Without faith in the Creator, human rights are merely a matter of aspiration or prescription. We must acknowledge the sacred to safeguard principles of universal morality. Written by Rowan Williams
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is unquestionably a landmark in the history of moral consciousness, one of the factors that have consistently given hope and purpose to political life throughout the world since it first saw the light of day in 1948. It has offered a global benchmark for identifying injustices to those who have never been able to make their voices heard, and it has been an energizing force in the witness of more than one community of faith in their struggle against arbitrary oppression and for the protection of the vulnerable. Yet the language of human rights has, surprisingly, become more rather than less problematic in
Questions about human rights have begun to give anxiety to some religious communities who feel that alien cultural standards are somehow being imposed – particularly in regard to inherited views of marriage and family. We face the worrying prospect of a gap opening up between a discourse of rights increasingly conceived as a universal legal “code” and the specific moral and religious intuitions of actual diverse communities.
The “universal” aspect of rights is a central element. What makes the gap between religion and the discourse of rights worrying is that the language of the Universal Declaration is unthinkable without the kind of moral universalism that religious ethics safeguards. The presupposition of the Declaration is that there is a level of respect owed to human beings irrespective of their nationality, status, gender, age or achievement. They have a status simply as members of the human race; so that this language takes for granted that there are some things that remain true about the nature or character of human beings whatever particular circumstances prevail and whatever any specific political settlement may claim. While this is not, as a matter of fact, a set of convictions held uniquely by religious people, religious people will argue that they alone have a secure “doctrinal” basis for believing it, because they hold that every human subject is related to God independently of their relation to other subjects or to earthly political and social systems.
From one point of view, therefore, human rights has to do with the individual person, establishing the status of the person as something independent of any society; from another, it is a doctrine deeply opposed to “individualism”, since it locates this status of the person within a scheme that (logically) requires any person to acknowledge the same status in every other person, near or far, like or unlike.
Every individual’s account of their own needs or desires has to be thought about and negotiated in the context of this mutual recognition, this assumption of a basic empathy between persons living out the same human condition. Take away this moral underpinning, and language about human rights can become either a purely aspirational matter or something that is simply prescribed by authority. If it is the former, it is hard to see why legal systems should be expected to enshrine such recognitions.
If it is the latter, its force depends on the will of some actual legal authority to enforce it; the legitimacy of such an authority would have to be established; and there would be no in-built guarantee that the unconditionality of the rights in question would always be honored. The risk would be that “human rights” would be seen as a set of entitlements specified by a particular political authority, and thus vulnerable to being redefined according to that authority’s convenience and preference and circumstances. So it is important for the language of rights not to lose its anchorage in a universalist religious ethic – and just as important for religious believers not to back away from the territory and treat rights language as an essentially secular matter, potentially at odds with the morality and spirituality of believers.
The language of human rights becomes manifestly confused and artificial when divorced from our thinking about belonging, recognition, dignity and so on. It is vulnerable to being seen as a culture in itself – usually an alien culture, pressing the imperatives of universal equality over all local custom and affinity, all specific ways of making sense of our world. But what is it that grounds the moral vision that belongs with these things – belonging, recognition, dignity?
The truth is that mutual recognition is a fragile thing: social exclusion and political oppression begin when the imperative to care only for those who appear instantly and obviously like us takes over; and it recurs constantly in human history. What Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” translates into political terms when near neighbors sharing territory and often even language are driven toward mutual hostility by wider circumstances – food or water shortages, demographic projections, the suspicion of the other that is intensified at times of general social disintegration. The effects are horribly familiar: at worst, genocide, at the very least, the enshrining of massive discrimination.
To acknowledge the dignity of another person is in effect to admit that there is something about them that is, so to speak, beyond me: something to which my individual purposes, preferences, fears or hopes are irrelevant. The other is involved with more than me – or indeed, more than people that I think are just like me. Mutual respect in a society, paradoxically, means both the recognition of another as mattering in the same way that I do, sharing the same human condition, and the recognition that this entails their not being at my disposal, recognizing their independence, their distance from me.
What makes this theological principle so significant for “human rights” is that this nest of relationships means that we cannot separate any human individual from a “morally charged” environment, rooted first and foremost in relation with the Creator. Their life, and the lives of groups of such persons, are of significance in the eyes of God; what I recognize in recognizing the dignity of the other is that they have a standing before God, which is, of its nature, invulnerable to the success or failure of any other relationship or any situation in the contingent world.
For human rights to be more than an artificially constructed series of conventions, embodied in a set of claims, there has to be some global account of what human dignity means and how it is grounded. It cannot be left dependent on the decision of individuals or societies to act in this way: that would turn it into a particular bundle of cultural options among others – inviting the skeptical response that it is just what happens to suit the current global hegemonies. It has to establish itself as a vision that makes sense of the practice of law within and between societies – something that provides a general template for looking critically at the claims of any particular society to be equitable and inclusive, not something that just represents the preferences of the powerful.
A credible, sustainable doctrine of human rights must therefore be both modest and insistently ambitious. It must be modest in seeing itself as the legal mopping-up of issues raised in the context of a broad-based struggle for social equity and consistency – the negative face of what appears positively as the capacity to work for justice in a spirit of mutual reverence; but it must be ambitious in insisting on the dignity of every minority and their consequent claim to protection, to be allowed to make their contribution, to have their voice made audible.
The mistakes sometimes made are to be ambitious in the wrong areas and modest in the wrong areas – to be ambitious for human rights as a universal program for what might be called affirmative action; to be modest about the uncompromisingly metaphysical or religious foundations that the discourse needs and about the “humane” education of the emotions that is involved. The implication is clear that we need a vocabulary of the sacred here, a sense almost of “blasphemy”.
It is this that religious doctrine offers to the institutions and dialects of “human rights”, and it is a vital contribution. It is essential that, in an age that is often simultaneously sentimental, utilitarian and impatient, we do not allow the language of rights to wander too far from its roots in an acknowledgement of the sacred. This means, on the one hand, that would-be secular accounts of rights need to hear the arguments against an excessively abstract model of clearly defined claims to be tried before an impartial or universal tribunal. On the other, it means a warning to religious bodies not to try to make anxieties about their freedom to make religiously based ethical judgments an excuse for denying the unconditionality – and the self-critical imperatives – of the language of rights. Too much is at stake for the world’s well-being.
Lord Williams is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was Archbishop of Canterbury and Head of the Worldwide Anglican Communion from 2002-2012. His latest book is Faith in the Public Square, published by Bloomsbury/Continuum.