The Morality of Human Rights

A Problem for Nonbelievers?

The masses blink and say: “We are all equal.—
Man is but man, before God—we are all equal.”
Before God! But now this God has died.
—Friedrich Nietzsche


Not all nonbelievers exude the breathtaking contempt that Nietzsche aims at democratic virtues and the innate rights of man. Yet the logic of his blast, with its linkage (albeit dismissive) of religion and morality, hints at a profound difficulty for our modern era. The morality of universal human rights is a precious achievement, but also an exceedingly fragile one.

If, as I suspect, there exists no plausible nonreligious ground for the morality of human rights, then the growing marginalization of religious belief in many societies that have taken human rights seriously—in particular, in many liberal democracies—has a profoundly worrisome consequence: it may leave those societies bereft of the intellectual resources to sustain the morality of human rights. His pleasure at this dilemma is what makes Nietzsche so ominous in retrospect; in his exhilarated snarl one hears an advance warning of the Holocaust.

Ours has been a dark and bloody time in history—indeed, the dark and bloody time. Even if you leave aside the staggering bloodshed unleashed in its two world wars, the list of twentieth-century horrors plods on at mind-numbing length. As the century began, King Leopold II of Belgium was presiding over a holocaust in the Congo, where, between 1880 and 1920, his system of slave labor killed an estimated 10 million people. From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman Turks committed genocide against the Armenian Christian minority. And then came the century’s mass-murdering dictators. Not counting deaths inflicted in battle, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of over 42 million people; Mao, over 37 million; Hitler, over 20 million. One need only mention Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda to update the gruesome list. And this recital just scratches the surface. (For a grimly exhaustive account, consult the two-volume Encyclopedia of Genocide.)

In the midst of all the grotesque inhumanities of the twentieth century, however, is a heartening story: the emergence in international law of a discourse of human rights. Indeed, human rights has become the dominant global morality of our time; the language of human rights is as close to a moral lingua franca as we human beings are likely to achieve. “Notwithstanding their European origins,” Jurgen Habermas has noted, “in Asia, Africa, and South America, [human rights] now constitute the only language in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression, and persecution, against injuries to their human dignity.”

What exactly does the morality of human rights hold? The International Bill of Rights, as it is informally known, consists of three documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Emphatically these documents assert “the inherent dignity of the human person,” and insist that from this dignity derive “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Thus the morality of human rights exerts a normative force upon us. It tells us first that every human being has an inherent dignity—one we have conclusive reason to respect—and second that we should live our lives accordingly. This twofold conviction is the fundamental axiom that yields the law protecting the various rights and freedoms we have come to call “human rights.”

But what is the source, the ground, of the inherent dignity of every human being, and of the normative force this dignity has for us? Why should we live our lives in a way that respects it? The International Bill of Rights is famously silent on this question.

That there is a religious ground for the morality of human rights is clear; indeed, there are multiple religious grounds. The Christian ground will be familiar to readers of this magazine: each and every human being is the beloved child of God, created in the image of God, and perfects this created nature in loving his or her sisters and brothers. The revealed truth of Scripture teaches that Jesus called us to “love one another just as I have loved you” (John 13:34). As Canadian (and Catholic) philosopher Charles Taylor has argued, the “affirmation of universal human rights” that characterizes “modern liberal political culture” represents one of several “authentic developments of the gospel” in modern life.

It is far from clear, however, that there is a nonreligious ground—a secular ground—for the morality of human rights. Indeed, the claim that every human being has inherent dignity, and that we should live our lives accordingly, remains deeply problematic for many secular thinkers. Such a claim is difficult, perhaps nearly impossible, to align with one of secularism’s reigning intellectual convictions, what British philosopher Bernard Williams called “Nietzsche’s thought”: that “there is, not only no God, but no metaphysical order of any kind.”

A number of contemporary thinkers have tried to provide a nonreligious ground for the morality of human rights, including Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum, and John Finnis—each of whom, like myself, teaches at least partly in a law school. In my new book, to be published later this year, I argue that the efforts of Dworkin, Nussbaum, and Finnis do not succeed. Finnis, a prominent Catholic moralist who works within the Catholic natural-law tradition, may be of particular interest to Commonweal readers. Although a Catholic, Finnis wants his “natural law” morality to stand independently of religious belief. Does he succeed in providing a secular ground for explaining why we should never treat other human beings merely as means to our ends, but rather always treat them lovingly?

In Natural Law and Natural Rights, Finnis argues that no one should act for the purpose of harming the well-being of another, because to do so would be to act contrary to the requirement “of fundamental impartiality among the human subjects who are or may be partakers of [the basic human goods].” The question arises, what is the source of the “should” in the claim that no one should violate any human being? Any ground for the claim that no one should violate any human being must specify the source of normativity. Yet the totality of Finnis’s brief answer to this fundamental question is that it is unreasonable for those who value their own well-being to intentionally harm the well-being of other human beings: His own well-being is not “of more value than the well-being of others, simply because it is mine,” he argues. “Intelligence and reasonableness can find no basis in the fact that A is A and not B (that I am I and not you) for evaluating (our) well-being differentially.”

Let’s put aside the possibility that being “reasonable” may not be one’s overriding goal in life. Even on its own terms, Finnis’s answer doesn’t work. My own well-being—or, say, the well-being of my child—may in fact be of more value to me than your well-being; furthermore, in some situations your well-being—indeed, your continued existence—may be a disvalue to me. If this is the case, then it is not necessarily “unreasonable” for me to harm your well-being so as to serve my own. As legal philosopher Jeffrey Goldsworthy writes, “Finnis has tried to do in two pages what...others have devoted entire books to: that egoism is inherently self-contradictory or irrational. All of these attempts have failed.”

Such comprehensive and repeated failures inspire doubt that a natural-law morality of human rights can stand without theological support. Finnis is a religious believer, and he might easily assert that “my own well-being is not of more value to God than the well-being of others.” But such a move would defeat his aim of establishing a secular grounding. It may well be an impossible aim. To underscore the futility of trying to avoid invoking God in debates about moral obligation, philosopher and scholar John Rist invokes the example of Kant, “who, attempting to show that morality needs no metaphysical foundations...had to allow that without the ultimate sanction of God, his moral universe would collapse.”

Even if there is no secular ground for the morality of human rights, there doubtless exist self-interested secular reasons for wanting the law, including international law, to protect some human-rights claims. “A world of democracies would be a safer world,” argued U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher in a 1993 address to the World Conference on Human Rights. Noting that states with the worst human-rights records tend also to be the world’s aggressors—promoting terrorism, creating massive refugee flows, causing environmental pollution—he asserted that “denying human rights not only lays waste to human lives; it creates instability that travels across borders.” This is true enough, as far as it goes; yet such self-interested rationales for protecting human-rights claims may bear much less weight than we would like to think. As one scholar put it, “Despite considerable effort, it has been difficult to construct a wholly convincing ‘selfish’ rationale for major U.S. national commitments to promote the human rights of foreigners.”

The point is not that morality cannot survive the death of God, or that one cannot be good unless one believes in God: many nonbelievers are good, of course, just as many practicing faithful—including Christians—fall far short of goodness. To contend that no nonreligious ground can bear the weight of the morality of human rights is not to deny that a nonbeliever can affirm the inherent dignity of every human being, then live her life accordingly. Still, the question persists whether there is a nonreligious basis for such an affirmation. What ground can a nonbeliever give for the claim that every human being has inherent dignity?

The influential American philosopher Richard Rorty is not troubled by such questions. Rorty recommends that we abandon what he calls “human-rights foundationalism,” in his estimation an “outmoded” project. A better project for those of us who embrace the cause of human rights, he advises, lies in “making our own culture—the human-rights culture—more self-conscious and more powerful, rather than demonstrating its superiority to other cultures by an appeal to something transcultural,” such as a conception of universal human nature or revealed religious truth. Rorty suggests that

the rhetoric we Westerners use in trying to get everyone to be more like us would be improved if we were more frankly ethnocentric, and less professedly universalist. It would be better to say: Here is what we in the West look like as a result of ceasing to hold slaves, beginning to educate women, separating church and state, and so on. Here is what happened after we started treating certain distinctions between people as arbitrary rather than fraught with moral significance. If you would try treating them that way, you might like the results.

In other words, we should try to convert others to our human-rights culture—to our local “we,” our Eurocentric sentiments and preferences. We should offer them, in effect, a sort of cultural-values sales pitch. Bolstering human rights means “trying to get everyone to be more like us”—a task of pragmatism and persuasion, rather than principle. How well can we sell our way of life?

Yet for many of us who embrace the cause of human rights, the fundamental wrong done when the inherent dignity of any human being is violated is not merely that our local or Eurocentric sentiments are offended. The fundamental wrong done is that, somehow, the very order of the world—the normative order of the world—is transgressed. Take, for instance, the horrors of Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps. Given our understanding of the normative order of the world, Auschwitz constitutes, for us, a terrible violation of who God is, of what the universe is, and, in particular, of who we human beings are.

Rorty’s vision of addressing the human-rights challenge gives off a superficial glow of democratic optimism, but beneath the surface lies a much darker, might-makes-right nihilism. “When the secret police come,” Rorty wrote nearly twenty-five years ago, “when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form ‘There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.’” Pragmatism gives you nothing to fall back on, no recourse and no solace, if you fail to swing the deal. The world without principle is a moral void.

Against the background of Rorty’s comments, let us ask: If we who embrace the cause of human rights abandon “foundationalism”—if we abandon the project of trying to ground the claim that each and every human being has inherent dignity and is inviolable—what would we be left with? Our sentiments and preferences? How much weight would these sentiments and preferences be able to bear when the secret police come, and for how long? Listen to Polish poet and Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz:

What has been surprising in the post–cold war period are those beautiful and deeply moving words pronounced with veneration in places like Prague and Warsaw, words which pertain to the old repertory of the rights of man and the dignity of the person.

I wonder at this phenomenon because maybe underneath there is an abyss. After all, those ideas had their foundation in religion, and I am not over-optimistic as to the survival of religion in a scientific-technological civilization. Notions that seemed buried forever have suddenly been resurrected. But how long can they stay afloat if the bottom is taken out?

In those liberal democracies in which religious belief is growing increasingly marginalized, one wonders which will survive—Nietzsche’s thought, or the morality of human rights. Can the morality of human rights survive the death—or deconstruction—of God? Was it such a morality that Nietzsche saw in the coffin at God’s funeral?

Perhaps some who find religious ground implausible can remain confident in their conviction that every human being has inherent dignity and is inviolable. “I have reached bedrock,” Wittgenstein wrote, “and this is where my spade is turned.” Perhaps some will say they have no time to obsess about the ground of their conviction because they are too busy doing the important work of “changing the world.” But still, this question intrudes: How can secular thinkers reconcile the very idea of bedrock with their vision of a universe possessed of no underlying metaphysical order whatsoever? If their bedrock conviction holds that the Other possesses inherent dignity and truly is inviolable, then what else must be true; what must be true for it to be true that the Other has inherent dignity and is inviolable? Not an easy question, and one whose answer, believers know, is a mystery.

Published in the 2006-07-14 issue: 

Michael J. Perry holds a Robert W. Woodruff University Chair at Emory University, where he teaches in the law school. 

Also by this author
Right Decision, Wrong Reason

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads