On the givenness of rights

John Haldane considers the philosophical grounding for human rights.



John Haldane considers the philosophical grounding for human rights.


The whole notion of rights is, of course, philosophically rather challenging and problematic. The 19th-century thinker Jeremy Bentham once described rights as nonsense, and natural rights as nonsense on stilts. And in a way, you could see what he had in mind – that rights are not naturally intelligible, let’s put it that way. What I mean by that is that it’s hard to see what it is in nature that grounds the idea of a right.

We can have an understanding of rights that is a legal notion – we can see rights as created by conventions in which they’re given to people by legislature or whatever else it may be, whatever political entity it is. But of course people don’t want to think of rights as simply something that are given to them, which could as easily be withdrawn by a legislative body. They think that they’re something that they have, independently of a political regime or system. In fact, it’s very common to appeal to rights against the abuses of a system, to say that, you know, this government is failing to respect human rights.

So the question then is, well, if human rights aren’t given by governments or recorded by regimes and so on, where do they come from? Now we can still think of them as accorded or given, but the natural place to look to there is something beyond humanity. And of course that’s going to be seen as the sovereignty of God, that God is the source of the rights that we have. Again, I would say there that if somebody wants to reject that view, then they owe it to us to give us an account of rights that doesn’t see them as merely conventional. And again, I think that’s very difficult to do.