Why Human Rights Are Called Human Rights

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 28.2 (Summer 2014)

June 12, 2014

Greenland #56. Zaria Forman. Soft Pastel on Paper, 2013.

By Alan Sussman

The title of this essay is rather ambitious and the space available is hardly sufficient to examine two words of almost limitless expanse—"human rights"—whether standing alone or in tandem. This requires that I begin with (and remained disciplined by) what a teacher of mine, Leo Strauss, called "low facts." My low facts are these: We call ourselves humans because we have certain characteristics that define our nature. We are social and political animals, as Aristotle noted, and possess attributes not shared by other animals. The ancients noted this, of course, when they defined our principal behavioral and cognitive distinction from the rest of the natural world as the faculty of speech. The Greek word for this, logos, means much more than speech, as it connotes word and reason and, in the more common understanding, talking and writing, praising and criticizing, persuading and reading. While other animals communicate by making sounds of attraction or warning, leaving smells, and so on, none read newspapers, make speeches, publish their memoirs, or write poetry.

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See also this issue's Centennial Roundtable: the Future of Human Rights