The Ethics of Human Rights (35): The Global Origins and Foundations of Human Rights

As Jacques Maritain put it when discussing the work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

the nations should and could reach practical agreement on basic principles of human rights without achieving a consensus on their foundations. (source)

In other words, different countries and cultures in the world can – and could in 1948 – agree on the list of human rights as long as nobody asks them why, because they all will have different reasons. Even if we take the charitable view and assume that no one accepts the UDHR and human rights in general for opportunistic reasons (because it reduces international pressure and confers legitimacy for example), we still have to say which substantial reasons different nations, cultures or religions tend to use in order to justify the importance and acceptance of human rights. These reason will emanate from their own culture, religious texts, traditions and history.

To some extent, different cultures can and do find their own foundations of human rights. In this sense, human rights aren’t simply western rights which are imposed on or adopted by the rest of the world. Of course, some of these foundations will be universal because some values are universal in the sense that they belong to all cultures in the world. Homicide, for example, is universally considered to be immoral. In other cases, however, different cultures will find different reasons to justify human rights. For example, the right to free speech in the West will be viewed as justified by the necessity of counterbalancing government power, whereas in other cultures it may be viewed as something to promote prosperity or religious tolerance.

There’s a nice German term for this: human rights are said to be Begründungsoffen, their justification or foundation is open in the sense that they can be justified by different religious, cultural or intellectual traditions. That’s a big advantage. One can legitimately object to making universal claims grounded on such particularized foundations as Christianity, dignity, likeness of God etc. Muslims probably won’t accept human rights if they can only be justified by the teachings of Jesus. They can be justified in this way, and that’s a powerful justification for Christians, but they can also be justified in other ways. There isn’t one ultimate justification for human rights. All different justifications have a particular plausibility for a certain group of human beings, whether this group is a culture, a nation or a religion.

These different cultural paths to human rights, based on different cultural and historical resources, should, however, not discourage dialogue. If you’re convinced that different cultures can find their own way to human rights, you may conclude that intercultural dialogue isn’t necessary. It is necessary, because it’s utopian to believe that each culture will find its way to an identical set of human rights or an identical understanding of human rights. The moralities of all or most cultures or groups will condemn homicide, torture and slavery, but will perhaps provide different exceptions. And other values, such as free speech or freedom of religion may not find an equally strong justification in all cultures. It’s unlikely that the entire set of human rights as present in the Universal Declaration will find a strong and broad justification in all cultures. There’s still a lot of disagreement between cultures on the foundation, importance and extent of things such as discrimination, religious freedom etc.

That is why human rights treaties and declarations don’t just codify a universal moral consensus but also try to steer different moralities into a certain common direction. They want to change norms rather than just describe them. In other words, they formulate a justified morality rather than an existing morality. They want to create a consensus, not describe one. Creating a consensus is impossible if all cultures limit themselves to independently and solipsistically justifying human rights using only their own resources. Intercultural dialogue is necessary, and this dialogue will not just be the exchange of descriptions of different moralities but will try to go beyond existing moralities and formulate a consensus that is wider that the sum of existing norms. It will contain a set of norms that are based not solely on existing moralities but also on justified reasons. Not just on the sum of different moral codes but on the agreements of people discussing about good reasons for human rights, reasons that go beyond “my God/prophet/history/tradition says …”. This dialogue will result in a wider global agreement on the importance of human rights, an agreement that can ultimately result in greater respect for human rights.

For the benefit of those who don’t even believe in the first step – finding the sources of human rights in different cultures – here’s a sample of those sources:

  • Christianity, and more generally the Abrahamic religions – so that includes Judaism and Islam – postulate the equality before God. All human beings are equal creatures of God, and created in the image of God. That notion bestows a sacredness to life that is not a function of national origin, status or affiliation. This is also apparent in the Judaic maxim that he who destroys one person has dealt a blow at the entire universe and he who saves one person has sustained the whole world.
  • Protestantism has developed the freedom of conscience, the right and responsibility of every man to worship as his conscience dictates, to make his own judgments, uninhibited by a religious hierarchy.
  • The Indian emperor Ashoka (third century BC) is famous for the Edicts of Ashoka, a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as on boulders and cave walls found throughout India. These are social and moral precepts in favor of tolerance and individual freedom, the doing of good deeds, respect for others, generosity, fairness in the exercise of justice, caution and tolerance in the application of sentences, and kindness to prisoners. His was the first welfare state, providing free education and hospitals.
  • Akbar, the great Mughal emperor in sixteenth century India, was famous for his religious tolerance.
  • The Qur’an claims that there can be no compulsion in religion. Islam also knows the principle of equality and generosity: “Not one of you (truly) believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (An-Nawawī’s Forty Hadith). Caliph Omar, in the 7th century: “Only decide on the basis of proof, be kind to the weak so that they can express themselves freely and without fear, deal on an equal footing with litigants by trying to reconcile them”.
  • Mencius, arguably the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself, has said: “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence”.
  • Lao Tzu, a central figure in Taoism, has said: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss”.
  • In the Mahabharata, one of the major Sanskrit and Hindu epics, it says: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you”.
  • Siddhartha (the birth name of the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha) has said: “What is displeasing and disagreeable to me is displeasing and disagreeable to others too. How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?” In Buddhism, the human perfection that is sometimes called “enlightenment” consists, in part, in discerning the transcendent truth that the Other is infinitely precious and in acting toward the Other in accord with that discernment, namely, with compassion (in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh).
  • Baha’i, a monotheistic religion founded in nineteenth-century Persia, claims: “Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for any one the things ye would not desire for yourselves. This is My best counsel unto you, did ye but observe it”.
  • Jainism is an ancient religion of India that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated”.

Granted, not all of these moral precepts can be immediately translated into recognizable human rights, and many precepts underlying human rights are difficult to find here. Yet, we can claim that all these cultural sources can be used, to some extent, to justify human rights.


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