Toward a Clearer Understanding of Universal Human Rights

Originally posted on the Florida Student Philosophy Blog

It was never the people who complained of the universality of human rights,
nor did the people consider human rights as a Western or Northern imposition. It was often their leaders who did so.
-Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General

When considering the subject of human rights it seems to me most likely that an individual would begin by considering how she would like to be treated by others. After all it is in herself, excepting perhaps her children, in which she has the greatest interest, has made the greatest investment, and is the greatest stakeholder. This question is of primary concern to the individual almost from the moment of birth. Only after a careful consideration of self-interest would the question of how others should then be treated reasonably arise.

It is because humans have been created with an overarching sense of self interest that God links the standard for our behavior in all aspects of life to it.

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for these sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 7:12, NIV) 1

The “others” referred to being the individuals within her immediate sphere. Given an increase in intellect and maturity, that number may progressively expand until she should arrive at the question, “How then should all the people of the world rightly be treated?” 2 The influence of family and cultural traditions may have a profound impact upon such reasoning depending upon the individual’s strength of intellect and character. The normative claims that we make regarding what comprises right and just conduct of humans toward each other subsequently gives rise to all the specific definitions of human rights and responsibilities.

Even as we sing “It’s a Small World After All” 3 we realize that because of the vast cultural and political diversity among earth’s peoples “it’s not one world.” 4 Nevertheless men and women of good will strive toward the goal that all humans would be able to enjoy the rights to which they are entitled and the peace and happiness that those rights might engender. Jay Drydyk, author of Globalization and Human Rights agrees, believing that there is a possibility of integrating “the values emerging from the human rights and other social movements that are developing worldwide.” Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of the drafters of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights felt that there were concepts of basic human rights that most everyone could agree upon without having to agree upon the underlying reasoning for them. But it should also be noted that there were no actual signatories to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was instead ratified by a unanimous non-binding proclamation.

There are those who have doubts that the nations of the world can ever agree on what the canon of human rights should comprise, let alone work to universally guarantee them. In their essay Human Rights; A Western Construct With Limited Applicability, left-wing political theorists, Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab, argue that the debate has been dominated by Western conceptions of human rights that do not translate over to other cultures where, they maintain, economic rights are more important than political rights, and collectivism rather than individualism is the cultural mode. The authors make the claim that the UN Declaration is “predicated on the assumption that Western values are paramount and ought to be extended to the-non-Western world.” I must take issue with the authors’ assumptive language that these values should be classified as “Western.” Throughout this essay, I shall argue that the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God5 are the wellspring of human rights and responsibilities and as such are universally, easily, and equally applicable to all and that because of this evidence of them may be found in all cultures. 6

The fact is that the conditions of abject poverty and oppression that exist in parts of the world today mirror almost identically conditions in the ancient histories of western cultures and it reasonable to assume that over time those cultures will go though similar processes of economic and political maturity. 7 I do not see the logic in Pollis’ and Schwab’s suggestion that those who argue that “human rights as a Western concept based on natural right should become the [universal] standard for all nations should acknowledge that this is only one particular value system.” The authority of rights distilled from the Law of Nature is rooted in the claim that this law is both universal and metaphysical, and its defenders therefore should never acknowledge it to be just one theory among many.

In his essay, Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights, Charles Taylor refers to the idea “that human society stands under a Law of Nature, who origin is the Creator” as an “older notion”. It is important to note that the idea of the Law of Nature or a reasonable facsimile thereof remains the prevailing opinion among people of faith, who it should also be noted still make up the overwhelming majority of humanity. Whether reformed Christian, Roman or Orthodox Catholic, Conservative or Orthodox Jew, all assent to both a written and natural law authored by the one true God,. The Hindus gives recognition of Dharma (The Right Way). Sun Tsu instructs the Chinese saying, “If conduct is not in accord with ‘The Right Way’ and action not in accord with righteousness, then albeit one’s position is important and honorable, misfortune will overtake him.”8 For the Buddhists it is “Tao” (The Way), and for Japanese practitioners of Zen it is referred as “Do.” Rather than an older notion, the recognition of natural law and metaphysics still remains the primary mode of thought, with existentialism and secular ethical theory relegated to the enclave of a relatively tiny group of intellectuals.

Nevertheless, the manner in which the Law of Nature is applied in different cultures is broadly diverse. Pollis and Schwab claim that “[t]raditional cultures did not view the individual as autonomous and possessed of rights above and prior to society” and that “the individual was conceived of as an integral part of a greater whole, of a “group”. In answer I would say that descriptive terms such as “clans”, “tribes”, “states”, and “nations” are intellectual constructs based upon the naturally occurring nuclear and extended family along with its near universal manifestation of patriarchal rule most notably in the absence of more sophisticated forms of government in primitive cultures. While children and adults of weak character may voluntarily submit to the status quo and independent free thinkers may be compelled to do so by force, the existence of any political or cultural standard depends at every moment upon the tacit agreement and cooperation of the individuals who are a part of it. These structures continue to exist among those nations that have made much of personal sovereignty and individual rights and still exercise tremendous influence in defining role and status, the difference being that in these enlightened cultures the right of the individual to work to change their own status, should they desire to do so, is clearly recognized. There is always group membership in any culture, it being the very nature of human existence, and commonly described as the right of freedom of association. Yet, the standard of good and evil that all groups are judged by, whether monarchies or democracies, capitalist or communist, is the status and worth of the individual to and within that group. To deal with the claim that traditional cultures did not view the individual as autonomous and possessed of rights above and prior to society, I will offer the following several examples.

It seems clear to me that by observing any newborn child one can see and hear how loudly it complains when it concludes that it is being deprived of its basic right to life in the form of the care and succor of its mother. Mothers accordingly are loathe to part with their newborn because they instinctively recognize their right of ownership of that child and its right of association with its family. Toddlers demonstrate their understanding of their right to property by a natural resistance to share their toys. Men strive with each other, sometimes to the death, in the pursuit of happiness that has presented itself in the form of a woman. Faced with the prospect of impending death by combat, individuals become acutely aware of a “right” to life. These situations are universal among humans irrespective of their culture as are the feelings which they elicit, gut reactions to the Law of Nature written in men’s hearts. 9 All human rights are therefore recognized and exercised by individuals in response to their own normative judgments about what is right. Jay Drydyk touches upon this in the footnote to his comment about the remarkable concurrence of opinions regarding “knowledge of care, neglect, and abuse.” In footnote seventeen, he remarks that this “knowledge of how people are to be cared for and supported” that we all seem to have in common is “a cultural reservoir of knowledge based on current and received experience.” He says that we all recognize good care, i.e. the practical application of human rights, and therefore can recognize abuse, which amounts to the abuse of those rights. But Drydyk fails to explain how, given the wide diversity of cultures, we should all come to the same conclusions on these crucial issues. I would suggest it is because we receive our instruction by our common observance of the Law of Nature.

Drydyk describes five varying views regarding the Eurocentricity of human rights. He speaks of triumphalists who hold that only Western cultures can support advanced concepts of human rights, and rejectionists who reject entirely the validity of Western thought on human rights. Next, he speaks of assimilationists who desire to promulgate western human rights concepts across all cultures, and revisionists who maintain that all cultures who have their own systems of human rights. Finally there are transformationalists who view cultures as having imperfect views on human rights that are either defective in that they are not universally inclusive of other cultures, or incomplete in that they do not acknowledge the complete range of human rights, or both. Defending the transformationalist view, he frames the idea of human rights as an appeal for “social protection from against standard threats” that humans encounter. I find this problematic in that it seems to me that the most often result of such appeals in real life is the increase of the threat itself, or the abrogation of other freedoms in the guise of assistance. Instead, I would offer a contrasting view of human rights as that state of dignity afforded individuals of noble character for which they are willing to sacrifice their lives rather than relinquish. Such individuals have made a commitment not to allow their rights to be trodden upon, their proper speech to be silenced, their right to worship God as they see fit abrogated, their children to be taken, their property to be stolen, or to in any way allow themselves to be defrauded of a host of other rights and privileges, without returning blow for blow, steel for steel, bullet for bullet, and life for life. Feminists like Charlotte Bunch say that the rights of women need to be recognized as a special class. But I say let a woman exercise her natural right of self-defense; keeping a dagger in her bodice and plunging it into the heart of the man who would rape or beat her, and if she is too weak, to entreat her sisters come and do it for her. Once it becomes clear that women are willing to do this, society will move quickly to ensure that such situations become a rarity. If a woman finds that she is paid less than a man, let her exercise her natural right of freedom of association and form a union to demand fair wages, or bring an end to the business of the owner that refuses to pay it by refusing to work and by exhorting others to refuse to submit to unfair labor conditions. 10 There need be no special categories of rights for specific groups, but rather specific groups should be encouraged and organized to forcefully exercise their natural rights.

I maintain that it is the individual who is ultimately responsible for upholding the Law of Nature and not the state. Was the hero of Tian’anmen Square merely a dupe for the advancement of Western values? What of the people of Taiwan, or the capitalist enclave that is Hong Kong? Have they all been assimilated? Rather, I think that they have come to the independently reasoned conclusion that the Law of Nature is superior to the law of Mao and must be upheld at any cost. Charles Taylor takes issue with this view saying that the idea that “individuals are the possessors of rights … encourages people to be self-regarding and leads to an atrophied sense of self belonging.” To this I would reply that a mature understanding of the Law of Nature, including its illumination in the Ten Commandments of the Living God, delineates a complete system of not only personal rights but of responsibilities to God and to our fellow human beings.

Pollis and Schwab note that “The Universal Declaration maintains in Article 17 that “everyone has the right to own property yet in many cultures, among them the Gojami-Amhara of Ethiopia, land is owned communally and there is no ‘right’ to individual ownership of holdings” What they fail to mention is that the Amhara still remain a very primitive culture representing little more than an sangunial extension of the nuclear family (clans) that would be expected to hold all things in common. 11 Division of property is patrilineal (those pesky patriarchs again) and rules for the division of property due to divorce clearly defined. 12 Violent conflict over property rights are prevalent among the Amhara suggesting that they have a clear understanding of the Law of Nature as it relates to the right of property. 13 Pollis and Schawab seem to favor communal ownership of property and mention China where again extended sanguinal extended family groups also referred to as ‘clans’ seem to be the rule. Again, such clans still operate under patriarchal rule, with strong matriarchal control of the home and family life, reminiscent I think of present conditions in the state of Virginia. Nevertheless as late as March 2007, one nuclear family in China was waging their own property rights battle against the government by “refusing to move out of their two-story home…the only building left standing atop a mound in a 10-meter-deep construction pit.” 14 The couple makes much of the reference to property rights in Article 13 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, even though to my mind it clearly affords a right of eminent domain to the government. Nevertheless, it seems a stretch to conclude that they have risked so much on a willing acceptance of Western rights. I think it much more logical to conclude that their courage is bolstered by the realization that their own nation’s constitution is firmly in alignment with the Law of Nature, that is to say, the ‘right way’, even if the day to day operation of their government is not.

The transformationalists miss the point, I think, in their appraisal that groups who limit the protection of human rights to their own members are defective. It requires a massive exercise of will to secure rights for oneself and for the group. Ultimately you have to be willing to die freely and to kill happily in their defense. Accordingly, the farther you expand the numbers of those individuals whose rights you are willing to personally ensure, the more difficult the task becomes. It is enough that we make the decision to secure our own rights within our own borders and encourage others to secure theirs. 15 Those individuals disenfranchised within their own borders must rise up and demand their own rights as Spartacus’ men demanded theirs, no matter what the cost. Those who perceive gross injustice in their midst must speak and act against it, as John Brown did no matter what the cost. This philosophy is not, as Charles Taylor would maintain, in opposition to the Buddhist demands of nonviolence. Buddha himself was a member of the warrior caste and Buddhist doctrine over the past several years has been used to justify going to war in Sri Lanka, Tibet and Japan. 16 The warriors of Japan were practitioners of Zen who, like my fellow Presbyterians, were taught to live lives of simplified beauty, avoiding violence and striving to live at peace with all men as far as was possible, right up to moment when it became necessary to cut their enemies heads off.

Our responsibility to right wrongs outside our borders is limited, by our economic resources and by our limitations as humans to understand the cultural and political situation on the ground. Tip O’Neil remarked that all politics is local, and we must take this admonition to heart. Charles Taylor allows that all cultures condemn “genocide, murder, torture, and slavery.” I would suggest that these feelings of condemnation are strongest when injustices are perpetrated against their own countrymen. Where it has become obvious that another government is defrauding its citizens of their civil rights, I would argue for the classical liberal non-interventionist policy of promoting peace and commerce between nations, and avoiding political and military alliances as the best method to ensure that the greatest number shall regain those rights. 17 Leading by example, making friendships through trade, and exerting influence by quiet informal conversation with others, especially those just entering public life is the best policy. The alternative is to maintain that we have a moral responsibility to liberate all oppressed people all over the world. By this logic, to tarry while others are sorely oppressed makes us out to be heartless cowards or worse, to be complicit in their enslavement. On the other hand, to interfere in these situations leaves us open to charges of being imperialistic invaders. Even if we should be aligned with the whole world against a rogue nation, there will be good and honest citizens within that nation who will justified in mounting a vigorous insurgency, preferring even an unjust local sovereign, to that of a foreign occupation.

Continuing to comment on Drydyk’s lionization of the transformationists, the idea that “the lists of human rights that can be generated from received cultural norms are generally incomplete” seems to me an exceptionally valid point. Consider the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which states “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The inference here is that human rights are so numerous that they are impossible to be completely codified. In my essay, On Parliamentary Procedure, 18 I give a definition of liberty as being is “the ability to do what I want, when I want, without interference, in order that some good may be accomplished.” I have a human right to do that which is right, and the possibilities are endless ranging from the right to arm myself in order ensure my personal safety, to the right to put too much mustard and salt on my steak. While these rights are limitless in number, they are however limited in scope. I have a right to life, but not an eternal right at least not in this earthly sphere. I have a right to work in the field in order to sustain my life, but I have not the right to work in your field if you object. You have the right to assemble, but not to assemble a gang of thieves to prey on me and mine. In these cases it may be beneficial for a government of my peers to which I have directly or tacitly ceded authority to use its power to intervene acting as an impartial mediator to resolve such questions lest war between the parties ensue. However, as I have heard W.G. Pitts19 say, government may only do what is lawful for its citizens to do individually. The idea that:

Democratic government is perceived as an institutional framework through which the goals of the state are to be achieved, and if it fails or becomes an impediment it can be dispensed with impunity. Individual political rights, so revered in the West, at most take second place to the necessity of establishing the legitimacy of the new group — the state — and to the priority of economic rights that necessitate economic modernization. (Pollis and Schwab)

is the very definition of totalitarian oppression, and that Pollis and Schwab, allegedly born and educated in our fair republic, should lend credence to this concept is appalling.

Any one has a right to obtain food and clothing and shelter, but they may not violate the rights of another by taking that which has provided by another’s labor for themselves without the other’s express consent. For otherwise they are guilty of theft, and an individual may rightly exercise their right of defense against it, irrespective of whether the perpetrator is climbing in their bedroom window, or getting the government to steal it for them. The case might be made that within the within the confines of the family everyone has the right to a fair and equal standard of living, but it can never be agreed as Article 25 of the Universal Declaration states that:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

This statement is impossible on its face in that no one is willing or able to foot the bill for it. Everyone has the right to access opportunities to provide such things for themselves but such things cannot be guaranteed, because it is the nature of people not to work for things that are guaranteed to them. Experiments of this type were settled as early as the Jamestown Settlement in the 1600’s. Those who do not work shall not eat. 20 Government has no money of its own, whether local or global. In order to provide such extensive guarantees a government would have to tax its productive citizens onerously, not to mention what indentures they might demand of those to those whom they make such provision. Productive citizens would then be hampered from providing these essentials for themselves and their families and would respond as they have always responded, by curtailing their production to the bare minimum, hiding their income to avoid paying unjust taxes, and eventually by making war upon the government that seeks to rob them. Charity is a virtue it is true. To share the fruits of one’s labor with the unfortunate should be encouraged, but to compel it is to commit robbery and to court violence.

In many cases even if we should decide that what another person does is not within their rights, we are not properly credentialed to make or execute such judgments. If a woman, with cavalier disregard for the beauty and sanctity of life destroys the fruit of her womb, it seems to me that she has the right to do so. It is the defense of her body, her property, and her privacy which is paramount and while she may not escape eternal judgment, it is not our right to stop her. If two men desire to enter into a tri-partite marriage with a polo pony and find a third person outrageous enough to perform the ceremony, it seems to me that they have the right to do so. They have a right of free speech, religion, association and privacy (which hopefully they will vigorously exercise) and while we may scorn them, shun them, ignore them, or ridicule them, we cannot by right prevent them. So government is not properly in the business of enumerating rights and implementing programs to enhance them for it is an impossible and unending task. The Law of Nature has not been established to be enforced by men or for men to use to judge each other. Surely God will do that in His time. 21 Rather it should inform and guide us in our dealings and treatment of our fellows. It is enough that government should be compelled to observe the basic civil and political rights of its citizens found within the Law of Nature and be careful by its own actions not to infringe upon them.

Drydek, Jay. “Globalization and Human Rights,” In Moral Issues in Global Perspective, Volume 1: Moral and Political Theory, ed. Christine Koggel. Broadview Press, 2006.

Pollis, Adamantia, and Peter Schwab. “Human Rights: A Western Construct with Limited Applicability”. s.l: s.n, 1978.

Taylor, Charles, “Conditions of an unforced consensus on human rights”, monograph, Department of Philosophy, McGill University

1. For an in-depth analysis see my essay, “Dr. Gert and the Golden Rule”.
2. See Luke 10:25-37 for the definitive answer.
3. It’s a Small World After All. Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Wonderland Music Co., Inc. 1963
4. Paul Harvey Aurandt (September 4, 1918 – February 28, 2009) Radio commentator. One of the last regular features on his nationally syndicated program was, It’s Not One World in which he recounted extreme examples of the wide diversity of human behavior and the depths of depravity to which it may sink.
5. Note: Archimedes is credited with saying, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.” Consequently I think it is an aid to the reader to know the basic stand taken by the philosophic writer. I adhere to the presumptive claims that: Man is a dichotomy of body and soul; that there is a metaphysical world beyond the natural: that God is and has revealed himself to us by general revelation through our world and by specific revelation through His Word and His only son Jesus the Christ; that there are absolutes of right and wrong, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, and these and all ethical standards can be properly discerned only by reference to the Law of Nature and the commandments of nature’s living God.
6. Sounds like a thesis statement to me!
7. Assuming of course that all cultures are not equally valid, that some are superior to others, and that all (especially the present state of North American culture) would benefit from a process of continuing improvement.
8. Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1963. 197 p.Translated and with an introduction by Samuel B. Griffith.
9. Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas, Article 6: Whether the Law of Nature can be abolished from the heart of man? Also Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:15,
10. It is important to remember here that nothing prevents an employee from becoming an employer, at least in this fair land, and that the decision to work for someone else brings with it the duty to be reasonably subordinate to that employer.
11. Hundie, Bekel. Property Rights among Afar Pastoralists of Northeastern Ethiopia: Forms, Changes and Conflicts. Humboldt University of Berlin.
13. Hundie
14. Xin Dingding. Defiant couple stave off wrecking ball. China Daily. March 24. 2007
15. That is to say within the boundaries of the county and the state. Surely by this time, with the passing of the Patriot Act, it has become clear that the federal government disenfranchises and enslaves far more than it protects.
16. Faure, Bernard. Unmasking Buddhism. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. P. 130
17. Paul, Ron. A Foreign Policy of Freedom: “Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship”. Lake Jackson, TX: Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, 2007.
19. Chairman, Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida 2009
20. 2 Thessalonians 3:10
21. Hebrews 9:27-28 And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.

About Louis William Rose

“I am an advocate for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a lifelong student of parliamentary procedure and political process. He has served as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004, with an additional two years of graduate work in political philosophy. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and a Florida Master Naturalist and guide. He has two sons, Edward, a hydroponic farmer in the panhandle of Florida, and Alexander, a successful real estate developer.
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