The notion of human rights has increasing political salience—but is it built on sturdy philosophical ground?by Nick Spencer / September 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
Shami Chakrabarti’s book On Liberty ostensibly retells her “personal and political journey” as Director of Liberty, the Human Rights organisation. For all its biographic framing, however, this Director’s cut is really the story of human rights and, in particular, their turbulent recent history in the UK. Although not what she calls a human rights “fundamentalist,” Chakrabarti is unyielding in her belief that adherence to legally-enshrined human rights makes for a fairer and more just society, a belief that her language sometimes tips towards the straightforwardly salvific. Human rights, she writes at one point, are what people in some parts of the world “dream” of. They “empower the vulnerable.” They “irritate and inconvenience the mighty.” One wonders if we are meant to hear faint echoes of the Magnificat, the song Mary sings at the Annunciation in Luke’s gospel. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, like God, “has brought down rulers from their thrones/ but has lifted up the humble.”
The idea that human rights are today’s religion is well-established, by fans and critics alike. Writing in The Guardian in 2010, solicitor and academic Anthony Julius claimed the “powerful human rights ‘movement’…is the new secular religion of our time.” According to human rights lawyer, Francesca Klug, rights and, in particular, their incarnation in Human Rights Act are our “Values for a Godless Age”. Writing in 2015 on what the future of European Civilisation has to teach America, Roger Scruton remarked that “Europe is rapidly jettisoning its Christian heritage and has found nothing to put in the place of it save the religion of ‘human rights.’” Christianity, according to historian Samuel Moyn, “is the global faith that many would like human rights to become.”
The problem with such analyses, acute as they often are, is that it forces us into a rigid either/or dichotomy, with human rights viewed as somehow in competition or incompatible with Christianity, on the basis of which some commentators write silly things like “for human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second to them.” (from the Guardian in 2013) Such sweeping statements ignore the fact that religious rights are human rights, both legally and philosophically; that there is no algorithm to judge between which human rights take precedence when they appear to conflict; or that there is no (and could never be any) pre-ordained set of priorities that established a permanent and inflexible hierarchy between different human rights, as to do so would be to subordinate some rights to secondary status in such a way as effectively to devalue them entirely. The uncomfortable reality is that Christianity and human rights are far more closely related than their respective critics imagine. An even more uncomfortable one is that the latter may need the former to survive.