Insights into human rights from science


“Consider the range of issues covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes personal rights to life, nationality, recognition before the law, protection against torture, and protection against discrimination on such bases as race and sex; legal rights to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, and protections against ex post facto laws, arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, and arbitrary interference with one’s family, home, or reputation; a comparable variety of civil liberties and political rights; subsistence rights to food and health care; economic rights to work, rest and leisure, and social security; social rights to education and protection of the family; and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community. A comprehensive account of these rights would require that we combine, at minimum, the perspectives of law, political science, economics, and sociology—plus philosophy, if we want to understand the conceptual foundations of human rights and the justifications for this particular list.”  Donnelly, Jack (2013). Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Cornell University Press


Certainly “the perspectives of law, political science, economics, and sociology—plus philosophy” contribute to our understanding of the foundations of human rights and their justifications. But science also has a contrbution to make. This essay explains how the ultimate source of morality, including the idea of “human rights”, is illuminated, explained, and grounded by science.

Science of the last 50 years or so supports the reality of a species independent universal moral principle we can state as “Increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others.” (See Found: A Universal Moral Principle.)

Human rights are part of human morality, but what do rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (as listed in the American Declaration of Independence) have to do with cooperation? Consider the idea that enforcing a human right is a kind of reciprocity strategy. I’ll respect your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and you respect mine. And if you don’t respect other people’s rights, the society will collectively punish you for it and we will also work to insure the government does not violate these rights. We have thus described a prime example of indirect reciprocity, arguably the most powerful cooperation strategy known. The benefit of cooperating to enforce these specific rights is that we all get to pursue, with limits we will discuss in a moment, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What about human ‘rights’ to the necessities of life such as food, shelter, and medical care? Can we coherently argue such rights exist? Enforcing such ‘rights’ requires a transfer of resources from people with more property to those who have less. This transfer is not “live and let live” reciprocity.  Also, some argue we have an innate right to “property” and this “right” is the source of standard moral norms against theft. (“Do not steal” is another good example of a reciprocity strategy that increases the benefits of cooperation in societies – I won’t steal, you don’t steal, and we punish those who do.)

So we have conflicting proposed ‘human rights’ to property and to the necessities of life. What insights can science’s universal moral principle shed on how to resolve what is, at bottom, a moral conflict about how we ought to live?

As described in Found: A Universal Moral Principle, the above universal moral principle, which is purely a product of science, does not have any strange power of innate bindingness or moral authority regardless of our needs and preferences. Its moral authority first comes from cultures and individuals who advocate and enforce it as a moral reference because they expect it will meet their needs and preferences better than their alternatives. Once a part of a cultural morality, this principle can then gain emotionally binding moral authority and thus become motivating (regardless of one’s needs and preferences in the moment of decision) when it is incorporated into the moral sense of individuals.

So what does this tell us about conflicting proposed ‘human rights’? It tells us that the bindingness and moral authority of human rights comes from cultures and individuals enforcing these ‘rights’ becasue enforcing them is expected to better meeting shared needs and preferences. Perhaps philosophers will come up with a more persuasive case for a different source of bindingness and moral authority for human rights. But until they do, what objective science tells us about human rights – simple as it is – may be the most useful information we have on the subject.

Of course, it is not necessarily simple to determine how to best define and enforce human rights which are in conflict. For that, the help of the perspectives of law, political science, economics, sociology, and especially philosophy are needed. The simple part is the justification from science for calling them human rights and for enforcing them;  we enforce them because we believe doing so will increase the benefits of living in our societies.


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