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-...

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About the Author

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