The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 25.0°F | Overcast

Our human rights have been created by society

Column/Mark Kantrowitz

Do human rights exist independent of human society?

David Honig's letter in Friday's Tech ["Your work is for your own benefit; decide your obligations for yourself," Oct. 4] assumed that "one's life and its rewards are one's own because of rights that exist without law and agreements in society. The motivation for one's work," he concluded, "should be one's own ultimate benefit."

It is conceivable that "one's own ultimate benefit" depends on the well-being of society since society provides many services to the individual. One could also argue that each individual has an obligation to contribute positively to the advancement of society since failing to do so ultimately violates the rights of other members of society. But wouldn't this show that human rights exist as a result of society?

Honig assumed, in essence, that such rights are a `law of nature' and exist separate from society. Does man really have a physical trait called `human rights'? Honig did not supply us with any reasons to believe his assumption, nor is there any evidence to support his claim.

Honig asked, "Does not a just government take protecting these rights as its sole function?" If such rights exist "without law and agreements in society," why is there any need for a government to enforce them?

The answer is that human rights exist only because society grants them to its members. Government must enforce these rights because society creates them.

Society is a collection of relatively powerless individuals. Yet collectively they wield considerable power. Thus society can choose to establish rights (and responsibilities) for its members, and to enforce them through government.

American society, in particular, grants its members many rights, but does not ask for much in return. An American citizen may take advantage of these rights without any obligation to repay society. As Mr. Honig states, an individual may, if he so chooses, base his career choice on solely personal interests.

I would argue, however, that each individual should feel grateful to society for granting him or her these rights, and that the individual should attempt to repay society for them. The only obligations are those that society imposes on its members (such as respecting the rights of others) and those that the individual imposes on himself or herself.

If the individual feels that he doesn't owe society anything for granting him his rights, that is his prerogative because American society allows him to make his own decisions.

No one is obligated to do anything.

No one is a "slave" to the advancement of society.

Nevertheless, before you decide who you want to work for and what you want to do with your life, consider that because you and your children benefit from society, you have a stake in society's future. If society deteriorates, you and your children will bear the consequences in the form of reduced and inferior rights.

Society needs good teachers in its schools to ensure the continuation of benefits to its current and future members. Society needs help in taking care of its less fortunate members. If you care at all about people besides yourself, teaching and helping others are some of the best ways to contribute to the advancement of human society.

David Honig asks, "Why should altruism be one's motivation?"

Why not?