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The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach

Basic Human Rights

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”  This quote from the Declaration of Independence and the text which follows it suggest that there exist some basic human rights, among them: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which are universally true.  Beyond merely arguing that these hold true for all men, this document posits them as “self-evident,” identifying them as being true a priori, or as Descartes would describe them, as innate ideas.  This distinction between mere truth and a priori truth is an important one.  The framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and Bill of Rights which followed it did not think these basic rights needed to be proven nor argued for, they were simply true, period,  and used a foundation and justification for the remainder of the documents.  Certainly this notion of ‘inalienable’ human rights did not begin or end with the Declaration of Independence.  Even today many of our most important and contentious political debates are founded on questions of basic human rights.  The links listed below will help you explore the issues surrounding the idea of a priori or self-evident human rights.

  • Along with the Declaration of Independence, there are several other political documents from various countries which posit various ‘inalienable’ human rights.  If these rights are ‘self-evident’ and true a priori, why do the various documents list different rights?  Which are most common?   
  • If certain human rights are ‘self-evident’ and true for all people then don’t we have an obligation to ensure, when we can, that these rights are being observed?  It is one thing to argue that different countries have different laws, and that some customs and values are relative from country to country, but doesn’t our notion of ‘self-evident’ rights contradict the attitude of cultural relativism?  

Human Rights Documents

The Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence

Human & Constitutional Rights, Documents

Human Rights Web Resources Page

International and Regional Human Rights Instruments and Documents

The Magna Carta and Human Rights

The University of Minnesota Human Rights Library

Declaration of Human Rights


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