Human Rights Don’t Exist
Listening to Michael Brendan Dougherty explain to Zack Beauchamp why he doesn’t believe in human rights put me in mind of Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue that “there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.”
Human rights, says Dougherty, are assertions, cultural artifacts, but not something real. MacIntyre called them fictions “with highly specific properties” that purport to provide objective and impersonal moral grounding, but fail because “every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed.”
Assertions that people possess them are not self-evident, whatever the Declaration of Independence says, and appeals to intuition get us nowhere. According to MacIntyre, “the introduction of the word ‘intuition’ by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument.” Not until after about the year 1400 did the precise word “right” emerge: until then “the concept lacks an means of expression in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Arabic, classical or medieval.” The existence of human rights simply cannot be demonstrated, anymore than we can demonstrate the existence of witches or unicorns or the horizons of my humility.
I’m basically on the same page. Rights language has its uses (as does language about witches and unicorns and other mythical entities), but it’s much more abstract than, say, the concept of virtues (habitual dispositions toward the good) or the concept of moral obligations that arise in certain circumstances and situations. You can at least point to what those concepts refer to in the real world; you can’t show me a natural or human right. I’ve been known to make use of rights language when it serves my purpose, but I wouldn’t shed a tear to see it become a dead language.