Humanism and Human Rights

(Based on a talk for a European Humanist Federation conference in Athens, 17 May 2008)

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a lecture on May 1 at the London School of Economics.  He was looking for a foundation for human rights – quoting the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s concern that the language of human rights amounts to no more than assertion, he was seeking a basis for human rights that was more than simple declaration.

He elaborated a semi-theological argument based on the uniquely personal nature of the human body – an argument that need not detain us here – but he ended by asserting:

. . . the fact is that the question of foundations for the discourse of non-negotiable rights is not one that lends itself to simple resolution in secular terms . . .

I want to do two things in this talk.  Mainly, I will examine the secular basis for human rights, but then I want to look at some of the practical  implications for us as humanists of our commitment to freedom of religion or belief.

Let me start with the basis or foundation for human rights.  Human rights were of course preceded by legal rights.  The concept of rights seems to have arisen historically by a change of meaning of Latin ius from a disinterested concept of ‘what is right’ to the interest of someone who benefits in some way from what is right.

Hobbes and Rousseau saw rights as freedoms that attached to people in a mythical state of nature – before they formed communities – and that they surrendered in a social contract.  John Locke reversed this: he saw people as having rights as a fact of nature – natural rights – but he saw the community as an arrangement to better defend those rights – rights that carried with them a reciprocal duty to others.  He was the first to regard natural rights as  inalienable, being in his view based on our nature as God’s creatures.  Rights became an aspect of natural law, with more or less religious underpinning.

Thus in the US Declaration of Independence we read:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

and so on.

Tom Paine in his Rights of Man took a different line – equally based on natural law but a secular version of it. He asserted that men were not endowed with rights by any god or Creator but have them simply by virtue of being men, and he deplored ascribing them to any declaration or charter because that suggested that they could be repealed as easily as declared:

It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect – that of taking rights away . . . Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants . . .    [I]ndividuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, enter[ed] into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.

In Paine’s view, the sole purpose of the government is to protect the inalienable rights inherent to every human being.

I will not pursue further a historical account of the development of the concept of human rights. What was early established as a consensus was on these lines:
• that individuals had to consent to any political authority over them;
• that the primary function of government is to maintain & protect the natural rights of citizens; and
• hence that natural rights limit the freedom of government.

But there is also an inherent difficulty in understanding the concept of rights (outside a legal context). What does it mean to say “I have a right to life” as a bandit attacks me? Do we expect the answer “Oh yes – I’d forgotten. Run away then!”?

What sort of language is talk of rights? It is variously the language of political theory or of moral philosophy or of theology.

This may seem problematic.

Christians may be persuaded by a theological argument – but followers of other religions will not, nor will we. Political theory is a weak basis for any grand prescription. And moral philosophers may be satisfied with their own accounts but there are as many different moral philosophies as there are moral philosophers, each finding flaws in the others!

For example, one idea is that morality is inherent in the way things are and that we can discover what is right and wrong by intuition; others say (like Kant) that we can discover the universal moral laws by the use of reason, others that morals depend on a social contract, others that morals are a matter of virtue or character – a matter of intentions, not consequences; others (the absolute opposite) that morality is based on consequences, as with utilitarianism, and so on.

Many great minds have struggled with the problem over thousands of years, and they have provided wonderful insights but have not come up with a definitive answer.

Does it matter? Not really: all this time people have continued to live decent lives and to have some idea of what they mean by right and wrong, even when they act wrongly.

And so it is with human rights. There is no definitive syllogism leading to a conclusion that “therefore all humans have these rights”. There is no conclusive ‘knock-down’ argument that is inescapably persuasive to everyone. In other words, sadly for the Archbishop and for Alasdair McIntyre, it does all come down to assertion or proclamation – and aspiration.

The language of human rights is the language not of reason and logic but of struggle and politics.

This should be evident from even a brief look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose 60th anniversary we are celebrating this year. Look at the range of rights it deals with – they fall into a hierarchy from the most fundamental to the still controversial:

1 to life itself and freedom from murder or assault – the right to the material essentials of life & minimum health
2 to freedom – of thought, expression, belief, association, movement &c
3 to property
4 to democratic rights, nationality
5 to rule of law, justice, fair trial, freedom from arbitrary arrest
6 to social and economic and cultural goods – education, work, leisure etc.

This range of types of right raises problems for any view that they are based on natural law or are inherent in our existence as human. Is it “self-evident” that every individual has a “right” to work and leisure, to education and social security? What sort of “right” do third world citizens have to goods that simply cannot be provided? Do people have different rights according to where they live?

Human rights derive for some from respect for human agency and autonomy – a Kantian view. And they are plainly rights held by virtue of being human.
But they are not rights that adhere to us in a state of nature. In a state of nature – a fictional concept, of course – we may have unlimited freedom but we have no rights.

Rights are essentially a social arrangement. They start with rules and law imposed by those who have the power. But such rules are often arbitrary or selfish and risk offending people’s inherent sense of fair play, and those in power will soften the rules rather than risk revolt and loss of power.
Out of this, encouraged by moral reasoning, develops the language of rights – but the language of rights is about describing and seeking to change social relations.

It is the language of aspiration.

The idea of human rights appears only when society has reached a certain stage of progress – when there is sufficient stability and devolution of power for a focus on the individual to be possible.

And the idea of human rights is not without its critics or its difficulties.

Human rights are seen by some as bourgeois. Those concerned with big political movements – class struggles, national liberation movements and so on – are often willing to accept that individuals may become casualties, their freedoms may be curtailed or denied. They may see concentration on human rights as not just liberal but effete.

And certainly there is nothing in human rights to protect us against the tragedy of the commons – the sub-optimal or even disastrous result of each individual acting in logical pursuit of his or her own best interests.
Not only that, but the rights as formulated can clash with each other. Notoriously, freedom of religion often clashes with the rights of women or of the LGBT community.

So we are left with a deeply valued idea of human rights that
(a) do not address the big political picture
(b) clash with each other and
(c) are underpinned by no compelling argument.

So are we back with Alasdair McIntyre as quoted (from his After Virtue) by the Archbishop of Canterbury?‘

Rights which are alleged to belong to human beings as such and which are cited as a reason for holding that people ought not to be interfered with in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness’ are a fiction: ‘there are’, he says, ‘no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.’  Or with Jeremy Bentham who talked of human rights as “nonsense on stilts”?

I think not.  Indeed, to think that there might have been a definitive argument that would persuade all-comers to agree is actually quite unreasonable. For although for us as humanists human rights are fundamental – a basic part of our lifestance – it would be incompatible with our basic beliefs as humanists to expect that human rights were the locus for some privileged manner of discourse.

Let us look for a moment at our humanist beliefs.

For us as humanists everything follows logically from the way we look at the world. We observe and make sense of the world by using evidence and reasoning. We learn to observe ourselves and to understand the limitations of our methods – but we also observe that all other approaches are far inferior.

So we start pragmatically from a naturalistic outlook, rejecting the alternative of transcendental hypotheses of some kind. We observe that as humans we are by nature endowed with a moral sense and we reason that this derives from our evolutionary history as social animals – that is, that, once we as humans became self-aware and acquired language and the power of abstract thought, we adapted what started as rules or patterns of behaviour conducive to the survival of the social group into precepts of behaviour that took on a moral nature and were often backed by religious sanctions.

We also believe on all the evidence that this is our only life. So the combination of this and our moral nature leads us to believe not just that we should make life as good as possible for ourselves, but because of our evolved morality and instinct for social cooperation, that we should make it good for others also. And pragmatically we observe that this is the best way in general to make life good for ourselves too.

We also observe that, whatever the actual power structure around us, there are no grounds in nature for accepting any particular external authority, natural let alone supernatural, but that we can live best if in our societies we cooperate in self-government. We observe that individuals have very different beliefs & views and hence have devised the idea of plural democracy – not just unfettered majority rule, which would promote conflict and be unstable, but collaborative decision-making limited by respect for those vital interests of others that we recognise should be infringed only with reluctance or not at all.

What are those vital interests of others – and of ourselves – that we try to protect?

Some are procedural – to do with freedom – and some are substantive – to do with well-being. They are about having the ability and conditions to achieve one’s purposes. They started as pragmatic limitations on the unfettered exercise of power and have ended relatively recently by being elevated to the level of “human rights”.

Is this a reductive account? In one sense it is – but it also is magnificent. It is a structure of thought and behaviour that we human beings – we extraordinarily evolved cousins of the apes – have created for ourselves for our own well-being and thriving. So we can happily accept that the language of human rights is that of assertion, of declaration, of aspiration. We can accept that human rights as a human creation are subject to revision and development.

Others who do not share our lifestance will not be attracted by this sort of argument. They will look for some transcendent basis – and they will talk (as with morality) of values immanent in the universe, or of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of mankind, looking for some secure foundation but only finding argument and disagreement.

So what is wrong with human rights being declaratory? aspirational? persuasive?  Nothing , I think. Our assertion of human rights sets standards of behaviour for governments. They have effect through
(a) setting an international agenda,
(b) raising the ambitions of governments,
(c) informing the demands of the people,
and if necessary (d) arraigning governments at bar of world opinion.

So mere talk has its value.

But in practice we go further. We have made many human rights a matter of treaties in which states commit themselves to upholding them, which lends force to protests when they breach their self-imposed standards. And in some places we have made them justiciable – a matter of law, as with the European Convention on Human Rights.

This may reduce them to courtroom argument but it does make them enforceable by the individual by recourse, ultimately, to the international European Court of Human Rights. In some cases we can use the courts – or the threat of the courts – to enforce our own rights.

For example, consider Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This guarantees freedom of religion or belief – but that freedom is not limited to freedom to believe: it includes freedom to reject belief. Article 9 is (as was stated by the European Court of Human Rights in a 1994 case) not just valuable for the religious but is also “a precious asset for atheists, sceptics and the unconcerned.” – Kokkinakis v Greece: (1994) 17 EHRR 397, para 31.

And note that little word ‘or’ – religion or belief. Belief is differentiated from religion. Of course, beliefs may be religious, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights do not limit themselves to religious beliefs. Our humanist beliefs are equally protected – our beliefs
• in a naturalistic interpretation of the universe
• in the natural origins of morality
• in the virtues of cooperation and mutual caring
• in the right of each of us to determine the meaning she or he will find in life.

These are positive, attractive beliefs that we should acknowledge and make much of: we should not let the religious portray us as negative, lacking a dimension in life, unable to provide meaning beyond consumerism or support morality beyond a fading inheritance from Christianity. Those frequent accusations are libellous and must be rebutted.

We must not just deny that we have a religious faith – we must assert and defend our positive Humanist beliefs and values.

Indeed, we are not talking about two things here – religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs. There is a single spectrum, ranging from the most dogmatic and fundamentalist cults through to the liberal churches and a wide range of semi-religious people more concerned with enquiry than assertion, or with practice and culture rather than belief – people who call themselves religious but without a belief in God – and on to the softer fringes of agnosticism and Humanism and eventually to the hardline atheists who do not acknowledge the legitimacy of asking ‘ultimate questions’ about life and meaning, even in secular terms.

And Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights extends protection from freedom to hold or reject beliefs to protection from discrimination based on religion or belief in the enjoyment of our rights, providing us with an immensely powerful legal route to force Governments to respect our rights just as they have to respect those of the religious.

Lastly I want to look at some of the practical implications of human rights today.

First, the need to be scrupulous in respecting other people’s rights – especially religious people’s rights. We hear increasingly of so-called Christianophobia, of alleged persecution – not perhaps being thrown to the lions in a literal sense but “excluded from the public forum”.

I can quote most easily from UK sources. The Anglican Archbishop of Wales in his Christmas message a few months ago said: “A new phenomenon has arisen in our country however, what can be called atheistic fundamentalism.”  The Anglican Bishop of Durham, in a sermon about a current Bill to set rules for research involving human embryos, criticised the Government for “pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby. . . This secular utopianism is based on a belief . . . that we have the right to kill unborn children and surplus old people…”  You will know of many similar allegations in your own countries.

What is happening, I am sure, is that the established churches are feeling under increasing pressure. They are losing their congregations – either to Pentecostalist-type fervour or to atheism or more likely to apathy. They need to find a reason for this that they can live with, and they find it in what they choose to see as unfair criticism by secularists and by the so-called New Atheists – Hitchens, Dawkins, Dunnett and others.

Almost all their complaints are exaggerated nonsense. But we need to be careful that we do not offer any genuine cause for complaint against us, or we will never hear the last of it. We must recognise that the religious have human rights too.

Now it sounds silly to state that. But while I am sure noone would want to deny believers their right to believe, there is in Article 9 a second part that deals with the freedom to manifest beliefs. Manifesting is all the sorts of public behaviour that the beliefs require or lead to – preaching, worshipping, observing festivals, wearing particular forms of dress and so on. It is a conditional right – but the conditions under which it can be limited are narrow: they relate to  the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

So when we consider bans on religious dress at school or elsewhere, we need to think hard about the question “what harm are we trying to remedy? does it meet the criterion of endangering public safety, or public order, health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others?”

When employees ask for concessions at work related to their religion, we need to look at their requests in terms of human rights. If we are tempted to reject their case, we must ask ourselves if this amounts only to a payback for the oppression we or people like us have suffered in the past, because that is not good enough.

And we must recognise that when we assert our rights, sometimes there may be a genuine clash of rights. We may be fervent about the rights of women or gays, but if freedom of religion is to mean anything at all it must mean that religious rights must be conscientiously weighed against those of others whose rights may be affected. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and see how it seems from their point of view.

Consider the matter of schools. Now, we may be indignant at the treatment we receive or have received in the past. An Anglican priest in the UK recently denounced schools teaching about religions as “atheism by decree”. And the Roman Catholic bishop of Lancaster, in an instruction to Catholic schools, wrote; “It is not to be expected that a school or college library would stock non-fiction or fiction that contains polemic against the Catholic faith [or] religion in general.”

Now, we may – or may not – prefer to bring up our children to make up their own minds when they reach an age to do so. But parents do have the right to bring up their children as Christians or Muslims or whatever, and Article 2 of the 1st protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights reads:

 In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

That does not mean that the state has to pay for such education – but it cannot discriminate between those it will pay for and those it won’t – paying for Christian schools and not for Muslim, for example.

More generally, the complaint from the churches is that we are trying to force them out of the public space. Now if we adopt a strong version of secularism – if we say that there should be total separation between the state and the church, religion and politics – we risk seeming to deny freedom of speech to at any rate church leaders as representatives of their institutions, in a way, that is, that we would not seek to silence trade unions or professional associations or learned societies.

Is that what we are doing? Of course, no such attempt would have the least chance of success, but is it what we intend? I suggest it is not, although I think some of us may have come close to saying something like it. It would not be healthy in a democracy to try to ban selected voices. And we have to allow that, however pernicious religious preaching may be at times, at other times the churches have led the field in championing the interests of the poor or in denouncing wars and in other valuable causes.

So what are we saying?

Not that the churches should trample over our rights with their demands and threats – as when the Roman Catholic church threatens Members of Parliament who do not obey the Catholic line on legislation touching matters of Catholic doctrine and commands their Catholic constituents not to vote for them, or when the Vatican threatened to and then did drop its backing of Amnesty International over its very mild policy on abortion after rape, or when Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor demands that the BBC should not be impartial but biassed in favour of Christianity.

What we are saying is, rather, this: that in our communities, in public affairs, everyone and every organisation is entitled to express their views, but questions must settled on the merits of the argument – and religious arguments are often expressed in terms that are incomprehensible to those with no or other beliefs.

So if our bishops argue for a general law – for example, against voluntary euthanasia – on the basis of some religious belief, they should be ignored in that public debate. They can address their followers in those terms, but other people have no need to give their arguments any weight. The churches need to enter public debate with contributions framed in language and concepts that can be generally understood.

Nor are the churches due any more respect than they earn by the depth of their thinking and experience. For example, they may through their pioneering work with hospices have something to add to the euthanasia debate that is relevant and is not based simply on religion.

And in the crude measure of numbers of followers – that is, in nakedly electoral consideration by politicians – scepticism is due about whether the claimed number of followers are actually following.

So we are happy to see Christian contributors is the public forum if they contribute from relevant experience, with comprehensible arguments, offered on their merits & not on the basis of demanding obedience and/or as representing a substantial body of people & not just a long list of baptisms.

The religious are welcome in the public arena, in other words, on equal terms with everyone else and their institutions on equal terms with other organisations, if they accept being judged on their merits and do not expect privilege and deference.

Sadly that is not the basis on which many religious bodies are currently trying to contribute to our debates. We know how the churches plotted and schemed behind the scenes for the special privileges in the European Union that they now have. And in this 60th anniversary year of the UDHR the foundations of human rights are sadly under attack not just in the form of abuses by those in power but by insidious undermining with deceptive arguments calling the whole concept of human rights into question.

1. In Britain the Archbishop of Canterbury has called for sharia law to be recognised alongside (or perhaps under and within) the civil law of the land – an ill-judged speech that was more concerned with finding a defence for his own church’s anomalous privileges (seats in Parliament and so on) than with advancing Islam.

2. More importantly, the Holy See last year aligned itself with the Islamists at the annual OSCE human rights meeting, demanding protection for religious beliefs – not religious believers. In effect they were seeking group rights – rights, that is, for the leaders of religious communities to dictate to their members and to deny them their individual Human Rights.

3. Most importantly still, on the international stage, largely unnoticed by the general public, the UN Human Rights Council, like its predecessor the Human Rights Commission, has fallen under the sway of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with its Declaration of Islamic Rights that subordinates all rights to Islamic religious duties.  As president of the European Humanist Federation I have written to President Barroso on this issue, suggesting that the EU consider quitting the Human Rights Council so as to reveal it starkly as a sham and setting up a genuine human rights body in its place.

So the 60th anniversary of the Declaration sees human rights under siege. It must be a high priority for us to protect human rights from their enemies – not just of course the conservative religious lobby (and the liberal religious are our staunch allies in this fight) but also the governmental and other authorities for whom human rights are an infringement of their power to rule as they wish regardless of the rights and interests of unfortunate individuals.

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