What Are Human Rights and How Do We Best Define Them?

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In the aftermath of multiple world wars and the horrors of the Holocaust, human rights emerged as an enduring commitment to prevent those darkest moments in history from ever happening again. But despite great progress — the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, the end of apartheid — these basic standards still have not been universally respected. What exactly are human rights, and how do we best defend them?

In principle, everyone has the same fundamental rights. These are often referred to as “natural” rights or “universal” rights, because they seem to be inalienable and intrinsic to the human condition. They are derived from the fact that people, as individuals, have a moral value that is unique to them: their own dignity as human beings. It is this value that makes it wrong for people to violate others. Most individuals, if they realize that they are violating someone else’s human rights, will seek to avoid doing so. They are also subject to the moral sanctions of their own consciences and the potential embarrassment that would result from publicly violating a fundamental human right. In addition, the majority of nations in the world now have legislation that obliges their citizens to respect the human rights of other citizens, even if they disagree with their views or actions.

This legal regime, based on international law and treaties, is the foundation of modern human rights. It lays out the basic principles that should be embodied in national and international law, as well as the basic standards of behavior that are expected of all persons. It is a system that provides a common standard of decency for the entire planet and a way to measure and monitor governments’ compliance with those standards.

The UDHR defines six categories of fundamental rights — life, liberty and security of person; the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to education; the right to work; the right to housing and food; the right to freedom of movement; and the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and welfare of the individual. Subsequent treaties have expanded this list to include the rights of women, children, racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, disabled persons and other groups.

Those who defend this political conception of human rights tend to be agnostic about the existence of universal natural moral rights, but they reject wholesale moral skepticism. They are usually inclined toward cognitivism, moral realism and intuitionism as the bases of morality. They believe that human rights can be understood and justified as the norms of a highly useful political practice, and that this practice can play certain important roles at both the national and international levels (for a discussion of these issues see Section 2.3.).

They argue that the main political role of human rights is to serve as an effective standard for international evaluations of government treatment of their citizens, as a basis for economic sanctions and military intervention, and as a guide for governments in choosing and implementing policies to improve human rights. They also believe that human rights can and do play other useful political roles, including providing a mechanism for evaluating the morality of foreign policies and for monitoring compliance with international laws and treaties.