Thoughts on human rights

The term human rights is an interesting one. For those who reject speciesism, it seems self-evident that rights should be apportioned to all sentient creatures based on the complexity and type of their sentience. Science should be our guide in this and where the science is incomplete we would err on the side of compassion. If the Neanderthals, Denisovans or other extinct hominids had survived into the modern-day, we might have a more nuanced conception of rights as they applied to individual species. Instead, we are left with a gap between aspects of normal human consciousness and our more complex relatives such as apes and cetaceans. This gap brings with it rights that only make sense to the uniquely human parts of our consciousness.

Humans are not superior to other animals in all aspects of our consciousness and senses.  Indeed many humans do not nor will ever have some of the facets of higher consciousness that we generally think distinguish humans from animals. People have disabilities, diseases, accidents and even life stages which means they operate outside of what we call normal human functioning. A pig is in many ways a more conscious companion than a human infant. The pig might feel pain and a whole host of other emotions at a higher level than an infant. Does this mean the pig has a right to better treatment or more rights than a cognitively lower-functioning human?

The arguments that humans always have superior rights to other animals fall into a couple of categories. 

One is human potential, we have the potential for higher consciousness so should be granted rights equal to that potential. This argument, put forward by brilliant and learned people, seems a grasping example of how much self-interest can cloud our logic. Many people for various reasons do not or will never have full cognitive capacity, this doesn’t mean we should take their rights away from them. Indeed, giving rights to those who in some ways lack the ability or will to assert their own rights fully, is one of the highest and most important purposes of rights.

Another is that rights must be reciprocated, that you can only give rights to someone who has the capacity to understand and return those rights. Again many humans fail this test, but this doesn’t mean they should be stripped of rights. This argument seems to be a thin disguise for speciesism and I can find little logic in it other than to exclude non-humans.

The argument which I think is the most coherent response is that it is too difficult to assign rights that cover all circumstances, so we imprecisely generalise about human rights that may not apply to all. History is full of examples of assigning lesser rights or withdrawing rights completely because of gender, sexuality, age, race, religion, and other arbitrary reasons. One by one in the modern world we have come to realise how dangerous it was to base rights on identity, and that granting inalienable rights to all members of our species was imperfect but the simplest and safest option. For the complexities and edge cases of people who can’t advocate for their own rights, we have tried to use common sense on the best path forward.

Ultimately I think we are left with a definition of rights very much in harmony with the position put forward from an anti-speciesist perspective. Rights should be apportioned as they relate to the best understanding we have of the consciousness of the rights holder. We use generalisations of the higher cognitive capacities of individual species to assign rights and deal with edge case exceptions within the species by an evolving compassionate common sense.

Humans from our current perspective seem in many ways unique cognitively so it makes sense that we would have unique rights. Human rights. So what are they?

Humans have always had customs and laws governing our behaviour towards one another. Often these were framed as religious or cultural commandments and were intended to maintain order and entrench the hierarchy of society. Famous documented examples of codes of conduct go back thousands of years from the Code of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia, to the Cyrus Cylinder in Persia, to the Edicts of Ashoka in India, to the rights of ancient Roman citizens, and the Magna Carta in England. These often referred to the rights of one group or another and didn’t extend fully to women, non-citizens, slaves or lower classes. 

A more universal conception of human rights is a secular, egalitarian notion that reached widespread acceptance in the twentieth century. The signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1945 was one of the more significant moments in human history. Despite some gendered language that reflected common usage at the time, the authors of the preamble and text led by Eleanor Roosevelt make clear their intent:

 “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” - Article 2, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Unfortunately, many countries, if not most who signed this declaration have not fulfilled the lofty ambitions of the declaration. Some have failed to fulfil almost any of its ideals. 

This seems partly the result of a number of general flaws in our sense of self and meaning.


Many have questioned whether the concept of states does more harm than good in the world. Part of this has to do with how one chooses to define “state”. With respect to the meaning of them as a governing body over groups of people, it can lead to strange language. For instance, when a dictator kills people within the borders of his state, it is referred to as killing “his people”. Elites have historically been based on the oppression of “their” people. Far from caring about their people and feeling some responsibility for them, their people are often the primary victims of elite crimes. Having power over someone does not in any just sense make them yours, people cannot be owned in this way. The mythology of nationalism bids us to forget the great commonalities we have with people of our own class or worldview across borders, in favour of the weak commonality we have with the elites who look down on us from inside our state.

Entire nations and cultures are persecuted by the idea of state borders. The history of borders is often like the agreements between rival gangs in urban areas that avoid mutually destructive conflict by designating areas of victims that are theirs to exclusively exploit. Oppression is unjust, regardless of the flag draped over that oppression.

Whilst it is often popular to blame elites for such things, all tiers of society have often enthusiastically embraced ideas of nationalism. The Second World War is a chastening example of how evolutionary group identity can be abused as a mechanism for internal and external oppression. People need to be on guard of their own propensity to enjoy waving a flag and defining a worthy self and an ignoble other. We need to guard against being manipulated so easily and ignoring the plight of those who don’t share our in-group identity, whether that is a state or otherwise.

There is a huge variation in the social welfare that an individual can expect to receive based on the state in which they live. There is little justice in this. Far more of the resources of wealthy communities should be expended helping build a resilient economic basis for increasing prosperity in less wealthy communities. Not everyone who is poor is deserving, but there should be reasonable material justice in the world for those willing to contribute to society, work and better themselves, regardless of what side of a border they happen to live on.

Capitalism, consumerism and competition

Poverty brings with it many ills. Previously we could justify the disadvantage of so many people by the fact that we lacked the ability to provide a decent standard of living for all. In our technologically advanced societies, we no longer have that excuse. In wealthy societies, overconsumption is now a widespread problem, and that overconsumption should be turned to alleviate the underconsumption in poorer societies.

It is common to blame capitalism for the existence of glaring inequality. Of course, inequality predates capitalism by some margin, but it is fair to blame it as the reigning ideology during an age where we have the ability to create a fairer world but fail to do so. Capitalism used as an ideology rather than as an economic tool hands human lives over to something which lacks a sense of right and wrong. It is nothing present in capitalism but rather what it lacks, a conscience, wisdom, empathy, and compassion, that leaves it unlikely to guide human societies to consistent moral outcomes.

There has perhaps always been too much focus on the system rather than the philosophies and character of those with power which in a democracy is the majority of the population. Countries have managed to provide a good standard of living for their citizens with various mixes of socialism and capitalism. We seek the perfect system when it is as much the weaknesses common to all of us like selfishness, laziness and in-group preference that stand in the way of “the good society”. We could remove the elites tomorrow, and another elite similarly configured with human common flaws would take their place.

The widespread obsession with consumption and status has left behind too many people. Some inequality is tolerable if it motivates and reflects greater contributions to the common good, but it can’t be at the expense of basic human rights. Capitalism as ideology says that private property is a human right, this has some truth especially when that property is fairly earned but clearly human dignity is a right of a higher moral order.

Individualism, family and group identity

Evolution has given us a bias to caring more about people who we think share our genes. Lacking the ability to test who shares our genes, we go with loose heuristics such as language, skin colour, familiarity etc. This gives us a strong group identity that can be manipulated or simply misfire. Racism, nationalism, religious and many other forms of conflict are related to this group identity. Studies have shown it can be artificially stimulated on the flimsiest of pretexts. 

Our individual senses give us a bias, to care disproportionately about our own desires and those of the people we interact with. The lives of people far from us aren’t as real to our senses. If we learn about them we might empathise with them, but even that will often be a hollow reflection of what they are actually going through.

Both of these biases lean us towards self-interest and need to be overcome if we are to deal justly in the world.


As stated in John Rawl’s philosophy of the “original position” the abstract chances of our birth and circumstances have for too long determined our chance of happiness. Human rights are at root the idea that all those experiencing life should be shielded from unnecessary suffering so that they can have the best chance of living well and fulfilling their individual potential. 

It matters to us if we live in a just world because our happiness is interdependent with each other. For selfish individuals being surrounded by the suffering of others means little, but for what I hope is the majority of people it creates a psychological burden. It is thus not only for those who are most at risk of their rights being violated that we should struggle but also for our own psychological well-being. The experiences of others in the world we live in are important to us when we contemplate our own meaning of existence.

There has been a dramatic improvement in human life in recent history and this is often attributed to capitalism. Whilst I suspect it has more to do with political freedom, moral progress and technological advance, I care less about the path to a better world than the end goal. Whatever system would lay a claim for guiding us into the future, and I imagine it will be a fluctuating combination of democratic socialism and capitalism, it must lay out a clear path to that end goal. It needs to, amongst other things, explain how it will go about ending poverty and providing universal human rights.

As individuals, we should take opportunities to join our voice to calls for a just world, and if those opportunities don’t exist we should make them. If able we should donate a percentage of our income to effective altruistic organisations trying to alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate. We should relegate political parties that appeal to our selfishness to history and join ourselves to movements trying to create a kinder, fairer world.

Suffering in life is inevitable, but together we can do much to alleviate and avoid it. By freeing people we give them a chance to be their best selves, and contribute to world culture and learning from which we all benefit. We are focusing too much on our individual, often trivial desires, when we are needed in the wider struggle. Ultimately the rights of sentient beings everywhere are partially governed by our shared sense of meaning, our philosophies. We each need to look to the ideas within ourselves and consider how they affect our contribution to the wider world.

Human rights are the rights we give each other. The obligation to fight for them thus falls on each of us and the greater our level of privilege in the world, the deeper that obligation.