How Do We Ground Human Rights? image

How Do We Ground Human Rights?

Everybody loves human rights. But do they have any grounding, any logical basis other than the fact that they are popular?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his Justice: Rights and Wrongs, argues that ultimately it only Christianity that can provide a secure, transcendent basis for what we now call the “rights” of a human being. The best alternative, and the most influential in contemporary human rights discourse, is that of Immanuel Kant, namely that it is the rational capacity of human beings that secures a commitment to natural rights. However, as Wolterstorff explains,

The fatal flaw in Kant’s capacities approach [is that] if we insist that the capacity for rational agency gives worth to all and only those who stand to the capacity in the relation of actually possessing it, then it is not human rights that are grounded by the rights of those who possess the capacity.

In other words: what about human beings who lack rational capacity in some way? Even if we could make the argument that infants, though they lack rational ability, nevertheless have the capacity for it in the future, we are still left with the question: what about those whose brains are permanently damaged? What about those who rational faculties are on the decline, and irreversibly so? What about those who cannot communicate, and thereby convince the rest of us of their capacities? (It may be worth mentioning that Kant, like many thinkers of his own day, regarded some races as having superior mental capacity to others, so these questions could be multiplied further.)

Christianity, on the other hand, grounds human rights not just in genealogical terms (because the concept of human rights emerged in Christian societies), but in theoretical terms as well:

If God loves equally and permanently each and every creature who bears the imago dei, then the relational property of being loved by God is what we have been looking for. Bearing that property gives to each human being who bears it the worth in which natural human rights inhere.

It’s an important challenge, especially in those circles where it is assumed a) that human rights exist, and b) that the Christian God does not. Without the foundation of the image of God, what happens? Are we sitting on a branch that, without knowing it, we have been vigorously sawing off for two centuries? And: so what?

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