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Can the concepts of Human Rights and Equality provide a basis for moral decision making?. Respect for individual human dignity has its roots in Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Cut off from these Scriptures, it is in danger of taking on a life of its own leading to: Moral confusion .

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Can the concepts of Human Rights and Equality provide a basis for moral decision making?

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Can the concepts of

Human Rights

and Equality

provide a basis for moral decision making?

Respect for individual human dignity has its roots in Judeo-Christian Scriptures.
  • Cut off from these Scriptures, it is in danger of taking on a life of its own leading to:
    • Moral confusion.
    • The exploitation of the weak by the powerful
      • the very reverse of what was originally intended.
a christian view of the source of our moral sense
A Christian View of the source of our moral sense:

Our moral awareness that some things are ‘right’ and other things are ‘wrong’ comes from a Real Goodness that is above and beyond us - pressing upon us.

  • It is not just our society’s subjective judgement that ‘human life is valuable’ (say).
  • Its not just a good survival strategy for our genes to make us believe that human life is valuable.

Human life is intrinsically valuable because God, our Father, greatly values it.

  • When we say: ‘cruelty is wrong’ or ‘kindness is good’ we are not merely speaking about our own feelings or culture (individual or collective), but about a morality real in itself - rooted in the love and the purpose of God for our human being.
If we don’t believe in God or some other transcendent source of our sense of good and evil, we have the problem illustrated by Bertrand Russell’s conundrum:
  • In 1960, he wrote ‘I cannot see how to refute arguments for the subjectivity of moral values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it’
  • Quoted by Mary Warnock in her article: Foundations of Morality, published by The Royal Institute of Philosophy on their Web pages in April 2003
God has given us commandments. However the source of our sense of goodness is not alist of ‘Moral Laws’, coming from beyond us. Rather:
    • Beauty and grandeur are objective realities.
      • When we say: ‘The valley is beautiful’ we are not merely talking about our own feelings.
      • We are claiming that beauty is something that is actually there.
    • Beauty and grandeur are connected with goodness which is also something real.
      • Evil and suffering are alien intrusions.

Even if we don’t recognise it at first, the light of the Spirit and Word of God (the source of creation, beauty and goodness), shines through all creation, impinging upon us all. So we recognise righteousness and evil for what they are.

Romans 2:14-15:
  • Indeed, when heathens, who do not have the law, (ie The 10 Commandments etc) do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
human society its source of goodness righteousness
Human Society - its Source of Goodness/Righteousness.

Goodness is the character of God shown, not primarily in a list of rules, but in His deeply personal dealings with us.

  • The Bible is the account of God’s personal dealings with humankind and all creation.
  • Proper personal relationships cannot be described perfectly or be measured adequately by commandments, codes of practice or legislation.
The Bible message is focussed in the Person of Jesus in whom God meets us face to face and self-sacrificially suffers for our sins.
      • giving us forgiveness, lifting us up in His resurrection and ascension,to where we belong eternally.
      • That is the meaning of `love’ and it sums up true goodness.
      • We are called to love as He loves us.
  • From this comes our duties of respect for justice and the dignity of our fellow human beings and all creation.

In our yet imperfect world God knows we still need laws so, by his grace, he gives them to us. (Ten Commandments etc).

governments and the source of justice traditional new
Goodness & law of God

Laws of the State as far as possible are in harmony with that goodness and Law of God

State legislation gives certain rights in certain contexts.

E.g. the ‘right’ of way at a crossroads.

But such a ‘right’ - not a fundamental human right.

The Concept of Human Rights replaces God.

Government legislation is always subject to European Court of ‘Human Rights’.

As in a religion people are reluctant to challenge a new ‘god’.

Where there is conflict between this Court and Government legislation - ‘Human Rights’ has the final say.

Governments and the Source of Justice - Traditional & New.
But can the concepts of

Human Rights

and Equality

provide this alternative source of a society’s ethics and government legislation?

some complications and difficulties
Some Complications and difficulties:
  • What is the difference between a human desire and a human right?
  • Do we have a right to do what we like with our bodies in private?
    • Does what I do in private affect society at large - now or in the future? Some theories of human society say it does.
  • Abortion - whose right - mother's or the unborn?
  • When does the right to freedom of speech:
    • breach the right of someone to be protected from what he regards as offensive?
    • propagate evil and harm society.
  • Can a list of things, such as rights, describe the dignity of a person, or does not a list of things depersonalise us?
narrow broad interpretations of human rights
Narrow & Broad Interpretations of Human Rights.
  • Narrow:Human Rights are relevant only to such things as `imprisonment without trial’, a ‘fair trial’, ‘torture’, ‘persecution on the grounds of beliefs’ etc.
  • An example of a Broad Interpretation of ‘Rights’:Christmas 2000. Some Perthshire parents demanded their children’s ‘right’ to privacy and successfully asked the Council to forbid the taking of photos during school nativity plays. What about the other parents?
    • Does the concept of human rights give any help in settling disputes such as this?
    • Does the concept of Human Rights mean ‘human desires’?
      • No, but some will say that their desires are their rights!
      • How will the courts decide?
    • This is one of the problems of the concept.
further back in history in america
Further back in history (in America):

Thomas Jefferson (3rd President of USA) asserted that his countrymen were a:

"free people claiming their rights as derived fromthe laws of natureand not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate,”

This gave poetic eloquence to the plain prose of the 17th century in the Declaration of Independence proclaimed by the 13 American Colonies on July 4, 1776:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

two philosophers
Two philosophers:
  • John Locke (17th C) based his belief in ‘rights’ on ‘natural law’ - ultimately dependent upon the existence of a good God.
  • David Hume (18th C) rejected the concept of ‘rights’ because it could not be empirically verified and therefore belonged to metaphysics, which he rejected.
Criticism of the concept of Human Rights by Leslie Newbigin especially the Right to … the pursuit of happiness.
  • What is true happiness ?
    • If we can’t ask the Question:
      • “What is the chief purpose of man’s existence?”
      • then happiness is whatever each person defines it as.
    • Without belief in heaven or hell the pursuit of happiness is carried out in the few short uncertain years before death.
    • Hectic search for happiness leading to great anxiety
If everyone claims the right to life, liberty & happiness
    • who is under obligation to honour this claim ?
  • Middle Ages - there were reciprocal rights & duties.
    • Rights & duties went hand in hand and both were finite.
  • But quest for happiness is infinite (we are always wantingmore from life)
    • who has the infinite duty to honour the infinite claims?
    • The answer is perceived to be the nation state.
    • Demands on the state are without limit.
    • Nation state has taken the place of God as the source to which many look for happiness.
Should I claim my ‘wants’ as ‘rights’? Or should it be my ‘needs’ that are my `rights’?
    • My wants may be (and often are) irrational;
    • I can (and often do) want things that would not in the end bring me lasting happiness.
    • My real needs - what I need to reach my true end - may be different from the wants I feel.

If ‘wants’ are ‘rights’, then the wants of the strong prevail over the wants of the weak.

  • The very reverse of the original intention of ‘human rights’

Whereas the political right believes we should make up our own minds and therefore be governed by our wants the political left desires to provide for our needs.

The argument of the political left assumes that need creates a right that has priority over the wants of those who wish to pursue personal happiness in the way they choose.

Difficulties immediately appear:

  • ‘Needs’ can be accorded priority over ‘wants’ only if there is some socially accepted view of the goal of human existence.
    • in other words, a socially accepted doctrine of the nature and destiny of the human being.
    • Such a doctrine is excluded by the dogma of pluralism that controls post-modern society.

So the politically powerful decide our needs in a moral vacuum without an objective moral constraint.

      • The very reverse of the original ideal of ‘human rights’.
We are all equal in our basic need for survival; this is the need we share with the animals.
  • But to be human means to need other things -respect, honour, love.
  • These needs, social rather than merely biological, call precisely for differentiation rather than for equality.
  • There are different kinds of honour & love we owe to teachers, colleagues, parents, friends, spouse, children.
  • It is this kind of differentiated respect, honour, and love that makes life human.
  • An undifferentiated acknowledgement of the basic biological needs of a human being does not.
  • And these things - respect, honour, and love - cannot be claimed as rights.
i s the word rights the right word
Is the word `rights' the right word?
  • Alternative way of expressing the belief in correct treatment of one-another
    • Duty. We have duties to one another:
      • What God values and loves I must value and love.
      • Whereas each person demanding ‘rights’ tends to separate us into rival isolated individuals; each person having a ‘duty’ to others unites us in relationships.
    • The concept of human rights has been useful in challenging cruel governments about their behaviour but can it really be the basis of:
      • Moral decision making?
      • Government policy making
a christian alternative
A Christian Alternative:
  • For our sake God Himself surrendered His rights and entered our suffering and death so as to forgive us and lift us up to Him.
  • Christ did not count His equality with God something to hold on to but He surrendered it for us:

Phil 2:3-11 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name …

rights and equality the bible
Rights and Equality - the Bible.
  • Sometimes we are called to surrender our rights and make sacrifices in order that we might help one another.
  • The Bible’s injunction is not that I should claim equality but I should count others as worthy of receiving greater honour than I receive.
  • The kind of honour and love we give should be different for different people.
    • A good society is one where we honour one another in ways appropriate to our relationships of being.
    • I give a different love and a different honour to different persons depending on whether the person is my parent, child, teacher, pupil, colleague, employer, employee, husband, wife or friend.
  • In such relationships true human happiness is found.

Now for some quotations to consider:


John Witte Jnr is Director, Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion at Emory University (2000- )

The modern cultivation of human rights ... began in earnest in the 1940's when both Christianity and the Enlightenment seemed incapable of delivering on their promises. ... there was no second coming of Christ promised by Christians, no heavenly city of reason promised by enlightened libertarians, no withering away of the state promised by enlightened socialists. Instead, there was world war, gulags, and the Holocaust - a vile and evil fascism and irrationalism to which Christianity and the Enlightenment seemed to have no cogent response or effective deterrent.

  • The modern human rights movement was thus born out of desperation in the aftermath of World War II. It was an attempt to find a world faith to fill a spiritual void. It was an attempt to harvest from the traditions of Christianity and the Enlightenment the rudimentary elements of a new faith and a new law that would unite a badly broken world order.
  • John Witte, Jr*, The Spirit of the Laws, the Laws of the Spirit, in Stackhouse & Browning (eds), God and Globalization, Vol.2

Oliver O'Donovan is Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Oxford

'What effect does this … have upon the conception of justice? It dissolves its unity and coherence by replacing it with a plurality of 'rights'. The language of subjective rights (i.e. rights which adhere to a particular subject) has, of course, a perfectly appropriate and necessary place within a discourse founded on law… What is distinctive about the modern conception of rights, however, is that subjective rights are taken to be original, not derived. The fundamental reality is a plurality of competing, unreconciled rights, and the task of law is to harmonise them… The right is a primitive endowment of power with which the subject first engages in society, not an enhancement which accrues to the subject from an ordered and politically formed society.'

  • Oliver O'Donovan*, The Desire of the Nations

The Judge was Jeremy Cooke at the Sept 2002 Oxford Conference on Human Rights.

Summary of a Christian Judge’s view*:

  • Our sense of morality should give rise to legislation enacted by governments. E.g. our sense that it is wrong to steal will give rise to laws forbidding various forms of stealing.
  • Laws also regulate how we should behave in certain contexts so as to preserve an ordered society. Such legislation will give certain people rights in certain contexts.
    • For example at a crossroads law gives someone the right of way.
    • However this is not a fundamental human right which gives rise to a law. It is the result of a law for that particular situation.
  • Rights should occur in the context of the law of the land but not be considered as the source of morality itself.
  • However the British (and other European) governments have reversed this and given the European Convention on Human Rights preference over the legislation of individual parliaments.
Human dignity is the foundation for nurturing and protecting human rights. It is rooted in the vision of the 'fullness of life' promised in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his identification with all humankind. We must be reminded that human dignity is something persons have, not something they must earn or be granted. Dignity is not a quality bestowed on others by the family, by society, or by a government. Rather, dignity is a reality as a consequence of God's good creation and never-ending love. This reality requires acknowledgement and respect.
  • Robert A. Evans, Human Rights in a Global Context
Contemporary moral experience …. has a paradoxical character. For each of us is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by … manipulative relationships with others.Seeking to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, we aspire ourselves not to be manipulated by others; ... we find no way open to us to do so except by directing towards others those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case. The incoherence of our attitudes arises from the incoherent conceptual scheme which we have inherited. Once we have understood this, it is possible to understand also the key place that the concept of rights has in the distinctively modern moral scheme…

…the culture of bureaucratic individualism results in ... political debates being between individualism which makes its claims in terms of rights and forms of bureaucratic organisation which make their claims in terms of utility. But if the concept of rights and that of utility are a matching pair of incommensurable fictions, it will be the case that the moral idiom employed can at best provide a semblance of rationality for the modern political process, but not its reality. The mock rationality of the debate conceals the arbitrariness of the will and power at work in its resolution.

Alister MacIntyre, After Virtue

What would it mean to come to a genuine, unforced international consensus on human rights? I suppose it would be something like … an 'overlapping consensus'. That is, different groups, countries, religious communities, civilizations, while holding incompatible fundamental views on theology, metaphysics, human nature, etc., would come to an agreement on certain norms that ought to govern human behaviour. Each would have its own way of justifying this from out of its profound background conception. We would agree on the norms, while disagreeing on why they were the right norms. And we would be content to live in this consensus, undisturbed by the differences of profound underlying belief….

Is this kind of consensus possible? Perhaps because of my optimistic nature, I believe that it is. But we have to confess at the outset that it is not entirely clear around what the consensus would form, and we are only beginning to discern the obstacles we would have to overcome on the way there.

Charles Taylor, Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights

articles from the press
Articles from the Press
  • Bishop of Rochester’s warning and Telegraph editorial.
  • Human Rights and Justice - Roger Scruton.
  • `Fundamentalism and Human Rights.
  • Cleaning up in court: the flood of legal action set to engulf Britain.
  • Human rights - by Cardinal Basil Hume