THE PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN RIGHTS

Written by Vladimir Moss

THE PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN RIGHTS

 

    A man kicks another man who is lying on the ground and is not threatening anyone. Is that right or wrong? No civilized person would deny that it is wrong. The question is: why is it wrong? Is it wrong because God has commanded us to love our neighbour, not abuse him? This is the answer that an Orthodox Christian (and most religious people) would give. Is it wrong because unprovoked violence is a crime according to the laws of the State? Again, an Orthodox Christian (and most law-abiding people) would answer: yes. Is it wrong because every human being has the right to be treated with dignity and respect? Here an Orthodox Christian would probably hesitate to answer… Not because he denies that human beings should be treated with dignity and respect, but because the way the question is posed presupposes a philosophy of human rights which is not Orthodox…

 

     The philosophy of human rights is the dominant moral and political philosophy of the modern world, and all states pay lip-service to it even when they ignore it in practice. It will therefore be useful to analyse the philosophy in its modern form point by point. These points can be summarized in the following propositions:

 

1.     What is natural is what is right.

2.     What is natural and right is what we desire.

3.     All human beings are equal.

4.     All human beings have the same human nature and more or less the same desires.

5.     Therefore every human has the right to have whatever he desires provided the satisfaction of his desire does not interfere with the desires of other human beings.

 

     There are major problems with each of these propositions.

 

     1. First, let us ask the question: Why should what is natural be what is right? Why should any natural fact or desire create a right or obligation for us? If I want food, why do I have the right to have food? If I am walking in a desert place and there is no food around and I have forgotten to bring food with me, then I go hungry. But no right of mine has been violated – only my will.

 

     Linguistic philosophers in the twentieth century argued that it is impossible to get from a statement of fact to a statement of value, from “is” statements to “ought” statements. So from the fact that I am hungry it is impossible to deduce that I ought to have food in the sense that I have the right to have food. We only get from facts to values, from natural laws to moral laws, by exploiting an apparent ambiguity in the term “law”.

 

     “Law” in its original meaning implies a personal lawgiver who lays down the law, that is, prescribes what should and should not be done: “Thou shalt not kill”, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, etc. Outside the context of a rational lawgiver giving laws to rational receivers of the law, the concept of law is strictly speaking inapplicable. However, in a metaphorical sense we can speak of observed regularities in nature as laws of nature, the underlying idea being that these regularities did not come into being by chance, but were commanded by God: “He spake, and they came to be; He commanded, and they were created” (Psalm 148.5). But of course the elements of nature are not rational beings; they follow the laws of nature, not from choice, but out of necessity; so their obedience to the laws of nature creates no moral right or obligation. At the same time, the fact that God both creates natural laws for all creation and prescribes moral laws for rational men shows that there is a link between fact and value. That link is God Himself; for He alone is Truth and Goodness, the Giver of both the natural and the moral law.

 

     However, human rights theorists, following Grotius, construct their philosophy without assuming the existence of God; and their “self-evident” laws are not prescribed by God or anybody else, but are “unprescriptible”, as the 1789 Declaration of Human Rights puts it. Therefore they fail to find – because they do not want to see – the only possible link between the world of facts and the world of values: the commandment of the Creator. In view of this, their attempt to base human rights on natural law collapses…

 

     2. Secondly, why should we assume that all our desires are natural? It is the teaching of the Orthodox Church that all our desires are in fact fallen, warped, distorted from their original, natural form. Of course, the idea of the fall can form no part of the philosophy of human rights, for it undermines it completely. But even leaving aside the idea of the fall, human rights theorists have to deal with the fact that, in the opinion of most human beings, certain desires are natural and others unnatural. They deal with this problem in a remarkable way: by simply denying the fact that there are unnatural desires.

 

     Let us take the key test-case of homosexuality. It is completely obvious that homosexuality is unnatural; it frustrates the biological purpose of sexual intercourse, which is the procreation of children. St. Paul says that male homosexuals “have given up natural intercourse to be consumed with passion for each other”, and that female homosexuals “have turned from natural intercourse to unnatural practices” (Romans 1.26-27). Until about 1960 the vast majority of people in the western world considered that homosexuality was both unnatural and wrong. The proportion of people who believe this in the West has fallen in more recent decades; but until very recently it remained the official position of the three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, although many Christians now reject it – including, it would seem, the nominal leader of Orthodox Christianity, the Ecumenical Patriarch. And with the rapid increase of Islam in recent decades it is very likely that anti-homosexuality is still the majority opinion. In spite of this, human rights theorists insist that homosexuals have the “right” to practise their perversions. This clearly shows that the human rights agenda is based neither on nature nor natural law nor even on the “democratic” consensus of mankind…

 

     Even when human rights theorists agree that something is wrong – for example, paedophilia – they rarely use the argument that it is unnatural. After all, if some people want to do it, then it must be natural in some sense… Thus paedophilia is wrong, it is argued, not because it is unnatural, but because the child is assumed not to want it, and therefore it is a violation of his human rights. And yet if it could be proved that the child did want it, or that it caused him no objective harm, presumably paedophilia would be acceptable today, as it was in Classical Greece… By the same criterion, it is possible that a whole range of other perversions – incest, bestiality, necrophilia – may one day become acceptable because some people, at any rate, want them, and so these practices must have some basis in human nature. (Bestiality is now legal in some parts of Western Europe.)

 

     The usual way this is “proved” is by pretending to find some area in the brain that accounts for the perverse behaviour and therefore makes it “natural” - in the case of homosexuality, the current candidate is the hypothalamus, which is supposed to be smaller in homosexuals than in heterosexuals…

 

     In the absence of a teaching on the fall, there is no theoretical way of distinguishing natural wants from unnatural ones. Thus the only restriction on my egoism becomes the possibility that it may clash with your egoism – a restriction that we shall discuss later. And so if the first axiom of modern ontology is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”, the first axiom of modern morality is “I want, therefore I can”…

 

     3 and 4. The essential equality of all men has been an essential part of the human rights philosophy since at least the time of the American revolution. For egalitarianism was the essential tool for the realization of the real aim of the philosophy: to destroy all social, political and ecclesiastical hierarchies. The equality of man was one of those truths that the American Founding Fathers declared to be “self-evident”.

 

     However, it is by no means self-evident that all men are equal; they differ in intelligence, strength, beauty, courage, taste, sporting and musical ability, sense of humour, moral worth and in countless other ways. The only thing that makes them in any real sense equal is the fact they are all made in the image of God and have the capacity, through the exercise of their free-will and the grace of God, to become in His likeness. And yet even in the Kingdom of heaven one star differs from another in brightness…

 

     The new science of genetics shows that it is not strictly true that all men have the same human nature; for if a man’s human nature – or, at any rate, his psycho-physical, if not his spiritual nature – is defined by his DNA, then every man’s DNA is unique. Eve had the same nature as Adam (except her gender). But as their descendants multiplied, so did their differences…

 

     Of course, men differ only within the bounds of the species or “kind” determined by God – and this, too, can be seen in the DNA. However, the species “man” is not an absolute: it is an abstraction derived from studying many particular men. In fact, as Archbishop Theophan of Poltava writes, “Only in relation to the absolute Divine [nature] is the concept of nature used by the Fathers of the Church in an absolute sense, insofar as the Divine nature is absolutely one both in concept and in reality. But in relation to the units of created nature, and in particular to people, the concept of one nature is understood in the sense of complete unity only abstractly, insofar as every concept of genus or species is one, but in application to reality it indicates only the oneness of the nature of all the units of the given genus.”[1]

 

     Having different natures, or only relatively similar natures, men also differ in their desires. Some of these differences are trivial: one prefers tea, another – coffee; one man prefers Mozart, another – Bach. But others are less trivial: one man longs for chastity, another – for the satisfaction of his lust at every opportunity. Often the same man will desire quite opposite things, as when St. Augustine prayed: “Lord, give me chastity – but not yet.” This shows that we may even speak of each man, or at any rate each Christian, having two different human natures – the old Adam and the new Adam.

 

     And then there are the differences between men which, as has been generally recognized in generation after generation, make a material difference to their rights and obligations: the differences between a man and a child, between a man and a woman, between a knowledgeable man and an ignoramus, between an employer and an employee, etc. In their levelling, egalitarian passion, human rights activists have tended to regard these differences as accidental or inessential, and have created special categories of “children’s rights”, “women’s rights”, ”students’ rights”, “workers’ rights”, etc., in order to iron out the differences. It must be admitted that this activity has often had beneficial effects in abolishing discrimination and cruelty that is based more on prejudice than on reason. However, the fact of unjust discrimination in some, even many cases does not alter the fact that many of the physical, sexual, maturational, psychological and social differences between men are important, and require corresponding differences in rights and obligations if the good of each man, and of society as a whole, is to be achieved.

 

     Moreover, the argument based on commonality of nature has been taken to absurd extremes in recent times, when it has been seriously maintained that if an animal has, say, 95% of the DNA of a human being he should have 95% of his human rights!   

 

     Christianity teaches love, not egalitarianism. Thus St. Paul exhorts masters and slaves to love and respect each other, but forbids slaves to rebel against their masters – and says not a word about their “right” to freedom. It is love, not egalitarianism, that relieves the sufferings of men.

 

     Revolutions, from the French to the Russian, commonly aim at achieving some kind of egalitarianiam, whether between social classes or nations. However, being the fruit, not of love, but of hatred and envy, they only make things worse – much worse. Nor will they ever destroy hierarchy in society, because God created men to live in hierarchical societies, not only because they are in fact unequal in all sorts of ways, but also because learning to bow before a superior is essential to acquiring humility.

 

     5. The only serious check that human rights theorists admit on the absolute freedom and right of human beings to do whatever they want is the so-called harm principle, which was enshrined in article 4 of the original 1789 Declaration of Human Rights and was developed by John Stuart Mill in his famous essay, On Liberty. Mill, fully in keeping with the Anglo-Saxon “freedom from” tradition, sees the harm principle not so much as restriction on liberty, as an affirmation of liberty, an affirmation of the individual’s right to be free from the control, not only of the state, but of any “tyrannical majority” in matters that were his private business: “The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means to be used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone or which it is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”[2] Mill asserted that this “Liberty Principle” or “Harm Principle” applied only to people in “the maturity of their faculties”, not to children or to “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.”[3] For “Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved through free and equal discussion”.[4]

 

     However, everything depends on what we mean by “harm”. And that depends on our fundamental belief-system, our ultimate priorities. So it all comes down to the fundamental question: what is the ultimate good of man?... But this question can only answered by answering the further questions: “Who made us?” “What did He make us for?” “Can the goal of human life as created by God be attained by striving to fulfil all our fallen human desires?”

 

     These are religious questions that are resolutely pushed aside by human rights theorists. They start, by contrast, from the premise that the goal of human life is not prescribed by God, but by ourselves, and consists solely in the satisfaction of fallen desire… This anti-religious bias of the philosophy of human rights arose from its original need to create a rational basis for resolving conflict within and between societies. Although its originators considered themselves to be Christians, Christian teaching was eliminated from the beginning as the basis of conflict resolution, since the Pope was considered the final judge in matters of Christian teaching – and the Pope was the cause of most of the conflicts in the first place. The basis therefore had to be above Christianity – while incorporating Christian values, since the warring parties were still (at that time) Christians. It had to be a “self-evident”, common-sense consensus on which all the parties could agree. And if a philosophical rationale for this consensus was required, it was to be found in the common human needs and desires that all the parties shared.

 

     However, this whole approach was implicitly anti-Christian for two important reasons. First, by placing something other than the Word of God at the base of the theoretical structure, it was implicitly asserting that a human philosophy can supplement, complement, or, still worse, improve on the Word of God – which implies a lack of faith in the Word of God. And secondly, it implies that the purpose of life is to satisfy the fallen needs and desires of human nature, which is an essentially pagan approach to life.

 

     This latter point was quite consciously recognized by J.S. Mill, who defended his Harm or Liberty Principle on the basis, among other things, that it fostered that ideal of the vigorous, independent man, unafraid of being different, even eccentric, which he found in Classical Greece. Indeed, he openly rejected the ascetic, Calvinist ideal in favour of the pagan Greek: “There is a different type of human excellence from the Calvinistic: a conception of humanity as having its nature bestowed on it for other purposes than merely to be abnegated. ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is one of the elements of human worth, as well as ‘Christian self-denial’. There is a Greek ideal of self-development, which the Platonic and Christian ideal of self-government blends with, but does not supersede. It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.”[5]

 

     This from a conservative liberal who was certainly against any revolutionary excess. But in the hands of consciously anti-Christian revolutionaries, the philosophy of human rights became the instrument, not of “pagan self-assertion” of the cultured, Periclean type, but of pagan destruction of the most uncultured, barbarian type. The long series of bloody revolutions set off by, and claiming their justification from, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man is the proof of that…

 

*

 

     “If God does not exist,” says one of Dostoyevsky’s characters, “then everything is permissible.” For God and His commandments are the only foundation of morality. Every other foundation devised by the wit of man has proved to be porous, unstable, liable at any moment to dissolve into the abyss of anarchical egotism, on the one hand, or tyrannical despotism, on the other. Human rights is a philosophy that leads to anarchical egotism and then to its apparent opposite, tyrannical despotism, as we saw in 1789 and again in 1917.

 

     But, as Nicholas Berdiaev pointed out: "Neither 'human rights' nor 'the will of the people', nor both together can be the foundation of human society. For the one contradicts the other: 'the rights of the human personality', understood as the final foundations of society, deny the primacy of social unity; 'the will of the people', as an absolute social basis, denies the principle of personality. There can be, and in fact is, only some kind of eclectic, unprincipled compromise between the two principles, which witnesses to the fact that neither is the primary principle of society. If one genuinely believes in the one or the other, then one has to choose between the unlimited despotism of social unity, which annihilates the personality - and boundless anarchy, which annihilates social order and together with it every personal human existence."[6]

 

     In spite of the manifest failures of these extremes, modern man continues to search for some such foundation for his life. For although He does not believe in God, he does believe in morality. Or rather, he believes in morality for others, not himself. What he really wants is to be free to pursue the life he wants to lead, - the life which brings him the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain, - without being interfered with by anybody else, whether God, or the State, or some other individual or group of individuals. However, he knows that in a society without laws, in which everybody is free to pursue the life he wants the life he wants to lead without any kind of restriction, he will not achieve his personal goal. For if everybody were completely free in this way, there would be anarchy, and life would be “nasty, brutish and short” – for everybody. So a compromise must be found.

 

     The compromise is a kind of religionless morality. Let some powerful body – preferably the post-revolutionary State, certainly not God or the Church, because God is unpredictably and unpleasantly demanding – impose certain limits on everybody. But let those limits be as restricted and unrestrictive as possible. And let there be a set of rules accepted by all States - preferably enforced by some World Government – that puts limits on the limits that States can place on their citizens. These rules we can then call “human rights”, and they can be our morality. Thus “human rights” include civil and political rights, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; judicial rights, like the right to a free trial, and freedom from torture and the death penalty; sexual rights, like the rights to have sex of any kind with any consenting adult, reproduce a child by any means, and then destroy it if necessary; and economic, social and cultural rights, like the right to participate in culture, to have food and water and healthcare, the right to work, and the right to education. This morality will be permissive in the sense that it will permit very many things previous, more religious ages considered unlawful. But it will not permit everything; it will not permit others to interfere with my life of pleasure so long as I don’t interfere with theirs…

 

     There will be another important advantage to this system: for those who believe in, and champion, “human rights”, it will be a source of great pride and self-satisfaction. They will be able to preach it to others, even impose it on others, with the sweet knowledge that they are doing good and serving mankind – no, rather, saving mankind.[7] After all, the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Actiondeclares: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and related. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis”.So the belief in, and justification and implementation of, “human rights” will turn out to be a new kind of universal religion, with a new kind of god, a new kind of sanctity and a new kind of paradise – a kingdom of god on earth that is so much more conducive to the needs of modern man than the old kind that was too far away in “heaven” and boringly devoid of the real pleasures of life!

 

     The revolution sparked off by the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 is continuing today, not as bloodily as before, but more extreme than ever in the absurdity and multiplicity of its claims. Thus the numbers of “human rights” have increased exponentially. The fact that many of these rights contradict each other (for example, the right to life contradicts the right to abortion), and that there is no way that more than a fraction of these rights can be fulfilled for more than a fraction of the world’s population for the foreseeable future, only increases the zeal and ambition of the “human righters”, who believe that they alone can put the world to right. Now every minority group that has not fulfilled its desires to the utmost claims victim status, the violation of its “human rights”, and blames the oppressor state and society. If Mill feared above all the “tyranny of the majority” opinion, and therefore championed the rights of every eccentric to express his views (provided they were “decent”), today, by contrast, because of the ultra-liberalism and “cultural Marxism” that has taken the place of traditional Marxism, it is the tyranny of millions of minorities that has taken over society, outlawing the beliefs of “the silent majority”.

 

     If the majority remains silent, then there is only one possible outcome: one of these minorities will take complete and tyrannical control over all. For as Edmund Burke said, the only requirement for the complete triumph of evil is that good people should do nothing. For is this egoism not the ultimate “human right”, the same right that the first murderer claimed when he said: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4.9)?

 

April 19 / May 2, 2015.

 



[1] Archbishop Theophan, On the Unity of Nature, p. 11. In what sense, it may then be asked, did Christ take on human nature? Did He take on human nature understood as an abstract unity, or as the human species comprising all individual human hypostases? Neither the one nor the other, according to St. John of Damascus. For, as Professor Georgios Mantzaridis explains the Holy Father’s thought: “’nature’ can be understood firstly to denote an abstraction, in which case it has no intrinsic reality; secondly, to denote a species, in which case it comprises all the individual hypostases of that species; and thirdly, it can be viewed as a particular, in which case it is linked with the nature of the species but does not comprise all its individual hypostases. The Logos of God made flesh did not take on human nature in the first two senses, because in the first case there would be no incarnation but only delusion, and in the second case there would be incarnation in all human individual hypostases. Therefore, what the Logos of God took on in His incarnation was the ‘first-fruits of our substance’, individual nature, which did not previously exist as individual in itself, but came into existence in His hypostasis” (The Deification of Man, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984, pp. 29-30).

[2] Mill, On Liberty, London: Penguin Classics, 1974, pp. 68-69.

[3] Mill, On Liberty, p. 69.

[4] Mill, On Liberty, p. 69.

[5] Mill, On Liberty, p. 127.

[6] Berdyaev, N. "Religioznie osnovy obschestvennosti" (“The Religious Foundations of Society”), Put' (The Way), 1, September, 1925, p. 13.

[7]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Declaration_and_Programme_of_Action. This statement was endorsed at the 2005 World Summit in New York (paragraph 121).

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