Where did the concept of Human Rights come from

Human Rights Campaign

Most of us are familiar with the notion of “human rights.” We use this concept to explain what sorts of privileges or entitlements should be afforded to us merely for being born human. Typically we attach the word “inalienable” to these rights, meaning that they are unable to be given or taken away by other human beings. Some of them include the right to life, the right to an education, the right to pursue happiness, etc.

In the name of human rights we decry the outrage of genocide and condemn countries that deny women the opportunity to receive an education, and rightfully so! For, we all seem to be in consensus, in the West at least, that these rights are, indeed, universal and inalienable. Was it always this way though? When did the Western world start consenting to this notion? What are the ideological roots for claiming human lives are innately valuable and dignified, thus should be protected via this commitment to “human rights’?

No Ancient Greek Roots?

For starters, no, there was not always a notion of human rights that entitled every individual to be valued and respected (and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) by virtue of their humanity. The earliest ethical thinkers would have scoffed at such a notion! Aristotle famously remarks in the Politics that some men are born natural slaves and thus, it is not only proper, but just, that they are enslaved: “It is thus clear that just as some are by nature free, so others are by nature slaves, and for these latter the condition of slavery is both beneficial and just.”[1]

For Aristotle, at least, there is no apparent or inherent value and dignity to human life that should be applied universally to all persons. The value of a human life is proportionate to his or her intellectual capacities and contributions to the polis. In other words, no one has the “right-to” liberty because they are born human. As Alsadair McIntyre famously argues, there is absolutely no concept of human rights in ancient ethics.[2]Ultimately, humans were not always sold by the idea that their fellow humans were worth protecting and advocating for---so if the ancient Greeks didn’t conceive of the notion-who did?

Medieval Developments

In order to answer this question many turn to the high Middle ages. We get closer to the conception of “human right” that is commonly espoused in contemporary political discourse during this period; however, it substantially differs from our contemporary notion. In medieval Christian discourse, especially that pertaining to the natural law, there is an explicit recognition that all human persons are endowed with dignity and value, but it is explicitly given by God and thus intrinsically tied to a theistic worldview. As some scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff have argued, the human rights discourse has its primordial roots in the concept of the Imago Dei.[3]

The Imago Dei, latin for “image of God,” is a notion in the Christian tradition claiming that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and thus endowed with value and dignity to be protected in virtue of their humanity. It important to note that value is not endowed by virtue of any individual’s capacity, but because they were made for relation with God. In other words, God does not parcel out dignity in accordance with some variable criterion, but it is given to all simply because they are human. Essentially, the natural law deemed men universally valuable and taught that they should be treated as such, which the law of Christian love demands. Interpretations as to what obligations this created for Christians in the realm of ethics were extremely varied.

Now, the word “inherent” is of seminal importance to this notion of Imago Dei. Essentially, the “inherent” or “intrinsic” nature of value ascribed to persons during the medieval period meant that no institution, government, or individual had the authority to confer value. Further, human value cannot be taken away by these institutions either--to do so would be unjust. Why? Well, if these institutions did not give people their value, they have no authority to take it away. God would be the only proper authority to do so; however, God wouldn’t withhold or retroactively remove a particular individual’s value because he is all good or omnibenevolent--or so he was understood.

Natural Rights & John Locke

John Locke
Clearly, this sounds quite different, still, from our contemporary understanding of human rights. As was already noted, the medieval conception of human value and dignity is specifically and unavoidably connected to God. There is another major shift from an Imageo Dei understanding of value and dignity to a natural rights understanding of value and dignity that occurs during the enlightenment, as is typical for many paradigm shifts in Western History. This is but one more evolutionary development that will eventually lead us to the modern conception of human rights we observe in the West. For this development we have, mainly, John Locke to thank.

From Locke we gain the theory of “natural rights.” For John Locke natural rights were heavily predicated on the conception of the natural law, inherited from the medieval period. It is the natural law which purported that individuals were made in the Imageo Dei and thus should be valued as such, as discussed earlier. Locke argued that due to the “law of nature,” or the natural law, all men were obliged to observe what are described as natural rights to life, liberty, health, possessions, etc. He argues this explicitly in The Two Treatises on Civil Government: “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions… (and) when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”[4]

These, for Locke, much like the value endowed to every human being as being made in the Imago Dei, were inherent and thus, inalienable. Further, it is with a strong Christian theological framework that Locke can make such a claim. Because of this ever-present theological foundation and motivation, many scholars dissociate Locke from the modern, human rights discourse.[5] However, it would be unfair to dissociate him completely, for he was a clear building block ultimately leading to the modern non-theistic espousal of “human rights.”

Moving into Modern Human Rights

So, the main distinction between Lockean natural rights and human rights is that the former is rooted in natural law whereas the latter derives the same notion of inherent value without reference to the Christian God or natural law. Instead of being endowed by God, human rights are endowed by human institutions and associations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafted in 1948.[6] This calls into question the inherent nature of human rights. If they are given by human institutions then are these rights actually intrinsic? It would seem as though they are not, if they are conferred by man-made institutions. Nonetheless, they are similarly recognized as affording all human beings, universally, the right to life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


  1. Aristotle, Politics, trans. Ernest Barker. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), I.v.§ 10,1255a
  2. McIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), pg. 69
  3. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
  4. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764).
  5. Seagrave, S. Adam. "How Old Are Modern Rights? On the Lockean Roots of Contemporary Human Rights Discourse." Journal Of The History Of Ideas 72, no. 2 (April 2011): 305-32.
  6. Ven, Johannes A van der. "From natural rights to human rights: a cultural war in the modern era." Religion, State & Society 41, no. 2 (June 2013): 164-187.

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