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All the thinkers who laid the first foundations of human rights were not moralising in a vacuum.
On 3 July 1884, four English sailors on board a yacht, the Mignonette, encountered a terrible storm in the Atlantic Ocean. The yacht sank, leaving them stranded in a tiny wooden lifeboat. They had little food and no water.
By their eighth day adrift, they were desperate and made the fateful decision to kill the cabin boy, who was already sick from drinking seawater. For four more days, until they were finally rescued, the three surviving sailors fed on the boy’s body and blood.
When they returned to England and the story broke, it scandalised the nation and the world. The survivors were put on trial and charged with murder. One sailor turned state’s witness; the other two went to trial and freely confessed that they had killed and eaten their crewmate, claiming they had done so out of necessity.
If you were the judge in that trial, what would you do? After all, the story leads to two possible conclusions. The first is purely utilitarian: one person was killed, but three people survived. And the cabin boy, unlike the older sailors, had no dependents. His death left no grieving children.
I suspect very few people would agree with that option. Rather, I suspect most of us have a more visceral reaction: what those three sailors did was wrong — fundamentally wrong — because they violated the cabin boy’s rights, his dignity, his value.
Whether it’s a small crime against humanity — the murder of a cabin boy under desperate circumstances — or a major one — the Rwandan genocide, Stalin’s Russia, ISIS’s raping and murdering across the Middle East — most of us would have the same reaction: it is wrong, evil even, to violate the dignity of another human being. This powerful belief is enshrined in the words of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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 … All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
We’re passionate about human rights — we award Nobel Prizes to celebrate them — but there is a fairly basic question that is sometimes overlooked. These rights, this dignity, that human beings have, where is it located? What does it depend upon? However noble these words may sound, are they true?
THE CIRCLE OF RIGHTS
Imagine we draw a circle that represents the genomes of every living thing on planet earth; everything from amoeba to ants to aardvarks to lettuces to human beings is in there. Now, when we talk of human rights, what we are doing is drawing a smaller circle inside the larger circle and saying, “If you live in the smaller circle, you have special dignity that anything outside doesn’t”. But here’s the problem: what’s to stop the white supremacist drawing a smaller circle inside your circle and saying, “No, dignity and rights only belong to a subset of the human family”. Both of you have arbitrarily drawn circles, so why is one admirable and the other condemnable?
There are limited options here.
Perhaps we might say that rights exist because rights exist because rights exist. They just are. A few months ago, I debated one of the world’s leading secular human rights campaigners, Peter Tatchell, and he took this approach. He basically said rights exist because they exist. The problem is not merely that this approach is circular, but that the racist can use exactly the same argument. He can claim to be superior to other races and when we ask why, reply, “I am because I am”.
Okay, maybe we can find something special about human beings. Maybe it’s the fact we have speech, or consciousness, or moral agency, or folk music, or something. Something that makes us special. Well, this fails for a reason that atheist Sam Harris identifies.
“The problem is that whatever attribute we use to differentiate between humans and animals — intelligence, language use, moral sentiments, and so on — will equally differentiate between human beings themselves,” says Harris. “If people are more important to us than orangutans because they can articulate their interests, why aren’t more articulate people more important still? And what about those poor men and women with aphasia? It would seem that we have just excluded them from our moral community.”
Now the options are getting more limited. Maybe we can say that human rights and dignity exist because they matter to me; because they’re personally important to us. The problem, of course, is that when Martin Luther King cries, “I have a dream!” in his famous civil rights speech, how do we answer the person who says, “I’m glad you care; but personally I don’t”. Isn’t the point about rights and dignity that we should all care? We need more than mere personal preference.
The last option is to appeal to the state. Human rights exist because the government grants them. The problem here is that if rights are something the state gives, the state can equally take them away. In 1857, an African-American slave named Dred Scott sued his owner for his freedom. The US Supreme Court ruled against Scott, the justices stating that as a negro, he did not possess rights.
One hears a story like that, 150 years on, and winces with embarrassment at how our ancestors behaved. Yet all the justices did in that ruling was to draw a circle. It was simply a smaller circle than the one that most of us today would draw. But they are both arbitrary circles nonetheless.
So we have a real problem. We want to affirm human rights and dignity, yet how do we find a real basis for them? Reflecting on this challenge, Australian atheist philosopher, Raymond Gaita, wrote: “We may say that all human beings are inestimably precious … that they are owed unconditional respect, that they possess inalienable rights, and, of course, that they possess inalienable dignity. In my judgment these are ways of trying to say what we feel a need to say when we are estranged from the conceptual resources we need to say it. Be that as it may: each is problematic and contentious. Not one of them has the simple power of the religious ways of speaking.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS
How do we solve this problem? Many of us are committed to human rights but we can’t ground human rights? Perhaps history can help us here.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, and Spanish colonisation began. It was not long before reports of Spanish mistreatment of natives began to spread. In December 1511, on the island of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti), a Dominican friar named Antonio de Montesinos preached a sermon attacking Spanish policy towards the natives. Word reached the King of Spain, who, faced with horrific testimony about what was happening, convened theologians and jurists, tasking them with developing law to govern how Spanish colonists behaved.
Chief among those theologians and jurists was Father Francisco de Vitoria, considered by many “the father of international law”. Vitoria argued that all men were equally free and had the right to life, culture and property. Similar arguments were advanced by Bartolomé de Las Casas, who today is almost considered a saint throughout Latin America for what he did for the native people.
Finally, there was Francisco Suárez, whose 1610 essay On The Laws argued that human beings have rights because they have been endowed with them by their Creator. If human beings are God’s special creation, then that gives an excellent grounding for human rights. Suárez’s essay influenced John Locke, who in turn influenced Thomas Jefferson, who built this idea right into the heart of the US Constitution.
All these thinkers, who laid the first foundations of human rights, were not moralising in a vacuum. Rather they rooted their idea in the Christian belief that human beings bear the image of God, an idea unique to the Bible. It’s not an idea found in Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, or atheism — it’s a uniquely Judaeo-Christian idea.
One of the most influential French atheist philosophers writing today, Luc Ferry, agrees. In his book, A Brief History of Thought, Ferry notes that in the Greco-Roman world, it was taken as a given that some people were inferior to others: slaves, women, and children, for example. And thus Ferry writes: “In direct contradiction (to the Greek world), Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity — an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance. But this notion of equality did not come from nowhere.”
It came from the Christian worldview. It’s easy to forget the difference a worldview makes. One of my political heroes has long been William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner who was instrumental in helping see slavery abolished throughout the British Empire and also the Great Powers in the 19th century. But as Wilberforce’s biographer, William Hague, points out, we now take abolition for granted. We forget that every civilisation once had slavery: Europeans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Romans, Native Peoples; every civilisation that anthropologists know of. But something caused Wilberforce and the other abolitionists to think differently. And we forget what it was at our peril — because it’s not clear that the flower of human rights that grew from a Christian understanding of what it means to be human, can thrive when its roots are cut.
As one of the most influential atheists of all time, Friedrich Nietzsche, remarked: “The masses blink and say ‘We are all equal — Man is but man, before God we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.”
So, there is a stark choice: one can adopt a Christian understanding of humanity — that we have real value and real dignity because we are made in God’s image. Or you can reject that narrative, ignore the consequences, refuse to answer Nietzsche and pretend everything is okay.
RESPONSBILITY AND THE QUESTION OF ‘TELOS’
But one last thought. If human beings have dignity, why should that effect how we behave? Suppose that later this week, you are walking down your local high street when a passerby trips you up, pokes you in the eye, and steals your Starbucks coffee. “Hey!” you cry, “I have dignity! How dare you.” And they look at you and say, “So what?” How can you compel them to take your rights seriously?
You see, you can’t talk about rights without talking about responsibilities. What are our responsibilities towards a dignity-bearer, towards a fellow human, and why? That question opens a whole new can of worms. Is there a way we are supposed to be? Are some actions really wrong, and some really right? Listen to Harvard University law professor, Michael Sandel: “Debates about justice and rights are often, unavoidably, debates about purpose ... Despite our best efforts to make law neutral on such questions, it may not be possible to say what’s just without arguing about the nature of the good life.”
Sandel’s observation gets to the heart of what it means to be a human being. Are we creatures designed to seek justice, goodness, and fairness, or are we just a primate that got lucky in the evolutionary lottery and whose genes are directed purely at reproductive success? As atheist philosopher John Gray memorably put it: “Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth — and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind sees evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.”
Only if we’re made for something can we talk about things like responsibility, about a way we should live. After all, if I complain to you that my watch is a bad watch and you ask, “Why?” and I reply, “Because I tried to hammer in nails with it and it broke”, you’d gently point out that the purpose of a watch is to tell the time. It’s purpose that enables us to describe what a good watch looks like, what a watch ought to be.
So what about us? Are we just an accidental collocation of atoms; just tormented atoms in a bed of mud; genetic robots dancing to our DNA; a 1 per cent bit of pollution in the universe? Or any one of a thousand other misanthropic answers?
Or is the Christian story true? If it is, we were made with a purpose. We were made for something. We were made to discover God’s love, to love God in return, and to love our neighbour. If Christianity is true, love is the supreme ethic — that’s what it means to be human and it gives an oughtness to human life. Raymond Gaita, the Australian atheist I quoted earlier, recognised this. He writes that all talk of human rights and dignity, “(Is best) derived from the unashamedly anthropomorphic character of the claim that we are sacred because God loves us, his children”.
As a Christian, I believe that human rights can only be grounded if love is the supreme ethic, built into the fundamental fabric of the universe.
On 17 February 1941, the Polish Catholic monk, Maximilian Kolbe, was arrested by the German Gestapo for his human rights activism: sheltering Jews and other refugees. After his arrest, Kolbe was shipped to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. A year later, three prisoners escaped and to deter further escape attempts, the deputy camp commander picked 10 men at random to be locked in an underground bunker and starved to death. When one of the selected men, a friend of Kolbe’s, cried out, “My wife! My children!” Kolbe volunteered to take his place. He was thrown into a tiny bunker with the other nine men, and left to die of starvation and dehydration.
Why did Maximilian Kolbe do this? Because he believed that love was the supreme ethic and it compelled him to act. He was acting on the words of Jesus, who said: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
And Jesus, of course, demonstrated this himself. And that’s an important point to land on, because if we say “human rights only work if God exists” that raises the question: which God are we talking about?
In Jesus, we have a God who looks very different.
Human rights only have a basis if humans have value and dignity. Economic theory tells us that something’s value is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it: for instance, my iPad is valuable because I was willing to pay hundreds of pounds for the convenience of playing Candy Crush Saga while on the lavatory. Take my iPad to an island where there is no power, mobile phone signal, or Wi-Fi and it is probably worthless. So what is our value as human beings? Christianity says that God was willing to pay an incredible price for each one of us, the price of his son, Jesus Christ. That’s why we have value.
If the Christian story is true, humans have dignity, they have worth, and on that basis you can talk meaningfully about rights and about responsibilities. Otherwise what you have are noble sounding words, but ultimately just hot air.
Andy Bannister is the Director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity.
This article was published with permission of Solas magazine.