Two Cheers for Human Rights?

human rightsThe modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. – G.K. Chesterton: “Orthodoxy”

I read an article about a month ago called “Two Cheers for Human Rights“. It was published on 27th December so I was probably still too full of turkey and Christmas Pud to really digest it properly (did you see what I did there?!) Anyway, the article makes interesting reading – especially if you’re a fan of human rights (and who isn’t in the UK?)

I thought it might be worth quoting from the article. The writer, John Gray, is an atheist (as far as I can tell) but he has some worthwhile observations about the nature of human rights.

Firstly, he says:

Nowadays many believers in rights are indifferent or hostile to religion. The fact remains that human rights originated in monotheism – the belief that there’s only one God, who creates a single moral law for all human beings. And there’s a sense in which human rights still depend on some sort of religious commitment. For unless these rights are grounded in something beyond the human world, they can only be a human invention [my emphasis].

Human rights originated in monotheism – although you wouldn’t believe it by reading the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No mention of God at all. It’s funny how in the EU we make so much of ‘rights’ – it is the air that we breathe – and yet at no point do we ever consider what gives people rights in the first place. There is simply an assumption that certain things are good, without explaining why. To my mind that is doing a huge disservice to the Christian ethos which gave so much to Europe throughout much of history.

Many people seem to think that once tyranny is demolished human rights will emerge naturally from the rubble. But rights are artefacts of civilisation, not a natural human condition. If they protect us against the state, they are also created and enforced by states. Where the state is weak or collapsed, as in many parts of the world today, human rights simply don’t exist.

…  Rights are like money and the law – they only exist if enough people accept that they exist. But what if large sections of the population, or those that are the most ruthless in imposing their values, don’t accept them? What if many people don’t want human rights?

I find this link between ‘rights’ and the nation state interesting. It goes back to the question of authority? Where does the authority of ‘rights’ come from? If it derives from the state, then the state can ultimately give and take away rights. Or, it’s up to the state to enforce rights. Alternatively, if people genuinely don’t want human rights – is it right for the state to enforce them? Here Gray notes the similarity between evangelical Christians and rights advocates – the answer to the question of rights involves ‘evangelising’ until everyone agrees with you!

The ideal of a world ruled by rights distracts us from an unalterable reality – we’ll always be mired in dangerous and only partly soluble conflicts. Human rights can’t get round the fact that human values are at odds with one another [my emphasis]. The freedom from conflict that many people seek in rights is just an illusion.

One of the problems with rights, as I see it, is that rights will always be somewhat in conflict. The right to freedom of religion (and so on) will always conflict at some point with someone else’s right to something else. Case in point – the B&B Owners whose right to run a business in their own way conflicted with another right to equality. I’m not making a comment as to whether the courts made the right call in that judgement, I merely make the point that some kind of judgement call is necessary when setting off one right against another.

This is where I think that quote from Chesterton which I started with comes in. The source of rights, the thing which gives them authority, I believe is the Christian God. Equality, tolerance, freedom, and so on – I think these are all Christian values, or descended from them. However, within the Christian framework they do sit in relation to one another. The problem is, once you take away the framework and assign all of them to be rights in their own, um, right – you’re left with each right competing with each of the others. It is, to use a sporting analogy, “a team of individuals”. There is nothing to set one in relation to another.

Isaiah Berlin argued that human values were incommensurable, that is to say, ultimately incomparable. There is no way that you can set one value against another, whatever you end up with is basically random. Values become absolutized. I think that’s a very perceptive remark: absolute values are impossible to compare with one another – how can you compare ‘equality’ with ‘freedom’, for example? Unless you have some kind of overarching system which puts them in place any such talk is arbitrary.

What I think has happened in our talk of rights at the moment is that ‘equality’ has become the absolute value: everything must be ‘equal’. Hence, for example, same-sex marriage was argued for using the phrase ‘equal marriage’ (although I don’t think SSM is actually ‘equal’, but we’ve been there before). I don’t know much about American life and politics, but I wonder whether freedom is a similarly absolutised value there.

All this makes me wonder if the whole concept of rights is going to become more problematic in the future, when rights do collide with each other. Are we setting ourselves up for a problem?


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