Relational Rights – a new foundation

Why do we need a theory framework about Human Rights?

To achieve sustainability, we need to focus not only on the environment, but also on the well-being of our own species. We need to establish a framework from which we can establish foundational, universal norms.

Read more: Relational Rights – a new foundation

The question then arises, “Why are the current Universal Human Rights as defined by the United Nations insufficient?”

Insufficiency, I would argue, is the wrong word. I would rather call it an inadequacy, which stems from the intellectual firmaments of the contemporary theory of rights. The problem is not so much the rights in themselves, as the rails of reasoning from which this contemporary western concept of rights have emanated, and the regressive effects it has – especially regarding the in some cases non-existent border between real human beings of flesh and blood, and what really amounts of abstract concepts. If we do have the goal of creating a sustainable future for humanity, our ideology must have a theory of rights on its own.

TL;DR Summary

  • While a concept of rights have existed since ancient times, the contemporary view on rights were expanded on from the establishment of Lockean “natural laws” in the 17th century.
  • These “natural laws” based the theory of early human rights from the concept of property rights. In short, all rights are derived from human self-ownership.
  • Thus, rights are primarily seen as an individual endeavour, aimed at granting all citizens universal protection from violence.
  • Since that, what rights are has been expanded quite much, but most of the intellectual foundations could be traced back to Locke.
  • This does however also grant entities such as corporations most of the same rights, while denying for example non-human individuals any rights whatsoever.
  • Moreover, property is ultimately an abstract concept gradually evolved during the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian civilization.
  • We argue that rather than property, we could base the concept of rights on relationships.

A short history, from the Enlightenment to the United Nations

Human rights emanate from a concept called “natural rights”, which was defined by the English philosopher John Locke. The concept entails that human beings are endowed rights independent from state power – namely negative rights, which are defined in terms of the ownership of property. These property rights transcend the idea of being legally founded – instead they are viewed as a priori divinely ordained. Locke’s philosophy was partially derived from the experiences of the English Civil War and how state power was abused in the 17th century during the inter-religious conflicts of contemporary Europe, and partially a rebuttal to Hobbes’ Leviathan – a philosophical work with the opposing view that all legitimacy stemmed from state power, legalistically vested in the concept of commonwealth. Locke’s foundational idea is that each individual is self-owning, and is also owning the land with which they mix their labour (hunter-gatherers and natives are however exempt from that in Locke’s vision, as they do not cultivate the land on which they live).

Until the 19th century, the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition often focused on negative rights, which stated that human beings were endowed with a right to not be the object of confiscatory or aggressive actions from other human beings or from violence executed by a political power – as long as the human in question did not violate the rights of any other human being. During the time when the agricultural civilisation slowly turned into an industrial one, positive rights – like limiting work hours, retirement funds, education and the right to shelter were introduced and gradually expanded into varying types of social safety nets.

Human beings have rights because they are endowed with reason, which gives them self-ownership, an inviolable ownership contract on their own bodies. This remains the foundation for human rights until this day.

What are the problems with that?

There are obvious problems with deriving an ought from the ability to possess reason and from the legal concept of property. Firstly, natural rights work as a theoretical intellectual game, but in reality the concept of property evolved gradually and slowly. Early, pre-agricultural human societies did not even have a concept of personal property – rather the land was seen as a conscious being which owned itself. Thus, the concept of rights in the current western tradition is based on the idea that a human-constructed metaphysical concept somehow preceded humanity (the early enlightenment philosophers were all Christians or at least deists, so they presupposed the existence of a creator who had established universal laws before human beings and based these laws on rational foundations – while the creator was relegated away from worldly affairs with secularism, the underpinnings are still largely built on that assumption).

The problem that inevitably arises with a concept of rights based on property rights as a foundation, is that property legally can own itself, and thus be bestowed personhood. When for example a corporation poisons the water reservoirs of a district and thus ruins tens of thousands of subsistence farmers, it is usually treated as a mere conflict of interest in a judicial manner, rather than as a crime against humanity. When a corporation handles genetically modified crops irresponsibly, thus ensuring that they spread and grow in adjacent farming communities, and then sue the farmers for “pirating” the trade-marked crops, it is actually taken seriously by several institutions. The prevalent consensus of our age has been that corporations are endowed with the natural right to take possession of land, freshwater reservoirs and other resources and handle them in manners which hurt not only the environment but local populations as well.

Of course, positive rights are also enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration, but the prevalent tendency in most national legislations has been to interpret the utilisation of human rights within legal framework in a manner which clearly shows that property rights trump the other rights. The practice seems to indicate that, which hardly is surprising. After all, multi-national corporations have resources which states and politicians need, while poor subsistence farmers have nothing to offer.

We should of course not omit to mention the billions of non-human beings used in the global meat and dairy industry. Most mammals on our planet, excluding us humans of course, belong to a limited number of domesticated species, mostly utilised for the sake of their meat, their milk or their eggs. Oftentimes, they are forced into conditions where they are fixated on one spot, are enduring intense, blinding light uninterruptedly, are fed with fast-growth fodder or even pumped with hormones to grow extra fast, and are unable to fulfil aspects of their natural behaviour. They are moreover exposed to situations where they are overfed to the point of being bloated, where they are suffering from unhealthy amounts of sulphur from their own un-cleaned cages, where they are gnawing on the tails and ears of one another, where many succumb to illnesses even before slaughter and where they are exposed to anxiety and mental agony.

Yet animals are said to have no rights, because they cannot own property – because they do not possess reason. This has historically legitimised animal cruelty and has in our age contributed to the near complete industrialisation of livestock existence. While it is clear that there are other factors behind this horrendous manner of treating living beings, it is clear that our current concept of rights does not take their interests into assumption.

A new foundation for a Theory on Rights – Relationships

Rights are not a matter of facts but of values. And values are shaped by culture and philosophy, concepts which are created and upheld by human beings. This does not mean that such concepts are just ‘abstract’ or can be violated at whim, only that there is – to our knowing – no external force which will establish right from wrong. Thence, we are for better or worse endowed with the duty to define the values on which we should build a theory on rights.

There are however a few conditions on which these values must be built. Firstly, they must be consequential and built on equal rules for all human beings. Secondly, they must be able to provide at a minimum equal safety and liberty as the current model of rights, and strive to be able to offer better protection.

It is essential that rights should be understood in more than a legalistic framework – that they should be seen as a part of the culture rather than as an extension of legislative processes. Rather than being supported by laws, a concept of rights should per definition be supporting the spirit of any legislative processes. When transcending the current foundations for a theory on rights, we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and we must build on the civic experiences of two thousand years of western civilization, in terms of the idea that the protection of the individual should not stand or fall at the whim of anyone faction with the ability to inflict trauma through the command of violence. Therefore, just like our current idea of rights, the new foundation of rights need to be founded on the idea that rights should be seen as underpinning the legal foundations of society.

Pre-legality or “supra-legality” is however not the only condition which is necessary to define rights. They must be derived from an aspect of human existence, which should be universally understood and possible for the consistent application of equal rules. The definitions of rights established by Locke managed to achieve this goal by defining the term “self-ownership”, which despite its problems has managed to form the basis of a consistent value-system.

We argue that rights as a concept emerge: 

  • Whenever sapient beings interact with one another.
  • Whenever a sapient being interacts with a sentient being.
  • Whenever an organised institution governed or programmed by sapient beings interacts with either sapient or sentient beings.

Sapience is defined as the ability to have conscious self-awareness of one self and others, and to be able to reason empathically. If a being has these characteristics, it follows that the being should be treated with respect and not willingly or by neglect exposed by others to conditions which endanger the health of the being in question. It also follows, since all sapient beings are defined as equal in dignity, that this sapient being should not expose others to the same conditions.

These conditions are defined as following:

  • Direct, unprovoked use of physical force to inflict pain or dominate a sapient being against their will.
  • Manipulation with the intent to force a sapient being to do something against their will or their interests.
  • Situations where sapient beings are being deprived of shelter, nutrients, water which inhibit their ability to function physically, cognitively or socially.
  • Situations where sapient beings are being deprived of safety and/or exposed to threatening situations or situations characterised by wanton coercion and arbitrary rules.

Another principle is that a human being is not defined as consisting only of the human mind and the human body, but as the access to the water, nutrients and shelter that a human body needs to continue to function. Therefore, every human being has a right to nourish themselves and to (have a place to) sleep. Within the framework of a traditional propertarian narrow view on rights, these conditions are seen as an individual responsibility rather than inalienable rights – but if these conditions aren’t met, the human being can seldom be able to fully satisfy these conditions which are necessary to function. Our belief, on the contrary, is that if a human being has the right to life, then the human being must per definition have the rights to the minimum requirements to sustain their physical life.

Practical applications

This new foundation of rights, which are derived from our sapience, is still going to protect property – but not as the end in itself, rather as an extension of the interrelational principles established by these rights. They will also mean that property rights no longer will trump the rights to life, and that land-owners, mining companies and industrial operations will find a harder time motivating why they have to create conditions which endanger the life, health and well-being of their employees or of those living nearby the places where they conduct their activities. Thus, they will provide a stronger and more equal protection, without having to rely on so many additional concepts and regulations.

It also means that property should be treated more as it de-facto must be already today. While no one arbitrarily may be deprived from what they own, and every person must be given a say in decisions pertaining their interests, there can arise issues where property needs to be transferred.

With a system of rights defined from relationships, we can establish a basis for a more equal system where every individual gains a more level opportunity to be represented and protected.

Animal Rights

Most animals have a significantly lower level of cognitive development than human beings, though there are a few which have approached or might even have reached a proto-sapient or sapient level of understanding reality. Therefore, bears, wolves, crocodiles, hippos and even domesticated animals like dogs cannot be expected to be able to honour interrelational rights.

However, all animals are sentient to the level that they are able to feel pain, anxiety and fear, and also experience things which they find more agreeable. Because of that, sentient creatures do have a right to not be exposed to cruelty by sapient creatures – and they do have a right to the pursuing of their natural behaviour. This right emanates from the fact that when we are interacting with a sentient creature, there is a relationship between our actions and the effects they will have on said creature. If we have the power to affect the well-being of another living being, we also have the responsibility in case we create unnecessary suffering.

Domesticated animals which are exploited in various forms of agricultural and social tasks can also be said to gain rights because we force responsibilities upon said animals. Sheep, cows, pigs and horses have not volunteered to be utilised as sources for heat preservation or nutrition. It follows from this that those who utilise animals have a responsibility to ensure that the animals should not suffer.

In short, while a system of rights where all rights could trace themselves back to property rights inherently privileges the owners of industrial farms, fur farms and other operations dependent on the economic utilization of sentient beings, a system of rights based on relational rights empowers those who – quite literally – lack voices to articulate their feelings.


What separates rights from privileges is the foundation that rights need to be applied equally and consistently, and be founded on norms and values which go deeper than the court of temporary public opinion (a court which could demand the gelding of sexual predators, unless these aforementioned predators happens to be local junior sports heroes).

Since rights need to be applied in such a manner, they need to be based on a consistent, universal fundament of ethics – one which could guarantee the protection of individuals and communities.

The liberal basis – Lockean Natural Rights – which denotes property as the fundament upon which all other rights rest, has been the least bad attempt until now to establish a consistent foundation of rights. However, they have been found lacking in several aspects.

  • Conditions which indirectly cause suffering and negative physical and cognitive effects are not viewed as violation of these natural rights.
  • When the exertion of property rights cause suffering to human beings or to sentient beings, no matter whether we talk about Central American debt slaves or pigs in an industrial operation, these property rights usually trump the suffering of those without voices.
  • Corporations and other abstract entities are awarded rights which should be meant for human beings.
  • Non-human beings are not seen as having any rights.

Attempts have been made to install a concept of positive rights into this propertarian model, but there have been little to none attempts to reconcile the concept of natural rights with the later additions, thus often rendering them impotent and incapable of consistently being applied since their application would often come at odds with property rights.

Relational Rights, on the contrary, are capable of dealing with all these problems. They do not see property as an inherent axiom predating even the material basis of the Universe, but rather choose to focus on the relations between beings on various levels. Whenever a sapient being interacts – directly or indirectly – with another sapient being, it establishes mutual obligations between the parties. This goes beyond actions that directly affect the bodies of said individuals. It also establishes obligations on sapient beings interacting with beings that are sentient – to not expose them to cruelty and to the best ability ensure their right to their natural behaviour.

Of course, relational rights recognise the right to self-defence if another party is initiating direct aggression. Equally of course, relational rights would – as well as propertarian rights – see that there is an opportunity for conflict, when two sets of rights are in opposition to one another within the same ethical system. That is not a weakness, since such conflicts would arise no matter what kind of ethical system we would employ. These rights are however not fraught with the weaknesses listed above, and their execution would allow for a more thorough and equal treatment of individuals, communities and even species.


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