What is the basis for believing that there is such a thing as human rights? I am all for human rights but it could be argued that the notion of human rights is imaginary and reducible to absurdity (that humans by virtue of being born are magically entitled to certain things) when trying to prove it scientifically or logically.

It also seems incompatible with evolution, where survival of the fittest would dictate, that you either have what it takes to secure the resources necessary to survive, or you perish if unable to secure said resources. Evolution doesn't state anywhere that everyone is born with a right to a specific allotment of resources. Is it possible to reconcile these contradicting positions or is it more logical to conclude that human rights are a human invention?

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    Nowadays we can make sufficient resources for everyone, that's why I don't see how your argument that evolution isn't compatible with the notion of human rights.
    – Hakim
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 9:50
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    See here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/11505/…
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 10:22
  • I suppose the claim that something is incompatible with a theory of evolution makes sense. Of course that then must be taken as evidence against that theory of evolution. On the other hand, if we assume a theory of evolution, we are taking evolution as a law of nature and therefore something can no more be against evolution than it can be against thermodynamics or gravity. There really doesn't seem to be a coherent intellectual stance here. First, human rights is dismissed as a human invention, yet then the human invention of a theory of evolution becomes a premise. Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 13:45
  • Well yes of course human rights are a human invention. Why? Because: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Declaration_of_Human_Rights Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 15:37
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    @infatuated: If you strike 'greater consciousness' and 'solely' from your list, evolution is compatible with all of the above. Evolution affirms both competition and cooperation, both greed and altruism, etc. etc. etc., as emergent behaviours without needing to appeal to any special 'higher' anything. (If you'd like to discuss evolution further, maybe there's somewhere we can move the conversation?)
    – Dave B
    Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 13:48

8 Answers 8

Do human rights exist?

Yes, in exactly the same way that law exists - that is, as a social construct that we human beings have come together to (mostly) agree upon. Declarations of human rights are living documents, in that they are open to interpretation when conflicts arise and are subject to change as we refine the language used to express the ideals behind them. Codes of human rights (or lack thereof) help shape the world, or at least in the places and aspects where humans spend the most time.

If you mean 'exists' purely in a physical sense, then no - you'll never be able to pick up a Human Right and chew on it. Human rights are (often codified) ideas, and like other ideas exist in a more abstract manner.

What is the basis for believing that there is such a thing as human rights?
At its most basic, the social contract (explicit or implied) that we human beings have with one another implies there is some set of rules we should all follow. There are many different possible social rulesets, many at odds with each other. The concept of human rights forms the basis of one possible ruleset that takes fair treatment of all human beings as a core concept.

In other words, human rights exist because we humans created them - in much the same way that art, music and philosophy exist because humans created those, too.

I am all for human rights but it could be argued that the notion of human rights is imaginary and reducable[sic] to absurdity (that humans by virtue of being born are magically entitled to certain things) when trying to prove it scientificaly[sic] or logically.

Human rights are not absolutes. Rather, they're our best attempt at expressing and codifying the golden rule. They are as imaginary as other ideals, laws, guidelines and best-practices - so again, whether they exist or not/are imaginary or not will depend on whether your definitions include other abstract concepts.

Logically, it makes sense for humans to treat each other respectfully (so that we are treated respectfully in turn) and to protect vulnerable segments of our population (so that we too are protected during times of vulnerability). Scientifically, we can show that the ideals expressed by the golden rule translate to happier people and improved productivity and quality of life - and assuming those are values we collectively agree on, we can continue to study ways to improve the situation for as many as we can.

It also seems incompatible with evolution, where survival of the fittest would dictate,


'Survival of the fittest' is a catchy phrase that is as accurate using 'It's just a theory' to dismiss a field of science. Wikipedia currently has a nice summary: (Emphasis added)

The phrase "survival of the fittest" is not generally used by modern biologists as the term does not accurately describe the mechanism of natural selection as biologists conceive it. Natural selection is differential reproduction (not just survival) and the object of scientific study is usually differential reproduction resulting from traits that have a genetic basis under the circumstances in which the organism finds itself, which is called fitness, but in a technical sense which is quite different from the common meaning of the word

In biology, 'Fitness' is a complicated, multi-parameter, interconnected mish-mash that is constantly being re-evaluated in response to an ever-changing environment that includes flora, fauna, seasons, social/sexual dimensions, etc. etc. etc. Using everyday definitions of the words, 'Survival of the fittest' is to biology as 'Things fall down' is to physics.

...that you either have what it takes to secure the resources necessary to survive, or you perish if unable to secure said resources, evolution doesnt state anywhere that everyone is born with a right to a specific alotment of resources.

Social animals (including humans) learned long ago that cooperation is a winning long-term strategy. Can you imagine how shitty life would be if we didn't have our modern division of labour? If nobody had time to program a computer because we were all so busy foraging food for today and desperately hoping we'll be able to do the same tomorrow?

Evolution (descent with modification) is an 'is', not an 'ought'. It happens to populations, not individuals. Selfish behaviours may help some individuals short-term, yet can be disastrous for the population as a long-term strategy.

Our history shows the evolution of the concept and codification of human rights from earlier social constructs, such as the earliest expressions of the golden rule right back in antiquity. There is nothing unnatural about an evolving social contract among social animals such as humans.

Is it possible to reconcile these contradicting positions or is it more logical to conclude that human rights are a human invention?

Yes to both parts: Once you move beyond a catchphrase-based understanding of biology (and the emergent human sociology) the conflict dries up like so much straw left in the sun.

That codified human rights are a human invention should be obvious, and their being a human invention - built by humans, for humans - in no way diminishes their worth.

  • Excellent and thorough answer. A more poetical analysis in the same vein: onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2010/11/…
    – Malcolm
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 19:31
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    The <\rant> isn't neessasary
    – user5375
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 12:38
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    I upvoted just for the rant. I'm going to steal your phrase, "'Survival of the fittest' is to biology as 'Things fall down' is to physics". Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 21:02

Human rights are institutions that help make it easier for people to deal with one another. They are invented by human beings, but that doesn't mean they are arbitrary. Nor does it mean that different ideas about what rights people should have are all equally good. For example, if the government can steal from people at will and are totally unaccountable for their plundering this makes it very difficult for anybody to deal with other people. You can't say that you will deliver some grain to market because the government might decide to steal the grain. Also, it will not be in your interest to advertise that you have grain for fear of the government stealing it. You can't make long range plans with respect to grain growing because the government might steal the seed you intend to plant for next year's harvest. Such a system was tried in the Ukraine when it was occupied by the Soviets and led to famine.

You say that it is not possible to prove human rights scientifically or logically. This criterion doesn't make sense for two distinct reasons. The first problem is that you are tacitly assuming a moral standard when saying this: the standard that science and logic should be used in dealing with people. This standard is not empirically testable because anybody disputing it would say that empirical tests are worthless. So you can't say that empirical testing is the only criterion for assessing ideas. The second is that knowledge is created by conjecture and criticism, not by proving stuff.

You say that human rights seem incompatible with evolution. First, theory of biological evolution is a factual theory about the means by which biological complexity is created. It is not a moral theory. Second, there is an evolutionary process taking place among ideas: memetic evolution. This process involves generating variants of ideas in an attempt to solve a problem and then selecting among those ideas. This process is faster than biological evolution: the generation time is something like one second since that's how fast you can decide to reject an idea. Memetic evolution also has more scope that biological evolution because in biological evolution each phenotype has to be able to survive being in practice immediately. If we were to adopt the standard of promoting toe growth of knowledge then we should try to change our institutions to make conjecture and criticism easier. You might ask why we should adopt such a standard: greater knowledge creation makes it possible for us to solve more problems. We might then explain some of our moral standards using this idea. For example, people should have freedom of speech so that the government can't stop people from proposing and criticising ideas.

For more see,



  • +1 I think this is a great answer and one that does a good job of addressing the asker's concerns. (commenting in part to show that I'm not just a negative vibe on your contributions here).
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 11:39
  • I don't mind criticism or questions. My positions are so different from the norm that I would be more concerned if people were not sceptical.
    – alanf
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 14:35
  • Interesting. Human rights derive from the law. Which means that before there was law, there were no human rights. So our cave-dwelling ancestors had no human rights. I don't agree with that, but I feel I'm on shaky logical grounds. I can't see how there could be a right if there's no concept of rights. But don't we have human rights by virtue of being human; whether there's law or not? I admit it's a shaky position.
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 5:43

I think that to be able to answer the question, we need look at a couple of examples that define the "right," and determine its "source."

We have the legal right "to assemble peacefully." Its source - the US Constitution.

We have the human right "to be treated with respect." Its source - Society.

These examples make it clear that human rights do exist, and have existed, since two or more humans decided to coexist in close proximity, thereby forming a "society".

  • DV - I would argue that claiming any source is "Society" with no other reference is without a philosophical or historical basis. In every society there are many who do not treat others with respect. These people are not immediately ostracized, nor is it criminal. Social norms are significantly different than human rights Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 2:11

I came to this page to ask exactly that question! They're a human invention, for sure- drawn out of the notion of an understood basic level of "fairness".

Eg Right to a fair trial:

Arguably, we as a race have matured enough to realise that convicting people unfairly is not good in the long run, and no way to run a society.

But have we ? Human rights still seem to vary from culture to culture. Some cultures have a demeaning attitude towards women (denying them education and not representing them in sections of society), some are plain xenophobic, others strive for equality among all. Each will probably have a different notion of "human rights".

I would agree that on a local level, human rights aren't compatible with evolution, but as a race, again we've matured such that the strong can give enough to help the weak, such that there is a "basic level of care" provided simply because you're human.

Again this doesn't apply to all the world, and only while we have such resources. Take away a modern culture's water supply and see how many "human rights" stay intact ..

So my answer would be that our abundance of resources enables us to allot a basic level of care worldwide. The notion is good but the implementation is (currently) pretty awful.

The CEO of Nestle recently explained his contraversial view that "Access to clean water is not a human right". I'll stifle my reaction to that, but it's an interesting point which is abhorrant to most people, and yet there he is holding such a view.

Thanks for asking this question and making me think it through :-)

  • This is not bad overall, but did you look at the link suggested as a comment above? There are accounts of human rights that don't see them as mere invention.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 11:02
  • I've read it subsequently.. Do you mean Rights granted by God ? That would amount to a set of things which "should" be in place for every human as decreed by God - and would be implemented by miracles or the very existence of reality - and out of the realm of humans to manipulate ? Or have I misunderstood ? Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 9:31
  • I would say you've misunderstood. Some accounts of rights believe they are inherent in reality. Some of them see this as a function of social reality (e.g. Hegel). Some see this as a function of reasonable beings existing at all (e.g. Kant). Some theists think God put them there. Some theists think God commands that we do them but that they are not present in objective reality itself.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 9:41
  • This is greatly material in some East-West dialogue literature. It's a common belief in the West that such rights objectively exist not merely as an invention (that's not actually my view, but it is the dominant one). I can get the book off my shelf if it matters for a reference but Confucian Ethics (edited SHUN Kwong-Loi) has some arguments against rights. I think Daniels is a contemporary account of objective rights.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 9:43
  • Thanks for the info ! I'd have to study up a lot to get to grips with that though. I might well do that amend my answer, but for the moment, with these comments underneath as a caveat, I think it's ok. Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 15:00

Jean Jacques Rousseau agrees with the OP criticism; "the notion of human rights is imaginary and reducible to absurdity (that humans by virtue of being born are magically entitled to certain things)... [and] that human rights are a human invention"

Rousseau argues in the introduction to "A Discourse on Inequality" that human rights, if they do in fact exist, are not accessible to man, and therefore a declaration of them is flawed. An abridged version of his argument is as follows:

How shall man hope to see himself as nature made him, across all the changes which the succession of place and time must have produced in his original constitution? How can he distinguish what is fundamental in his nature from the changes and additions which his circumstances and the advances he has made have introduced to modify his primitive condition?

These questions are posed to establish the inherent difficulty and shortfall of trying "to distinguish properly between what is original and what is artificial in the actual nature of man, or to form a true idea of a state which no longer exists". He argues that "it is this ignorance of the nature of man, which casts so much uncertainty and obscurity on the true definition of natural right."

He poses a further criticism; describing them more as maxims that enhance humanity, rather than natural law.

Modern writers begin by inquiring what rules it would be expedient for men to agree on for their common interest, and then give the name of natural law to a collection of these rules, without any other proof than the good that would result from their being universally practised. This is undoubtedly a simple way of making definitions, and of explaining the nature of things by almost arbitrary conveniences.

It would be inappropriate to call this an accurate account of inherent human rights because it does not come "directly from the voice of nature."

He does however define the foundational pillars that are consistent of these construction, and do derive from nature.

Throwing aside [those modern rules] which teach us only to see men such as they have made themselves, and contemplating the first and most simple operations of the human soul, I think I can perceive in it two principles prior to reason, one of them deeply interesting [all humanity] in our own welfare and preservation, and the other exciting a natural repugnance at seeing any other sensible being, and particularly any of our own species, suffer pain or death.

Utilizing this foundation he points not to specific laws, but an obedience to this nature that can bring about collaborative and compassionate interactions between all of humanity.

[Humanity's] duties towards others are not dictated to him only by the later lessons of wisdom; and, so long as he does not resist the internal impulse of compassion, he will never hurt another man, nor even any sentient being, except on those lawful occasions on which his own preservation is concerned and he is obliged to give himself the preference.

Therefore, there are no human rights, only human obligations to do no harm, unless forced to. And from that obligation we can derive social contracts that dictate further artificial laws to enhance humanity. However, categorically these are not inherent natural rights.


Thomas Jefferson disagrees with the OP criticism; "the notion of human rights is imaginary and reducible to absurdity (that humans by virtue of being born are magically entitled to certain things)... [and] that human rights are a human invention"

Jefferson argues in the Declaration of Independence, that human rights are unalienable which is understood a priori by all individuals in society.

"...these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

To Jefferson and the other founding fathers, these rights cannot be artificial or granted by the government, because it is the responsibility of the government to protect these rights, else it shall suffer the pains of revolt.

"... That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

In addressing your question of evolutionary basis, Jefferson would likely point to concepts first conceived by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, focusing on the paradigm shift from a "state of nature" to a "common public authority" (the formation of society). It is by this transition that we move beyond the process of natural selection that is so important when considering the evolutionary process. Just as human kind eliminated other significant factors that drive evolution (access to food and other essential resources, vulnerability to predation, etc.), the formation of society only further removes us from the natural processes that beholden humanity to a natural evolutionary process.


Whether or not human rights are viewed primarily as a social institution depends greatly on religious views. In a Judeo-Christian/Abrahamic religious framework, one could say human rights are God-given and so do have a non-arbitrary basis and are inherent. If one rejects the idea of God-given rights, the moral basis for human rights is significantly weakened and can be seen as relative and not inherent in human nature.

The theory of evolution, as stated before, is a scientific theory, not a moral one. Scientific theories can tell us what a human being is, but they cannot tell us what rights a human being has, or what the criteria are for having rights.


On paper: Yes

In reality: No

For some people human rights do exist, but not for others. Some people accept them as given, other people just ignore them.

Or how do they say: "It's All in Your Head."

  • Just saying "it is" and "it isn't" is not a helpful answer. You need to do something to support what you are claiming.
    – BillOnne
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 21:11
  • Sry,was too busy. But I am not actually going into politics and the countless murder and useless crimes during the past 70 years here on this platform...if you're not informed, then so be it. I think of this philosophy platform rather as what it is: Philosophy, not science, therefore only thoughts, no sources, from my part.
    – Marcus
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 15:03

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