THE SOURCE: "The Morality of Human Rights: A Problem for Nonbelievers?" by Michael J. Perry, in Commonweal, July 14, 2006.
THOUGH THE 20TH CENTURY witnessed some of the worst instances of man's inhumanity to man, it also saw the birth of the human rights movement. As German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has noted, the language of human rights is now the only one "in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression, and persecution." But on what authority does that language rest? If human rights, as some have suggested, have their foundation only in religious teachings, how long, as the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz asked, "can they stay afloat if the bottom is taken out?"
According to Michael J. Perry, a professor of law at Emory University, the three documents that make up what is informally called the International Bill of Rights--the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966)--are "famously silent" on the question of why we should live our lives in a way that respects human dignity. Perry says that "a number of contemporary thinkers have tried to provide a nonreligious ground for the morality of human rights," notably Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum, and John Finnis, but falter at the point of justification. Finnis, a Catholic thinker who nevertheless looks for a nonreligious basis of morality, is reduced to arguing that it is "unreasonable for those who value their own well-being to intentionally harm the well-being of other human beings," says Perry. …