Are "universal human rights" (as per definitions by United Nations or others who try to argue for them) demonstrateable? How?

I personally question this concept due to several reasons:

  • Universality is a rare property. It doesn't (in a demonstrateable way) exist very often, if ever. Rather there exists differences, which is not universality, but particularity/particularism.

  • Human right is a social construct. Which means that it's not a consistent, hard, objective-like. I can change my opinion tomorrow and then it doesn't exist.

Are "universal human rights" a "synthetic" construct? Which means that, IF we choose to adapt to it, we CAN adapt to it. However, does this still make them somehow "valid", "true"? A religious person would be of similar kind, they CAN believe, but their belief is still not particularly true.

Which implies that: in order to avoid an "every claim goes" mentality. One must add criteria for correctness, such as measurability, demonstrateability, scientific method.

A complementary text that motivates this question:

On How Physicalism And Physicalist Value Avoids Naturalist/Moralist Fallacy (Epistemology, Physicalism) https://noncontradictingpolitics.blogspot.com/2019/08/on-how-physicalism-and-physicalist.html

  • What do you mean with "universal human rights" ? What we can prove is a sentence from axioms. Sep 7, 2019 at 8:44
  • This is too broad for us, I am afraid. On the general conception of human rights and their justification see SEP Human Rights. After reading it, perhaps you could make the question more specific. But do not expect them to be "demonstrateable" in any sense like the laws of physics, that is unreasonable to expect of any moral system. At best, one can hope to show that they help, on average, to promote human "well-being".
    – Conifold
    Sep 7, 2019 at 9:35
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA The way UN and other who promote them as laws define them.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 7, 2019 at 10:46
  • @Conifold Are you sure it's broad? I find that there are not too many "significant" epistemological contexts to consider. E.g.: physicalism, social constructionism and a bit of ethics (which relates to soc. constructionism). To treat this as a "subjective opinion" would be broad, but it's also not sufficient to produce "general law". Due to there being counter examples where "subjective opinion" is not even a "general opinion".
    – mavavilj
    Sep 7, 2019 at 10:47
  • @Conifold Also I disagree with "do not expect them to be demonstrateable". There are considerations in physicalism as to how it deals with moral theory. And I find that this way of looking at moral is "the modern way to look at moral". Whereas "moral theory" is old-school. A physicalist idea about moral is e.g. "If the moral claim can be measured physically, e.g. pain, then we can consider it". This is to contrast against a priori claims such as "every human has unalienable rights" (which we don't have to see, thus they're not physicalist). A mere a priori claim is "somewhat empty".
    – mavavilj
    Sep 7, 2019 at 10:49

6 Answers 6


Universal human rights result when a deontology is taken as a prescription.

(Later edit: I realized I did not clearly weigh in on the actual question. The answer is ambiguous: you can demonstrate that proposed rights meet the axiomatics of the deontologies involved, and that most people from most cultures would naively sign on to those in some simplified form, the same way we readily accept naive set theory.

I can demonstrate slavery, or child labor, is always unfair the same way I can demonstrate that the continuum is uncountable. But not in the same way I can demonstrate an electric field produces a magnetic force.

History or reflection might give you a different way of looking at infinity. It might also leave you with no reason to trust any of my instruments. So ultimately, neither kind of demonstration is really superior to the other.)

For a Kantian/Rawlsian or other ethics that recognizes 'duty' and assumes it must have a rational basis, if something can in fact be implemented in such a way that it honors all individuals' autonomy properly, it is a moral law, and it might just as well be an enforced law. A lot of Enlightenment thought comes down to some echo of this kind of thinker, often via the notion of a social contract and the rights of people to enter, alter, or leave it.

If everyone honest is going to ultimately agree that a rule treats them properly, then you might as well cut to the chase and force the issue. Whatever you have a duty to do or not to do creates the right of all others to have you do or not do it.

We all recognize the idea that one should not kill innocent people, whenever possible. It is not something that is culturally determined or foreign to anyone. So as an international point of agreement, we can declare it to be a guiding principle. Starting from a few examples of that kind, you can discern the pattern Kant supposedly reached by abstract critique, and start making agreements that things that meet certain standards are natural to humans.

But, as is kind of notorious within 'duty' arguments, almost all meaningful duties are contingent -- they contain variables that individuals get to choose according to their best perception of their own autonomy. Is it necessary to sacrifice children to gods? That depends upon a cultural history and what role the sacrifice plays in keeping that culture in existence.

So virtually nobody can enforce any of these principles in a way that is really helpful. All they can do is use the underlying agreement to criticize one another's contingent choices. This is still useful in extending a certain kind of peace, but it privileges those who are already advantaged. Diffuse rules generally serve those privileged to be in a position to withstand considerable waste.

For instance, there are those who can legitimately afford peace and those who may actually perish unless they take what others have. Making the assumption that the notion of peace has a very high value suggests that those latter cultures should really just not exist. You can obligate the privileged to help them, but it is highly likely that they don't ultimately want outside help. They want the chance that nature gave them, whether or not the only chance they naturally have is moral in others' eyes.

So the idea kind of eats its own tail. Individual obligations may be impossible to protect from group needs to define themselves and sustain their identity, and vice versus.

  • How is "is taken as a prescription" possible, universally speaking? A deontology is something that requires belief. No belief, no rules.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 7, 2019 at 19:20
  • @mavavilj Not from the point of view of a genuine deontologist. Kant sees duty as natural to intelligence. Period. No agreement necessary. Because ultimately every honest individual has to agree that what is best for every honest individual is in fact best. The universality is built into the definition of duty. I am not saying Kant is right, only that this invades the Enlightenment psychology on which all these institutions are built.
    – user9166
    Sep 7, 2019 at 19:23
  • "universality is built in to the definition of duty"? Isn't this "appeal to definition" or "a priori bullshit"?
    – mavavilj
    Sep 7, 2019 at 19:25
  • Regarding my moral epistemological background, I believe that modern moral should be explainable by "empirical psychology". That is, what is moral, why it exists, so on.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 7, 2019 at 19:26
  • @mavavilj This gets a little bit diluted by the notion of the nation and the social contract. You may have the ability to write, change or abandon your own social contract, but we have already decided that we are going to act as if everyone o the planet lives under a social contract. Even if we pretend to criticize the notion, this does not change.
    – user9166
    Sep 7, 2019 at 19:39

"Human Rights the way UN and other who promote them as laws define them" are a social construct, a mere convention of rules defined and enforced by a state (or in the case of the UN, the states which ratified the convention).

Some people do consider them to follow from reason, some consider them to follow from divine revelation. I personally see both those source as weak, considering that reason proceeds form premisses that have to be accepted in advance and that revelation has to be trusted on prophets.

I personnaly prefer to consider that, as the OP say, they are contingent and can be changed. If anything, even if human rights were a transcendent reality, people could only enjoy them the way states enforce them (what good is your transcendent right to free speech when cops can lawfully take you to prison for having spoken your mind about the president?), so the only version of human rights one will ever enjoy is the conventional, contingent one.

That does not mean they are worthless or arbitrary. I, for one, would not want to change the way they are defined in my country, as it warrants me a bunch of rights I want for myself, and I am not powerfull enough to get those rights as a personal grant. The best way to make sure i have them for myself is to proclaim them to be universal, which is to say that anyone should have them, including me.

For example, I have no private militia to enforce freedom of speech only for the ideas that please me. Therefore the best way for me to be able to speak my mind is to partake in the collective convention that makes it so that everyone can speak their mind. In that sense, freedom of speech is not "universal" in itself, but the majority of the population has an interest in proclaiming that it is.

  • Addendum: it might look like i just used reason to justify human rights after just having said it was not a good fundation. My point is, "I personnaly want such and such right and it looks like everybody feels the same" is amuch more self evident axiom than "humans have a special essential dignity that grants them such and such right".
    – armand
    Sep 15, 2019 at 12:23
  • "self-evident" maybe, but not sufficient. If "personal opinion" would suffice, then we could have e.g. culture that abides fully to some religion. On the other hand, in epistemological solipsism a "personal opinion" could be sufficient, if it doesn't require intersubjectivity. But tbh, I think human rights are somewhat "religious", because some of their demonstrations are "supranatural". "Every human is has these and these universal rights". One cannot verify "every human", "every human" are not the same and thus universality is not a physicalist property in this context. It's soc. constr.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 15, 2019 at 20:05
  • I understand your objection, but it comes from the fact that you are still considering HR as a metaphysical thing existing "as is", while I propose to consider them as a political artefact. I agree that metaphysical HR is akin to religion as it can't be discussed or amended, only discovered through reason and accepted. "Universal" in a political sense just means "granted to everybody without condition".
    – armand
    Sep 15, 2019 at 23:42

In the original (and often misunderstood) understanding of natural rights, certain qualities were considered to be properties of human beings (in much the same way that mass and hardness are properties of a stone). The idea often gets tangled up in semantics — one of the 'properties' of human beings is 'property ownership', and the dual senses of the term confound many people — but a natural right is always an expression of the right to exercise a natural property of humanity.

The problem that philosophy tries to address — the moral problem — is that humans are (ostensibly) free moral agents, and have the capacity to break, violate, or change these natural properties. For instance, we can change the hardness of a stone by melting it in a furnace or dissolving it in acid. Likewise, we can change the properties of a human being by killing or depriving or enslaving him. Are you going to suggest that the hardness is not a universal property of that stone because we can melt or dissolve it? Then why suggest that the right to life is not a universal property just because we can kill people?

We 'demonstrate' that a rock has the property 'hardness' by observing that it is hard. We 'demonstrate' that a human has the property 'life' by observing him live. Then we negotiate what we can and cannot do with those respective properties (e.g. we have laws preventing people from changing the properties of inanimate materials to produce addictive drugs). The UN Declaration of Human Rights is merely an effort to negotiate firm principles with respect to the particular innate properties that inhere in being human.

  • That's about the idea, but I think one should add that defining "human being" and their properties is much harder than defining stones and their properties. In fact, there are good reasons to say that it is futile to even try to find a set of properties that is both distinctive for and universal among human beings.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 19, 2019 at 21:25
  • @PhilipKlöcking - oh, I don't think that last is true at all. The mere capacity for rational choice and moral agency — exercised or not — is sufficient to identify a human. You'll notice that the act of dehumanizing a person or group always entails some assertion that they are normal, reactive, unthinking, stupid, or otherwise incapable of higher cognition, empathy, or pro-social attitudes. The problem isn't that we don't know what it means to be human; the problem is that some people refuse to accept humanness in people they dislike. Oct 19, 2019 at 23:18
  • Well, I did extensive research there and both biologically and regarding rationality the usual assumptions do not hold. What is "capacity" meant to mean here? Physically severed brains do not allow for said capacity, may it be from birth, due to injury, or because of diseases. That's not about liking or disliking someone
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 20, 2019 at 10:19
  • 'Physically severed brains'..? There are always going to be ambiguous border cases, but a fuzzy border does not negate the existence of a class. 'Capacity' means 'potential: the vast run of human beings have the potential to engage in reasoning and to make moral/ethical judgements. Do you dispute that? Oct 20, 2019 at 13:40
  • 1
    I do not dispute it, I just say that some months of research on that very topic convinced me that either we are speaking of the class of human beings who are unequivocally protected by human rights - this makes the justification of human rights fuzzy and the class rather arbitrary - or we are stuck with really delicate demarcation problems of border cases which have real ethical and legal consequences for individuals. I am sympathetic with your suggestion, it is close to what I used to think. It just doesn't work if you think it through.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 20, 2019 at 20:26

Earn your human rights by becoming a human being in the true sense of the term. Animalistic humanoids don't have human rights. They are not treated as human beings by the Laws of Nature. Human rights are granted by existence. No governmental body can ever give you those rights. You must be recognized by other true human beings.

Human beings do not necessarily live on this planet only. Imagine, one day in the future, the human race develops relations with 50 intelligent, human-like, alien civilizations. Anyone from these 50 alien races can be called a human being if he meets the necessary qualifications for a human being. The term "human being" can refer to any intelligent living being in this universe, provided his consciousness is sufficiently developed. And it is indeed rare to find a real human being.

  • 1
    I agree, but this is not how "statist human rights" operates. It's "order by force", rather than "spontaneous order".
    – mavavilj
    Oct 17, 2019 at 10:57
  • This seems to have been answered by one of these animals.
    – Gordon
    Oct 17, 2019 at 13:24
  • This is like the antithesis of what those who originally conceived human rights had in mind. It's universal for a reason. The reason is that otherwise, those in power may decide who is to be privileged as human being and who is not. It is not on you nor anyone else to tell apart true human beings and the vermin who does not deserve to be titled human.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 17, 2019 at 19:18
  • @PhilipKlöcking, This thought brings one deadly notion: that a human being can never be self-authoritative on his state of humanity (no self-conscious in that matter) before he is officially accepted as a human being. This implies that people are incapable of becoming true human beings. This is what religions said for enlightened people. Who were the originators of Universal Human Rights? Were they true human beings? How did they become true human beings before UHR existed? Oct 17, 2019 at 19:56
  • Your notion of "true human beings" and humans being self-conscious regarding their humanity are simply misplaced concepts when talking about human rights. Their idea is legal, having defensive rights against states which are immeasurably more powerful than individuals. The notion of "human" has problems of its own, but what you suggest means that comatose and mentally disabled people as well as small children, psychologically ill people or elderly people with dementia are not human and hence are not protected by human rights, maybe not even the diplomats who negotiated the UDHR.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 18, 2019 at 8:58

There are two aspects of "Universal Human Rights".

Firstly, an important demarcation that we must understand is that the essence of these human rights in order to make any sense fundamentally (if at all) has a requirement of semblance to a rudimentary civilized society, if nothing more. If applied to present day or historic tribal groups more than half of these rights stand invalidated as natural constructs, proving that these are rather typical of synthetic social structures. This would constitute the temporal aspect.

The second aspect pertains to how the the qualifying conditions, if one can construct in principle, could stand to the tests of measurability, correctedness or demonstrability that you raise. The very idea that these have an element of human adaptibility or choice involved exclude the possibility that these are demonstrable in the absolute sense.

Consider the following scenario. If the access to the web is cut which does occur in many countries (which already are signatories to these UN declared rights) the question that arises (and has arisen legally) is whether or not access to the net is a fundamental human right or not?https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_Internet_access

This scenario would have been unthinkable just four decades ago! Similarly several questions relating to the original charter of human rights will start emerging. The issue of cyber privacy or privacy in itself is a clear manifestation that the "Scientific" methods and the subject of interest of the probing mechanism must be revised in order to be understood coherently.

There was a landmark case as to whether Privacy is a fundamental human right or not in the Indian Supreme Court.

Finally, the basis of these rights is an attempt to design such synthetic structures which hopefully promote or aid the survivial of the constituents of the societies. Which is why in a circular manner these structures will keep morphing and even crossing itself at times.


To say there're Universal Human Rights it depends on:

1- Truth, is it Absolute or Relative. Or there're parts of the Truth which are absolute and others which are relative. Or Truth are Absolute but has two types: a- Main, mother truths. b- offshoot truths.

Offshoot truths are also Absolute Truths, but we may be deceived and consider Offshoot Truths as Relative.

Thus, demonstableness of Universal Human Rights depends upon our understanding of the Truth.

2- Demonstableness also depends upon our understanding of development of Humanity.

Thus, If the Truth is absolute and Human Mentality and Psych can't change, then Universal Human Rights are Demonstrable.

How?. By the Agency of specialists.

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