Genealogy of Rights

In The Sacredness of the Person, Hans Joas offers an “affirmative genealogy” of the notion of human rights. He traces the historical origins of the concept not, in Nietzchean fashion, to debunk, but to validate. Isolating the origins of a set of cultural values or practices need not, he insists, lead us toward nihilistic skepticism. He’s right about that.

Joas doesn’t think either of the conventional genealogies works. One is secular, tracing the concept of human rights to the abandonment of religious underpinnings for social life in the eighteenth century; the other is religious, claiming that Christianity’s anthropology is the specific origin of human rights. The secular account fails on empirical grounds. Joas is skeptical of the religious story because he can’t see why it might have taken so long for Christian convictions to produce the notion of human rights: “Maturation across centuries is not a sociological category, and even if we switch from the listing of intellectual forerunners to the level of institutional traditions, where this thesis sounds more plausible, we must keep in mind that traditions do not perpetuate themselves but are sustained through the actions of individuals.”

Joas argues instead that “the sacredness of the person” is key to the development of human rights: “I propose that we understand the belief in human rights and universal human dignity as the result of a specific process of sacralization—a process in which every single human being has increasingly, and with ever-increasing motivational and sensitizing effects, been viewed as sacred, and this understanding has been institutionalized in law. The term ‘sacralization’ should not be understood as having an exclusively religious meaning. Secular content may also take on the qualities characteristic of sacrality; namely, subjective self-evidence and affective intensity. Sacredness may be ascribed to new content. It may migrate or be transferred; indeed, the entire system of sacralization that pertains within a culture may undergo revolution. The key idea of this book, then, is that the history of human rights is a history of sacralization—the history of the sacralization of the person.” He examines Weber, Durkheim, and other historically oriented sociologists to fill out his case.

I want to pause on his comment about “maturation across centuries.” He may be right that this doesn’t constitute a sociological category, but that’s just to the detriment of sociology. It’s definitely a theological category (“grow up into the fullness of Christ”), and as theology it is also historical. Perhaps, to make sense of what actually happens in history, we need categories that go beyond the sociological?

In any case, it’s clear that for Joas’s sociology determines theology rather than vice versa. He examines to supposedly Christian concepts—“the idea of the immortal soul of every human being as her or his sacred core, and the notion of the life of the individual as a gift that incurs obligations, which limit our right to self-determination”—that are often said to be the Christian foundation of human rights. He doesn’t think they are “progenitors” of human rights. Instead, he explains “how, in the name of human rights and on contemporary intellectual premises in general, we might lend new credibility to these two elements.” 

He seems to forget that “letting yourself be blown by every trending wind” isn’t a theological category.

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