Ari Kohen writes and edits the Tumblr blog Running Chicken. I consider that a prestigious title on its own, but Kohen also is the director of the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, which probably looks a bit more impressive on his c.v.
Anyway, when the sign on your office door says you direct a program on human rights, then people ask you questions about human rights, which happened to Kohen recently at Running Chicken.
“What are your feelings on the legitimacy of natural rights outside of a religious framework?” he was asked.
That’s a good question. It’s an important question. But it’s also kind of a trick question.
Kohen refers us to Emory law professor Michael Perry, who Kohen says argues that “all of the non-religious reasons” for human rights claims “either fall well short of providing a solid foundation for human rights or are unintelligible.”
[Perry] begins his argument with a quotation from R. H. Tawney, who argues that “The essence of all morality is this: to believe that every human being is of infinite importance, and therefore that no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another.” Clearly, here, we have an articulation of the basic idea of human rights, that the human person is inviolable. Tawney continues, however, by noting that,“to believe this it is necessary to believe in God.”
That last sentence is wrong. Tawney had it backwards there. It is incorrect — and illogical — to say that to believe that every human being is of infinite importance “it is necessary to believe in God.” Flip that around. To believe in God* it is necessary to believe that every human being is of infinite importance.
1. We mistakenly conclude that only a single, narrow religious/sectarian framework can provide a basis for a belief in human rights. And, therefore, we’re tempted to conclude that the only way to enforce universal commitment to such rights is universal conversion to this single, narrow religious/sectarian framework.**
2. We mistakenly conclude that every adherent of that religious/sectarian framework shares a commitment to human rights. And that — as a matter of objective, measurable fact — is not the case. Perry and Tawney are correct that it ought to be the case, but it ain’t. Not by a long shot.
And here’s another big problem: the whole project that Perry and Tawney are engaged in here doesn’t solve anything. It endorses a turtles-all-the-way-down answer, and that’s no answer at all. (I haven’t read Perry or Tawney, so I’m trusting here that Kohen is representing them accurately.) The thrust of that argument, as summarized by Kohen, is this:
On Perry’s reading, all of the non-religious reasons either fall well short of providing a solid foundation for human rights or are unintelligible.
So the turtle of human rights will plummet into the abyss unless it rests on the firm foundation of the turtle of religious belief. But then what is holding up the turtle of religious belief? Perry has postponed the question rather than answering it.
It doesn’t settle anything to say that human rights are a kind of mere assertion that cannot be proved conclusively, and therefore they must be grounded in a solid foundation of religious belief. That won’t do, because religious belief is also a kind of mere assertion that cannot be proved conclusively.
Whether or not it’s true that all the non-religious bases for human rights “fall well short of providing a solid foundation … or are unintelligible,” it seems to be the case that all the bases and “proofs” for religion itself “fall well short of providing a solid foundation … or are unintelligible.” I say this as a religious believer, as a person of faith — faith, not certainty and not proof.***
Kohen raises a similar objection. He puts it this way:
The argument I make in my book [In Defense of Human Rights: A Non-Religious Grounding in a Pluralistic World] is that in a pluralistic world – one in which most people do not hold the same religious worldview and many hold worldviews that would not fit within Perry’s definition of “religious” – a wider framework is needed, not a narrower one, to ground the idea of human rights.
This is, of course, quite different from showing that Perry is incorrect about religion providing a compelling grounding for human rights and I do not think he is. The language of rights can certainly find a solid foundation in many of the world’s great religious texts, especially – as Perry notes – the Christian Gospels. The language of love and respect for the other, as well as of the equality of persons, provides a strong justification for the belief that people ought to be treated with respect and compassion, and that they ought not be abused or otherwise harmed.
Let me underscore that second point: Perry is certainly right that religion can and ought to provide “a compelling grounding for human rights.” And the Christian Gospels do, indeed, offer “a solid foundation” and “a strong justification for the belief that people ought to be treated with respect and compassion, and that they ought not be abused or otherwise harmed.”
But that’s insufficient as a basis for universal human rights. It’s insufficient first because, as Kohen says, ours is a pluralistic world “in which most people do not hold the same religious worldview.”
And — more importantly and more troublingly — it’s insufficient for another reason Kohen doesn’t address: Most of those who purport to believe in the Christian Gospels do not see them as providing a “strong justification for the belief that people ought to be treated with respect and compassion, and that they ought not be abused or otherwise harmed.”
Christianity provides a compelling foundation for human rights for some Christians. But this sectarian basis for human rights cannot be compelling for those who do not belong to the Christian sect. And this sectarian basis for human rights, in practice and in fact, does not seem to be compelling for many of those who do belong to that sect.
So where does that leave us? If religious claims cannot provide a sufficiently compelling basis for human rights then where can we turn for a compelling foundation?
Well, Kohen argues for “Human Rights by Consensus.” The link there is to a post in which he summarizes the argument of his book. It’s good stuff, but it’s a bit thick for us laypeople (lots of Habermas and such).
I tend to fall back on my own religious belief system. The Christian belief that every human being is made in the image of God doesn’t only tell us that every human being is sacred. It also tells us that every human being has a conscience. And so I tend to make an appeal to what you might think of as a kind of maternal natural law framework. Like your mother used to say, “You know better than that.”
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* This is only true, of course, for certain particular values of the term “God.” R.H. Tawney was assuming that “God” must refer to the Christian God — the all-powerful, benevolent creator who called Abraham and Israel and who Christians believe is most fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. It is not necessary to believe in that God in order to believe in human rights, but if one does believe in that God, then it is necessary to believe in human rights.
It’s easy to imagine other values for the term “God” that would render everything Tawney is saying obviously wrong. Try this, for example:
The essence of all morality is this: to believe that every human being is of infinite importance, and therefore that no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another. … To believe this it is necessary to believe in Cthulhu.
** Per Kohen, Perry doesn’t argue for a single, particular sectarian religious basis, arguing instead that all religions tend to provide some basis of support for human rights: “This connection might or might not be as explicit in other belief systems as it is in Christianity, but Perry argues that it is assuredly present in each because the concept of a religious worldview has similar features across the many diverse world religions, despite some differences in expression and application.”
C.S. Lewis makes a similar argument, tracing what he calls the “Tao” of a common notion of justice and the Golden Rule that can be found at the heart of almost every disparate-seeming religion. One (of several) problem with this approach is, again, that in real, actual practice, a great many adherents of all those religions — perhaps even a plurality or a majority of them — do not seem much concerned with this Tao that Lewis insists they all believe. That suggests, perhaps, that Taoists — in Lewis’ sense — might be better understood as a kind of separate religion distinct from all their various nominal religions. This makes descriptive sense — a Sufi, an atheist, a Wiccan and a Presbyterian who are all deeply committed to the Golden Rule would seem to have far more in common with each other than with Sufis, atheists, Wiccans, Presbyterians, etc., who do not share such a commitment. But that suggests all sorts of implications that Lewis himself would have vehemently rejected. That is not at all what he was trying to suggest.
In a sense what Lewis was trying to do was the opposite of the project Perry and Tawney are undertaking. He was arguing that this “Tao” — this seemingly universal sense of justice and human rights, inferred the existence of God. Lewis had the turtles in a different order — instead of using the unproven assertion of religious belief to justify the unproven assertion of human rights he was using the unproven assertion of human rights to justify the unproven assertion of religious belief.
*** The writer of Hebrews describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Please note that “the conviction of things not seen” is not at all the same as the rejection of things that are seen. Faith is belief in that which has not been or which cannot be proved. Faith is not belief in that which has been or can be disproved. That’s not faith, that’s just dumb. Please also note that conviction and certainty are not identical. I’m not even sure if they’re compatible.