Human Nature and Rights: the Eternal Struggle

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As suggested in the title of this paper, the struggle of human rights is and has been an ongoing one for a very long time because what is exactly meant by human rights remains controversial and ambiguous (Harrelson-Stephens and Callaway 4). Meaning, ambiguity is a strong killer of the perception of human rights as necessary amongst peoples. Further, the fundamental issues that the world has with recognizing the need and significance of these rights are based on the elementary questions what are human rights?, why are they necessary?, when can an intervention within a state in the world be justified by these declared rights?, who receives human rights?, where are they applicable?, and how are these rights beneficial? The difficulty in finding an answer to these questions that can be understood by every human is the reason why human rights have struggled in being seen as vital or deserving of considerable protection.

These rights look nice on paper and sound as sweet as home but in the brutal sphere of battle between self-interest and power, they have struggled to be respected as more than just fairy-tale declarations. In order to overcome the stance as mere declaration, there are a few things human rights must face head-on. These things include overcoming the battle between universalism (human rights as universally defined) and cultural relativism (human rights as culturally defined), the assumption of human rights as self-evident, peoples ignorance of self-possession, autonomy, and the importance of empathy within the progression of the idea of human rights, overcoming the power of the ultimate decision resting within states around the globe, and overcoming each collective powers personal self-interested agenda when it comes to human rights whether they wish to focus on that which supports national security or focusing more on civil and political rights than economic, social, and political rights or vice versa.

The argument between cultural relativism and universal rights as articulated in What are Human Rights? Definitions and Typologies of Today's Human Rights Discourses by Julie Harrelson-Stephens and Rhonda L. Callaway is one I agree with as perhaps the most important theoretical, if not the most prevailing, controversy in international human rights is the question of cultural relativism. In particular, the question is raised, do universal rights exist or are human rights culturally specific? (Harrelson-Stephens and Callaway 8). Essentially, the rights established in the big declarations of human rights such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the American Declaration of Independence, and the United Nations General Assembly Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are based heavily on the ideology of the western power heavy environments in which they were created which is why the developing countries are quick to dispute the universality of human rights…developing countries had little input in the drafting of the document [UDHR]…the rights outlined in the declaration are a result, many states pursue alternatives to the universal model of human rights (Harrelson-Stephens and Callaway 8). This is true, when it comes to universal rights every voice should be heard so to the UDHR one should say what about smaller nations though?

The significantly excluded voices of people from that seemingly inclusive universality? Western culture values differ in important places from non-western cultures. How can human rights be universally agreed upon if the West is trying to dominate these rights with their idea of what human rights are? Therefore, should the definition of human rights simply be left to cultural definitions? This question is a very difficult one as (as supported by cultural relativists) what one society calls a human rights violation, another society might claim as a legitimate cultural practice (Harrelson-Stephens and Callaway 8). This makes the idea of universal rights difficult and leads to the idea that human rights may not be as self-evident as they seem.

It is well known that it was Thomas Jefferson who declared in his famous declaration that human rights are self-evident truths. However, this hits a large bump in the road when you examine the progression of peoples' acknowledgement of human rights over time. Therefore, I do not agree that human rights are self-evident. For if they were every animal endowed with a sense of self, that is every human, would have had them throughout their humanity. It is because of this that I side with Lynn Hunt in here document titled Inventing Human Rights where she states if equality of rights is so self-evident, then why did this assertion have to [be] made and why was it only made in specific times and places? How can human rights be universal if they are not universally recognized (Hunt 19)? This shows how self-evidence can interplay with the previously explained idea of universal rights. Essentially, human rights, that is a collection of rights belonging to every human can't exist if they are human rights that only apply to certain humans in certain places during certain times. This is why human rights is not a static definition but an evolving seed of definition throughout time as humans evolve. Human rights and humans themselves evolve together biologically over time as the right for an individual to grow into their sense of self possession unhindered by society, to recognize their own autonomy, and be given the emotional or psychological education necessary to nurture their empathetic abilities occurs.

I believe the descriptions in the above sentence to be considered as rights too, but just recently, as having read this piece by Hunt, my mental area of self-awareness and empathy articulated those thoughts. I just progressed, I just proved to myself the progression of the declarations of human rights. But I am just one person. However, individuals are the key to this occurrence. As Hunt states later on in her piece, Human rights are difficult to pin down because their definition, indeed their very existence, depends on emotion as much as on reason. The claim of self-evidence relies ultimately on an emotional appeal; it is convincing if it strikes a chord within each person (Hunt 26). It is just as important to look at the bigger picture as it is to look at the structure of the pieces within it. Hunt further explains that to have human rights, people had to be perceived as separate individuals who were capable of exercising independent moral judgements (Hunt 27) or in other words people had to be realized as having autonomy but for these autonomous individuals to become members of a political community, they had to be able to empathize with others.

Everyone would have rights only if everyone could be seen as in some fundamental way alike (Hunt 27) meaning we had to see the existence of self in each other. Because of this emotional basis rights cannot be defined once and for all because their emotional basis continues to shift, in part in reaction to declarations of rights…the human rights revolution is by definition ongoing. Autonomy and empathy are cultural practices, not just ideas…they have physical as well as emotional dimensions…Empathy depends on the recognition that others feel and think as we do, that our inner feelings are alike in some fundamental fashion…human rights depend on both self-possession and on the recognition that all others are equally self-possessed. It is the incomplete development of the latter that gives rise to all the inequalities of rights that have preoccupied us throughout all history (Hunt 29). I completely agree with Hunt here because the importance of the recognition of autonomy and empathy within individuals is so incredibly important. However, the ideas of autonomy and empathy are indeed cultural and so support the idea that the development of universal, applying to every human, human rights, is and continues to struggle from simply being declared.

When it comes to overcoming the ultimate power of states and their self-interested agendas when it comes to human rights it is perhaps wise to consider the human rights required for the existence of other human rights. That is, it is perhaps easiest to gather their attention with the importance of the basic rights that instill the people they reside over can even exist. This is when we turn to security and subsistence. In Basic Rights Henry Shue states Basic rights, then, are everyone's minimum reasonable demands upon the rest of humanity (Shue 16). This argument edges more to a sense of compromise that I don't like the idea of. However, I do believe the right to security, to protection of one's livelihood, and to subsistence to be two fundamental rights and that basic rights need to be established securely before other rights can be secured (Shue 16). That is where Shue and another should agree because if you don't have the right to the security of your livelihood, how would you enjoy the freedom of speech? Your livelihood is not protected so you cannot say whatever it is that you want unthreatened.

Therefore, the protection of a basic right may not be sacrificed in order to secure the enjoyment of a non-basic right. (Shue 16). Shue further explains that by a right to subsistence I shall always mean a right to at least subsistence (Shue 18) meaning every individual has the right to be able to support themselves and he is not saying that everyone has the right to the same level of subsistence, just that they need to be able to support themselves at the minimum level, he aims to include people who are unable to support themselves. He defends this as a basic right by stating deficiencies in the means of subsistence can be just as fatal, incapacitating, as violations of physical security. The resulting damage or death can at least as decisively prevent the enjoyment of any right as the effects of security violations (Shue 18) which is foundationally logically sound. We see a sense of that empathetic responsibility mentioned in the previous paragraph when he states when death and serious illness could be prevented by different social policies regarding the essentials of life, the protection of any human right involves avoidance of fatal or debilitating deficiencies in these essential commodities (Shue 19). Thus, the state as a collection of human beings with political authority has an empathetic responsibility to protect the peoples' basic rights to security and subsistence.

In conclusion, it is a never-ending story when it comes to the struggle of the progression of human rights from mere declaration to universally recognized significance amongst the humans throughout the world whether they have political authority or are relating to their others and weighing their empathetic responsibilities to humanity. Human rights continue to struggle because not every human is from the same cultural context and so it is hard to create a universally recognized sense of human rights especially with different cultures favoring different human rights over others according to different agendas but it becomes easier through the recognition of autonomy of every individual, of similarities in terms of self-possession and feelings. However, I hope the necessity of the basic rights to subsistence and security is a universally recognized agreement.


What Are Human Rights? Definitions and Typologies of Today's Human Rights Discourses. Exploring International Human Rights: Essential Readings, by Rhonda L. Callaway and Julie Harrelson-Stephens, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007, pp. 4–10.

Shue, Henry. Basic Rights. Exploring International Human Rights: Essential Readings, by Rhonda L. Callaway and Julie Harrelson-Stephens, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007, pp. 16–20.

Hunt, Lynn. Introduction. Inventing Human Rights, by Lynn Hunt, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, pp. 15–34.

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Human Nature and Rights: The Eternal Struggle. (2019, Dec 12). Retrieved May 30, 2024 , from

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