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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

Human Rights are as Real as the Preconditions for Human Cooperation

It’s amazing that Ebay works. Totally anonymous buyers contact totally anonymous sellers, voluntarily hand over money, and trust the sellers to deliver the promised goods. Sometimes the purchases are worth tens of thousands of dollars, as when people buy cars over the internet. And Ebay is not unique. The same goes for Uber, Airbnb, and any number of online fronts.

One-shot economic models don’t predict this success. According to standard prisoner’s dilemma games, the best strategy would be to cheat your partner and take what you have earned. A seller should cash the payment, refuse to mail the goods, and be that much richer. Defect!

But anyone who has interacted online knows that strategy won’t pay off in the long term. Cheat a customer, and the gig is up. A few negative reviews are posted, and no one will darken the door of your AirBnB from now until hell freezes over. Continued cooperation requires treating your interactive partners with a certain modicum of respect. There are rules that must be followed for long-term cooperation to flourish.

These rules are the basis for human rights, at least according to Enlightenment-era social contract theories. It’s not a complicated idea: cooperation won’t work unless people can be trusted to behave in a certain sort of way, and violating those standards makes you eligible for blame and a target for revenge. Call these standards “rights” to call attention to their importance, insist that they can be waived only by the individuals in question, and you’ve got a theory of human rights.

So on this way of understanding a right, it’s a theoretical boundary around each human that must be preserved to have any chance of successfully cooperating with them. None of us can transgress such a boundary without incurring the wrath of the group, and the location of the boundary is set by human psychology and the laws governing the natural world. Rights are just as real as the rules of social cooperation.

This means that human rights are not a simple gift from God (sorry, Locke), not dependent upon a culture’s preferences (sorry, anthropology), and not the result of some actual deal that our pre-historic ancestors made (sorry, Hobbes). Social psychology shows that there are real standards that must be upheld to keep human cooperation flourishing, and we don’t control the content of these standards.

For example, if people know that you killed your neighbor, then they won’t cooperate with you. If people know that you stole your neighbor’s stuff, they won’t cooperate with you. If people know that you punched your neighbor in the face, they won’t cooperate with you. We can bundle all of these cooperation-blocking conditions together and say that in each case, your neighbor has a right against you that you not act in that way.

And notice how nicely this makes sense of justifications and excuses. If people know that you killed your neighbor out of self-defense, that action won’t count against your viability as a cooperative partner. The justification of self-defense explains why you didn’t violate your neighbor’s rights on that occasion.

Furthermore, this account is grounded in the physical facts of human life. Staring at your neighbor won’t hurt him. And so he doesn’t have the right that you not stare at him. Stabbing him, however, will hurt him. And so he has the right that you not stab him. If our physical universe were constructed in such a way that staring at someone had the same effect as stabbing them, then you can bet we’d think that your neighbor had the right that you not stare at him.

Does believing in these sorts of rights require a stretch of the imagination? Hardly. If you officemate tells you that he doesn’t believe in human rights, invite him to walk around town slapping people for an afternoon. Even if there were no effective police force in place, one couldn’t behave this way for long without serious repercussions from others.

Now of course, he may just say that his punishment is due to the fact that he did something that other people didn’t like, but that the whole situation can be explained without invoking human rights. But this misses the point. By definition, a right is a special subset of actions that “others don’t like,” namely those that a disliked strongly enough to block future interactions with the person in question. If anything, your officemates’ experience is evidence that there are such rights!

Your officemate aside, there are some more serious objections to this way of thinking about human rights. Here are two of the most important. First, this account connects rights with cooperation. But what do we say about loners or sociopaths or people not interested in cooperation? Is it true that they don’t have a reason to respect the rights of others? This account makes rights dependent on cooperative goals: when there’s no need to cooperate, there are no rights to be respected. And yet human rights are not supposed to be relative to interests in this way.

In response, defenders of human rights should point out that this objection confuses the question “what is a right?” with the question “why should I respect another’s rights?” And these are very different questions. A social contract theorist might answer the first as we have done here: rights are the conditions that must be respected between humans to ensure cooperation. But that doesn’t tell you what to do when someone else doesn’t care about cooperation. All moral theories are on equal footing here. What can you tell a sociopath on any theory of ethics?

Second, there is empirical evidence that there are certain barriers to cooperation that none of us would consider a matter of human rights. For example, multiple studies have linked below-average physical beauty with below-average cooperation. People want to hire, pay, and cooperate with good-looking people. And in certain cultures, religion or race might also block effective cooperation. Shall we say in these cases that people have a right that others be good-looking or of the same race or religion?

In response, defenders of human rights should make three points. First, the relevant issue is not which conditions may enhance cooperation but which conditions would render it impossible. Human rights are those protections that are necessary conditions for human cooperation, not merely those protections that might make cooperation smoother.

Second, rights are protections against the actions of others. Simply being a certain way is not an action, and so the offending person can’t be properly said to have violated a right. In other words, violating a right requires doing something, and simply being unattractive or being a member of a certain race or religious group is not doing anything.

Third, since human rights are meant to be universal, they should correspond to the protections necessary at all times and in all cultures. These are the protections that “transcend” cultural barriers to apply to all human groups. So, for example, suppose it’s true that members of culture A are psychologically incapable of cooperating with humans who eat meat. This wouldn’t mean that eating meat violates a human right. That’s because there are plenty of cultures in which non-meat eaters do cooperate with meat-eaters. And so there is no universal human predilection at play.

In sum, human rights are real things based on human nature and human needs. They are neither the inventions of modern man nor the fictions of philosophers. The UN may have a declaration on human rights, but the UN didn’t create them. They were there all along.

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