Deciding on our human rights often turns out to be a controversial matter. But how often do we consider their source? Some would argue that it lies in the will of the people to decide. Others would claim that the source is utilitarian – thus they are rules which must be observed if society is to be settled and peaceful. But if we look at the UN Declaration of Human Rights we find another reason.
In the Preamble appears “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women…” And the first article reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The implication here is that human rights are derived from human nature, and exercised through the characteristics of our reason and free moral choice. In other words the Declaration is a Natural Law statement. How strange that such a group of nations, representing a miscellany of all religions and none, should explicitly share this view of the dignity of man and accept the imperatives which can be derived therefrom! But that was in 1948. I wonder whether the same would happen now.
I ask because I run a philosophy group. It consists of older people from different professions. One or two practise religion but most of them would describe themselves as agnostic. When I discussed the Declaration with them, they opted first for the “will of the people” cause. But they dropped that when I pointed out some lawfully elected regimes which had behaved disgracefully during the 20th century. They then settled on the utilitarian reason. At no point, despite my questions, did they accept that human dignity might be a possible answer.
I think I can understand why – they are a wily lot. Apportioning inherent dignity to people raises some awkward questions if you want to leave God out of things. The secular belief that we are no more than an outcome of evolved matter is simply inconsistent with dignity: the material on its own has no inherent worth.
It seems clear to me that reason – which transcends the material – and free will – which is incompatible with a universe whose outcomes are determined only by cause and effect – are the essence of human beings, and the only basis which can support human rights.
Am I barmy to think this? And, if not, what questions should I have put to the group, or what points should I have made to them if I wanted to change their minds?
Quentin says: I have some reasonably good news about our fellow contributor, St Joseph. She has been undergoing a lengthy course of chemotherapy, and more to come. She is hoping that her eventual scan will show that her tumour is reduced. She describes herself as “I feel good – no pain just very washed out at times.” She is very grateful for our prayers, and thinks of us all.