by Patrick Killough [05/24/1998]
1998 is the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1946 UNESCO sent a questionnaire to statesmen, philosophers and scholars asking them to make a list of human rights.Thinkers like Richard McKeon of the University of Chicago, France's Jacques Maritain and others then produced such a list.
UNESCO submitted their catalog of human rights to Eleanor Roosevelt's United Nations Committee which then drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This text, with its Preamble, Declaration and Thirty Articles does not impose on member states of the United Nations a direct obligation to defend those rights. Rather the UDHR offers a moral vision for civilized living. The UN General Assembly has since presented to national governments for ratification treaties or "conventions" to enforce some of these human rights .
The Universal Declaration lays out many rights: both the old political and legal freedoms and the newer social and economic claims by "everyone" to fairness, dignity and justice.
Someone in 1946 asked the
Jacques Maritain, "did you people from so many different cultures
religions really agree on what rights all people everywhere have?"
replied: "Yes we agree about the rights, but on condition no one asks
Eleanor Roosevelt's Universal
did not probe for the ultimate source of our human rights. Rather, the
simply makes rights inhere in the human PERSON, not in the atomized,
self-sufficient rugged INDIVIDUAL dear to many American thinkers. A
exists in and is fulfilled by GROUPS, beginning with family,
neighborhoods and moving upward into ever more complex associations. A
has duties to others as well as rights for herself. All persons have
DIGNITY. Dignity is the key.
The Universal Declaration of 1948 does not probe the deeper sources of that dignity. Politically, pragmatically that silence is wise. Given so many traditions: theist, deist, sceptical, contractual, eastern, western, altruistic, self-seeking, etc., there is not and cannot be universal consensus on what gives persons their inalienable rights.
Seven Possible Sources of Human Rights
Here is a sketch of seven well known, widely debated proposed sources of human rights. Four of these sources are in an inter-related class by themselves: reason, human nature, nature and God. These four sources are held to be objectively true, not a product of human will or fantasizing.
REASON. HUMAN NATURE. NATURE. GOD.
We might argue that
objective REASON leads our thoughts to HUMAN
as the carrier of human rights. With Aristotle we first take a long
at human beings. We discover human persons as coming in two
producing young which mature much more slowly than other animals. We
people able to think, communicate, love and create. We then argue that
have a right to everything which our human nature requires us to possess
Others think that ALL NATURE and not just human nature grounds man's basic rights. Thomas Hobbes was in this category. He argued that every spatial body must either stay in motion or die. For people, staying in motion means remaining alive: breathing, eating and so on. As a part of nature I have a right to expect others to let me live, to keep moving. To protect myself Ican contract with others to create a mighty coercive power, a Leviathan, to keep all humans securely alive.
But nature is limited,
finite. Nature does not explain its own
PROJECTION. STIPULATION. MAN-MADE LAW.
A second "subjective" set of
explanations of human rights seems
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights embraces none of the seven theories above. Neither does it reject any. Rather the UDHR gives human rights a simple framework built on two concepts. Those are
(1) the PERSON, who needs association with other persons and
(2) that person's DIGNITY.
Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard University Law School calls the linking of PERSON and DIGNITY the UDHR's "proto-justification" of human rights. Proto-justification is a first baby step into a vast arena of speculation. If, however, without further probing, you simply accept the PERSONHOOD and the DIGNITY of all persons, then you also buy into a very rich world of human rights. The person and his dignity make up a creative, open-ended, cross-cultural matrix which buoys up human rights. The Universal Declaration is grounded neither in theology, nor in philosophy nor in any one culture's anthropology.
Most of us non philosophers probably simply choose sides. In the USA 90% of more people embrace all or part of the first set of four objective sources of human rights sketched above:
The second collection of
Be it also remembered that a
handful of Americans are nihilists,
On the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, let us be thankful for what consensus we have.
for Asheville TRIBUNE