The elemental forces of nature, like lava pouring into the ocean, remind us that human rights are something that humans made up.

What is a “Human Right”?

To my way of thinking, there is objectively no such thing as a human right.

People talk about the right to education, the right to health care, the right to a living wage.

It makes it sound as though there is some objective standard of rights “out there” that governments can either honor or ignore.

Truthfully, though, there is only existence. If we were mice, or cockroaches, or elephants, the only right we might talk about is the right to try to survive. If we were born in the wild, we would have the opportunity to do our best to feed ourselves, to shelter ourselves, to survive sickness and predation, to find water to drink. Perhaps we could say that we have the right to use our skills and cunning to the utmost, and the right to kill to survive.

From that perspective, it seems ridiculous to talk about the right to education, health care, and a living wage. To me, it makes more sense to talk about human choices than human rights.

Humans have created a network of civilization, a method of living by rules and a collection of technologies and organizational structures that allow humans to populate the planet in far greater numbers than if those rules, technologies, and organizations didn’t exist. These aren’t human rights, they are human choices. We are born into the collective choices of the world, and we make our choices, and slowly the choices change and evolve over time, so that the choices available to us now are different than the choices (or, if you like, “rights”) available to us 1,000 years ago, or 2,000 years ago, or 10,000 years ago.

When people talk about human rights, what I hear them saying is that they want all humans to agree on what they want to choose. Saying that free education is a universal human right is the same to me as saying, “I think every human deserves to be educated on the taxpayer dollar, and I think every other human agrees with me, or should agree with me, so let’s choose to fund education worldwide with our tax money. If we can’t pay for and arrange education paid for by our taxes everywhere in the world for economic and social reasons, let’s at least make sure our taxes are paying for educating everyone who wants it in our country.”

“Free healthcare is a right” translates to “I want us to choose for our taxes to go towards paying for everyone’s health care”. “Making a living wage is a right” translates to “I want our country to choose to have a high enough minimum wage and low enough unemployment that no one is struggling to feel comfortable”.

The problem with labeling things “human rights” is that it ignores context. “Humans have a right to clean water.” Does that mean that if humans choose to live in deserts, the rest of society is expected to choose to pipe in water to them, or choose to let them drain the aquifers? It also stops discussion. “Humans have a right to clean water” sounds good; “Of course,” we think, “all humans deserve to have clean water.” But where do we go from there? If we said, rather, “We as a species choose to make clean water available for as many people as possible,” then we get to discuss the nitty-gritty practicalities of how that can happen, what is feasible to accomplish, and in what cases humans forfeit their government-provided access to clean water by the choices they make, like choosing to live in an impractical place.

Saying that something is a human right sort of dumps it in someone else’s lap — “Hey, this is my right, you (the government, my boss, the World Health Organization) need to make it happen, I don’t care how it gets paid for or who it affects negatively.” Realizing that human rights are just human choices that the majority of us agree on puts it squarely in our laps — if this is the choice we want to make, how do we make it? If free health care is what we want to choose, and we’re falling short of that, what can be changed in the system, and how?

What is often the case is that making these choices costs money. In the U.S., it was decided that all our citizens have a right to representation during a trial. That means we all pay taxes so that public defenders can be lawyers for those without money. If we remember that our “human rights” are really just things we’ve chosen to, as a society, provide for as many people as possible, then we also have to be practical about what we choose to provide. If we decide everyone has a right to a house, does that conflict with everyone’s “right” to pay a reasonable amount of money in taxes, or the “right” of people to have nature to enjoy?

Earlier I said that human rights are human choices. It’s also possible that they are “human deserves”. Perhaps the “rights” we already have are the choices that have already been made, like the “right to representation during a trial”, whereas the “rights” we don’t have are the things people think we deserve, like the “right to taxpayer-paid-for health care”. Instead of saying “free healthcare is a right” people could say “all humans deserve to have taxpayers pay for their health care”. If we talk about what people deserve, then we can figure out how, as a society, we can provide more and more people with what they deserve.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Kris Williams’s story.