I suggest, tentatively, that human beings have the property "value" in a similar way to how e.g. material bodies have "mass" or certain subatomic particles have "charge". As a Christian, I understand this as following from the fact that human beings are made in God's image.Then, in response to a request for clarification, I said (lightly edited):
The idea is that God is the being of maximal value (along with power, knowledge and goodness), and we ourselves have some value by virtue of those aspects of God's nature which we share (i.e. have in common) – sharing aspects of God's nature is what I understand by being made "in his image" (exactly which aspects and to what degree is a question which will have to be partially postponed). Further questioning as to how we have this property is probably going to draw a blank from me, I'm afraid. How is it that electrons have negative charge? Er, it belongs to their nature.I know some people feel embarrassed about reproducing on their own blog comments they've made elsewhere. Well, not me :). What I would do well to bear in mind, however, is what Ken reminded me of in his response to another post of mine about this issue.
There are a couple of important problems with the mass/charge analogy, though. Firstly, value can't be detected in the same way that those properties can. Secondly, treating (e.g.) massive bodies as if they aren’t massive will get you into practical difficulties, while treating beings of intrinsic value as if they’re valueless will get you into normative difficulties*. That’s how I understand "rights": as a set of descriptions of the ways in which human beings must be treated in order to recognise their intrinsic value. To violate someone's rights is therefore to treat someone as if they didn’t have the value they, in fact, have. These rights are inalienable because human beings possess them just by virtue of being human beings – it's no more possible to remove a human being’s human rights than it is to remove an electron's negative charge. An "electron without charge" just isn't an electron, and my proposal is that the same applies for "human being without value" - both descriptions are contradictions in terms.
As conceived here, value is a(n intrinsic) property of human beings - and God. This value is the same for all human beings by virtue of their humanity, and so the rights I'm thinking of are the same for all human beings at all times in history and at all stages of their lives, in the same way that all electrons anywhere and ever have the same charge.
* If God will ultimately judge everyone, then this could get you into practical difficulties as well, of course.