Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, discussed the report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights with Bill Saunders of the Catholic University of America and the Federalist Society in a Faith and Law presentation on October 16. The draft report, which was substantially the same as the final, was earlier reviewed at this site.
Saunders first noted that new problems regarding human rights in recent years have been “the rise of China,” which advances “a vision” that excludes civil and political rights from “national projects,” disagreement about what human rights are, rhetorical use of human rights to advance policy prescriptions, and the encroachment of artificial intelligence and technological control on human rights.
He observed that the charge of the commission was to determine how America should advance human rights in other countries based on American legal tradition as well as the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The commission observed the “hundreds of millions” of people in the world are “suffering extreme forms of deprivation under harsh authoritarian regimes,” and the commissioners were all agreed that this was wrong, despite disagreement on other specifics.
George said that “the very concept of human rights includes their universality. Human rights are rights we have, not in virtue of any achievement of ours,” but “simply in virtue of our humanity. Which means they are the rights of the weak as well as the strong … To talk about human rights is to talk about justice.”
George noted that social commentators, such as Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of the commission, have pointed out that “rights talk” is not necessary to make claims of justice. He agrees with the concern that the rhetoric of rights implies a radical individualism “that is incompatible with human solidarity.” He observed that all the world’s religious and great philosophical traditions reinforce human solidarity. But he believes that the language of rights has value in its ability to “pinpoint in a compact way” instances of injustice that can be readily understood by common people.
George observed that the language of rights does not derive wholly from “Enlightenment liberalism,” but has other “roots and sources.” These other sources include the classical tradition of ancient times, or “civic republicanism.” It includes “Plato and Aristotle … [and] the great Roman jurists, figures such as Cicero.” This tradition was received partly though medieval thinkers. Finally, there is the Biblical tradition, which teaches that man was created in the image of God, giving human beings enormous dignity. So the language of rights has roots in “Jerusalem as well as Athens.”
George said that there is no more important doctrine in understanding justice than that provided in the first chapter of the Bible. It says that human beings, though made from nothing, are nevertheless “made in the very image and likeness of the creator and ruler of the universe, of God himself.” This provides a “profound basis” for both human dignity and human equality (since all human beings share the image of God). Human rights, or some understanding like them, naturally flow from this doctrine. In particular, the doctrine of human beings made in the image of God involves belief in their “reason and freedom.” This capacity for agency, for rational action, is not held by other animals.
George thinks it was necessary for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to call the nation back to the understanding of rights coming from these traditions because “the discourse of human rights is now the discourse of much of our discussion of justice … It’s the dominant discourse at the State Department.” It’s also the dominant discourse of “international relations.” Both scholars and activist organizations make their arguments for or against policy proposals on the basis of “human rights.”
However, “these moral discourses are easily hijacked. Everybody wants to pursue his agenda, for good or for ill, in the name of human rights.” The language of human rights can be used to advance even causes that are contrary to a “morally sound” understanding of justice. George noted that Jonathan Sacks, formerly the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, has said that antisemitism is always justified “in whatever the dominant moral discourse of the day is.” The same is true of any evil, George said. It will be justified by using “the dominant discourse of the time.” George observed that abortion, which is the killing of another human being, is justified in the name of human rights. More recently, the elimination of laws against prostitution is being justified in the name of human rights.
Saunders observed that the report identifies property rights and religious liberty as two fundamental rights necessary for a free society which are currently being attacked. He said that the report’s understanding of property rights is very broad, while George said that “it is important that we recover and defend the American understanding of religious liberty.” It is distinct from the idea of removing religion from the public square, derived from the French Revolution, and now called laïcité. This consigns religion to the private sphere entirely. The American understanding of religious liberty is emphatically not one which separates religious people or ideas from public life. Part of American religious liberty “is to bring your religiously inspired convictions about justice and the common good into the public square, and to vie there for the allegiance of your fellow citizens.”
George pointed to the doctrine of fairness advanced by John Rawls as “indefensibly” claiming to establish “a neutral public square.” Rawls’ doctrine of “political liberalism” purported to be an “umpire” of competing policy proposals judged by standards of reason available to everyone. This, George thinks, “was a failed effort.” In order for liberalism to work, it must “smuggle” in values which are held to be incontestable, and thus part of a comprehensive world view, even as it excludes ideas derived from comprehensive world views from its contest. Thus it is not a neutral umpire.
Rather than excluding religious views, George said that the Commission sought to use all the traditions available to us from the American past to gain the best overall vision of human rights, and then craft American foreign policy to implement it. To do this, George said American foreign policy should focus on the “most basic human rights.” These are sometimes called the “non-derogable rights.” George identified freedom of religion and speech, the right of conscience, and equality before the law as such rights.
Saunders referred to China as a “major threat to the human rights project.” George said that the Chinese Communist Party was “one of the most massively powerful organizations on the globe.” George said its obvious objective at this point is to dominate Asia. Saunders said that the communist regime is a terrible threat to its own people, but to America as well, “because it denies even the premise that there are basic human rights.” George noted that other regimes are severe violators of human rights, and yet speak in the language of human rights. He pointed to Iran as an example, which advances a virulent antisemitism “in the name of human rights.” He said that Iran’s true objection is not with particular policies of Israel, but “with Jews as such.”
George said that in terms of the philosophy of law, rights are extremely important, but they not “not foundational moral principles.” Rather, they “protect human goods. They protect the truth seeking project of religion.” Truth seeking is also essential for a free society. Free speech is necessary to “republican democracy.” This kind of government cannot work “unless people are able to compete with each other freely and truly to speak their minds.” But, George explained, these rights are not the ultimate goods, but are instrumental to protecting more basic goods, such as human life and truth seeking.
Lauren Noyes, Executive Director of Faith and Law then posed questions, in addition to those from listeners. She referred to Carl Trueman’s lecture, recently reviewed on this website, in which Trueman discussed Critical Theory’s claim that words against it are a form of violence. George said that this is a severe problem which is “undermining the truth seeking mission of universities.” The Critical Theory dominant at many universities is really “indoctrination,” and “indoctrination not only isn’t teaching, it’s antithetical to teaching.” To combat this, we must recover freedom of speech “for everybody.” He referred to the writings of John Stuart Mill on free speech, which hold that it is critical both “for the truth seeking enterprise, as well as the democratic enterprise.” Free speech can be undermined by political authority, but also by the “tyranny of public opinion.” Unpopular opinions experience social sanction that intimidates people from expressing them. George said that the kind of “progressive secularism” which is now dominant on many college campuses is more militant and intolerant than any religion has been in living memory.
George said that we can break down “the tyranny of public opinion” simply “by questioning it; having the courage to stand up, speak out, question those dogmas.” If many people do this, it will be impossible for the partisans of political correctness to enforce their anti-speech regime. George said, however, that the pressure against free speech is worse “in the last couple of years” than it has been even in recent years, when political correctness has been present. Now forced speech is required of people to support the claims of Critical Theory. This, he said, distinguishes authoritarian regimes, which merely suppress speech, from totalitarian regimes, which require speech. George said that this is because totalitarians know that if people are forced to say something long enough, “they will come to believe it.”
The premise of the commission’s report, and George’s interview with Saunders – that there is truth independent of political struggles, and people hold rights independently of any government – is one that Christians must bear in mind as we move into the future and more and more people enter society with an education which is condemnatory of Western civilization. Our confidence and heart commitment must finally rest with God and his revelation.