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Who Grants Us the Rights?

October 20, 2014

Several weeks ago, in a previous post, I discussed the rights to privacy and how it came in conflict with the government’s supposed rights to our data in exchange for protection. When two or more established human rights come into clash in cases like this, the legal system does not have a method to clearly favor one over another. That problems stems from the piece of the human rights puzzle no legal system can address, the source of human rights. What part of a nation grants its citizens the rights? Where is the inherent source of the elementary, "natural rights" of each human being? I think, like the ideas of courtesy and respect, human rights reduce to a set of social constructs formed early on in civilizations for stability and mutual prosperity.

Image attributed to StockMonkeys, found in Wikimedia Commons.

Before we dive straight into the origins of human rights, Let's cover the origin of a closely related topic: altruism. Altruism, in simplest terms, is the tendency of an individual to sacrifice oneself to benefit another without expecting returns. For example, volunteering would be an altruistic act, since the volunteer is taking out time and resources from his or her life to help others. From an evolutionary perspective, however, it seems paradoxical how this self-sacrificing tendency came to be, as only those who increase their own chances of survival would seem to lead to the next generation, and any hardcore altruist would not survive. There still isn’t a clearly defined and accepted answer to this dilemma, but the most commonly proposed solution is called the kin selection theory. While the most common vision of evolution only takes into account each individual, a kin selection theory also considers relatives. So instead of an altruistic individual losing the survival battle because he benefits the others more than himself, he chooses to only behave altruistically towards his relatives. This means any genetic factor in altruism has a much higher chance of being passed onto the next generations. And that makes the evolutionary origin of altruism somewhat less paradoxical, more credible.

I think the idea of rights comes from a more structured form of altruism. They’re more formal, regulated forms of respecting others, because a society establishes rights to regulate what may and may not be done to others. In that sense, rights can be seen as merely an extension of what's already there in the first place, as our inherent, biological wiring. Altruism, as human as it may seem, is also found in other organisms. Bats, ants, and other animals with groups that have social structure also show hints of altruism. So perhaps it's not so far-fetched to think that the idea of rights is nothing more than a more polished version of altruism, formed as societies became more complex. Societies and families that respect others' property, liberty, privacy, and safety -- those that respect those rights -- would have had better chances of prosperity and being a stable, relatively conflict-free community, and that would be an evolutionary and political advantage.

In the way the legal system of most nations work, and in the way most laws regarding human and political rights are written, it appears at first glance that the government or some position of power grants us our rights. The Constitution seems, at first sight, to be why we are entitled to rights of free speech, faith, self-protection, and trial by jury. But I don't think that's the case. I believe we grant each other those rights. The government merely enforces them. Just as we choose to donate to the cause we see as valuable and as we help out friends and relatives without compensation, we understand collectively that mutual benefit comes when we respect the others' freedom to certain things, and that understanding is expressed as human rights.

So when the government suddenly tries to dictate to its citizens, to us, that we are allowed these rights but not those other ones, that some are allowed to love and marry freely while others are not, that opportunities for higher education is a privilege and not a human right, that irks me a little bit each time. Everyone in a community decides together, through each decision and each of our actions, what rights everyone is equally entitled to. And that decision is not one that can or should be made by a smaller subset of a community.

To answer the question that began this discussion, we ourselves grant each other the elementary rights through respect, and that ability cannot be take away to a small group of people. So the next time a human rights issue comes up, I want you to ask yourself, "is this decision being made by the right people?" And if the answer is no, do something about it, because we give you the right to be your voice.