Stanford scholar examines the roots of human rights

Stanford French Professor Dan Edelstein’s new research explores how the concept of human rights developed in Western societies.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are some of the inalienable rights each person has, according to the U.S. Declaration of Independence. And the United States isn’t alone in declaring the rights of its citizens.

Prof. Dan Edelstein talks about the French Revolution during a class at the Stanford Humanities Center.

In a new book, French Professor Dan Edelstein traces the history of the concept of human rights and the connection with natural law theory. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

But where did these inalienable rights come from?

Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor of French and chair of the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, tackles this question in his new research.

In his book On the Spirit of Rights, Edelstein traces the history of the human rights concept and its connection with natural law theory, a philosophy that dates to ancient Greece and other early Western civilizations.

Stanford News Service interviewed Edelstein about his research.


What inspired you to pursue this research?

The history of how the idea of human rights came about is a really difficult story to tell. It stretches across centuries and covers many geographical areas.

I think a lot of historians of human rights have focused a little too nominally on the specific term “human rights,” which was coined in the English language around the time of the French Revolution, at the end of the 18th century. These historical accounts are mostly limited to the examination of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that preceded the French Revolution, as well as the 19th and 20th centuries. They ignore the longer history of natural rights and the idea of natural law, which dates to ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, if not earlier.

Indeed, the idea that there is a universal, natural justice can be found in some of the earliest written texts and even in nonwritten traditions. But to be frank, most of the major works on natural law theory are not exactly bedtime reading. They’re often written in Latin, really long, and the earlier texts can be very fragmented, too. So I understand why historians have been hesitant to make the connection between the modern idea of human rights and its natural law roots.

But I wanted to try to connect all of these different pieces. In my opinion, you can’t tell the story of human rights without understanding or explaining how this concept evolved out of the natural law theory.


What are some takeaways from your work?

The most interesting part about the history of human rights, in my view, is not who came up with the concept first, but how people thought about what happens to these rights in a political society.

The idea that we should retain our natural or human rights in a political society, which is what most of today’s democratic societies are based on, starts to surface during the 14th century. There are revolutionaries who are advocating this concept in the 16th and 17th centuries. But it’s not at all the primary view. In fact, the dominant view during most of the early modern period is that we have to either give up most our rights in a political society or we have to hand them over to the government.

This changes during the Enlightenment in the 18th century, which was not the birthplace of modern human rights, but rather represents the culmination of the debate over how to apply them in a political society.


What are some of the nuances in how human rights are thought to be maintained within societies?

Although today we have a more unified discourse about human rights, there are different intellectual traditions that look like they’ve converged but may in fact still be fairly distinct.

I identify two types of traditions – the Anglo-American common law tradition and the continental natural law tradition. The first places great importance on criminal procedural rights within society, including the right to a trial by jury, the right against unlawful searches and seizures. These specifics are tied to the history of English common law and are not intrinsically part of natural law. For example, the right to trial by jury is ultimately about a certain right to liberty, but it’s a specific take on how we should retain that right.

The second tradition revolves around a belief that there is a sort of natural order of things. If a state and its economy are run according to natural law, then by extension, everyone living in that society would maintain their natural rights. Today, we would call that neoliberalism. This way of thinking can be traced back to the 4th-century Christian theologian Saint Augustine of Hippo, who was influential among 20th-century liberal economic thinkers.

By the late 18th century, both of these traditions have come to something kind of similar. They’re both issuing declarations of rights. The United States Bill of Rights and France’s Declarations of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were both created in 1789. The American and French revolutionaries see what they’re doing as fairly similar.

But I argue that although it looks like they are talking about the same things, they have a very different understanding of these rights. And I suspect these differences have been carried to the present as well.


Why is it important to understand the history of human rights for us today?

This complex history contextualizes the main current international human rights document – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. In some respects, this deep history is a little inconvenient because the U.N. declaration was written in a way that hides the scaffolding it’s based on. And that scaffolding includes this very Western, Christian natural law tradition that incorporates aspects of English common law and the Enlightenment-era declarations.

On what basis do we all have human rights? The U.N. declaration claims it’s because we have this inherent human dignity. And that’s a lot of weight to put on the word “dignity.” Why does our human dignity endow us with these rights? The answer lies in these natural law traditions and declarations, including those of the United States, France and other primarily Western European countries.

But every 18th-century declaration of rights refers to the laws of nature and says that nature is created by God. So there is good reason for the universal declaration to cut those references out. However, then, it’s no longer clear by what authority we all have these inalienable rights.

Now, the U.N. declaration was ratified by over 70 countries, and it’s part of international law. I don’t think international human rights lawyers stay up at night worrying about the foundations of human rights much.

But it is problematic that human rights are just asserted to us without any backing of where they come from.