What is meant by: "Human rights were discovered (not invented!)"?


I recently encountered the claim that "Human rights were discovered (not invented!) during the French Revolution" by a person who appears to be quite a Hegel fan (this might make the question easier to answer or be completely tangential).

This apears to be a different concept than to say that huiman rights are a construct or part of the contract that makes living together as equal beeings possible (The viewpoint of all answers to this question).

To say that human rights were discovered means that they where somehow 'there' in a way that, say, Batman (who was invented and reinvented by several authors) was not. But in what way?

To say that formulating human rights was in the realm of possibility, just like writing a Batman comic is evidently possible, so human rights where 'discovered' in this realm of possibilty would be a rather banal and unhelpful interpretation. Hopefully something more interesting was meant.


Posted 2018-06-27T09:05:47.573

Reputation: 521

1I think this is some kind of ethical naturalism. They believe [true] ethics are independent on humans. – rus9384 – 2018-06-27T09:40:49.977

1A reference for the quote would be contributing in giving the question more tangible a context. – Philip Klöcking – 2018-06-27T09:46:45.550

It was a tweet by @daily_hegel that don't seem to find anymore. I kinda assume that daily_hegel didn't nvent this position but that it'S a bit more widely held or at least discussed. – mart – 2018-06-27T09:56:54.670

1It is in accord with Hegel's critique of abstract rights, i.e. one could say that the human rights are a coming to themselves of particular Sittlichkeit (ethical practice), i.e. only where concrete ethical practice according to the concept of human rights are already there (i.e. can be discovered), the idea of human rights can come to itself. On the other hand, the quote would be a better fit to Locke's understanding of (human) rights. – Philip Klöcking – 2018-06-27T10:28:49.767

Schopenhauer explains certain ethical behaviour as motivated by an intuition of our common identity as sentient beings. This would make some sense of the idea of 'discovering; ethics. In his favour meditative practitioners have a habit of discovering reasons to behave differently, and often adopt a policy of non-harm and respect that might be called a discovered awareness of human rights. – None – 2018-06-27T12:11:33.933

See also Moral Naturalism.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-06-27T12:17:48.700

This is not meant to replace the above comments but to supplement them. "Hegel on Education" Allen Wood, Yale. PDF A young student is within the realm of possibility before she takes her hard knocks in the classroom and in study, sweating over the matietals and so on, and she develops through this struggle, and this can be extended. https://web.stanford.edu/~allenw/webpapers/HegelEd.doc

– Gordon – 2018-06-27T16:46:54.723



Abstract right

Abstract right emerges and is recognised as rationally necessary at a certain stage in the historical development of Spirit. It is broadly the right of an individual to determine their own conduct (any individual and not just a member of a class or group), to heed one's own conscience, to act on one's own inclinations and intentions, to own property and to enter into contractual relations with others.

Recognition of abstract right as rationally necessary is a discovery. The realisation that it is appropriate to the nature of human beings is a fact that is apprehended and comprehended only at a certain stage in the historical development of Spirit.

Abstract right and human rights

While it is possible to identify abstract right with human rights of a kind, Hegel would never, I think, subscribe to anything like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is because he regards abstract right as indeterminate and as needing concrete embodiment in distinct historical communities with their own understanding and expression through custom, law and practice of how human beings should live together. We need membership of such historically specific communities, not the possession of universal human rights that are context-free of any specific community.

At the most general level, human rights law is informed by the aim of establishing practical arrangements in which the interests of all those touched by its operations are adequately accommodated. This is the same aim as finds expression in Hegel's ideal of abstract right. This being so, human rights law, like abstract right, is underdeterminate and, as such, open to a range of plausible interpretations. Hence, the question arises (in particular contexts) as to how to pursue the aim common to both human rights law and abstract right. When faced with the question 'How should abstract right be pursued?', Hegel turns to actually-existing ethical community (Sittlichkeit) as a source of guidance. He identifies Sittlichkeit as giving expression to (imperfect) local understandings of justice. These understandings find their most vivid form of expression in political community (a component of the wider category of Sittlichkeit). Political community is instantiated by the state, its laws and other institutions and practices that bespeak commitment to the right (just social ordering) and some conception of the good (valuable ends, worthy of pursuit) institutions and practices, Hegel finds clues as to how the requirements of abstract right can be met (or, at least, approximated) in the relevant context. Hegel views the relationship between abstract right and local understandings as one of productive interdependence. Abstract right speaks (as a higher-order norm) to the deficiencies of actually-existing institutions (for example, a tendency to privilege some interests and to marginalize others). And actually-existing institutions and practices (such as those that give shape to a distinct political community) speak in concrete (and sometimes ethically attractive) terms to a particular context in which abstract right must be pursued. This view of the relationship between Sittlichkeit and abstract right is readily applicable to actually-existing frameworks of human rights law and their general aim (as described above). Human rights law is informed by the aim of giving concrete shape to an underdeterminate ideal. Given the underdeterminacy of this ideal, the shape the law assumes can vary. And the relevant variations can be expected to reflect the context (most obviously, a distinct political community) in which the relevant body of law is established. (Richard Mullender, 'Hegel, Human Rights, and Particularism', Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 554-574 : 562-3.)

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2018-06-27T09:05:47.573

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In my case, I can't say more right now because the general topic of this question is pretty close to something I have under review at a good journal. – virmaior – 2018-06-27T23:05:39.750

@virmaior. Understood. Thanks for letting me know. Best : GT – Geoffrey Thomas – 2018-06-28T09:01:21.880


On the briefest level, Hegel's position in the Philosophy of Right is that rights are a natural outgrowth of the idea of a free rational will. The discovery of the actuality of these rights is then a process where the abstract form in which we first encounter rights gets iteratively fixed through the phases of abstract right, morality, and finally ethical life (Sittlichkeit).

Just to give a brief and sketchy overview: the idea is that will that is rational can determine things. Then this will starts to add ideas like "possession" and "contract" and from these ideas and their recognition by others "rights" being to appear abstractly. This is the order of experience or perhaps we could say "understanding" on Hegel's vocabulary. But the final order doesn't appear until we get to the end of the book and this is the "actual."

A key part of this is that Hegel is ethical realist and also committed to a distinction between what is called order of being and order of experience. What we first experience is most abstract, but what is (order of being) is the most actual and final form. There's quite a bit more complexity but that's the spirit of his position.


Thom Brooks edited Hegel's Political Philosophy has most of the major players in the contemporary debate.

Going back a little further, there's also Dudley Knowles, McLauer, Aadrian Peperzaak.

Going back way further there's McTaggart and Bradley.


Posted 2018-06-27T09:05:47.573

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Can you expand on the first paragraph - inhowfar are rights a natural outgrowth? – mart – 2018-06-27T12:31:19.387

that's Hegel's claim.... will try – virmaior – 2018-06-27T12:32:44.383

@virmaior. +1 of course but I have wanted to say a bit more about Hegel. I'm not sure but I don't think there is any disagreement with what you have said. Best : GT – Geoffrey Thomas – 2018-06-27T16:15:15.020