Princeton philosopher Robert George — whom conservatives may recognize as a pro-life stalwart — praised the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) at a Q&A with William Saunders, Director for the Program in Human Rights for the Institute for Human Ecology. The Declaration was passed in 1948 and this year celebrates its 70th anniversary. George called the Declaration an “extraordinary feat” because it united countries from every philosophical and cultural background in the world in affirming the inherent dignity in every human being.
George said the Declaration was virtually an accident of history; it could not have passed at any other time. The preamble explained that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” Only the revulsion against the atrocities of World War II could have prompted such an effort, said George. However, its quick ratification was also important; just months after its passage, the breakdown in U.S.-Soviet relations would bring the U.N. to a grinding halt.
During the negotiations, philosophers from around the world vigorously debated a range of issues before they resolved on the Declaration that was finally passed, George said. For example, Confucian philosophers and Christian philosophers argued about why humans possessed inherent dignity. However, George pointed out, the important thing is that they did agree on one critical point: human dignity was “not in virtue of any special strengths—beauty, intelligence, social standing—but simply in virtue of their humanity.” Because of man’s sin nature, he said, we are constantly at risk of falling into the belief that these superficial differences do matter. “It’s hard to stick to it,” the philosopher observed, but the UDHR provides a permanent, international reminder that all human beings are equal in fundamental dignity.
George debunked the claim that the Declaration is merely an example of Western cultural imperialism. He admitted that such declarations of rights do come out of Western philosophical traditions—no doubt thinking of documents like the Magna Charta, or the English and American Bills of Rights. However, he pointed out that the whole world affirmed the UDHR without Western coercion. He said it passed unanimously in the U.N. General Assembly, with only a handful of abstentions. At least in theory, then, if not in practice, the whole world has agreed to basic human rights.
George was not blind to the dangers raised by the Declaration. He noted that as the human rights movement has become more powerful, its language has become dominant. Every movement, whether genuinely related to human rights or not, tries to capture the momentum of the human rights movement by adopting its language for itself. As a result, George said people are constantly inventing new “rights” that are really nothing more than wants. In other words, if I want something, the best strategy to obtain it is to claim I have a right to it. I automatically gain the moral high ground before my claim is even challenged. If anyone questions my “right” to the good or status I want, then I can easily vilify them by accusing them of denying my human rights and comparing them to groups who are (justly) infamous for denying human rights, like Nazis and racists. Does this sound familiar?
Immediately this raises an objection. Sometimes, legitimate human rights are really being violated. What’s more, human rights violators routinely attempt to justify their behavior by denying they are, in fact, violating is a human right. This is why human rights language is so easy to co-opt for other purposes. George described this second problem using economic inflation as an analogy. Just as increasing the money supply makes the currency less valuable, so increasing the number of “human rights” makes fundamental human rights less valued. As human rights are devalued, George said, would-be autocrats feel freer to pick and choose which fundamental rights they will actually respect.
George also highlighted the difficulty in defining positive rights in a positive declaration. A negative right is a right someone has that no one is allowed to take, like life or liberty. A positive right is a right someone receives that someone else has to provide (like healthcare or education). He didn’t deny that these positive rights were good things, but he said it is unclear who bears the responsibility to provide them. Is it business, churches, or the state? Should a local, regional, national, or international government be responsible to ensure that the right is provided? George pointed out that reasonable societies can come to different conclusions about who should provide these positive rights—to say nothing of how much should be provided.
One audience question expressed concern that the language of rights builds in an ideological liberalism that relies on the notion of the “atomized” individual—an individual who can exist without connection or relation to any community. George recognized that this was a legitimate concern. He believed it was possible to articulate human rights apart from that, but it did require defenders of human rights to be careful in how they argued. However, he noted that the Declaration supported the notion that individuals exist in community. Article 29 begins, “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.”
Dangers aside, George made clear the benefits of the Declaration were significant. At the very least, he said, it bolstered the legitimacy of international watchdog organizations to criticize rogue states for their human rights abuses. Additionally, it sets forth an objective standard of morality that does not evolve with the increasingly relativistic culture which has come to dominate the West. No Supreme Court or Congress can move the goalposts every five years on the rights set forth in this Declaration. This is especially important because the Declaration provides extensive protections for religious liberty—covering both practice and belief. George quoted Article 18, which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Even though many nations fail to live up to this standard of human rights, they acknowledged its rightfulness seventy years ago. This provides an internationally legitimate basis to criticize nations such as Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Venezuela, for their religious persecution—by a standard to which these nations have themselves agreed.
George said the strength of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the plurality of traditions that supported it. The whole world agreed that humans had inherent rights and dignity that governments were obligated to protect, and nations who try to go against this consensus find themselves out of line with the international order.