There were many important people throughout history that
contributed to the notion and understanding of human rights.These
are some of the pioneers of the concepts.
Plato believed in universal truth and virtue. This idea
has continued on to become universalism, that human rights
are universal, and as such are above the laws of individual
Aristotles view of the world included the existence
of different social classes, accepting that there will
always be an underclass, and even a slave class and that
this is perfectly normal.
St. Thomas Aquinas
He saw that basic human needs such as self preservation
require fundamental human rights.
Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham
Positive law is the idea that law and human rights come
from the state. Hobbes and Bentham were positive law theorists
who believed that human rights needed strong laws to protect
them. One difference from previous viewpoints is that
these rights can be given and taken away by the state,
they are not universal. Bentham believed in utilitarianism,
that there should always be the greatest amount of good
for the greatest number of people.
The positive law view was changed to include the idea
that the states law stemmed from a constitution,
the legal framework of the society. The constitution however,
was itself based on natural law, which includes a natural
right to self preservation. Therefore the power of the
state was still subject to inalienable human rights. The
state should protect individuals from the actions of other
that would impinge on their freedoms. Citizens should
be empowered to revolt if they felt that the state was
abusing its power. This became the underlying idea behind
the French and American revolutions and their subsequent
development of new nations.
Rousseau came up with the social contract theory, that
stated that all individuals in a society had entered into
a contract to form a civilized society in exchange for
the government giving them equality.
Kant proposed that everyone should act in such a way that
all would be well if everyone else acted like them. Each
individual freedom should not impinge on the freedom of
John Stuart Mill(1806-1873)
In his book On Liberty, Mill strongly disagrees
with utilitarianism, and sees it as a type of tyranny
by the majority. Liberties such as freedom of expression
and association should not be absolute, but that they
should exist in such a way as not to deprive others of
their ability to achieve their own liberties.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)
Marx and Engels, the fathers of communism, saw rights
in an entirely different view, namely that they were unconnected
to the reality of the exploitation of the working class.
Unlike Mills, Marx had another definition for liberalism
as something to be gained through government, rather than
as a freedom from interference. Equality was more important
that liberty, especially in the ownership of private property
(fundamental tenet of communism). Only one fundamental
right existed under their system, that of revolution.
Dworkins philosophy disagrees with Benthams
rejection of natural rights. He sees human rights not
as being absolute and universal, but as being a creation
of politics that try to treat all people equally. Therefore
all members of society have the same voice, which is not
dependent on their social status. Utilitarianism, with
its idea of ignoring the rights of minorities in the name
of the greatest good for the majority threatens to destroy
the entire concept of individual human rights.
Rawls presents a more compassionate view of human rights,
one with the greatest degree of individual liberty and
equality while maintaining these rights for all. The state
should distribute everything including benefits equally,
unless an unequal distribution would benefit the poorer
classes. He sees human rights as being constructed by
reasonable people living together in a society. This is
view lends itself to cultural relativism, because western
industrialized principles might not be appropriate elsewhere.