Human rights and universal human interests

Much of liberal secular moral thought, including notions of human rights, seeks common ground between people who might have differing comprehensive moral or religious convictions. We want secular government, because we think that everyone’s interests would be best served by a government that does not play favorites. We want human rights to be respected, because everyone has an interest in not being tortured, not being jailed for political or religious convictions, and so forth.

I usually side with those who argue that such liberal conceptions are not all that neutral, since they disadvantage conservative, communal forms of religiosity. So let me air another concern: how much of human rights depend on a certain shared common picture of the world: a minimal set of facts about common human interests that can command agreement?

At first, it seems there are such common interests. We do want to avoid torture. But again, if we bring conservative, communal religion into the picture, things get more ambiguous. After all, we all also have an interest in avoiding the tortures of hell. And for many religious people, hell is such a calamity that avoiding it is an interest that overrides many worldly concerns. So it’s not clear to me that finding a noncontroversial list of basic human interests is that easy.

Once again, it seems to me that implicitly, liberal politics depends on some view about what is reasonable, and what it might be reasonable to disagree about, that puts conservative religiosity at a disadvantage. This doesn’t bother me, naturally enough. It’s not my ox that gets gored. But I wish we could defend this view without pretending neutrality—fully acknowledging that conservative religious oxes get gored, and that that’s how we prefer things.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University