Rights bleg

bleg: (Internet slang) An entry in a blog requesting information or contributions. (from Wiktionary)

This entry was prompted by an interesting post on religion and human rights by Kate Cronin-Furman over at Wronging Rights. My question here has little to do with the contents of that particular post other than having been prompted by it in my impossibly tangential brain, but I think it's a great post that you should all read regardless. Now on to my question:

I'm not sure I believe in human rights. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a monster, and I'm really more agnostic on them than a certain skeptic. I also happen to value very highly pretty much all the widely-believed human rights and most everything to which the title of a human right has been expanded. I'm not convinced that my personal normative valuation or preference is the same as actually believing in human rights (their existence and universality), or whether the rights framework is the most true or helpful one. The work I want to do overlaps a lot with rights practitioners and language -- again with the valuation of those ends. I've also read quite a few things written by human rights activists, but mostly on the level of "we were trying to document or stop this atrocity" or otherwise using the language of rights towards an end which I support, but usually assuming from the beginning that the reader believed in human rights. It also seems that a lot of things that just seem good to many people, independent of a rights-based framework, are touted in that language because it is simply what is done. I also get the impression that there are a fair number of people working within the 'human rights establishment' who see the construct as more useful than true (or don't distinguish between the two) but I have no way to verify that.

None of these hesitations are final, of course -- this may simply be a shortcoming in my education that I need to rectify. I grew up very religious and went to a very conservative college that only employs professors who belong to a particular conservative evangelical denomination. I missed out on formal coursework or guided readings in secular philosophy or ethics, or at least any presentation of that material by people who actually believed it. Some of what I learned was heavily filtered through that strain of fundamentalist thought that looks at everything that is not itself and decries it as an un-moored, baseless fantasy. (Amongst others, blame Francis Schaeffer -- one his books recounts the truly atrocious evangelistic technique of trying to convince a confused young person that there are only two intellectually honest ways to reconcile hopelessness resulting from the perceived failure of secular philosophy to find meaning; believe in God or commit suicide.)

There were certainly others who were more gentle in approach but the underlying thought was always there, that there can be no absolute statements -- whether about morality or rights -- without theistic belief. However, in college I took a skeptical turn and eventually came to disbelieve my theist roots altogether. My graduate work has been more technically-focused (which is what I wanted), for example considering how to achieve improvements in health rather than deep thinking about the foundational assumption that there is a right to health. Many of my peers who attended liberal arts schools or research universities have obviously focused on the study of human rights to a much greater extent, whereas my education bypassed it altogether. To some extent I want to believe in human rights because it seems to be the dominant framework and language and things would just be simpler if I did. But wanting to believe something because it's helpful is not enough to me. It seems like it would be easier to believe in human rights if one did believe in a higher power, which may be one reason why liberal religious groups seem well-represented in human rights circles.

So finally, my bleg: what should I read? Is there a single primer on or defense of the foundations of human rights that you would recommend to a secular/skeptical person like me? This could be a book, an essay, a journal article --  whatever you think might be the most convincing case. I think this line of thinking deserves more than a simple read of a Wikipedia page; I'm hoping that you can distill the arguments that you've found most useful in thinking about rights into a few recommendations. Likewise, if you're in the doubter camp or think there is a better secular alternative out there I'd be happy to hear counter-suggestions as well.