The origin of human rights, or “Is napalming babies culturally relative?”

Timothy Keller, in chapter nine of The Reason for God, discusses the origin of human rights. Do humans intrinsically have unalienable rights, or are these rights something that we have arbitrarily come up with? Keller outlines three possible answers to this question, following Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz:

  1. Human rights come from God. God has created us and endowed us with certain unalienable rights.
  2. Human rights are based on “natural law.” People have rights because nature dictates that they should.
  3. Human rights are created by us. It is in the interest of societies to grant people rights.

Dershowitz rules out the first answer, but Keller makes a case for it being the only option that gives us a reliable foundation for human freedom and dignity. The natural world is ruled by violence and predation, and doesn’t seem to be the best place to go looking for fundamental laws that protect the weak of society. To say that human rights are created by us is rather frightening, as rights that are granted by the majority can just as easily be taken away.

After outlining the options, Keller makes a case that “the Biblical account of things… explains our moral sense… better than a secular view.” No one has been able to make a convincing case that humans have “unalienable human rights” apart from those rights originating from a Creator. If we believe that humans do indeed have rights that ought not to be trampled upon, then perhaps this itself is evidence for the existence of God. Keller concludes the section with a plea to follow through on our sense that human rights really do exist, outside of ourselves:

If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If you insist on a secular view of the world and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists. This leads us to a crucial question. If a premise (“There is no God”) leads to a conclusion you know isn’t true (“Napalming babies is culturally relative”) then why not change the premise?

Grace and Peace

P.S. The question of whether or not it should be considered immoral to napalm babies was introduced in the chapter with a quote from Yale law professor Arthur Leff. Leff doesn’t accept the idea that human rights come from God, but he can find no other reliable origin for those rights. Leff writes:


As things are now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless: napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved… There is such a thing as evil. All together now: Sez Who? God help us.

P.P.S. Keller is not saying that secular people (skeptics, atheists, etc.) advocate immoral things like napalming babies. Quite the contrary, he argues that in general these people know that certain things are right and wrong. Why would they think this way if there were no underlying reason for them to do so?

One thought on “The origin of human rights, or “Is napalming babies culturally relative?”

  1. Thanks for this, Geo.

    I have been teaching recently on the Dada and Surrealist movements. Hugo Ball, the Dadaist philosopher who concocted his absurdist art movement as a reaction to the horrors of WW1, also said: ‘To be in harmony with nature is to embrace madness’. I put it to my students that such a stance undermines ones position when criticising the horrors of war.


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