The Morality of Human Rights: A Nonreligious Ground?
Michael J. Perry
Emory University School of Law
Emory Law Journal, Vol. 54, pp. 97-150, 2005
In the midst of the countless grotesque inhumanities of the twentieth century, there is a heartening story: the emergence, in international law, of the morality of human rights. The morality of human rights is not new; in one or another version, the morality is very old. But the emergence of the morality in international law, in the period since the end of World War II, is a profoundly important development.
The International Bill of Rights, as it is informally known, consists of three documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The UDHR refers, in its preamble, to "the inherent dignity . . . of all members of the human family" and states, in Article 1, that "[a]ll members of the human family are born free and equal in dignity and rights . . . and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." The two covenants each refer, in their preambles, to "the inherent dignity . . . of all members of the human family" and to "the inherent dignity of the human person" - from which, the covenants insist, "the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family . . . derive." As the International Bill of Rights makes clear, then, the fundamental conviction at the heart of the morality of human rights is this: Each and every human being - each and every member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens - has inherent dignity; therefore, no one should deny that any human being has, or treat any human being as if she lacks, inherent dignity. To say that all human beings have inherent dignity is to say that one's dignity inheres in nothing more particular than one's being human; it does not inhere, for example, in one's "race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." According to the morality of human rights, because every human being has inherent dignity, no one should deny that any human being has, or treat any human being as if she lacks, inherent dignity. The conviction that every human being has inherent dignity - and that therefore no one should deny that any human being has, or treat any human being as if she lacks, inherent dignity - is so fundamental to the morality of human rights that when I say, in this Essay, the morality of human rights, I am referring to this conviction. An act (whether of commission or omission) or a policy violates a human being, according to the morality of human rights, if the rationale for the action or policy denies that the human being has, or treats her as if she lacks, inherent dignity. The morality of human rights holds that every human being has inherent dignity and is therefore inviolable: not to be violated, in the sense of "violate" just indicated.
The morality of human rights responds to what is perhaps the most basic of all moral questions: Which human beings are inviolable - all, some, or none? Moreover, the morality of human rights is, for many secular thinkers, problematic, because it is difficult - perhaps to the point of impossible - to align the morality of human rights with one of the secularist's reigning intellectual convictions, what Bernard Williams called Nietzsche's thought: "[T]here is, not only no God, but no metaphysical order of any kind . . . ."
In this Essay, I elaborate a religious ground for the morality of human rights. I then pursue the question whether there is a nonreligious (secular) ground for the morality of human rights. Along the way, I comment critically on the positions of John Finnis, Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum, and Richard Rorty.
This Essay, which is being published in a symposium issue of the Emory Law Journal, is part of a larger work in progress - a book - tentatively titled "Human Rights as Morality, Human Rights as Law: Toward a Theory of Human Rights."
Number of Pages in PDF File: 55
Date posted: March 14, 2005
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