What are Human Rights?

You are a human being. You have rights inherent in that reality. You have dignity and worth that exists prior to law.

~Lyn Beth Neylon

Human rights are the rights that every person is entitled to simply by virtue of being human. At the root of the human rights concept is the idea that all people should be able to live with dignity. Violations of our human rights amount to denials of our basic humanity. There were many important people throughout history that contributed to the notion and understanding of human rights. Plato believed in universal truth and virtue. This idea has continued on to become universalism, that human rights are universal, and as such are above the laws of individual states.

Human rights are often discussed and defended by the key philosophers. For example, Kant argued that human rights are based in the fundamental moral right to be treated as an end in oneself, a view that he felt was completely justified by the value of human reason: a species that has the extraordinary reasoning power of human beings is special enough to have natural, basic rights. So, he argued, because these rights arise from and are an inseparable part of our basic human nature, they are ‘inalienable’ – they cannot be treated like commodities that are given to us or taken away from us.

Based on this argument, as long as we are human, in principle we always have fundamental human rights. This is true whether we are free or in prison, or whatever our circumstances. However, human rights can’t just be based on the rights-holder’s personal needs and interests. Rights are normally considered to be above practical considerations of that sort: instead, they exist at the level of the moral duties we owe each other as reasoning beings.

There are two main sets of principles that underpin the concept of human rights:

  • natural law principles
  • positive law principles.

We look at these next.