We hear almost constantly from all sorts of different people about “rights,” that we presumably have or should have. But what, precisely, are rights? More frequently than not we are told by some that we have “God given” rights, and probably just as frequently by others that there are “Natural” rights. There are also “Human rights.” As an avowed Atheist I cannot bring myself to believe there are God given rights. I certainly cannot believe we have a God given right to own AK 47’s or to starve the poor in order to create billionaires. It has never been clear to me just what actually constitutes God given rights as they are rarely, if ever, precisely defined, and if they are you should beware of them. One of our favorite claims is that “all men are created equal,” and also that we have inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” With the possible exception of “life” these claims are demonstrably false, however noble they may sound.
Turning to the question of Natural rights it is possible to argue, I think, that yes, we may well have, for unknown reasons, a right to life. It would seem to me that the fact that we are born and exist certainly implies that somehow we must have a right to do so (consult The Great Mystery for confirmation). The fact of births would also seem to confirm a right to heterosexual relations between members of the species. Going one step farther, because we are born so terribly helpless we can presume there is a right to nurturance and protection at least for an initial period. As we arrive as living, breathing creatures you might also say we have a right to breathe air and drink water. Similarly, if we are to continue to survive we also have the right to sustenance, to hunting and gathering. I don’t believe we have Natural rights to Supermarkets where we can choose between some 60 or more kinds of frozen potatoes, or dozens of different breakfast cereals, but this adds a more complicated dimension to the problem.
This kind of thinking breaks down when you arrive at the rights to hunting and gathering. The fact is, these are not truly rights, merely conditions of human existence. Thus while you can argue at this basic level that humans may have certain rights by virtue of their existence this is of little or no help because these presumed rights can be and typically are abrogated. Your birth, for example, can be denied through abortion, or you brief existence can be ended by infanticide. Nurturance can be denied, along with air, food, and water. Even sexual relations can be and usually are at least minimally controlled. You cannot hunt and gather, or even plant anyplace you want, and while in the abstract it may be in the state of nature permissible even to kill to survive, this does not mean you can kill others of your own species with impunity as this would create chaos and violate the very fact of species survival. If everyone ran around doing only what they wanted to do there would be chaos.
Human beings even in a state of nature do not normally exist in complete isolation from others of their kind, they always exist in social groups, sometimes very small groups and sometimes huge ones. It is this basic fact of human existence where we find the necessity for rules relating to what is right, what rights you have, and what is not considered right, cultural values that determine how one should behave. All human cultures both prescribe and proscribe what is possible and necessary. Sometimes the prescriptions and proscription are not entirely clear, sometimes not everyone wants to obey them, sometimes there are violations, and sometimes they change over time, but this is still the only source for the creation of what we consider human rights. They are considered human rights because they are not rights permitted to animals and because humans created them. God given and Natural rights do not exist although they are often posited by those with vested interests. Neither God nor Nature demands universal health care, only (some) humans are concerned with such rights. God and Nature do not even demand that people marry, let alone who they marry. These are purely human concerns. Does anyone believe that we have a God given or Natural right to oppose global warming? Does anyone believe that either God or Nature give a damn about the right of individuals to own and operate AK 47’s? Are God and Nature responsible for our current level of poverty and inequality? Oh yes, I know, some will say that of course God is concerned about such things but he/she/it is remarkably absent, and if not their presumed concern is based on myths or fairy tales.
There are no rights and wrongs in nature, there is no good or evil, just life rushing on in all its manifold forms and glory.In an ideal human, healthily functioning culture people should want to do what they have to do. In our current U. S. culture most seem to believe they have a right to do only what they want to do. Alas, that is not a right that is destined to last and be successful for long.