When we try to answer questions such as “why do we need to respects human rights?”, “why are there human rights?”, “where do human rights come from?” and “what are the grounds of human rights?”, then it’s not beyond doubt that our answers will result in any practical benefits or real improvements in actual respect for human rights. One often hears the argument that all such answers are useless, since those looking for them are already convinced that human rights are important and are simply engaged in an intellectual exercise without practical consequences. These answers will – by definition – fail to produce beneficial consequences in practice, because those who violate human rights will not be persuaded by intellectual exercises.
I think that’s true for some violators. The Taliban for instance seem to be impervious to reason. Others, however, may be swayed. Hence, the exercise may be more than intellectual; there is a chance that good answers to questions about the grounding of human rights have some practical effect and can produce some improvements in levels of respect for human rights.
There’s an obvious and easy answer to those questions, but I doubt that it’s a very useful one. It’s provided by religion, and more specifically by the Judeo-Christian religion. If human life is sacred because all men and women are equally the children of God and created in His image, then there are certain things one cannot do to them and certain standards of conduct that apply equally to all human beings. With the help of some interpretation of the Bible, it should be possible to express those standards in human rights language. Some would even claim that there is no other way to ground human rights, since this grounding requires the concept of the sacredness of human life, and this sacredness can only be defended by positing a divine creator.
There are at least two difficulties with this approach. First, attempts to ground human rights in religion sound vaguely anachronistic: human rights have started their ascent during an era of increasing secularization. So it seems that they can survive and thrive without a religious basis and that there’s no need to use categories such as “sacred”.
The second difficulty with the religious approach is its lack of universal appeal: it will only persuade the persuaded. Adherents of other religions, non-believers or Jews and Christians who interpret the Bible differently will often find such a grounding of human rights hard to swallow.
So it seems that a proper justification of human rights – proper in the sense of being universally acceptable, at least potentially – has to be a-religious and purely rational. However, rational justifications also face some problems. A rational justification is limited by definition. Because you can’t appeal to the word of God, you have to use other values to ground human rights. And to some extent, you have to justify the grounds you use as a justification. However, this can’t go on indefinitely. For example, if you argue that we need human rights in order to protect human dignity or rationality, you also have to expound the reasons why we need dignity or rationality (at least, that is what you have to do when you can’t or won’t assume that our dignity comes from God). And then the same for the reasons why we need those reasons etc. At a certain point, you just have to accept circularity and admit that at a basic level of morality you need to do what is moral simply because that is what morality requires (and not because of some other reason).
Still, before you reach that point you can do useful work by linking respect for human rights to some other values that people deem important. Because people have already adopted those values, you don’t need to argue for them. Hence you can avoid the infinite regress of justification, and you can limit yourself to the reasons why the protection and realization of certain given values require human rights.