Responsibility for Human Rights: Contributions from Bernard Lonergan

By Haughey, John C. | Theological Studies, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Responsibility for Human Rights: Contributions from Bernard Lonergan


Haughey, John C., Theological Studies


MICHAEL IGNATIEFF, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in an article published in Foreign Affairs in 2001, freshens all the questions that for many have not yet been satisfactorily answered about the value of human rights. (1) Human rights doctrine is being attacked, he says, on three fronts: (1) by resurgent Islam which has long questioned the positing of a sovereign and discrete individual imbued with rights because this conflicts with Allah's prior claims on each Muslim; (2) by some Western intellectuals who now maintain that human rights are indeed a construct inapplicable to "cultures that do not share this historical matrix of liberal individualism"; and (3) by many in East Asia who resent the fact that human rights represent an alien moral globalization agenda being pushed on their countries spearheaded by economic globalization. Ignatieff does a good job of blunting each of these attacks. In the course of his article he makes the unusual statement that "rights are universal because they define the universal interests of the powerless--namely that power be exercised over them in ways that respect their autonomy as [moral] agents. [Rights] represent a revolutionary creed, since they make a radical demand of all human groups that they serve the interests of the individuals who compose them." While I have not seen the universality of human rights conceived in this way before, that the article is a good reminder of how much theoretical work still needs to be done about the universality of human rights.

I believe that the greatest weakness of human rights theory has always been the matter of responsibility. Who has responsibility for responding to the legitimate moral claim of the rights holder? If one is sure it is I or they, can one legitimately withhold action on behalf of one's own rights? Mary Ann Glendon's A Worm Made New is a wonderful telling of the story of the unfolding drama behind the scenes that put together the UN Declaration of Human Rights between 1945 and 1948. She indicates that a crucial decision was made early on in the deliberations that gave birth to that doctrine not to deal with the responsibility issue i.e., who should respond to human rights claims. (2) The hope was that there would eventually be a declaration of responsibilities as a companion piece to the declaration of rights. That piece has never materialized. I would like in this article to use the thought of Bernard Lonergan to suggest how responsibilities for human rights might best be conceived.

Before beginning I briefly situate the issue of taking responsibility for human rights claims in history. Historians of human rights see an understanding of human rights developing early in history, e.g., in Plato, Aristotle, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, the Stoics, and Christianity. (3) But more modern formulations of human rights see them in terms of what are called three families of rights. Civil/political rights with their genesis roughly in the 18th century addressed the self-determination of citizens with respect to the political form their nations were to take and the freedoms connected to this such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, or suffrage. Socio/ economic rights began to be voiced most clearly in the 19th century. These were requisitions for the material conditions necessary for human flourishing insofar as unaided personal industry could not achieve these. And, with equal generality, group or cultural rights came to the fore in the 20th century. These are a subset of the first family of human rights. Since members of a particular group see their well-being as constituted by their group's existence, they need to be accorded the freedom to determine themselves by means of these cultural or group rights. To continue to speak generally, the first and third families seek what are called negative rights. …

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