Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Self Evident and Universal?

Positive Liberty argues (correctly, in my opinion) that "human rights" is not exclusively a Christian concept. What then is it?

Perhaps one place to start is in the United States' Declaration of Independence, one document that is often cited when discussing human rights.

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

Let me stop there. In the mind of Jefferson, the items that he was about to state fulfilled two purposes:

  • They were truths. As far as Jefferson was concerned, the unalienable rights from the "Creator" (whatever that is) were truths, not falsehoods.

  • They were self-evident. Alternatively, you could say that they were revealed, or that they were danged obvious.

Well, we all know what those self-evident truths were, so let's start with the first one.

...that all men are created equal...

This one gets assailed from all over the place. On the one hand, did a slaveholder like Jefferson really mean it when he said "ALL men"? On the other hand, some argue that a sexist like Jefferson truly DID mean it when he said "all MEN."

So you can see that we can't get past the first self-evident truth without getting into a Pilate-like debate about what the truth really is. And we haven't even touched the pedophiles' argument that boys should be entitled to freely choose their sexual partners, or whether or not an unborn child is or is not a "man" for purposes of this truth.

But these little quibbles didn't trouble the world in 1948, when the United Nations produced a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Preamble's equivalent to "all men are created equal" is as follows:

...recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world...

...the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom...

The Preamble is followed by thirty articles, the first seven of which read as follows:

Article 1.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Ignoring for the moment the rampant sexism at the end of Article I, it is clear that the signatories were trying to arrive at a consensual definition of human rights. But, fifty years later, when "human rights" is claimed by both abortion supporters and abortion foes alike, exactly what are "human rights"?

Michael Ignatieff wrote a book on the subject.

Is the world moving forward or backward when it comes to honoring and protecting basic human rights? In Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Michael Ignatieff sees both progress and retrenchment. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been a "global diffusion" of the central ideas and language designed after World War II to "create fire walls against barbarism."...

And yet just in the last decade, at a time when the human-rights movement's influence seemed greater than ever, the fire walls proved at times to be paper thin. The international community was tragically slow to act in Bosnia and failed to save 800,000 people from barbarism in Rwanda. "In the next fifty years," Ignatieff warns, "we can expect to see the moral consensus that sustained the Universal Declaration in 1948 splintering even further."...

In a recent New York Times article, he suggested that "the question after September 11 is whether the era of human rights has come and gone," citing evidence that a number of countries, including China, Egypt, Russia, the Sudan, and even Australia, are exploiting the war against terrorism to cloak their human-rights abuses....One might say the same about the United States....

Advocates often face resistance, from many quarters, on the very notion of a universal human-rights norm -- that all people of the world can agree on rights and restraints that apply everywhere, from a police interrogation room in Brooklyn to a detention camp in Central Asia...."Human rights discourse," he asserts, "ought to suppose that there are many differing visions of a good human life, that the West's is only one of them, and that, provided agents have a degree of freedom in the choice of that life, they should be left to give it the content that accords with their history and traditions."

universalrights.net is also forced to conclude that there is no universal consensus on just what human rights are.

The idea of 'human rights' is not universal - it is essentially the product of 17th and 18th century European thought. Even the idea of 'rights' does not necessarily exist in every society or advanced civilisation....

There were great lawmakers - the Roman, Justinian, for one, who published his great Codex of various laws in the early 6th century -who tried to establish a cohesive schemes of rights and duties. The great religions of the world - Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and others - have all sought to establish comprehensive, coherent moral codes of conduct based on divine law. All contain profound ideas on the dignity of the human being, and are concerned with the duties and obligations of man to his fellow human beings, to nature and indeed to God and the whole of creation.

But until the 17th century such attempts to establish a framework for such rules, laws and codes, whether in social, legal, secular or theological debate, emphasised duties and privileges that arose from peoples' status or relationships, rather than abstract rights that, philosophically, preceded or underlay those relations or laws....

The text continues, noting that both the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens were followed by actions which denied rights to various people. After citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the following conclusion is made:

Universal human rights are, historically, the flower of what was originally a European plant. They have now received the support of world nations. Respect for human rights is becoming a universal principle of good government.

However, this still does not answer the question of exactly what those human rights are. Do totalitarian revolutionaries have the right to vote in a democratic society? Do unborn babies have the right to live? Do mothers have the right to end a pregnancy? Do fathers have a right to end a pregancy?

Self-evident? Don't think so.

Universal? Not even at the studio.

P.S. For those who didn't read my comment at Positive Liberty, which takes a more theistic tone, here it is:

A lot of this depends upon what you define as “human rights,” although I’ll be the first to agree that life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness are not necessarily endorsed by the Old and New Testaments, in which obedience to God means just that - obedience to God over all things. Certainly you can find manifestations of these ideals in the Bible and in current religous thought (I’m not sure if the pro-life people have latched on to the Declaration of Independence yet), but it’s clear that the Christian definitions of “life” and “liberty” (life in Christ, liberty from the law yet in obedience to the Holy Spirit) differ from the secular notions of one oppressed by royal taxation.

The fact is, the things cited by Jefferson are not “self-evident.” There is no universal definition of human rights, and anyone today who cites Jefferson as the be-all and end-all is forced to twist and reinterpret his use of the word “men.” Societies led by humans define “human rights” in the way they see fit, and as our adventure in Iraq has proved, it’s very hard to take one culture’s human rights and impose it on another.

Returning to Bottum, it can be argued that there have been times when Christians were motivated by their faith to promote human rights. However, that doesn’t always mean that they were on the same side - Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all promoted human rights in different ways.


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