7.2.2 Historical context: the emergence of ‘human rights’

Back to 7.2.1

Unit 7 Contents


There is an extensive and complex scholarly debate about the emergence historically of the concept of human rights.  We can’t enter this here.  But to grasp the contemporary significance of human rights discussions, we need to be aware of some of the main developments.

The Catholic Church by no means embraced the idea of human rights quickly.  Almost exactly one hundred years before Pacem in Terris, Pope Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, which included a rejection of the idea of the ‘rights of man’.  In the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church saw talk about the ‘rights of man’ or ‘natural rights’ as part of the Godless legacy of the French Revolution’s attempt to tear down a society in which God was acknowledged and start again.

In 1789, the French Revolutionaries had acted explicitly in the name of the ‘rights of man’.  Especially granted their intense anti-clericalism, the Church heard such language as making a declaration of independence of God.  For the whole of the century after the Revolution, the ideas of those who identified with it were seen by most in the Church as basically unconnected with and opposed to Christianity.  While I have oversimplified somewhat, this is the background to the Syllabus of Errors.

We can sum up what has happened since then by saying that the issues turned out to be more complicated than they looked then.  During the twentieth century Catholics came to see that there was a distinctly Christian theological way in which the language of human rights could be affirmed.  This shift in the Catholic Church did not take place all in one go – Pacem in Terris didn’t come out of the blue, as you’ll see below.

But before we look at developments evident in Catholic documents, let’s give further attention to the longer historical story about human rights.  You will notice very quickly connections the Church could make with it.

The modern understanding of human rights grew out of earlier theories of ‘natural rights’ – indeed you may have noticed that Pope John XXIII used this expression in the quotation from Pacem in Terris that I gave above.   Such theories flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, articulated in the writings of the ‘social contract’ theorists such as the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  Their focus was on the origins of government and what justifies government.  They argued that the basis for the authority of government lies in the natural rights of the people, rather than in dynastic inheritance or direct divine institution.  Natural rights, namely to ‘life, liberty and property’, in John Locke’s phase, were seen as possessed inherently by each person.  Such rights are ‘pre-political’, in the sense that, as Locke saw it, people have them regardless of whether government exists, that is, in what he called a ‘state of nature’.  He held that the very purpose of establishing government is to ensure that such rights are protected, rather than violated as they would be in the ‘state of nature’.   Such natural rights, therefore, are not constructed by governments, but are binding on them.

I said that these ideas were a main source of modern notions of human rights.  Some of the advocates of natural rights, notably Locke, based their thinking on versions of the long-held Christian understanding that there is a ‘natural law’ or ‘law of nature’.  In Christian teaching going all the way back to Aquinas and indeed before him to Augustine in the fifth century, the natural law was understood as established by God in creation, as you know if you have studied Unit 6.  It gives us a basis for articulating moral precepts according to which we should live, to the end of human wellbeing.

Locke’s natural rights theory was drawn in part from such Christian thinking, and was a significant influence on the Founders of the USA as they drew up the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the subsequent Bill of Rights (1791) that became part of the American constitution.

A version of Christian understanding of natural law was, however, coupled in much seventeenth and eighteenth century ‘Enlightenment’ thought with what were then new ideas developed partly in reaction against Christianity.  In particular, the mechanistic worldview that emerged in those centuries (outlined in 2.1.2), and the hedonist way of seeing humans to which it led (2.1.3), generated a legitimization of individuals acting entirely out of self-interest.  As well as this, the reaction against hedonism that we looked at briefly at the start of Unit 6, that can be called ‘voluntarism’, emphasized each individual’s capacity to exercise freedom or ‘autonomy’.  Both these views see human wellbeing in terms solely of separate individuals, not in terms of a common good.

These departures from Christian thinking are noticeable also in the American Declaration, and it was principally such Enlightenment thinking which lay behind the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens in 1789.  Few scholars would doubt that it was these ways of thinking about what became called human rights that were more influential than traditional natural law thought, until what can be seen as a coming together of these in the mid-twentieth century.

To sum up, the idea of natural or human rights was deeply indebted historically to Christian natural law thinking.  But those who were most prominent and influential in articulating it as it came to prominence in the Enlightenment were, in the main, not adherents of traditional Christianity (Catholic or Protestant).  This meant that the Enlightenment and the French Revolution seemed to many to represent deeply anti-Christian developments.  This led to a sharp separation between much thinking about ‘the rights of man’ and the churches, especially the Catholic Church.

Before we turn to twentieth century developments, which moved beyond that separation, let us consider some further background points.  These will link the historical outline I have just given with the conceptual distinction between ‘freedom rights’ and ‘benefit rights’ that we looked at on screen 7.1.3.

Until the American and French Declarations, talk of ‘natural rights’ or ‘the rights of man’ referred only to certain freedom rights, notably those which are now generally called ‘civil liberties’ or ‘civil rights’.

These are, we can say, pure freedom rights because they can be fully upheld simply by leaving people free from interference.  Included in this category are rights such as the following:

    • to life
    • to freedom of religious worship
    • to freedom of speech
    • to associate with others
    • to freedom of movement
    • to property.

While it is these rights which the American and French Revolutions stood for, we can find appeal to them much earlier in history.  Most notably, the Magna Carta agreed by the English King John and his barons in 1215 includes the statement that, “No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised …”.  Here ‘disseised’ refers to not having your property seized, so it implies recognition of a right to property.  In a reading later in the unit, you will see that the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales quote the Magna Carta favourably.

Associated with these ‘civil liberties’ is recognition of a right to a fair trial, i.e. to ‘due process’.  Upholding this right is necessary if freedom rights are to be protected.  But this requires an adequately financed judiciary that is independent of manipulation by the powerful – for which reason I said that the right to a free trial is a ‘benefit right’ (rather than a freedom right) in the Response to the Exercise in 7.1.3.  Strictly speaking this is true, but it is usually seen as part and parcel of the most basic set of civil rights.

Historically, then, the first rights to be widely advocated were those freedom rights generally known as ‘civil liberties’.  Across the world, threatened people continue to struggle to secure these in the face violations of them by criminal action and by despotic and oppressive governments, often at the cost of their lives.  In 2011, one of the central demands of the vast crowds of protesters during the Arab Spring was respect for basic civil liberties, like freedom of speech.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a second category of freedom rights began to be claimed, those to do with participation in political life.  Among these are the rights to vote in elections, to form and join political parties (which in fact is only a specific manifestation of freedom of association), and to stand for political office.  These can be labelled ‘participation rights’.

They can still be seen as freedom rights, although they are a different kind because they are to do with the exercise of freedom, not just its protection.  As freedom rights, respecting them means leaving people free to decide whether actually to exercise them.  In other words, even if you have the participation rights to vote and to stand for office, you don’t have to exercise them. (We could see the extremely small number of countries where people are legally required to vote, such as Australia, as giving the exception that proves the rule!)

However, they are not pure freedom rights because upholding them does require something more than simply non-interference.  It requires government to put in place and sustain a democratic system for determining who governs.  In other words, the exercise of these rights is possible only when a certain sort of political constitution is in place.  I can’t freely vote or stand for office if there is a ‘state of emergency’ that means there are never elections!  (To give an example, there was formally a state of emergency in Syria from 1963 to 2011.)

From the nineteenth century through to today, demands for participation rights have extended from modest appeals for extensions of a tiny franchise – i.e. in which only a small proportion of people could vote – to being central in virtually all campaigns for reform of authoritarian government.

Freedom rights – civil liberties and participation rights together – have come to be known as ‘first generation’ human rights.

During the twentieth century, a so-called ‘second generation’ of human rights came to be widely accepted, including by the Catholic Church.  In the last few decades a ‘third generation’ of human rights has been asserted.

It is ‘benefit rights’ or ‘positive rights’ (in the sense we examined in 7.1.3) that are labelled ‘second generation’ rights.  Sometimes these are also called ‘social and economic rights’, or they are lumped together under the heading ‘social rights’.  These are widely seen as including rights:

    • to education
    • to health care
    • to a minimum wage
    • to enough money to live when unemployed.

In relation to such rights, specifying what amount of such benefits people have a human right to is, of course, far from easy.  The principal point which affirming that there are such rights makes is that some minimum amount of such goods is so important to every human being that all humanity has a duty to do what it can – through the mechanisms and structures which determine the distribution of such goods – to ensure that all human beings receive such minimum amounts.

The appalling abuses of millions of people during the Second World War pushed the issue of human rights to the top of the international agenda immediately after the War ended.  With a rapidity that seems astonishing in retrospect, between 1945 and 1948 the document that became called the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted, debated and adopted by the UN General Assembly.

I refer to this here because it is a powerful enumeration of many first and second generation rights.  It begins by focusing mainly on civil rights.  Then it refers to participation rights.  In the later articles, it mainly sets out benefit rights.


Reading (3pp)

United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Since about the 1970s, further rights that mainly relate to groups of people or to ecological goods have been enumerated and these have been called ‘third generation’ rights.  This category includes a very wide range of claimed rights and is much less well established in formal documentation.  Rights which people have argued fall within this category include those:

    • to language, i.e. to speak publicly in one’s native tongue
    • to ethnic identity, i.e. to have protection of one’s ethnic communities
    • to cultural participation
    • group or collective rights, such as to self-determination
    • to a healthy environment
    • to clean air
    • to environmentally safe products (e.g. food)



Can you think of examples of first, second and third generation human rights in addition to those listed on this screen?

Your reading of the UN Universal Declaration should enable you to answer this, at least in relation to first and second generation rights.


Later we shall consider a line of criticism of human rights that is sometimes referred to as ‘rights inflation’.  This is that advocates of human rights have extended the list of them far beyond those that should really be seen as human rights.  Proponents of this line of critique would appeal especially to some of these ‘third generation’ rights.  They would ask: is it sensible to cast our discussion of all these contentious issues in terms of ‘rights’?  Indeed, is it coherent to do so?  If there is a so-called right to clean air or cultural participation, who has the duty to ensure it is upheld?

I am not wholly persuaded by this line of critique, but it is important and needs to be considered.  It raises the question of whether, in the Catholic Church’s wholehearted embrace of the language of rights, with the various lists of rights it has endorsed (such as that of the rights of the family which we looked at earlier), the Church has itself helped to generate an unhelpful ‘rights inflation’.  We shall return to this later.

However, before we can do that, we actually need to look at Catholic contributions on human rights during the past century.


Acknowledgment  Some of this page revises material in ‘Human Rights’, Unit 3 of J. Chaplin and N. Townsend, Contemporary Christian Political Thought, a distance learning module in the Politics and Theology Programme formerly run by Sarum College (Salisbury: Sarum College, 2004).


End of 7.2.2

Go to 7.2.3 The ‘Catholic human rights revolution’

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