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 24
By Dr. Denise R. Ames
A History and Philosophy of Human Rights, The Western Enlightenment, Part 2 For those of us living in the United States, John Locke is most noteworthy because he influenced our founding fathers, especially our third president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson agreed with John Locke’s ideas of natural rights and famously included them in The Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776.
The document declared the desire of some (not all) American colonists to be independent from Great Britain and to set up their own separate nation. In the declaration Jefferson stated his most famous words on the subject of individual rights—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” He continued, “All men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In the United States Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson differed from Locke in that he substituted “pursuit of happiness” in place of “property.”
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), an 18th century German philosopher, provided a foundation of moral reasoning for human rights that did not necessarily require that these rights
come from God. The central themes of his moral philosophy are important in contemporary human rights: the ideals of equality and the moral independence of rational human beings. Kant said that the best reason for human rights is because of the human ability to reason, and these principles of reason should be applied equally to all rational persons. For him, acting in pursuit of one’s own interests or desires is not right action; right action is acting in agreement with the principles that all rational individuals accept.
For Kant, the capacity to reason was the distinguishing characteristic of humanity and the basis for human dignity. Although difficult to understand, Kant’s philosophy is important in the historical development of human rights.
As we have seen so far, men have contributed to all the ideas about human rights! One notable [figure 13] Enlightenment philosopher who expanded upon the concept of individual rights was Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). She wrote the Vindication of the
Rights of Women (1792), in which she argued that women are not naturally inferior to men but appear to be only because they lack education. She thought that society should treat both men and women as rational beings, and she imagined a social order founded on reason. She worked to extend political suffrage to women who had been denied political and civil rights.
Thomas Paine (1731–1809) was an important Enlightenment philosopher in the U.S. In his influential book Rights of Man (1791), he emphasized that laws alone cannot grant natural rights because this would legally mean that the government could take these rights away under certain circumstances.
Three important documents in the 17th and 18th centuries helped to establish the concept of human rights as they were put into law codes: England, The English Bill of Rights (1689); the United States, the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Bill of Rights and the Constitution (1789); and France, Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). These three documents provide a comparison of the agreement among many of the Enlightenment philosophers about the importance of basic natural rights.
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.