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

  • Wes

    Liberal political philosophy is, typically, based on notions of fairness. If a religious conservative group were the minority in a country in which another majority conservative religious group of a different stripe was in power (e.g. think conservative Christians in a Muslim nation), a religious conservative group of the first stripe can agree that a government run without deference to a specific comprehensive doctrine is fairer.

    Another way to put it in terms of contemporary political philosophy is that, behind a veil of ignorance, conservative religious groups would agree that it is in their rational self-interest to agree to principles that exclude comprehensive doctrines as the foundation of social principles. This doesn't seem to "gore their oxes" to me.

  • Taner Edis

    Wes, if you're bringing up the veil of ignorance, surely you also know of the reasons conservative religious groups find that procedure unacceptable.

    I don't blame them. I don't go with the Rawlsian approach myself.

  • Wes


    Yes, I've read some of the objections of conservative religious groups to the Rawlsian approach, but I've not read any that I believe adequately accounts for situations like I describe above (i.e. a religious group finds itself a minority in a country fun by those of another religious group in the majority). In those situations, it seems to be in one's rational self-interest to set aside all comprehensive doctrines in order to agree to public principles.

    Maybe you have a particular objection in mind of which I am unaware.

  • Taner Edis

    Wes, conservative religious groups can be very cognizant of the advantages a liberal political order can present for a minority. Conservative Muslim groups among Muslim immigrants to Western countries are often a good example.

    But that's a pragmatic stance. It's not the same as considering a liberal social order legitimate. Usually they consider it better than outright oppression, but they are also keenly aware that it is far from their ideal, and that it disadvantages their communities in certain respects.

  • Charles Sullivan

    There are many shared values among humans, but many of our beliefs may not be shared.

    For example, Hindus believe it is wrong to eat cows, whereas most non-Hindus do not.

    But why is this so? If the Hindus believe that a cow could be one's dead grandmother reincarnated, then we can understand it to a degree.

    We all believe that it's wrong to kill grandma, we just disagree with the Hindus about whether a cow could be grandma.

    I think a similar analysis can apply to a lot of cases where we have similar values but different specific beliefs.

    This doesn't solve the problem you addressed, but it may shed a little light on it.

    I guess the question is whether the difference between a liberal conception our common interests and a conservative religion conception is based on a difference of values, or a difference in beliefs.

    Things are certainly more complicated than this, but I'm curious about what you make of this distinction, or if you think it's even relevant.

  • Taner Edis

    Charles Sullivan: "I guess the question is whether the difference between a liberal conception our common interests and a conservative religion conception is based on a difference of values, or a difference in beliefs."

    My guess would be both. Usually (and I'm thinking of examples such as disputes between liberal secularists and conservative Muslims), there is a tangle of both involved.

    Would you think of a disagreement about hell as a factual difference, or a difference of values? Since hell is supposed to be such a morally significant fact, maybe trying to emphasize one or the other (fact or value) would result in a misunderstanding of the conservative religious position.

  • Charles Sullivan

    Well, I think a disagreement about hell would be a factual disagreement (a difference in beliefs about the world) rather than a value difference.

    We all realize that it's not in our interest to experience great suffering, regardless of whether that takes place in this world or the next. In this sense I would say liberals and religious conservatives share the same values.

    But perhaps even if we agree on these shared values it won't get us very far in terms of consensus because the differences in beliefs (about the existence of hell) may make a difference in what actions we see as morally acceptable or reprehensible.

    There's no doubt that there are cases where ethical argument just comes to an end when it's between the religious and the non-religious.

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