I’m in my basement, torturing an enemy combatant in order to extract intelligence that will prevent widespread death and destruction. Hearing the man scream, you come down and scream even more loudly, “STOP TORTURING THAT MAN!”

I pause and say, “Why? Can’t you see I am attempting to extract intelligence that will prevent widespread death and destruction!”


“Give me another reason,” I say, holding the man’s left index finger which I have just cut off.


“Well,” I say, still holding the man’s finger, “I mean that if you want me to stop torturing this man, you’ll have to do something besides just claiming that I am violating his human rights. That is because I don’t think human rights exist, or at least, I don’t know of any account of human rights that makes sense to me. I think human rights are like leprechauns: we talk about them as though they exist, but they don’t really exist. And just as you can’t step on the foot of a leprechaun (because there are no leprechauns), you can’t violate anybody’s human rights (because there are no human rights). That is why the observation that I am violating the human rights of this man with nine fingers does not count with me as a good reason to stop torturing him. Give me another reason to stop torturing him, or I’ll keep doing it.”


I reply: “Well, it is true that many have declared that, simply because they are human, all humans have a set of rights. And, yes, you’re right: the practice of justifying views on moral and political issues by saying something about human rights is very widespread these days—even China does it occasionally. But that does not mean that human rights exist, or that these people and institutions can provide a reasonable explanation of what a human right is and what specific rights every human has. And I don’t think they can. I have reached this conclusion by studying the history of the idea of human rights.”

You calm down a little and say, “Please explain, and put that man’s finger down.”

I put the finger down on the table on which I keep my other instruments of torture. I bandage up the man’s hand, give him a drink of water, and say to him, “your fate depends upon the outcome of the ensuing discussion, so pay attention.”

He glares at me, filled with hatred.

“Well, it is a long and very complicated history, one that begins with the ancient Greeks and Romans, runs through medieval Christian European theologians, up to seventeenth century figures, such as John Locke, who are usually seen as the ones who provide the foundations of the modern account of human rights. But let me just say this. If you look at Locke’s account of the rights all humans have—what he calls ‘natural rights’—you can see that it is grounded in a Christian worldview. Locke basically says that the Christian god exists, and that the law of nature is a declaration of this god’s will. All humans are subject to this law because all humans are this god’s workmanship and property. And it is because this law of nature exists, and all humans are subject to it, that all humans have rights, such as the right to preserve oneself and the right to private property.

“All of this is well and good,” I continue, “if you are a Christian. But if you’re not a Christian, this way of making sense of human rights falls down, as Locke himself occasionally observes in his political writings. I, like most other humans, am not a Christian. I don’t believe that the Christian god exists, so I don’t believe that this god has declared his will, and that this declaration constitutes the law of nature. I also don’t believe that humans, simply because they are humans, have a set of rights that are underwritten by such a law. So your observation that I am violating this man’s human rights means nothing to me.”

“But,” you ask, “what about other, more recent assertions of human rights, such as eighteenth-century documents like the American Declaration of Independence, or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen that the French produced at the outset of the French Revolution?”

“Well, first of all, as the titles of these documents indicate, they don’t really attempt to explain or provide an account of human rights—they simply declare that they exist. But the fact that you declare that something exists does not mean it does exist. And the Christian commitments of the American declaration are obvious: the representatives of the thirteen states, clearly informed by Locke, say that they are entitled to independence from Britain by the ‘Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.’ And who endows humans with the rights they have under these laws? Well, these good Christian men claim that it is Nature’s God, the ‘Creator’ of all humans, who endows them with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As if, rather than evolving from simple cells over hundreds of millions of years, as biologists have shown we did, we humans were not only created fully-formed by a god, but endowed by this god with rights! I admit that those who claimed to be the representatives of the French people at the outset of the French Revolution do not explicitly refer to ‘god.’ But they do so ‘in the presence and under the auspices of l’Etre suprême,’ the Supreme Being. And because they provide nothing beyond this in the way of explaining what a human right is, or why they are ‘sacred,’ or why all humans are endowed with them, their ‘declaration’ of the rights of man is just that and nothing more—a declaration under the auspices of the Supreme Being.”

“And I suppose you would say the same thing about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights produced and adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948?”

“Ha ha ha, yes, that’s a good one! Of course the UN General Assembly does not mention the Lockean, Christian, European origins of the idea of human rights, upon which it obviously relies, since its declaration was not supposed to be grounded in any particular religion or culture—it was supposed to be ‘universal.’ But neither does the Assembly provide any other kind of evidence for thinking there is a natural law to which all humans are subject, and by virtue of which all humans have a particular set of rights (and duties). The Assembly simply ‘declares’ and ‘proclaims’ its ‘faith in fundamental human rights.’ That’s right, FAITH, as opposed to the justifiable true belief I associate with KNOWLEDGE! And so, instead of establishing ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,’ the Declaration is really just a declaration. It is just a wishlist of all the things the General Assembly thinks it would be nice for everyone to have, an expression of how they think everyone ought to behave. I must say that I actually share some of the Assembly’s views about what it would be nice for everyone to have and how people ought to behave. What I don’t share is its belief that you can justify those views by pointing to a universal, freestanding, objective standard that is observable by all humans—such as a natural law and human rights.

You seem perplexed. My captive does not look good.

“Hmmm….,” you say. “Well, what about the heathens, the ancient Greeks and Romans, who, according to you, stand at the origins of the idea of human rights. Can’t you and other modern heathens go back to their account of natural law and natural rights?”

“Ah, the heathens, I love those guys! But, no, their account of natural law and the rights that all humans possess by virtue of that law makes no sense to me either. First of all, some of the most important ancient Graeco-Roman accounts of natural rights are grounded in the premises that in order to have rights, you need a law, and in order to have a law, you need a legislator. So, like the Christians, they, too, end up positing a supernatural agent who makes the laws that endow humans with rights. Cicero, who is perhaps the most important ancient Roman precedent for all of this, says that the law of nature, which ought to function as the standard for all human laws, is ‘the right reason of Jupiter, Lord of all.’ Since I don’t believe in Jupiter and the Roman pantheon, Cicero’s account of natural law doesn’t cut it with me—though he does also claim that this natural law is in some way embedded in human nature. Second, the ancient Graeco-Roman version of the rights of all humans is grounded in specific claims about humans, animals, and gods: humans have rights that animals don’t, because humans, like the gods, have reason, but animals don’t. I don’t believe these propositions because I am an animal, I have observed humans and animals, and I have read David Hume. Third, notwithstanding their asseverations of justice, it looks to me as though the ancient Roman account of the law of nature and the rights entailed by that law was not the product of a disinterested study of the universe, but the product of a particular legalistic, aggressive, expansionist society that was concerned to establish the rules of war and imperialism at which they excelled.

“That, by the way, also applies to later European versions of Roman ideas of natural law. With the law of nature in hand, the western European powers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries ‘discovered’ the following rights: the right of all individuals and societies to wage war against other belligerent individuals and societies; the right of all individuals and societies to use vacant lands (what in Australia and elsewhere they sometimes called terra nullius); the right of all individuals and societies to punish individuals and societies who violated the law of nature. What am I supposed to think—that these natural rights may be inferred from a natural law which I can observe and understand by exercising my reason and impartially observing mankind and the universe? Ha ha ha!!!! This version of the rights all humans have is merely something the western European powers invented on the basis of their own ideas about what counts as property, a human being, and a civilized society. And they invented it, at least in part, with the aim of justifying their appropriation of the lands and resources of other non-Europeans across the world. That is of course one of the uses to which the western European powers did put the idea of the rights of all humans, as they went about exterminating indigenous peoples and taking their lands in Australia, the Americas, the Indies, etc.”

“Oh…. I didn’t know that the idea of human rights proved so useful to western imperialists and empire builders.”

“No, I bet you didn’t. But you do know that this idea of human rights is now used to justify all kinds of other things. So if, for example, you’re for abortion, you say denying abortion to women violates women’s human rights; if you oppose abortion, you say abortion violates the human rights of the foetus. These days, you can use the idea of human rights to justify anything! So that, if I did believe in human rights, I might well justify torturing and even killing this man by harking back to old arguments and claiming that the law of nature grants me the right to torture and kill any human who plots to inflict widespread death destruction on other humans.”

“But,” you say, “that the idea of the rights of all humans was motivated and used by the ancients and western Europeans in this way does not necessarily discredit that idea.”

“Yes, but can you tell me why we should think that all humans do not have the rights attributed to them by the Romans and western Europeans, but do have all the rights the UN now ascribes to them? Why should we think that all humans do not have the right to appropriate unused or uncultivated land, but do have the right to free education, presumption of innocence, asylum, marriage, freedom of expression, social security, and all those other wonderful things to which the UN says everyone, simply because they are human, has a right? Just where is the evidence for this claim?”

“I don’t know.”

“Neither do I, which is just another reason your objection that I am violating this man’s human rights by torturing him means nothing to me. Neither the ancients, nor the Europeans, nor the Americans, nor the United Nations provide what I take to be an objective, clear, coherent, sensible account of the rights of all humans. There are no human rights!”


“Not really. Observing the history of the idea of human rights, and the ways it was developed and implemented in western Europe, Marx came to similar conclusions, though he emphasized that the idea of human rights was the weapon of a particular class and its aspirations in western Europe: the bourgeoisie. That is why the idea of human rights does not feature in standard Marxist justifications of communism. And then there’s Jeremy Bentham—he was a nineteenth-century English ‘progressive’ who is an important figure in the history of modern liberalism and the welfare state. In light of his observations about the religious foundations of the idea of human rights, he too rejected it as nonsense. So the mere fact that you reject human rights talk does not necessarily mean you are a fascist or a right-wing mental case—you might just know something about its history, like Marx, Bentham, or me. Your accusations are unfounded and amount to slander, but I’m used to that in discussions of this kind. And unless you can give me another reason for not torturing this man, I’m going to torture him some more and see if I can’t get some valuable information from him. I think I’ll remove his right index finger next, and see what that does. If that doesn’t work, I think I’ll go for the whole right hand.”

“OK, OK, OK! Human rights talk may well be nonsense! But wait! Though the UN and many others might think so, surely the idea of human rights is not the ONLY way of justifying claims about what should and should not be done! What about simple pragmatic arguments, ones that appeal to self-interest and do not offend your secular worldview?”

“I’m listening.”

“Well, if you torture this enemy combatant, then your enemy will feel entitled and motivated to torture you and your fellow combatants when they are captured. But if you refrain from torturing this combatant, and your enemies know it, your enemies may refrain from torturing you if they get their hands on you. If only for your own sake, and that of your fellow combatants, you should stop torturing this man. In addition, there is strong evidence to suggest that the kind of intelligence you get from torture is low-grade. So you should stop torturing this guy because it is an ineffective means of achieving at least one of the things you want to achieve by torturing him. How about that?”

“Hmm… not bad! No gods, fanciful laws, or leprechauns there! If there is one thing I do believe in, it is my own self-interest and the interests others take in themselves—I’d hate for me and my friends to be tortured if we were taken by the enemy. I also believe in the existence of agreements that humans make with each other that are grounded in self-interest and self-protection, though they can always be broken. And I admit that I have heard that intelligence derived from torture is often low-grade—some of these enemy combatants are crazy, lying bastards who won’t tell you what they know, no matter what you do to them! Yes… I like it! You have given me what I take to be some good reasons not to torture this man.”

My captive looks at me, still filled with hatred, but now with a little hope. I look back at him with just as much hatred, and no compassion.

“There still is something to be said for inflicting pain on enemies, and the pleasures of vengeance,” I say. “But on the whole, I think the reasons you have adduced slightly outweigh the reasons I have for continuing to torture. So, though I can’t give this man his finger back, I think I’ll stop torturing him and find other, more effective ways to prevent widespread death and destruction. There, you got what you wanted, and it had nothing to do with screaming about human rights.”

Bill does not condone most forms of torture, but he continues to engage in many morally suspect activities, such as hunting, fishing, eating meat, logging, and playing ice hockey. Please comment below, support Bill here, or consider donating a sum as thanks for this experience.