The 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ought to be an occasion for celebration. Framed in 1948 in the aftermath of the Second World War, this document promised a future all the more bright for its contrast with the recent past. The promise of that future, however, has not been kept, and the rhetoric of rights has been conspicuous in every victory which social liberalism has enjoyed in the intervening decades. The legalization of abortion, the redefinition of marriage, and the removal of protections for the elderly and infirm have all occurred under the banner of “human rights.” And so, rather than celebrating the 70th year of the UDHR’s existence, we must grapple with the paradoxical fact that the ascendance of “rights talk” in the West coincides with the systematic violation of human rights themselves.
The human person certainly does possess inherent and inalienable dignity from which flows the God-given entitlements that we recognize with the language of rights. Indeed, properly understood, human rights translate the truths of natural law into a universally available secular vocabulary. Insofar as it enables communication about the deepest realities of human dignity across cultural and creedal chasms, rights-talk is invaluable, an outward-facing discourse grounded upon the essential indwelling reality of God’s gift of human dignity.
So how did something so good become so debased? How did the rhetoric of human rights become a vehicle for their abrogation and abuse? At its best, the language of human rights allows for the neutral acknowledgement of the intrinsic worth of every human person. But neutrality itself is not enough: human rights wither when they are separated from their source. This dilemma was noted by the famous Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, who was himself influential in developing the UDHR: “Yes, we agree about the rights, but on condition no one asks us why.” That very question, of course, casts its shadow over the UDHR. The document, like other such declarations, appeals to a kind of self-evidence to ground the rights of man; yet the very self-evidence of these rights depends on a conception of man which is not self-evident, a conception which emerges from – and is nourished by – traditions which are rooted in religion. Human rights are self-evident only when the divine provenance of the person who bears them is recognized.
Indeed, if the “person” who possesses rights is not a creature but a contrivance; if “man” is merely a category that emerges because of the collusion of institutions within the limiting horizons of history and culture; if, in other words, man is not a child of God, but an orphan of nature and chance, then human rights are as contingent as the “person” who possesses them. This dark view of the human person came into vogue in the postwar North American academy and the idea soon seeped from the ivory tower and into the cultural water table and, with it, a kernel of totalitarian logic: if man and his rights are simply the products of consensus, then bothcan be rewritten and redefined. Moreover, any attempt to defend the immutable truths about the human person can, in turn, be attacked as either complicity with power or antipathy to progress. And so, in the last half-century, the very rights which man possesses by definition have become the means of his redefinition, a gradual process of legal disfigurement that has corrupted our systems of justice and the language we use to describe the most fundamental truths of human nature.
The most obvious – and most odious – example of this slow-motion disaster is the discovery of new rights by social activists and their enablers in the judiciary. These new rights (to abortion, to unrecognizable forms of arrangements of marriage, even to death itself) are, by design, in tension with immemorial moral traditions. If a radical social agenda can lay claim to the language of human rights, then its proponents can trust that the discourse of “rights talk” will produce the desired results. Thus, new, fictitious, and tendentious “rights” have been, for decades, the thin end of the long wedge of radical social transformation.
Human rights are real, true, and vitally important. But they are also few, unhyphenated, and independent of historical context. They cannot be held by animals, nor by groups. Indeed, arguing about the rights of men, women, or racial minorities or majorities is ridiculous; any qualification of rights fractures the very universality on which their coherence depends. The very title, “human rights,” is somewhat redundant, because human rights inhere only in persons: they do not ramify with other inessential aspects of identity. True human rights can only be recognized and acknowledged – and never created or curtailed – because they come directly from God Himself, whose supremacy is declared in our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In an essay written in the year that she died – and five years before the UDHR was adopted – the French philosopher, Simone Weil foresaw our current dilemma. Notions of human rights, she wrote “do not dwell in heaven; they hang in the middle air, and for this very reason they cannot root themselves in earth.” The language of rights has since become the means of unmooring society from its deepest foundations in justice and truth. What is to be done? Weil ends her prophetic essay with a call for the creation of new institutions above those “which are concerned with protecting rights,” institutions which would be “invented for the purpose of exposing and abolishing everything in contemporary life which buries the soul under injustice, lies, and ugliness.” Weil did not live long enough to articulate the shape that such institutions would take. And so, in their absence, it falls to religious institutions, activists, and citizens of good will to accomplish their work; it falls to us to defend human rights from the “rights talk” which conceals them.