Jul 22, 2011

Human Rights: Secular or Religious?

Anat Biletzki's recent Stone column purports to argue for a secular rather than religious foundation for human rights. While she raises some interesting issues, I don't think she succeeds in undermining theistic foundations for human rights.

For Biletzki, if human rights, i.e. "the rights humans are due simply by virtue of being human," have a theistic foundation, then:
(1) "it is not the concept of [human] rights that propels the religious person" in respecting the rights of others, since human rights stem from human beings' being created in the image of God;
(2) Human rights are completely subject to divine will or command ("if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it.")

(1) is simply a non sequitur. It conflates a claim about what grounds rights with what should motivate us to respect rights. Just as utilitarians can say that agents need not always aim at maximizing utility, so the religious human rights theorist can say that agents need not have any religious content to their thoughts and motivations pertaining to respecting human rights.

(2) shows a complete disregard of the landscape of theistic ethics, assuming that any such ethics must be completely voluntaristic. It's also plainly inconsistent with (1). If, for the religious rights theorist, we have rights in virtue of being created in God's image, it would seem to follow that our rights are not revisable by divine will. It's not as if the property of being created in God's image can simply be revoked by God! 

A more general worry is that Biletzki portrays religious human rights as alienated from our humanity, since they are in some sense dependent on God, whereas she thinks secular human rights are more intimately connected with our humanity. But that's actually very unclear. If human rights are rights we are owed "simply by virtue of being human," then it's unclear how the features of humanity that Biletzki emphasizes (our "reason," "emotion," and "compassion") are any closer to human nature as such than being created in God's image. Those properties, after all, aren't distinctively human, whereas the religious theorist might argue that being created in God's image is a distinctively human property. If we want rights to be closely connected to our nature, we may thus be better off on a religious conception of rights-- or, at least, not necessarily worse off.

Finally, while Biletzki frames her essay as an exploration of what grounds or explains human rights, she ends up saying that there isn't really a foundation at all-- rather, an "axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic" reflection on "humanity and its fragility and its resilience" gets human rights off the ground. Not only does this sound tautologous-- we have human rights, which by definition we have by being human, in virtue of being human!-- the case now looks even worse for the secular human rights theorist. Whereas the religious theorist has a rich theory to offer about the grounding of human rights, it looks like the secular theorist on Biletzki's view must resort to dogmatism. And if our human rights theory is so impoverished, it's a deep mystery how we are to go on with our "discussion, disagreement, and questioning" about human rights. If all we can point to when explaining human rights is our mere humanity, then what sets the ground rules for the discussion? What will determine whether this or that is a human right, or no right at all? Without answers to these questions, we don't have a theory of human rights at all.

Update: For another take on Biletzki's column, check out Duncan's post at Language Goes on Holiday.
There is also a discussion over at On the Human.

Anat Biletzki has now responded to me and other commenters at On the Human, and I have some follow up remarks in a new post.


  1. Maybe this is not important for your argument, but my understanding is that a big part of the idea of being "made in the image of God" is that we have the gift of reason. God is the Logos, and we resemble Him in that we have reason. We also have love, but that's not completely separate from having reason, actually.

  2. R.d.,

    Right, the capacity to reason is often seen as a key part of being made in the imago dei. It's helpful to make it concrete, I think. For the religious rights theorist who thinks of reason as the imago dei, as long as humans exist and have reason, we will be in the imago dei and so (according to their view) we will have rights. There is no room in this picture for God to modify or revoke human rights at will, contrary to Anat Biletzki's claim in her Stone piece.