In order to discuss human rights in any meaningful way it is vital that the very premise that humans are entitled to such rights be defensible in a rational and universal manner. One defense of this universality of human rights is the claim that human life is “sacred”, that we are all members of the human family in a way that transcends religion or any personal and subjective creed. This “sacredness” bestows humans with an “inherent dignity” and guarantees them basic rights. Indeed this very language is used in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself. The use of this language did not go unnoticed to American scholar Michael J. Perry. Perry claims that the idea that every human being is ‘sacred’ and therefore entitled to basic rights is – to use his own words – ineliminably religious and cannot be successfully defended through strictly secular arguments. Perry’s argument is not so much that human rights are God-given but that the defense of human rights by means of the argument that they are sacred – in a nonreligious way – is flawed. Perry, in his book “Legal Rights – Historical and Philosophical Perspectives,” goes about demonstrating his claim mainly through an ontological approach to the definition of terms such sacred, inherent dignity, religious, and non-religious.
A conversation about human rights, religion, and reason will often end up in a debate about the “meaning of life.” It is an inescapable existential confrontation that many of us encounter regardless of our declared stance on religion. Questions surrounding the meaning of life may be as basic as “where do we come from”, or “why are we here”, or “is this life all that there is?” The inevitable crossroads of this search are two simple possible answers: a religious path and a non-religious one. The religious path encapsulates a “trust that the world is finally meaningful, meaningful in a way hospitable to our deepest yearnings” (Sarat, 212). Regardless of which religion, it is a belief in meaning. This is not a redefinition of the term nor a distortion of its meaning. The very word “religion” derives from the Latin verb religare, which means to bind together again that which was once bound but has since been torn or broken” (Sarat, 212). Whether this reconnection is with “God” or with an impersonal cosmological origin, the result is the possibility of making sense of life. Suddenly, consolation to suffering is possible. Reconciliation becomes possible. A sense of happiness, itself, is possible. Lastly, morality becomes possible, “[i]ndeed, in one or another version the [moral] conviction is embedded in more than one religious cosmology” (Sarat, 215). Now that we have described and examined “religion” and the religious approach, let us examine the non-religious approach.
If religion is a connection with meaning, would it not follow that non-religion is the absence of such a connection? The fundamentals of the non-religious approach may be best summarized by its – perhaps accidental – proponents: Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Clarence Darrow, and Jürgen Habermas. Perry, addressing the existence of morality in a Godless universe, quotes German philosopher and nihilist Nietzsche in saying “Naivete: as if morality could survive when the God who sanctions it is missing” (Sarat, 230). In another passage, Perry quotes Glenn Tinder:
Nietzsche shows that we cannot … give up the Christian God – and the transcendence given other names in other faiths – and go on as before. We must give up Christian morality too. (Sarat, 229)
Nietzsche is not alone in this vision. American attorney and scholar Clarence Darrow, who famously debated Christian author and thinker G.K Chesterton on the topic of religion argued, as an atheist, the nothingness of life. Again, Perry quotes another author who describes Darrow’s meaning – or lack of meaning – in life as a “ship on the sea, tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed for no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot; simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves” (Sarat, 231). Indeed, if this is how atheists themselves describe life, then there seems to be a consensus about what the secular vision professes: a world with no meaning, no purpose, and no objective morality.
Now that religious and non-religious have been properly defined, it is time to address the question of “sacredness” and “inherent dignity.” If we say that humans have inherent dignity, we are saying that they are born with it, that they did not acquire it by their own merit, and that they cannot be stripped of it. We say that human beings possess this “intrinsically”. Perry further argues then that a human being’s intrinsic value assumes that humans are the object of value and therefore some “one” or some “entity” values them in non-ambivalent way. In Perry’s own words, “[t]o say that something has intrinsic value is to say, not that something has value even if it has no value for anyone … but that something has value for someone (or something) not merely as a means to an end but as an end in itself” (Sarat, 235). The final part of his quote is important because it distinguishes between “intrinsic” and “instrumental” value and this distinction is central to Perry’s position. The argument that the intrinsic value of man is sufficient to consider him “sacred” or possessing “inherent dignity” is flawed in Perry’s view. Consider a world with only a single person. Could this person possess intrinsic value and therefore be considered sacred and bearer of “inherent dignity” if he were alone in the world? To whom would he be valuable? To himself? This would be a “subjective” evaluation and not an “objective” evaluation. Semantically it is impossible. In Perry’s view, the missing link is “God” and religion. Only through religion would it be possible to reconcile this definition. Furthermore, only as “beloved child[ren] of God” (Sarat, 235) can we make any sense of the call to “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” and the claim that we are “all members of the human family” that we read in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In a sense, however, this entire question about “objectivity” in the terms used seems to have taken a somewhat circular turn. After all, these definitions might resonate with anyone who remembers Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. This eleventh century philosopher claimed – in a nutshell – that because we can conceive the concept of God, He must exist. In choosing to define “intrinsic value” as something that must be necessarily the “target” of someone else’s or something else’s value, Perry creates his own need for a “God” and therefore religion. Many of us would simply define “intrinsic value” as something that is ascribed even if no one attributes it. If we do not all agree on this definition, then we arrive at a stalemate in the debate. Moreover, could we not say that even Nietzsche’s attempt to explain the world is a search for meaning and therefore a religion in itself? Arguably, by Perry’s definition, it could since in this case “no meaning” is the ultimate meaning. Finally, the question posed earlier – “would it not follow that non-religion is the absence of such a connection” – contains a logical fallacy: the absence of something does not necessarily prove the existence of something else.
Now, none of this “God talk”, as Perry calls it, precludes an attempt at an intelligent and credible non-religious definition of sacred. One such attempt by American scholar Ronald Dworkin is exemplified in Perry’s text. Dworkin claims that “every human being is sacred is not, for me, a religious tenet; [that] it is a secular but deep philosophical belief” (Sarat, 232). How does Dworkin define “sacred”? Perry quotes Dworkin directly in saying that a singly human life “commands respect and protection” not because the “process that produces[s] new lives from old ones” is awe-inspiring and evokes “our wonder” (Sarat, 237). Now certainly most of us probably agree with the statement that life is indeed awe-inspiring, but this statement is inescapably subjective and insufficient to be considered a universal tenet. After all, slavery – in it’s countless historical examples – is an ultimate example of how this tenet fails. In the end, what is awe-inspiring to one person may not be awe-inspiring to another.
Sarat, Austin, and Thomas R. Kearns. “Is the Idea of Human Rights Ineliminably Religious.” 1996. Legal Rights: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1997. 204-52. Print.