Where do rights come from?

Hey there,
I had a question regarding human rights/human worth. It seems like many atheists are feminists and humanists, which I personally think is great. My question is this: If we are simply the sum of our evolved cells, where do any rights invoked by feminism and humanism come from? If we are just evolved animals do rights even exist? It seems like if we are just evolved cells that no one should have a right to anything since a right implies some sort of external force of right and wrong. Any answers would be appreciated. Thanks for your time.

Posted: March 17th 2012

Eshu www

To those interested in this question, I strongly recommend Rights From Wrongs by Alan Dershowitz.

Posted: May 20th 2012

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bitbutter www

In my view, rights are agreements about acceptable ways to treat one another. As such they certainly don’t require anything supernatural, nor do they require a government (ie. a territorial monopoly on the initiation of violence and ultimate decision making authority).

However, many people don’t use the term right in this way; think of examples where people disagree about what rights are. People often seem to use the term to refer to mind-independent facts about the universe. I see no reason to believe that rights, in this sense, exist.

Posted: April 7th 2012

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Galen Rose www

I agree with your premise that there are no external rights. The rights we have are those granted us by our fellow man, through our governments.

The religious will often claim that there are certain rights granted us by a god, but that’s just a theory, a philosophy, until someone proves that a god exists to grant such rights.

According to the US Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . “ I love the implication of this, that there are certain basic rights that no one can screw with, but that’s really just a philosophy, since no one has proven that this “Creator” even exists.

Many of us like to think that a woman has an “unalienable” right to decisions concerning anything that’s growing in her own body (in fact, we will insist it), but Roe v. Wade could someday be overturned, and that “right” would be nothing but a memory of saner times. In the end, our rights come from our governments.

Posted: April 6th 2012

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brian thomson www

They come from our minds. We created them. Is there an “external force of right and wrong”? I don’t see any. This is the “relativist” position abhorred by theists, who think that if rights are not absolute and imposed externally, they are all contingent, and could be changed at any time.

However, history tells us that even the most basic rights have indeed been contingent, in the past. If half the stories in the Old Testament / Torah are to believed, that much should be obvious. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” ... except when it suits us. The Israelites reportedly practised genocide against other tribes who had the temerity to occupy “their” holy land, and the Old Testament authors were not squeamish about reporting it – if it happened, that is. The most basic human right – the right to life – has been regularly discarded throughout history, usually by using magic words such as “war” or “enemy”, but sometimes even that is not always required e.g. Srebrenica and Rwanda in recent years.

The point I’m trying to make is that people have been deciding what is a right, or not, all the time, and doing it to suit their evolving interests. Rights never came from anywhere else, but some were happy to make it seem that way, since that gave them legitimacy. Even so, we haven’t been very good at sticking to them or enforcing them. We need to get better at it, and that starts with just this realisation: it’s all down to us. We have no-one else to blame, but at least we have evolved a reasonably good idea about where to start.

Posted: April 6th 2012

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