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Just like the title states, I am referring only to philosophical justifications, not legal, historical, or religious justifications. To me, it seems that the use of rights, specifically human rights, is becoming more and more pervasive in all aspects of society. We use the concept of rights to justify so many things, including other rights, certain acts and non-acts, and the transcendence of certain legal codes. We term some rights 'inalienable' or 'natural'. However, this question is not about any of those subjects, no matter how interesting a conversation about them may be. This question is specifically about how rights themselves as a concept are justified at all, whether they are man-made or an intrinsic aspect of the universe or living beings is also irrelevant because I am seeking a justification that fits a certain list of parameters.

  1. The justification must be consistent and not self-contradictory or have major exceptions.
  2. The justification must be generalizable as well as instantiable. For example, it can be applied to human, animal, natural, or God-given rights as well as be able to be used to justify specific rights, e.g. the right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion.
  3. The justification must be at least equal in strength to the justifications laid out on the SEP: Rights and SEP: Human Rights pages. (This means you can reference and use those arguments as well. I have read through them and would like to use this forum to gain a further understanding.)

Here I am not looking for a perfect answer just the best one that can be given to this specific question. I do not want any answers that are not strictly philosophical in nature as they may make this question too open to interpretation and may hurt other answers that may be more focused. By 'philosophical' I only mean understood and stated only with the assumptions and premises laid out in the argument, though if you feel your argument adheres to an alternate definition feel free to answer. This is to weed out, for example, a legal argument that may attempt to circumvent answering this question by first showing that we need to justify the making of certain laws and that giving people rights is the best way to do that.

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    I don't think your requirements can be met. For example God given rights require no more justification than "they are god given". It becomes a theological issue to determine what exactly god granted us as rights. Natural rights are something we have just for being humans, they are an object of philosophical debate but fixed, to the extent that any political system that doesn't implement them is considered faulty. Social contract type rights are always negotiable as they represent the general will, which is variable in time. All those are very different in nature.
    – armand
    Jul 5, 2022 at 2:11
  • @Armand, it sounds like you’ve gestured towards answering the question by pointing to a divide between Natural rights and Social Contract rights. Some things everyone gets by fact of individual agency in the state of nature, and these are enhanced with reference to collective agreement.
    – Paul Ross
    Jul 5, 2022 at 7:49
  • @PaulRoss more like "this question is asking for squaring the circle". I don't think "it's both" can cut it. Are our rights as written in the law the imperfect implementation of natural rights or emerging from a collective deliberation? It can't be both. Let's say the deliberation's result is contrary to Nature, is it legitimate? For example, people want communism but nature says (at least according to Locke) that individual property is paramount, who is legit? I don't think one can answer the problem with "it's both"
    – armand
    Jul 5, 2022 at 9:18
  • @armand, it can be both and it is both. Rights are commonly divided into natural or God-given rights and civil rights. The first come from natural law, the second come from law, contracts, constitutions, and the like. For example, the right to a lawyer is a civil right, not a natural right. The right to life is a natural right, not a civil right. Jul 5, 2022 at 10:41
  • @DavidGudeman if you are going to go out of your way to mention me please have the courtesy to read the argument and address it instead of preaching. Who is legitimate when one source contradicts the other? On a given topic it can be only one. Therefore there can be no all encompassing justification for the concept of "rights", which was my point. Also, God given rights, just like God, don't exist. Prove me wrong ;-)
    – armand
    Jul 5, 2022 at 10:52

5 Answers 5

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Suppose, "I have a right to X," is the basic form of the claim in question. In this sense, rights are more states of objects than aspects of actions (as in "right actions"). For reasons of deontic logic, the basic claim can be cashed out as shorthand for, "I am permitted to have X if I so choose, and others are under obligation not to conflict with this permission." Generally enough (modulo the deontic hexagon, say), there will be an easy conversion of the permission-claim in one dimension, into an obligation-claim in another.

However, asking for a philosophical justification for rights-attribution then reduces to asking for a philosophical theory of permissions. We're not sure that there's only one "useful"/relevant notion of permission (or even obligation in turn), or so whether the indifferent and the optional are to be prised apart. Talk of granting permissions as a fundamental basis for differential optionality can be so construed:

A widespread distinction that was put forward in an attempt to overcome [Jörgensen’s] dilemma is that between a norm and a normative proposition.[78] Consider a normative sentence such as “You may park here for one hour”. This sentence may be used by an authority to provide permission on the spot or it may be used by a passerby to report on an already existing norm (e.g., a standing municipal regulation). The activity of using a normative sentence as in the first case is sometimes referred to as “norming”—it creates a norm by granting permission by the very use of the sentence. The second use is often said to be descriptive, since the sentence is then not used to grant permission, but to report that permission to do so is a standing state. It is often maintained that the two uses are mutually exclusive, and only the latter use allows for truth or falsity. Some have however challenged the exclusiveness of the division, by blending semantics and speech-act theory (especially regarding performatives). They thereby suggest that one who is in authority to grant a permission can not only grant it by performing the speech act of uttering the relevant sentence (as in the first example), but also thereby makes what it said true— that the person is permitted to park (as in the second example with the passerby)).

This is evocative of the "normative powers" gloss of promissory duty. Perhaps appealing to a relatively irreducible faculty or capacity of normative determination is an appeal to a philosophical concept; perhaps not. At any rate, to overcome issues of "nobody ever really said that," we might go on to conceive of tacit norming (along the lines of, or as the genus over, tacit consent), though whether humans tacitly grant permissions in such a way as to fix talk of natural rights thereby, is a rather unclear claim. (Rights given by God or society don't pose this mystery, in principle.) Unless we can explain how choosing to live or communicate is a choice that codes for the appropriate tacit permission, I'm not sure where we would locate so-called natural rights grounded in granted permissions.

Now, on the other hand, there being matters of indifference to factor in, perhaps the differently optional permissions ground God-given or social rights, whereas indifference is the province of natural, or we might say automatic, rights: the fact that it is indifferent whether something be done, goes on to obligate us to recognize the matter of indifference as such (i.e., owing to a prior duty to be honest, we ought not to act as if the indifferently permitted "enjoys" some other deontic status). If it is indifferent whether, as adults, we sleep with other adults of the same or another sex, then we would have a natural right, perhaps, to sleep with whom we please accordingly, and then in turn we ourselves, and others around us, are also obligated to not set up laws that represent these behavioral options as objects of moral comportment. Something like, "It's none of your business," pushed as far as can be.

So, all that being said, I don't know that we'd have a direct philosophical justification for all forms of rights-talks: the genus is, "A condition based on the concept of permission," which when disambiguated goes on to cover the species of contingent rights (God-given or socially constructed) modulo differential permission, and the species of necessary rights modulo indifferential permission. Oddly (though still factually), obligations logically transmuted into being out of indifferential permission would still be obligations, notwithstanding their ethereal source, though.

RECAP: Rights-talk in general represents a second-order deontic logical circuit, ambiguated over at least two categories of permissions leading into at least one category of obligation. A voluntaristic disambiguation turns on differential permission, an involuntaristic ("automatic") disambiguation turns on indifferential permission plus an ambient duty to believe in, and act according to, the truth/facts of reality/w/e. Talk of God-given rights can go either way: voluntaristically in a revealed covenant with the divine nature, or involuntaristically in whatever physical nature God provided us with by Her manner of creating us. None of these definitions justifies individual rights-claims, however; rather, they (philosophically) justify the practice of making such claims at all (by showing that there is a rigorous intelligibility to this type of claim).

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    This is a very well made and articulated answer. Honestly I do not understand all the nuances of SO-logic or of deontic logic, however, I will certainly research these so I can fully understand your argument. Let this comment act as a placeholder until I can fully appreciate your answer. Jul 5, 2022 at 21:23
  • One can argue that god-given vs natural is not a strict dichotomy, where one can be defended whereas the other cannot. In any case, the fact of certain (natural) needs that have to be satisfied in order for a human being to function is a fact, and a group choosing to ignore this fact, is not going to last in the long run. So at least in this sense (human) rights can be natural and inalienable as much as they represent needs which are natural and inalienable. So can (human) rights be trampled with? It is not impossible. Is a social group, that tramples these rights going to last? No.
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 6, 2022 at 15:25
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Rights can be the subject of a contract. Such as by paying an entrance fee, you gain the right of entering a place. They can be subject of explicit, written contracts, or implicit social ones. So social animal behavior can also be described as contracts and rights. After winning a mating fight and passing other mating rituals, an animal might gain the right to mate, which just means another animal will comply rather than flee or resist.

So in general for a situation to be describable as having "rights", multiple agents need to be involved with the power to enable or prevent one another from doing something, and a contract by which one agent will provide something or not resist something can then be described as a right.

This also works for other entities like groups, companies, society or nations, even inter-species.

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  • Great answer. First, it does abide by the three criteria I have stated above, second, your wording and explanation lend it to being 'philosophical' as you have cases through time and space, and third, it offers a new concept of 'situations' having rights, as opposed to individuals, which I had never considered. However, I do still wonder if this explanation and justification of rights may be superior to giving justification to entire systems of actions and societies, such as those given by Marx, as opposed to the individual. I have other thoughts, sadly, too long for this comment to continue. Jul 5, 2022 at 6:20
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    You might want to wait a couple of days before accepting an answer, there are plenty of other great responders who might offer even better answers.
    – tkruse
    Jul 5, 2022 at 6:46
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Let's start with the classical philosophical justification of natural rights, from Locke's "Second Treatise on Government" (chapter 5: Property). This is specific to property rights, mind you, but Locke argues that if we are to continue living, we must consume: anything we have consumed becomes naturally part of our bodies and thus naturally 'ours' (since it is inseparable from our beingn). But by that same token, anything that we invest labor into so that we can consume it — what we harvest or gather, what we prepare, what we cook — is also 'ours' in the same sense. Even though we have not yet consumed it, we should treat it as part of our physical bodies because we have expended the resources of our physical bodies to later consume it. If I gather acorns, leach them, grind them, and bake them into a pie (yes, that was a thing back in the day), that pie in 'mine' by right because of the effort I put into making it. It is 'mine' just as if I had already eaten it.

This logic can be extended to justify a right to property of any sort, obviously...

What Locke glosses over in this analysis is the place of 'choice'. Animals have no property because they merely eat what they find when they are hungry. Humans have the capacity to plan and act with foresight: to plant crops for later harvest; to create non-consumable goods that they can exchange for consumable goods; to gather and store excess against lean times... so the right to 'property' derives from our ability as human beings to reason, choose, foresee, and to imagine otherwise. We choose to gather acorns, not hunt rabbits; we choose to grow maize rather than barley. Thus the action of choice itself creates the potential for property.

People who have no choice have no rights. They are slaves to someone else's will, or animals caught in momentary acts of sustenance. Thus, rights and choice go hand-in-hand. To have a 'right' means to have a choice between one thing and another.

In human society there is a constant contest of rights. Animals might come into conflict over consumption of resources on a moment-by-moment basis, but humans vie over the right to control resources over time. It's a constant struggle. A some points in history a king, dictator, oligarch, or titan of industry has asserted that it is his/her right to control others, reducing them to choiceness ciphers (slaves or animals) doing as they are told. At other times in history these ciphers assert their will, overthrowing their ruler so they can choose a better path for themselves. There is a ever-renewing conflict over who can exercise rights at any given time — sometimes one group is on top, sometimes another — but philosophically-minded people recognize that every person has rights (if they can claim them). The philosophical project, thus, is to figure out how all people can claim their inherent rights (their inherent capacity for choice) without coming into conflict with others.

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  • Great reply. I found the equivalence you created between rights and choice very thought provoking. This is similar to the equivalence made in other answers in this thread, such as relating rights to 'situations' or to permission. I do have a further inquiry. Keep in mind this question is strictly for my edification on the topic of your specific answer. Are rights truly inalienable or is 'inalienable' just another term for 'until the powers that be cease to be.'? I ask this so I can better understand your answer as well as what you mean in your fourth and fifth (last) paragraphs. Jul 8, 2022 at 0:47
  • @ArielFarzan: 'Inalienable' is a slightly weird word. Locke doesn't use it himself; his idea is that property belongs to a man the same way (by extension) that a man's arm belongs to him. Is an arm 'inalienable'? Governments have often reserved the right to chop off someone's arm for certain kinds of crimes, so 'inalienable' boils down to a moral imperative against the act: we ought not do that as a rule, because it's intrinsically wrong. Jul 8, 2022 at 2:18
  • @ArielFarzan: I'm inclined to think moral imperatives transcend mere legalisms — law should encode morality, not dictate it — but I don't subscribe to the Classical Liberal idea that moral claims derive from Divinity. There are intersubjective norms that lie above the institutions of any given state but below the heavens (why MLK said the arc of history bends towards justice). The real trick lies in not objectifying. The question is always: "Should a human being be deprived of this right, or that arm?" Jul 8, 2022 at 2:27
  • @ArielFarzan: It's easy to deprive basic rights from those we consider objects, animals, criminals, monsters, or other sorts of sub-human; such either deserve deprivation or lack any intrinsic rights in the first place. But it's hard to deprive someone when we look them in the eye and meet them human to human. Jul 8, 2022 at 2:29
  • Ok that ending kind of branched off a little into the romantic side of philosophy, which is absolutely welcomed I loved it. There is so much to discuss on this topic, especially in the direction that you interpreted and answered the questions. If you ever write an essay relating to morality, ethics, and law please send it to me. Jul 8, 2022 at 2:52
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Rights exist because people/conscious agents "agreed" that they exist. And the main methods of "agreement" are consensus and power. It's literally as simple as "How about we do it that way" and finding people who "agree"/"are coerced" to say "yeah let's do it like that".

And about the nature of rights? Well the most obvious ones are probably those where you can't help yourself but doing them anyway, so you might as well recognize that. So avoiding unnecessary conflict might be a good reason to conceive rights.

whether they are man-made or an intrinsic aspect of the universe or living beings is also irrelevant

If they are an intrinsic aspect of the universe then they exist because they exist. That's is a vastly different kind of right, even if you brush over it so lightly.

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  • "Just like the title states, I am referring only to philosophical justifications, not legal, historical, or religious justifications." I would call the first part of your answer a historical justification. It is akin to "well because the people before us said it is that way" which is not what I am looking for. However avoiding unnecessary conflict as a reason for the creation of rights, as you stated in paragraph 2, is certainly a point worth contending. Please feel free to expand upon that. Jul 5, 2022 at 21:17
  • The point wasn't to make a historic justification. I mean I see that I used the past tense but that is more a consequence of the agreement coming before the right. But that process can very well happen in the presence or in the future, the point is not historic continuity. The point is that rights are a made up code of conduct that exists because people think it's better for it to exist than not to exist. Ideally out of mutual consent, occasionally because the person or group with the most power can coerce the rest to agree.
    – haxor789
    Jul 5, 2022 at 21:57
  • Ok. I suppose that your answer is not historical in nature. This could be appealed by arguing it is derived from power structures, therefore being philosophical. I'll allow this answer. Jul 5, 2022 at 22:14
  • @haxor789, I am not convinced that rights, in general is simply an agreement (aka positive law type of agreement), unless society can really do otherwise and still maintain itself. So in a sense rights, in the general sense, are a necessity without which society cannot be maintained.
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 6, 2022 at 15:11
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    @NikosM. I mean that presupposes the agreement that a society existing is beneficial in the first place.
    – haxor789
    Jul 6, 2022 at 22:09
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One can argue that the justifications (that match your criteria) are the following:

  1. The (universal) fact of needs of living beings, like humans. For example, they need to eat to stay alive.
  2. These needs are both natural and inalienable. One cannot take away your need to eat, in order to stay alive.
  3. (Human) Rights as an expression that those needs should not be blocked from being actualized and fulfilled, in order for the being to function without problems and contribute to the group it is part of.

Certain needs entail further needs. Like the need to think freely, so other needs are not blocked from being fulfilled optimally.

Given a certain social reality, some rights may necessarily entail their specialization, refinement, or augmentation in further rights, depended on the current social context that enable the basic rights in this social context and social reality.

Can (human) rights be trampled upon? It is not impossible. Murdering someone, for example, is possible.

Can a social group that chooses to ignore these rights, which express needs, last for long? No.

Even though the exact content of rights is continuously under re-interpretation and re-negotiation (as things change and needs emerge or are re-defined), fact remains that all human societies in order to exist and function had to recognise (and legislate) certain fundamental rights, like the right to life (ie murder is punished). Thus justifying the previous reasoning.

Some references along these lines:

  1. From basic needs to basic rights
  2. Needs and human rights
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  • Societies that ignored the basic human rights we take as granted today in some countries have perdured for millenias and still do today, much longer than any attempt at democracy so far. Through history slavery, summary execution, censorship and starvation are the norm. We are the exception. The argument that a social group who ignores human rights wouldn't last for long seems to not be factual.
    – armand
    Jul 6, 2022 at 23:36
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    @armand, it is specifically mentioned that every society has recognised (and legislated) some basic rights for its members and this is a historical fact. I did not claim that every society recognised what is pharsed as human rights now in the West (ie even Talibans recognise certain rights for its members). Furthermore rights recognition is independent of political regime (ie democracy or monarchy).
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 7, 2022 at 7:44
  • @armand Slavery,, if we consider human prehistory as well, is in fact a short-lived historical phenomenon. Furthermore, slavery was only under specific terms and for specific people (eg those defeated in war) and still slaves had some rights and could even become free again (eg should not be killed). But even this type of slavery could not go on for long.
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 7, 2022 at 7:48
  • ok lets say there is a small set of basic rights granted by even the most tyrannical of societies. I am very curious as to what those are, specifically, but lets go with it. Then all the other rights are not covered by your justification. If we go by up our exemple of the Taliban, it's quite a lot of rights you can't justify this way, not even property, safety, shelter or sustainable, which makes the justification quite poor.
    – armand
    Jul 7, 2022 at 8:33
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    @armand I mean you can argue materialistically against slavery, in the sense that it takes effort to keep someone enslaved and not have them run away into freedom. And the fewer tech the more that means guarding them 24/7 which is tedious and ineffective. So you either need a society that is more advanced to allow for nonproductive work such as guarding slaves or so vast that you can't outrun it or being part of that society (even as a slave) needs to be more beneficial than running away. I don't know food, shelter, safety from nature and so on.
    – haxor789
    Jul 7, 2022 at 10:57

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