In my media and faith class, we are reading a book by Clay Shirkey, Here Comes Everybody (New York: Penguin, 2008). Shirkey invites and reflects on participation in internet discourse by referring to us as “not just readers…but…members of the former audience.” (Shirkey, 10). I would like to respond by saying that for some in the Church, this is probably wishful thinking; some are still quite content to be the audience.
I’m very interested in issues of global human rights. I’m aware of various United Nations documents related to human rights. I’m also aware of how little policing of such rights exists in the world and how capriciously the subject is attended to (or not).
So I found an article a friend recently posted on Facebook of interest. Quite content to be the audience at the time, I did not post in response. It is a philosophical article by Michael Boylan in The New York Times Opinion Page, May 29, 2011. The article was about whether there are natural human rights, or whether human rights are merely a social construction, subject to the relativity of one’s location in the world. How we answer has significant implications.(You can read it at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/are-there-natural-human-rights/.)
This is an important discussion for both church and society. If we recognize human rights as only relative, then conversations about the denial of human rights in our reaction to the news (as with understanding the Holocaust or, more recently, the Arab Spring) really have no meaning, and governments can choose for themselves how they use power in relation to their citizens and neighbors. If the converse is true, then the “golden rule” applies and human rights ought to be internationally recognized and defensible. If there are no “natural human rights” (originating in what it means to be human), and if, as some say, there is no moral compass external to human nature (God, the Divine, etc), then all we have left are social constructs, and when we impose one social construct over another, we can fall prey to Machiavellian, Orwellian, colonial, imperial, and other indefensible social constructs that raise one group of human beings over others for utilitarian purposes.
The fact that this issue has become an international subject of discussion in the Times and, more importantly perhaps, propagated onto the web, is good news and ought to encourage the Church and have us sit up and take notice. Responders were quick to bring Plato, Bentham, and Maslow into the equation, but the idea of an external moral source was not commonly ascribed to.
A quick look at just a few of the comments posted (282) was interesting. Some expressed the opinion that the idea of natural human rights was absurd. One writer said that the idea of a true moral order is “grimly persistent” (“Sere”, May 29, in Comments). In the same place, “Ilya” responded that merely human (stateless) persons have no rights. A Zen Buddhist (“Musho”) reframed the question in terms of the causes of human suffering. “RPW” said the article was not philosophical but psychiatric, a symptom of our collective loss of love. Others cited the Founding Fathers relative to the Bill of Rights, spoke of rights as mere social contracts, or wandered into deep waters with Kierkegaardian and Hegelian discussions.
Of course, no one can respond to everything. And God does not need us to defend the Divine Existence and the Divine call for a true moral order, which, by the way I find to be wonderfully, not grimly, persistent. Still, I’m curious. Do we still hold with the Founding Fathers that there are self-evident human rights? If so, are they God-given? If so, what do we do about competing divine claims about human rights as expressed by the plethora of religious authorities Or, are they inherent to the nature of humanity? Or, are they social constructs and if so, do they have universal significance or are they relative only to their society? Are there, as the UN states, universal human rights? Are they real if we do not enforce them? How can they be enforced if they are not recognized? How do they apply to refugees and stateless people? In short, how would you respond to Boylan’s provocative question?