Can Human Rights Survive Secularization? Part I

Every society has a characteristic moral culture, by which I mean a characteristic set of concepts for thinking about moral issues and a characteristic way of applying those concepts. For almost a millennium now, a characteristic and distinctive feature of our moral culture in the West has been our employment of the idea of natural human rights. The most dramatic employment of this idea has been in the human rights movement of the past fifty years. Not far behind was its employment, in the eighteenth century, in articulating the foundations of liberal democracy. But these are only two among many highlights. The crusades in the last century for women’s rights, for children’s rights, for the rights of labor, for the right of Jews to full participation in the American academy–all of these employed the idea of human rights.

My purpose here is to discuss this distinctive part of our moral culture, the idea of human rights. My focus is on the interrelationships and interactions between Christianity and human rights. What do human rights and Christianity have to do with each other? What have they had to do with each other in the past?

Defining Human Rights

I wish I could take for granted that we all share an understanding of rights in general and of human rights in particular. But I can’t. There has been so much confusion on this score that I will have to begin our reflections by explaining how I understand them. Of course you may want to contest my understanding. I will have to be brief; all the points I will be making are developed at length in my recently published book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press, 2007).

I understand a right to be a normative social relationship. It takes at least two to make a right. I furthermore hold that a right is always a right to a good of some kind–nobody has a right to a broken leg, except in the odd case in which having one’s leg broken would serve some good. More specifically, I hold that a right is always a right to the good of being treated a certain way by others. The good of their treating one a certain way may be the good of their bestowing on one some benefit; all of us, for example, have a right to the benefit of protection by the police department. Alternatively, the good of their treating one a certain way may be the good of their allowing one the freedom to act in some way–the good, for example, of allowing me the freedom to stroll unmolested on the Washington Mall should I so choose.

But there are all kinds of good ways of being treated that we don’t have a right to. I would very much enjoy being given the opportunity to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House, but I don’t have a right to that good. One has a right to a good when one has a morally legitimate claim to it, when that good is due one. Or to put it from the dark side: one has a right to some good when being deprived of that good would wrong one. I have a right against you to your giving me the freedom to stroll unmolested on the Washington Mall when, should you deprive me of that right, you would wrong me. Enjoying one’s rights and being wronged are opposites– just as doing one’s duty and being guilty are opposites.

Let me pull together what we have so far. You come into my presence bearing morally legitimate claims on me as to how I treat you; should I not treat you that way, I would wrong you. So too, I come into your presence bearing morally legitimate claims on you as to how you treat me. Should you not treat me that way, you would wrong me. The situation is symmetrical: you have rights against me as to how I treat you, I have rights against you as to how you treat me.

I said that you come into my presence bearing morally legitimate claims on me as to how I treat you and I come into your presence bearing morally legitimate claims on you as to how you treat me. To this should be added that rights are also created, or generated, when we are in the presence of each other. If you issue a legitimate request to me, then you have a right to my responding to that request.

Now we come to the really difficult and controversial part. What accounts for rights? What accounts for the fact that some of the good ways of being treated by others I have a right to, and some I do not have a right to? What accounts for the fact that I don’t have a right to the good of sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom whereas I do have a right to the good of being free to walk unmolested on the Washington Mall?

I think the answer to this question lies in the fact that human beings have worth, and that certain ways of treating a human being do not befit his or her worth; they only befit a creature of less worth than this one.   Justice is constituted of rights. Our social relationships are just insofar as we are treated by each other as we have a right to be treated, and they are unjust insofar as we are not so treated, insofar as we are wronged.   If a student has written a first-rate paper in a course of mine, then if I make derogatory comments about the paper and give it a C-, perhaps because I don’t like the student, I would not be treating him as befits his worth as the writer of a first-rate paper. I would be demeaning him, treating him with under-respect. I hold that rights are grounded in these two facts: the fact that human beings have worth and the fact that a way of treating a human being may not befit his or her worth.

Here, then, is how I think of the relation of rights to worth: you have a right against me to my treating you a certain way when, should I not treat you that way, I would not be treating you in a way that befits your worth. I would be treating you with under-respect, demeaning you. Put it like this: rights are what respect for worth requires.

And now, finally, for human rights. One has a human right to some good when the only worth you need so as to have a legitimate claim to that good is the worth you possess on account of being a human being. If a student thinks he has a right to an A in my course, it won’t be sufficient for him to say, “Look, I’m a human being.” He will have to base his case on the worth he has acquired by his achievement in the course. Thus having a right to an A in my course is not a human right. By contrast, the only worth you need so as to have a right not to be tortured is the worth you have on account of being a human being. No achievements are necessary. So that’s a human right.

Two final explanatory points. Some of our rights are conferred on us by some action of human beings–the passing of a law, the issuing of a request, etc. I have a right to a monthly Social Security check from the U.S. government on account of the U.S. Social Security legislation. But there are other rights we have that have not been conferred on us by the action of any human being. These last have traditionally been called natural rights. My right not to be tortured is a natural right; I would have that right even if there had never been any legislation against torture. When we talk about human rights, it is natural human rights that we have in mind.

Last, I think of justice as constituted of rights. Our social relationships are just insofar as we are treated by each other as we have a right to be treated. They are unjust insofar as we are not so treated, insofar as we are wronged.

I daresay that some of you have found these distinctions and explanations quite dizzying; others may have found them quite inadequate. Either way, let’s move on.

Human Rights and Possessive Individualism

What I have learned, from years of talking to various audiences about justice and rights, is that a good many of my fellow Christians don’t like the idea of rights; they like even less the idea of natural human rights. I have noticed that some of those who say they don’t like the idea of rights nonetheless freely employ
the concept when it comes to so-called family values; they emphatically affirm the right of the unborn to life, they emphatically affirm parental rights, etc. I have no explanation for this curious contradiction; I simply note it.

When I ask those of my fellow Christians who say they don’t like rights-talk why they have this aversion, they offer a variety of reasons. Some say they don’t like rights talk because they find it being used to try to make people feel guilty about the fact that one and another social ideal is not being achieved: everybody has a right to a well-paying job in which they find fulfillment, people in Africa have a right to the abolition of river-blindness, and so forth. Others indicate that they don’t like rights-talk because they discern behind it a hidden agenda hostile to the family: a gay-rights agenda, a child-rights agenda, and so forth. Yet others indicate that they like neither rights-talk nor justice-talk because, in their view, love has supplanted justice in the New Testament.

Let me observe, parenthetically, that people in whom the Reformed tradition remains alive will not be attracted to this last reason; they may be attracted to the other reasons I mentioned, but not to this one.   Rights-talk, it is said, demotes the giving self and promotes the grasping self, demotes the humble self and promotes the haughty self. It both encourages and is encouraged by the possessive atomism of the capitalist economy and of the liberal polity.   The person in whom the Reformed tradition remains alive does not think of the New Testament as supplanting the Old; in particular, she does not think of the gospel of love in the New Testament as supplanting the law of justice in the Old Testament. A person in whom the Reformed tradition remains alive thinks of the New Testament as fulfilling the Old, not as supplanting it; the justice-orientation of the Old Testament is not supplanted in the New Testament but fulfilled.

End of parenthesis. I briefly mentioned three reasons that my fellow Christians have cited for their opposition to rightstalk. In this article I don’t propose saying anything more about those reasons–though as you will guess, I do have things to say about them, and have stated them in other places. I want instead to focus on a fourth reason; it’s my impression that this fourth reason is the most influential.

It is commonly said that rights-talk expresses and encourages one of the most pervasive and malignant diseases of modern society, namely, possessive individualism. In using rights-talk, one places oneself at the center of the moral universe, focusing on one’s own entitlements to the neglect of one’s obligations to others and the cultivation of those other-directed virtues that are indispensable to the flourishing of our lives together. The prevalence of rights-talk, so it is said, obscures from us our responsibilities to each other and to our communities, obscures from us the singular importance of love, care, friendship, and the like. It demotes the giving self and promotes the grasping self, demotes the humble self and promotes the haughty self. It both encourages and is encouraged by the possessive atomism of the capitalist economy and of the liberal polity. It invites us to think of ourselves as sovereign individuals.

Rights-talk is said to be for the purpose of me claiming my entitlements, for you claiming your entitlements, for him claiming his entitlements. That is what it’s for: claiming one’s own entitlements, one’s own possessions, giving vent to one’s possessiveness, each against the other. Possessive individualists are not abusing the innocent language of rights by wresting it to their own malign purposes. They are using it as it was meant to be used. Rights-talk is inherently individualistic and possessive.

This condemnation of rights talk is often accompanied by a narrative concerning the origin of the idea of natural rights; my guess is that almost all of you have heard this narrative. The idea of natural rights, so it is commonly said, arose out of the individualistic political thought of the Enlightenment–the word “secular” usually prefacing the word “Enlightenment,” secular Enlightenment. A variant on this narrative is that though the political philosophers of the secular Enlightenment certainly employed the idea of natural rights, they did not originate it; it first made its appearance some centuries earlier when the nominalist William of Ockham introduced and employed the idea early in the fourteenth century in the course of defending his fellow Franciscans against attacks from the pope.

Either way, the claim is that the idea of natural rights originated within individualistic frames of thought and has no use outside such frameworks. It carries individualism in its DNA. It must on that account be rejected. Possessive individualism and the Christian gospel do not mix.

Where did Rights-Thinking Originate?

My reply has a systematic prong and a historical prong. Let me briefly present the systematic prong of my response, and then spend more time on the historical. I described rights as normative social relationships: a right is a right to the good of being treated a certain way. And I said that they are symmetrical, in the sense that you have rights against me to my treating you a certain way and I have rights against you to your treating me a certain way. But if this is what rights are, why would anybody think that the language of rights is for expressing possessive individualism–that the language of rights is for each of us claiming our own entitlements, our own possessions?

I think what accounts for it is a confusion. It’s one thing for me to have a certain right against you; it is quite another thing for me to engage in the activity of claiming or insisting on that right. When the possessive individualist gets hold of rightslanguage, he uses it to engage in the activity of claiming his own rights while ignoring ours.   The common narrative concerning the origin of the idea of natural rights is plainly false. The idea originated neither with the supposedly secular Enlightenment political thinkers in the eighteenth century nor with William of Ockham in the fourteenth century.   But that doesn’t change the fact that we each have rights against the other. In using the language as he does, the possessive individualist abuses it. When rightly used, the language of rights is for each of us giving voice to the ways in which we can be wronged and are wronged. All moral language can be abused; all moral language is in fact abused. We have all been witness to the abuse of obligation-language. When some part of moral language is abused, you don’t toss it out; you try to redeem it from its misuse. If we tossed out some part of our moral culture whenever it was abused, we wouldn’t have any moral culture left.

Now for the historical part of my response. As the result of recent work by some legal historians of the medieval period, especially Brian Tierney and Charles Reid, and by some legal historians of the Reformation period, especially John Witte, we now know that the common narrative concerning the origin of the idea of natural rights is plainly false. Witte has shown that the idea of natural rights was in common use among writers in various branches of the Protestant Reformation, especially the Reformed; the claim that the idea originated with the supposedly secular Enlightenment political thinkers is plainly false. Tierney and Reid have shown that the canon law yers of the twelfth century were self-consciously employing the idea of natural human rights; the claim that the idea originated with Ockham in the fourteenth centur y is also plainly false. I trust that no one will claim that the twelfth-century canon law yers were infected with possessive individualism, or tha
t the Reformers were.

I think the evidence points to the conclusion that the twelfth-century lawyers were the first to articulate and selfconsciously employ the concept of natural human rights. But now let’s take a next step. It’s quite possible for someone to recognize what you and I would conceptualize as natural human rights without himself conceptualizing it that way, without himself formulating and employing the concept. We don’t conceptualize everything that we recognize. So when one is told that the twelfth-century canon lawyers were the first to conceptualize natural human rights, the natural question to ask is whether there are indications that such rights were nonetheless recognized before the twelfth century.

I think there are such indications. A considerable amount of the work of the twelfth-century canon lawyers consisted of commenting on passages from the Church Fathers, and in some of the Church Fathers there is unmistakably a recognition of natural human rights. The evidence for this assertion and the implications it holds for us today and in the future I will detail in the next article.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut. This article was originally a lecture given at the Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington, Washington, D.C., 26 January 2008. Perspectives is grateful to the Institute for permission to publish this address and encourages readers to visit their website www.reformedinstitute.org/index2.html.