Human Rights: Social Construct or Something More?
The recent death of George Floyd and the cultural outrage that ensued betrayed a value that we are deeply committed to.
After all, why is it wrong to discriminate against another person based on the tone of her skin? Because she is a person. She has value. She has human rights and racism violates them.
But where do human rights come from?
Is it just something we’ve made up as a culture? If it’s just a subjective cultural construct, then it means that any binding power it has is local, geographically and across time. Think of the Holocaust, a horrific testament to racism. Can we in Canada in 2020 justifiably condemn what Germany did back in during the times of World War II? How? That culture is removed from ours by geography and time.
Now, if you think what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others was wrong because it violated their human rights (and I certainly hope you do think so!), then likely it’s because you think human rights is not merely a social construct, but a social construct that is grounded in reality. That is to say, likely, you think human rights are an objective feature of reality, and that’s why the concept of human rights is binding across geography and history.
Why is that important?
Because now you have to think about the kind of view of the world you hold to. People have very different conceptions of the world. Some think we human beings are, at the bottom, nothing more than particles colliding. Others think that we are all one with the Ultimate Reality, our sense of individuality being an illusion. Still, others think that this world is a creation of a transcendent, personal Deity who takes an interest in the affairs of humanity. In which of these worlds does it even make sense to say that human rights are an objective feature of reality, and why?
That’s a question worth pondering.