Rethinking Human Rights


Human rights is one of the most captivating ideas in the world today. The beautiful and liberating notion that all people are created equal and, simply by virtue of their being human, have a right to be alive, to be free, to have things that they can call their own, and to live as they wish to live, has had an unparalleled impact on the past four hundred years of human history. It has provided a moral foundation for some of the most admirable struggles against oppression and evil in the history of the West, and has in many ways inspired a new genre of societies, social structures and systems of government all around the world. If there is a single religion being advanced in the age of pluralism, it is human rights, and so much true good is brought about in the world in its name that we hardly stop to think about what it means, and dare not question it.

In this article, however, I would like to re-examine human rights. Not particular human rights, but the overarching idea that every human being is inherently deserving of certain goods and freedoms. Where did the human rights rhetoric come from, what story does it tell, and what effects does it have? Seeing as this idea has become one of the primary underpinnings for public morality in much of the world, it is worth a second look.

The History of the Idea, Briefly

The language of human rights originates in large part in the Enlightenment. Hugo Grotius’ Rights of War and Peace (1625), the English Bill of Rights of 1689, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690), and other writings laid the foundations. By natural law, they argued, all human beings have rights that others, particularly their sovereigns, must respect. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) and many others developed the idea further in the eighteenth century, and two revolutions put it into practice—the American Revolution and the French Revolution. The Declaration of Independence for the Americans and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen for the French both proclaimed that human rights, inherent and equally shared by all, were the basis for the new governments.

The horrors of the Second World War prompted a strengthening of human rights rhetoric. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which remains one of the cornerstones of international humanitarian law. Appalled at the atrocities of the war, world leaders came together to write the document that they hoped would never allow such things to happen again.[i] Recognition of human rights, they wrote, was “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”[ii] Reflecting on the process of writing the declaration, Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile wrote:

I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality.[iii]

The abolition of the slave trade and of slavery in the nineteenth century, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s in the United States, feminist movements around the world, and many other movements have further worked out and continue to work out the societal and social implications of human rights. Today, human rights continue to be the primary lens through which rights and wrongs, especially on a global scale, are evaluated and interpreted. Human rights has become the basis for international morality; it is essentially synonymous with justice.

Reasons to Look Elsewhere

Victories for justice such as those won in the abolition of the slave trade are, without any shadow of doubt, good things and worth celebrating wholeheartedly. But even if the house is good, the foundation may still be weak. In the case of human rights, as a foundation, there are some signs of weakness, which may prompt us to look for other, better reasons for celebrating the same victories in the past and pursuing justice and compassion today.

First of all, it is not entirely apparent where human rights come from. Early proponents claimed that they were God-given, though many who support human rights today do not believe that there is a God who could have given them. But if it is merely a human invention, on what grounds is it superior to other systems of morality?

Second, it is not entirely apparent what exactly the rights are. The UDHR defines thirty of them, but are there more, and how would we know?

Thirdly, in and of itself, the message of human rights does not have the power to bring about love, one of the most fundamental human needs. The drafters of the UDHR had high hopes—“the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”[iv]—and in their conception, seemingly the only thing holding us back from this ideal state is the not-yet-universal acceptance of human rights ideals. But what do we fear more than being merely tolerated? What do we want more than to be fully known and loved without reserve? Human rights can expose and condemn the grossest atrocities, but if we look to it, by itself, to engender reconciliation and love, it leaves us malnourished. On the contrary, in some cases, rights can become fuel for fires of antagonism and bitterness, with apparently no way out.

A Foundation for Justice: Responsibilities, Not Rights

The house of justice needs a foundation, and although we often take for granted that inherent human rights and dignity must underlie humane laws, there are in fact two reasons for which any injustice could be unjust. Let us take a simple example: it is wrong for Jim to kill Bob. Why? It could be, as the inherent rights view would answer, that Bob has an inherent right not to be killed. As a human being, he has rights that makes it wrong for someone to kill him because of something about him. On the other hand, an option that we seem to overlook, it could be because Jim does not have a right to kill Bob, regardless of who Bob is. The wrongness of Jim killing Bob comes from a constraint on Jim rather than from a quality of Bob. It is not that Bob necessarily has a right not to die; Jim simply has no right to kill him.

This latter perspective is, in fact, reflected in our own legal system at least in some ways. Suppose that Bob has murdered the rest of Jim’s family along with hundreds of other people. Bob has committed a capital crime, and positively deserves to die, yet Jim does not have the right to kill him. Bob’s “right” to live, even if it was there to begin with, has been removed, but the constraint on Jim remains. The only way Jim could kill Bob is if he were an executioner, commissioned by a higher system of justice to do so. That is to say, it is only permissible for Jim to kill Bob when there is no longer a constraint on Jim making it wrong for him to do so.

In both of these cases, the same law is upheld: it is wrong for Jim to kill Bob. In the former, it is wrong because the patient has a right not to suffer the crime; in the latter, because the agent does not have a right to commit it.

This is why, as I said earlier, I am not here calling into question individual human rights or individual laws. All of the thirty articles of the UDHR could be reframed—taken off the foundation of rights and placed on the foundation of responsibilities—and otherwise remain the same. The same things can be right and wrong regardless of which foundation they are on. What I am questioning is why the final appeal of the law should be to an inherent right of human beings not to suffer certain injustices, and why this is a better foundation than to say that we each ought to do or not do certain things.

While the law does not necessarily change depending on which foundation is supporting it, what does change is how we think about ourselves human beings. What is our status in the cosmos? Do human beings have rights inherently, as part of our nature? That is to say, are our rights there as a technical by-product of the law, or are they inherent, such that the law itself has an obligation to recognize them? Does justice itself bow to us and our inherent dignity?

Through the Christian Lens: Creation and Human Dignity

According to the Christian Scriptures, no, at least not axiomatically. As for dignity: compared to the heavens, “the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,” humans are puny bits of flesh and bone, insignificant amidst the grandeur of the universe. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” the psalmist asks. “Yet you have… crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.”[v] We do have dignity, but it is not axiomatic and self-evident; it is God-given. Self-evident and God-given are not the same thing. God-given dignity humbles us and causes us to sing songs.

As for rights, God himself, and God alone, inherently deserves anything. “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.”[vi] “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!… For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods…. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!”[vii] God has the right to be worshiped; we and everything else are made to bow to him. The first and greatest commandment, Jesus taught, is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.”[viii] God deserves all of this purely because he is God.

Our responsibility, as his creatures, is to worship him: to delight in him, to enjoy him, to trust him, to obey him; never to turn aside to take more delight in something else than in him, never to doubt him and turn aside to another to satisfy us, never to disobey his word. He has these rights because he is, and all the more because he made us, and all the more because he has freely given us every good thing we have to enjoy.

When the prophet Nathan confronted King David about the murder and adultery he had recently committed, David recognized his offense as primarily against God: “Have mercy on me, O God; according to your steadfast love…. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”[ix] David had violated a woman and had killed her husband, and had harmed many others in the process. But at the heart of it, Nathan said, was this: “By this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD.”[x]

Human rights, then, are secondary, deriving from God’s law and God’s rights, rather than being inherent to us. Any infraction of God’s law—murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, covetousness— is an infraction of this first commandment, because it flies in the face of God’s lordship. Everything we call a human rights violation is much more a divine rights violation. The one who enslaves his brother has not merely offended his brother. He has offended his Maker, the God of the universe.

The human rights discourse tries to define and uphold justice with no God in the picture. It does so by making ourselves the gods, the highest beings in the universe, dependent on no one and responsible to no one but ourselves. Human rights are conceived of as axiomatic, self-evident. But true justice revolves entirely around God, that at the end of the day we are answerable to him. He will be our judge.

What We All Deserve

If this is the case, justice suddenly looks less friendly. We are not basically deserving, basically good independent agents. We are accountable to our Maker and answerable to his perfect law, and, as our guilty consciences affirm, we have fallen short. The apostle Paul writes:

Although [humanity] knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, and they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.[xi]

We have all turned away from God to worship other things: ourselves, other people, and other things that God has made. “None is righteous,” Paul quotes from the Psalms, “no, not one.”[xii]

God, our Creator, possesses in his infinitely good and glorious nature the right to be worshiped, obeyed, and loved by all of his creatures. He deserves our wholehearted allegiance; this is cosmic justice. We, however, have dared to rebel against him, disobeying and dishonoring him in how we treat both him and our fellow human beings. We have declared that we are the only gods our world need know. For such crimes, we deserve punishment and death.

This is our status in the cosmic court: guilty— guilty of gross and pervasive divine rights violations. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are far from what we deserve. If all the wrongs in the world were to be righted, without other intervention on God’s part, it would not be the case that no human would any longer be oppressed or mistreated. On the contrary, if we all got what we deserved under the law, no one would survive. God would be just to utterly destroy us.

Yet, Christianity announces, there is overwhelmingly good news. God has intervened in our hopeless situation. We deserve his burning anger, but he has given us his Son Jesus, to suffer death for our divine rights violations in our place. “God so loved the world,” writes the apostle John, “that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”[xiii] God will indeed judge the world, but those who repent of their rebellion against him and place their trust in Jesus will be saved. Jesus serves their death penalty for them, and their records are made perfect. His righteousness, and all the riches of the kingdom of heaven, are given to them freely, as a gift. God’s generosity is beyond imagination.

How We Treat One Another

The UDHR suggests that if governments universally recognized human rights, the world would be a better place. Insofar as recognizing human rights means acting justly, I agree. But a top-down approach— governments adopting the religion of human rights— certainly cannot inspire love, especially love to the undeserving. Even if an international committee were to decide that all human beings have the right to be loved, what would that do? Love cannot be legislated.

Even at the individual level, the religion of human rights can at best make someone tolerant. In its fullest flowering, it can make someone respectful of others, someone who does not step on other people’s toes. At worst, it can feed bitterness: if I have been wronged, what do I do but comfort myself with the knowledge that I did not deserve it, and hope that a powerful enough human government will one day crack down on the offender? Resources for forgiveness are slim within human rights.

But the freely given love of God to us, when we deserved none of it, bursts in like a flood into our broken hearts, with its torrents reworking all the twisted streams and channels of our thoughts and emotions, down to the very core of our being, driving out fear, drowning pride, flooding the bottomless chasm that longs to know that we are worth something so that we overflow with love for others. Having been forgiven so much, how could we not love God? And how could we refuse someone forgiveness? God’s love transforms us, reconciling us to him and to one another. “Just as I have loved you,” Jesus tells his followers, “so you also are to love one another.”[xiv]

So why settle for less? Human rights is useful in some ways. It provides at least some foundation for justice on a global scale, and that is not a negligible good. But the working belief that we are the only gods the universe has, that justice has nothing higher to appeal to than human dignity, and that we deserve what we have (and probably more), pales in comparison to Christianity. Human rights offers at best tolerance, with a shaky foundation for justice; Christianity gives justice a rock-solid foundation and at the same time surprises us with overwhelming love and compassion. God did not merely tolerate tolerable people. He loved us when we were thoroughly intolerable, and gave us his very self, that we might be his beloved children.



i. “History of the Document,” The United Nations, accessed 7 July 2015, < docments/udhr/history.shtml>.
ii. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” The United Nations, accessed 7 July 2015, <http://>.
iii. “History of the Document.”
iv. “Universal Declaration.”
v. Psalm 8:4-6 (ESV).
vi. Psalm 29:2a (ESV).
vii. Psalm 95:1, 3-7a (ESV).
viii. Luke 10:27 (ESV).
ix. Psalm 51:1a, 3 (ESV).
x. 2 Samuel 12:14 (ESV).
xi. Romans 1:21-23 (ESV).
xii. Romans 3:10b (ESV).
xiii. John 3:16 (ESV).
xiv. John 13:34 (ESV).

Andrew Zulker ’15 is from Barrington, RI. He graduated from Dartmouth in Spring 2015 with a major in Linguistics and a minor in Hebrew.


Rethinking Human RightsImage credit: Karlee Lillywhite – UCBerkeley TAUG, Spring 2015.

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