Updated: Jan 29, 2019
Nearly everyone today believes in human rights...or at least, they say they believe in human rights. But when pushed to give a coherent definition of rights, the notion of natural rights seems very difficult to explain or defend.
This inability to provide a metaphysical foundation for human or natural rights is not a new problem for philosophy, but the philosophical problem and the concept of rights go hand in hand and arrive on the historical scene at the same time: in the Enlightenment.
Prior to the 17th century, the notion of "human rights" was unheard of, and was unheard of in most non-European countries such as China and India until the UN started pushing the Enlightenment ideal of rights on the world. The absence of natural rights rhetoric is not an indication that people didn't have rights as we conceive of them; rather, our medieval ancestors would not have expressed justice in the language of rights--a language which is almost impossible to explain, for good reasons.
In medieval Europe, the concept of rights (in Old English, riht) was practically synonymous with responsibility. That a man had the right to work meant simultaneously a man had an obligation to work, to provide for his family and to support the community. All justice was about relationships between people and what members of a community owed to each other. This indebtedness to the community and to others was the glue of society and the cement of social cohesion and loyalty. There was never a sense in the medieval world of pure entitlement without a corresponding sense of duty to both God and neighbour.
Along with the medieval sense of justice came a very straightforward metaphysical foundation for understanding that justice: the existence of God and the Eternal Law, revealed through both Scripture and the teaching tradition of the Church. Hence, there was nothing voluntaristic about justice or rights: the blueprint for behaviour was contained in the Ten Commandments and discovered through a formation of the conscience in keeping with the natural law. No one had to come up with a personalized code of morality through rigorous philosophical musings. The Code of right behaviour was revealed and provided reason for a starting point. As St Anselm summed up the relation of revealed morality and reason, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam" (I do not seek to understand in order that I might believe, rather I believe in order that I might understand").
The Enlightenment philosophers, in a rush to liberate Europe from God and Church, wanted to endow mankind with a purely rational basis for justice, which very quickly turned into a rhetoric of both civil and natural entitlements. The civil entitlements were easy enough to explain through reference to the dictates of civil authority. But the natural component became very troubling: as Alasdair McIntyre put it, whose justice and which rationality should we subscribe to in defining these natural rights? What is the metaphysical basis for them? Where do they come from, and how are they to be defined?
The modern concepts of human rights began as nothing more than a Christian concept of justice repackaged in secular language. The post-war architects of the UN wanted to have their cake and eat it too: they wanted the legacy of Christian justice, without the Christian references. At least one of the drafters of the initial document, Jacques Maritain, understood that ultimately, such a concept of Christian rights packaged in secular ideology would fall apart. And fall apart is exactly what has happened: now everything that is declared by civil authority, no matter how heinous, is deemed to be a natural or human right. So ultimately, human rights today is simply a synonym for civil rights. The medieval notion of divine justice is all but eradicated and the state has become the source and origin of natural law.