joestanley asked: What are your feelings on the legitimacy of natural rights outside of a religious framework?
This question was actually the central motivating question behind my first book (though I talk about human rather than natural rights).
“The fundamental challenge to each and every human rights claim,” Michael Perry once wrote, “is a demand for reasons.” Perry has written a couple of books and quite a few articles in an attempt to examine whether the existing reasons are compelling ones.
As Perry says, “To ask if the conviction that every human being is sacred – the conviction that every human being is ‘inviolable’, has ‘inherent dignity’, is ‘an end in himself’, or the like – is inescapably religious is to ask if the conviction can be embedded in…either an antireligious cosmology, according to which the world is, at the end of the day, not meaningful but meaningless, or a cosmological agnosticism that neither affirms nor denies the ultimate meaningfulness of the world.”
On Perry’s reading, all of the non-religious reasons either fall well short of providing a solid foundation for human rights or are unintelligible.
He begins his argument with a quotation from R. H. Tawney, who argues that “The essence of all morality is this: to believe that every human being is of infinite importance, and therefore that no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another.” Clearly, here, we have an articulation of the basic idea of human rights, that the human person is inviolable. Tawney continues, however, by noting that,“to believe this it is necessary to believe in God.”
For Perry, following Tawney, there is clearly a direct link between a belief in God and the idea of human rights. For Christians, this link can be expressed as follows: “I believe in God, who created all human beings in His image and who instructed us to love one another as He loves us. I have concluded, in believing that we are all created in God’s image, that we are all sisters/brothers and that we are all sacred. I have further concluded, in believing that we ought to love one another, that a life of human flourishing can only be achieved by treating others as sisters/brothers and as sacred. My belief system compels me to recognize the human person as inviolable and to respect the human rights of the Other.”
The argument I make in my book is that in a pluralistic world – one in which most people do not hold the same religious worldview and many hold worldviews that would not fit within Perry’s definition of “religious” – a wider framework is needed, not a narrower one, to ground the idea of human rights.
This is, of course, quite different from showing that Perry is incorrect about religion providing a compelling grounding for human rights and I do not think he is. The language of rights can certainly find a solid foundation in many of the world’s great religious texts, especially – as Perry notes – the Christian Gospels. The language of love and respect for the other, as well as of the equality of persons, provides a strong justification for the belief that people ought to be treated with respect and compassion, and that they ought not be abused or otherwise harmed.
My positive argument for a non-religious grounding for the idea of human rights focuses on the international consensus on human rights and human dignity that sits at the heart of the drafting process of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The long version of this argument is can be found in the concluding chapter of my book, but there’s also a shorter version in this blog post.
Ibid, 16. ↩
Ibid., 11. ↩
I use the example of Christianity here only because it is Perry’s primary example of a religious worldview. ↩
This connection might or might not be as explicit in other belief systems as it is in Christianity, but Perry argues that it is assuredly present in each because the concept of a religious worldview has similar features across the many diverse world religions, despite some differences in expression and application. ↩