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The Morality of Human Rights: A Problem for Nonbelievers?

By Perry, Michael J. | Commonweal, July 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Morality of Human Rights: A Problem for Nonbelievers?


Perry, Michael J., Commonweal


 
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.

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