I am continuing in January a series of blogs on human rights that I began in December: “Towards Human Rights.” The purpose of this blog series is to make the case for the implementation and acceptance of human rights as a global values system. It is based on my Human Rights: Towards a Universal Values System?
“…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Towards Human Rights as a Global Values System, part 16
By Dr. Denise R. Ames
A History and Philosophy of Human Rights Ancient Greek Philosophers
“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” … Socrates
During the time period 470-322 BCE, the philosophers in ancient Greece – in particular Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – began to articulate the concept of human rights that we know today. Instead of using the term human rights, however, many Greek philosophers used the term natural rights; these were rights they said came from natural law.
According to the Greek tradition, natural law reflected the natural order of the universe. These philosophers thought that nature set natural law and was everywhere. This natural order provided the basis for rational systems of justice and universal principles in order for humans to evaluate the moral authority of man-made laws. The Greek philosophers believed that these universal principles came from humans’ inborn sense of right and wrong, rather than governmental laws which were secondary in importance.
Natural law is the theory or belief that certain rights exist independently of any government’s granting of those rights. It was superior to laws passed by governments because man-made laws could be different in every society and carried out at the whim of rulers. Plato, Aristotle and others favored natural law and said that morality is not man-made but natural. All people must obey natural laws, whether or not government enacts them. Aristotle believed that natural law is the same truth everywhere, it was universal. It was the belief at the time that governments could apply general laws of nature as a system of justice for all societies, regardless of their culture or customs.
This natural, moral law surpassed local legal codes. For example, the reasoning leading to the formation of the Bill of Rights in England and the U.S. drew on the theory of natural law. Whenever a group rebels against their government and asserts rights that the government hasn’t granted them, they are claiming natural law. Those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights used the theory of natural law to justify their endeavors.
The concept of natural law was vague enough to keep philosophers busy trying to refine the idea for over 2,000 years. Ancient Greeks began to put natural laws into their law codes. They are remembered for their valuable contribution to the concept of human rights. The idea of natural law is very similar to the concept of human rights today and is considered valid for all humans around the world. Natural law is also superior to national or local laws when those laws overturn human rights laws.
About the Author:
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator, grade 7-university, author of seven books, and president of an educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CGA provides books, resources, and services with a holistic, global- focused, and perspective-taking approach for their three programs: Global Awareness for Educators, books and resources for educators and students grade 9-university; Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a self-organizing study and conversation program for adults focusing on seeing different perspectives of pressing global issues; and their most recent program Turn, Transformative Understanding and Reflection Network, which encourages lifelong and transformative learning to help us arrive at a place of personal and global well-being using a seven “path” approach.
For more information about the topic of human rights see Dr. Ames’ book Human Rights: Towards a Global Values System, $17.95, 225 pgs. Also available on Amazon.