s definition of rights.

    So a great question to ask, is how will we be judged by the future? What unfairness’s do we tacitly accept today due to culture, religion, or history that in 50 years will be considered archaic… even brutal. Certainly I hope things like torture and the items that border on it will.

    But I also think that as we realize how biologically close we are to our animal cousins, and as technology makes animal farming obsolete, I think the rights of animals may be seen in a whole different way in 50-100 years. I think we may move towards viewing putting a dog or a cat to death, or even inflicting pain on them, as being unconscionable.

    And thus the culture may evolve the concept of “Human Rights” to “Living Rights.”

    I myself do not see the world this way today. I eat meat, and don’t protest against hunting, bullfighting, or other animal abuses. I could.. I have some predilections, but I am certainly not outraged enough yet… much like a husband may have felt about women’s rights 200 years ago. But I do think I can see a future where my views and the world’s views shift to accepting that animals have rights, and that the causing of any needless pain is wrong, and that we have a duty to care for our less intelligent brethren.

    Today’s culture says that animals are here for our use and abuse. This is the remnant of Manifest Destiny and the storyline that God created the world for our use and abuse. but environmentalism and even a shift in religious mindsets is starting what I think will result in an eventual culture of stewardship, not use and abuse.

    This will results in rights not just for humans, but for all living things. Naturally it’ll occur with animals, and in the wealthier countries first…where we can afford special treatment/handling of the animal situations… much like we now have Heath and Human Services for people today but mostly did not 100 years ago.

    But this has not occurred because of the wrongs being committed against animals. Nor will it change because of that. It will change because mankind grows and matures, and his cultures and beliefs change.

    Which way rights evolve is up to us… to all human beings. To abdicate responsibility by believing that rights naturally come from wrongs, is to walk away from your part of the conversation and to have faith that good will always come from evil. It doesn’t.

    Rather it’s up to us. What we accept passively, will continue. What we reject in our writing, our talking, and our voting may change gradually. And what we get upset about in large groups, protest and put passion behind, will change more rapidly.

    We determine our rights.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wes Fornes says:

    Allow me to restate: Rights are invented by human beings, based on experience, who then write the laws. There is no implication that rights come from “destiny” or by “faith that good will always come from evil.” It’s invented by humans based on experiential wrongs of the past. If it’s not based on something humans deem wrong, then we are left with nature of God dictating our rights.
    You say: “Rights are a human creation. A creation of thought, circumstance, safety, wealth and culture.” I partly agree, but the injection of “thought, circumstance, safety, wealth and culture” misses the origin of rights. Attempts at exterminating the Jews preceded the Nuremburg trials. The video of Ray Lewis punching his girlfriend preceded the change in laws to the NFL. Taxation without representation preceded the writing of the US constitution. It took wrongs to move us towards rights.

    You say: “But Wrongs are not the causes of the rights… if that were true, slavery would’ve ended in Egyptian times or earlier.”

    You may be over-stepping my thesis. I never said, realizing wrongs will immediately turn into universal rights. After all, forms of slavery persist even today. The Egyptians progressed as a society, just as the US did in the 60s by realizing the injustice and dehumanizing components of slavery (a wrong). The duration of time it takes to make a wrong a right is irrelevant to my point. Using torture as an example, the wrongs at Guantanamo have produced mass dissent against torture. The outrage of the wrongs of the celebratory pictures of soldiers doing obscene gestures and urinating on the soldiers is what moves us towards fighting for its eradication. It might take 50 more years to outlaw water-boarding, but the law will gradually change due to the wrongs it has caused, produced, and instilled in society. Unfortunately, it takes a wrongs to move us towards rights.

    Today Egypt is anti-slavery, not because of wealth and/or safety, but because of intellectual and human progress which sees the inhuman-ness in having people as property. And as you alluded to, future rights is revealing that we may very well think twice before eating or caging animals. If wealth was a foundational point to the origin of rights then Abu Dhabi would be comparable to Sweden. But most parents would never send their daughters to school in Abu Dhabi.

    You highlighted that wealth and safety tend to cause shifts in the way culture defines rights. I would agree, but wealth and safety do not produce rights. Wealth and safety are by-products of intellectual progress. They are not, however, starting points to rights. But going back to my thesis: the wrongs reveal injustice, and carry the potential for the entrenching rights. It might take 100 years to entrench those rights, or simply one coup d’etat to change law. But we cannot talk about the laws enacted [later] to Jews, gays and women without beginning with the wrongs they experienced first.

    You stated: “It’s silly to think that suddenly we are at the pinnacle of man’s definition of rights.” Once again, I am not sure where you see this in my statements. I believe that even a sophisticated country like the United States is far from the pinnacle of rights.

    We both agree that rights are invented by humans. There you have it 🙂 


  3. marklevell says:

    A. I didn’t mean to imply that you thought we were at “The pinnacle of human rights.” Just making the point.
    B. Sometimes wrongs inspire rights. Sometimes they do not. I see no causative relationship or mankind would’ve created far more rights far earlier in it’s history. Wrongs can always be found before rights just as darkness can before light. But darkness does not cause light.
    C. Rights come when three things come together:
    1. Men become enlightened enough to realize that a wrong that has probably been occurring since early civilization can be outgrown.
    2. Society is rich enough to afford it. The right to education appears in societies that are rich enough to afford it. The right to safe working conditions comes to societies that can afford it… and tossed away in those that cannot. Today our society is refining questions about whether healthcare is a right, and these discussions are closely tied to the financial cost to society.
    And sadly, if the wealth that supports our modern word were to suddenly disappear, I believe things like property rights, right to safety in ones own home, the rights to have lawful justice done against criminals would quickly disappear.
    3. Society is safe enough to prioritize it. I’ve already made the points that in the fear that accompanies every war, rights have been tossed aside.

    Although I don’t like it, although it saddens me, although I wish my species were nobler than this, in the face of famine and fear, rights disappear and thus rights are at least to some extent a product of a wealth and safety. But let’s not forget the most important ingredient, the one we can personally control and choose to contribute in high quantities… human empathy.


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