Why Be Reasonable?
In search of a secular foundation for human rights.
The source: “The Morality of Human Rights: A Problem for Nonbelievers?” by Michael J. Perry, in Commonweal, July 14, 2006.
Though the 20th century witnessed some of the worst instances of man’s inhumanity to man, it also saw the birth of the human rights movement. As German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has noted, the language of human rights is now the only one “in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression, and persecution.” But on what authority does that language rest? If human rights, as some have suggested, have their foundation only in religious teachings, how long, as the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz asked, “can they stay afloat if the bottom is taken out?”
According to Michael J. Perry, a professor of law at Emory University, the three documents that make up what is informally called the International Bill of Rights—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966)—are “famously silent” on the question of why we should live our lives in a way that respects human dignity. Perry says that “a number of contemporary thinkers have tried to provide a nonreligious ground for the morality of human rights,” notably Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum, and John Finnis, but falter at the point of justification. Finnis, a Catholic thinker who nevertheless looks for a nonreligious basis of morality, is reduced to arguing that it is “unreasonable for those who value their own well-being to intentionally harm the well-being of other human beings,” says Perry. Leaving aside the fact that some people don’t care about being reasonable, it’s easy to imagine circumstances in which one’s self or one’s child were threatened and the only recourse was to harm another person.
In a 1993 address to the World Conference on Human Rights, U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher made the case for human rights by arguing that “states with the worst human-rights records tend also to be the world’s aggressors,” and sources of instability. True, says Perry, but self-interest isn’t enough to motivate the United States or other powers to promote strongly what one scholar calls “the human rights of foreigners.”
Philosopher Richard Rorty believes that the whole quest for a secular justification is misguided. If Westerners are “trying to get everyone to be more like us,” says Rorty, “it would be better to say: Here is what we in the West look like as a result of ceasing to hold slaves, beginning to educate women, separating church and state, and so on.” In other words, lead by example.
But Perry believes that such “pragmatism gives you nothing to fall back on, no recourse and no solace, if you fail to swing the deal.” In the face of monumental horrors such as Auschwitz, the world cannot afford simply to appeal to the better nature of evildoers, waiting for them to adopt good behavior.
Perry appreciates the ability of nonbelievers to carry on with “the important work of ‘changing the world,’” yet he questions how long secular societies can sustain their “bedrock conviction” that “the Other possesses inherent dignity and truly is inviolable.”