I am continuing 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 23
By Dr. Denise R. Ames
A History and Philosophy of Human Rights, The Western Enlightenment, Part 1 In Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, a philosophical movement called the Enlightenment started to question the power of the kings and queens. The Enlightenment philosophers suggested that there should be a “social contract” between the rulers and the ruled a concept of rights similar to today’s idea of human rights. Over the centuries, these ideas have taken hold and extended across the world.
During the Enlightenment era, ideals such as natural rights, morality, liberty, human dignity and equality provided a foundation for building a more equal political system. These ideals sparked shattering political disorder throughout the 18th century. For example, in France angry revolutionaries paraded King Louis IV and his unpopular wife Marie Antoinette through the streets to the guillotine for their public beheading. Revolutionaries overthrew or replaced some very powerful kings with leaders who protected and promoted these new ideals of freedom and liberty. New documents such as the United States’ Declaration of Independence and the French National Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen resulted from these struggles.
John Locke (1632–1704), one of the most famous Enlightenment philosophers, contributed to the concept of natural rights, the notion that people are naturally free and equal. His ideas were important in the development of the modern idea of rights. Locke’s central argument claimed that individuals possess natural rights, no matter if the state recognized these rights. Locke went on to say that natural rights flowed from natural law and natural laws came from God.
Locke said there are three natural rights – life, everyone is entitled to live; liberty, everyone is entitled to do anything they want to so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first right; and property, people are entitled to own all they create or gain so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two rights. At the root of Locke’s ideas was that each of us must be free from threats to our life, liberty, and personal property. Locke thought the main purpose of government was to protect an individual’s basic natural rights.
Governments existed to serve the interests of the people, and not a king or ruling elite. He went so far as to say that if a ruler went against natural law and failed in his/her duty to protect the natural rights of his/her citizens—life, liberty, and property—then the people have the moral authority to take up arms against their government and create a new one.
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.