The Value and Importance of Human Rights

(2014 May 17 speech to the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa in Toronto)

My topic today is the value and importance of human rights. To illustrate the value of such rights I would like to use an analogy.

Try to imagine driving your vehicle on the public roads with no common rules for everybody. As usual, there would be many people driving about, each pursuing his or her intentions. It would be chaotic and you could expect many collisions with attendant injury and death. Such a terrible situation has been prevented by the invention of practical, comprehensible rules of the road. These are approximately the same the world over and enable a person to go to another country, rent a car and drive it safely on their roads. Recognize that the rules of the road are essentially a code of rights for a person when behind the wheel of a vehicle on a public road. Imagine that there was a code of rights that governed the interaction between people in any situation. As a person enjoyed security of his or her person and vehicle on the public road he or she would enjoy security of his/her person and property at all times. This is the potential value of a universal code of human rights.

Another human right is entitlement to what Nature has provided. Actually, every person has an equal claim on Nature’s bounty- think about it. Can you deny it? Yet, at many times, in many places, a relative few people hoard land, natural waters or other natural resources so that the many do not have access. If human rights were known and protected people could more readily make their living from Nature and enjoy its recreational value. In this modern age where the exploitation of natural resources is big business true human rights theory says that every person is, in effect, a part owner of the commodities produced and is therefore entitled to compensation. This compensation could possibly pay for one’s sustenance and the value of human rights in this situation is clear.

On the importance of human rights I again would like to use an analogy or two.

Imagine that you went to another place and tried to convince an audience- perhaps an audience like this one- that blue is the best colour. What is the authority behind your message? It is only your personal preference or your cultural upbringing or whatever. The listeners know this and they know that they have the right to choose what colour they prefer. Are you likely to make many converts? I think only the ones who already prefer blue.

Let’s take another case. Suppose you went to another place where for centuries people determined the long side of a right angled triangle by adding the lengths of the other two sides and subtracting an amount that depended on the included angles. They used an empirical formula that yielded an approximate answer. You try to tell them about Pythagoras’ theorem- who knows what it says? It says that the square on the long side (hypotenuse) of a right angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides and it can be proved mathematically to be true. What is the authority behind your message? It is the truth. It is a truth that can be verified by anybody who will make the effort to understand the proof. How much confidence will you have presenting this message compared to the message that the best colour is blue? How much should you yield if challenged? How much should you compromise? Zero. The truth is not for compromise.

Some people- not many- have tried to enunciate human rights in recorded history. Sometimes, especially since the mid-19th century, their pronouncements came from their personal preferences or their chosen morality or their cultural values. The authority behind their message was correspondingly weak but they achieved wide credibility and influence in the world. How and why could be the subject of another talk.

When I took early retirement in 1999 and made it my mission to answer the question of what fundamental rights every human being is born with I took a strictly objective approach. I approached it as I would an engineering problem- my career was in engineering- leaving my personal preferences, values and philosophy aside to find the truth. The first thing I realized was that human rights cannot come from any person’s morality or values or dreams of an ideal society because such things can differ from person to person and especially from one culture to another. Therefore, rights so derived won’t necessarily be universal as true human rights must be. So human rights are not invented but rather are seen in the apparent arrangement of Nature. In this respect, human rights are not like the rules of the road which were invented for a purpose. My effort strove to find the truth by looking at the fundamental structure of human existence. I aimed for the credibility of Pythagoras’ theorem or the like. If I was successful then my theory of rights has the authority of truth for anyone willing to read and understand it. If the rights proclaimed in it are credible and real, that is, a property of every person and protect the security of him and her and what they own, then they are important. If they proclaim an equal share of what Nature has provided they are important. If they protect every person from other people, even if those other people are the majority, they are important. If they protect a person from a government ignoring their rights they are important.

Filed under: Uncategorized | May 19th, 2014