Recently on Google's homepage there is a quote attributed to the Olympic Charter:

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Not to discount the importance of human rights (nor to suggest they didn't have good reason to post the quote), but it seems that just about everything goodish has been explicitly described as a human right. Now "practicing sport" is on the list.

My question is, on what grounds may a claim be rejected as a human right?

For example, if someone were to declare their right to scrub toilets with neon colored brushes, I'd think is was too silly to be considered a human right. But, how do you make the argument?

I'm sensing that this question is way too broad to be answerable. How can somebody identify the "chief arguments" for this particular case unless they were super expert in everything? (I'm new here, so I'm trying to figure out what makes a good question still.)

So, to narrow it a little: Is there a class of human rights which are are independent of human decisions? Or, in other words, are there intrinsic human rights?


5 Answers 5


I take the Google quote to be a jab at Russia in terms of homosexuality.

But that does raise the question -- what makes something a right and how do we have them? Here, there are several theories that are distinct.

First, the basic definition of a right is something that I should be permitted to do or something I can obligate others to do for me. In the example, Google is pointing out that according to the Olympic Charter, everyone is to be permitted to engage in sport.

But then why/how do we have these rights?

natural rights - on a natural rights view, the rights are there if we just look at things in the world. You can find this in the writings of Locke and Rousseau and in 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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In a weird way, Kant is also a believer in natural rights, but here the "nature" is that we are rational beings. In each such view, there's a concept of what humans are and how they are to be. The danger of this view is that it depends on contested accounts of human nature and their interpretation to come up with rights.

The competing theory is that rights are granted by society. This is sometimes called legal rights but there are definitely other ways of granting rights that are non-natural. Hegel sets the stage for how this type of theory works. His central example is property rights. Property rights only exist insofar as we make them actual by recognizing that others have a right to property. If we just say they do, but we take it arbitrarily no such right exists. (See my answer here for a discussion of how Hegel's idea of rights works). Simply put, on this type of account, we have a right because society says we do. The incumbent danger is that if society grants rights, it seems equally capable of being a mob that takes them away.

There are also other accounts of human relationship that do not depend on rights. This was the classical account. Thus, we don't see Plato or Aristotle talking about rights even though they have lots of beliefs about how people should treat each other. There has been a decent amount of literature in recent years from the New Confucians (20th/21st Century Confucians) talking about how to organize a society without using rights as the basis or how to get many of the benefits without some of the flaws. One key reason for avoiding rights-talk is that rights impose an obligation and then invoke a legal solution such that I sue you when you violate my rights.


Are there intrinsic human rights? Only if your moral point of reference is exterior. There are no intrinsic human rights in a purely naturalistic and self-referencing model. Rights are determined by ruling classes and conform to the vision they have for the ruled classes. On this view, "rights" are arbitrary. In this context "ruling classes" refer to those who hold political, as well as, intellectual power.

If your moral point of reference is exterior, e.g. a deity, then there are intrinsic rights. This is because the authority that grants these rights is beyond the whims of the ruling class. These rights are absolute and no earthly entity can revoke or amend them. They are not rights simply because they make you happy and/or keep you safe, they are rights because your Creator has given them to you and no one can tell him to take them away.

This is an extrapolation of the moral argument for the existence of the supernatural. The moral argument states that a god exists because objective moral values exist. From the second premise's defense, we can extrapolate the necessity of a supernatural lawgiver as the only viable source of objective and intrinsic moral "values", which give rise to intrinsic "rights".

  • I agree. Similarly, laws and duties are all intrinsic. The law is written on the heart. People started creating codified laws because we did not obey the intrinsic laws AND we thought that the creation was codified laws is the way to settle disputes.
    – Joseph B
    Apr 28, 2014 at 21:07

Coming from Islam.SE this is my first answer attempt at the philosophy forum.

I think it is evident that without a universal philosophical definition of human nature and purpose, and a universal moral code that follows therefrom, statements of rights will be based on human arbitrary desires and various circumstances. You can pretty much declare whatever you desire as rights once you have the means to enforce it. Homosexuality was and still is a taboo even in many western societies, but since the homosexuals are now numerous enough to get organized and campaign, they can assert and establish as a "right" what was once seen as an outrageous moral evil. So universal "intrinsic" rights will be available once we agree on a universal philosophical understanding of humanity.


I gave this a lot of thought a few years ago and came up with a test.

A right is a property of a being, such that if a moral agent takes away this property, we feel that moral agent should be punished.

Under this definition, animals have rights too; because nearly everyone feels a person who tortures animals should have some sort of punishment.

This passes the life, liberty, and property test as well.


Actually I think in this specific example that you have posted that has sparked this question of what should be included in the rights of everyone, that the company Google has put this on their main page as a gentle reminder perhaps of past human rights violations that Russia (previously the U.S.S.R.) in particular (the host of the winter games this year) has committed throughout their history as a country.

In reality anything could be said to be a right, and I think it takes a certain amount of agreement by a group of people for anything to be agreed on as such. As to what absolute rights exist, I think that brings up another set of questions.

Hope that helps.

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