Rights are something that most people take for granted. Few individuals are capable of explaining what rights actually are, and even fewer can give you any coherent reasons for thinking that we have them. Despite this widespread ignorance of such a core principle in our system of government, most people have a positive view of the idea of having rights. But if rights are so important to us, what the heck are they and where do they come from?
For our purposes, we will limit this discussion to the concept of fundamental rights. First, limiting the discussion will make it easier to find some clarity about what rights are. In addition, fundamental rights are somewhat primary in our general discussion of rights. If we can’t get the concept of fundamental rights off the ground, derivative rights are going to fall away as well. Finally, the sorts of rights that most of us are familiar with, those embodied in our Bill of Rights, are paradigm examples of fundamental rights.
What, then, is a fundamental right? There are many variations on the definition, but the basic idea is that fundamental rights protect fundamental interests. Fundamental interests are interests that are constitutive of human well-being, regardless of what our conception of the good life is. Fundamental interests are always necessary to human flourishing, and fundamental rights seek to guarantee their protection.
For example, most people would likely accept the claim that freedom of speech is a fundamental right. What this means is that no matter how we conceive of the good life for humans, that conception always includes being able to freely say what we want to (with the notable exception of threatening speech). Our fundamental interest in freedom of speech leads to the protection of freedom of speech as a fundamental right.
Okay, so what does that mean? The simplest way to think of what kinds of obligations stem from “rights talk” is that your rights entail my duties. The right to freedom of speech means that we all have an obligation to protect, defend, and not infringe upon the exercise of that right by others, with the assumption that the same protection will be afforded to us. So claiming that we have a fundamental right to something places obligations upon everyone to act in a certain way with regard to that right.
Fundamental rights are culturally uncontroversial, but there are some philosophical worries. Where do rights come from? Does our thinking something is a fundamental right make it one? What is human flourishing, and if we don’t know, how can we say that fundamental rights are constitutive of it? Are fundamental rights anything more than widespread cultural agreements? These are not easy questions, and I won’t seek to answer them here, but it’s worth pointing out that the case is not closed on the idea that we all have certain fundamental rights. By clarifying what fundamental rights are and what claims about them entail with regard to our own conduct, we are in a better position to engage in a philosophical inquiry about them.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.