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Who created human rights? (and why it's a problem for atheists)

It is 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations. Following his Big Conversation debate with Peter Singer, Andy Bannister says the document still poses a significant problem for atheists

On the 3rd July 1884, four sailors aboard a yacht, the Mignonette, encountered a terrible Atlantic storm. The yacht sank, leaving them stranded in a tiny wooden lifeboat.With little food and no water, by their eighth day adrift they were desperate and so made the fateful decision to kill the cabin boy. For four more days until their rescue, the three surviving sailors fed on the cabin boy’s body.

When they returned to England and the story broke, it scandalised the nation and the survivors were charged with murder and made to stand trial.

If you were the judge, what would you do? After all, the story leads to two possible conclusions. The first is purely utilitarian: one person was killed, three people survived. And the cabin boy, unlike the older sailors, had no dependants; his death left no grieving children.

But I suspect few readers would agree with that option. Most of us have a more visceral reaction: what those three sailors did was fundamentally wrong, because they violated the cabin boy’s human rights and dignity.

Free and equal 

Whether it’s a small crime against humanity (the murder of a cabin boy under desperate circumstances) or a major one (the Rwandan genocide or Stalin’s Russia), most people have the same reaction: it is wrong to violate the dignity of another human being. This year is the 70th anniversary of the document that most famously encapsulates this idea: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations on 10th December 1948 in Paris.

The UDHR opens with these powerful words: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

We’re passionate about human rights, we award Nobel Prizes for them, but a fairly basic question is often overlooked. These rights, this dignity that human beings are claimed to have – where is it located? What  is its basis, its foundation? In short, however noble the UDHR may sound, is it true?

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights

These are trickier questions to answer than you might imagine, and the options are limited. Perhaps one might suggest that human rights just are; they just exist. This was the route taken by the secular human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell whom I once debated on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? show. Tatchell is passionate about human rights, but when I pressed him on why we have them, he basically said they exist because they exist. This is hugely problematic, not just because it’s a circular argument, but because the racist can use the same rationale – they can claim to be superior to other races and when we ask why, reply: “I am because I am.”

Another popular secular route is to try to find something special about human beings: perhaps the fact we have speech, or consciousness, or creativity. Again, as part of ‘The Big Conversation’ series from Unbelievable?, I recently dialogued with one of the most famous atheist philosophers in the world who holds this position. Peter Singer is famous, firstly, for his commitment to utilitarianism – we pick our actions based on what causes the least suffering or promotes the greatest happiness (so cabin boy casserole is very much a real option). But in our conversation Singer also said that what gives us rights and dignity is not that we are human, but that we have the ability to have preferences for the future, and that we can act in accordance with those preferences.

There is a grave problem with trying to ground rights and dignity in somebody’s abilities. Even leading atheist Sam Harris has pointed it out: “The problem is that whatever attribute we use to differentiate between humans and animals – intelligence, language use, moral sentiments, and so on – will equally differentiate between human beings themselves. If people are more important to us than orangutans because they can articulate their interests, why aren’t more articulate people more important still? And what about those poor men and women with aphasia? It would seem that we have just excluded them from our moral community.”

Now the options are getting more limited. Maybe we can say that human rights exist because they matter to me; because they’re personally important to us. The problem, of course, is that when Martin Luther King cries “I have a dream!” in his famous civil rights speech, how do we answer the person who says: “I’m glad you care; but personally I don’t.” Isn’t the point about rights and dignity that we should all care? We need more than mere personal preference.

The last option is to appeal to the state: human rights exist because the government grants them. The problem here is that if rights are something the state gives, the state can equally take them away. In 1857, an African-American slave named Dred Scott sued his owner for his freedom. The US Supreme Court ruled against Scott, the Justices stating that as a “negro”, he did not possess rights.

We hear a story like that, 150 years on, and wince with shame at how our ancestors behaved. But if human rights and dignity are just arbitrary inventions that the state confers, then the state can equally arbitrarily take them away. Tax deductions today, rights deductions tomorrow.

Invented or discovered? 

So how do we solve the problem that many of us are committed to human rights but we can’t ground human rights? Well, the first thing to say is we need to get beyond preference. There’s a huge temptation today to see morals, values and choices as just our personal preference.

I was surprised to discover that even Singer drifts this way at times. I reminded him during our conversation of the passage in his famous book, Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press), where he basically admits there isn’t really a way to differentiate between a life spent stamp-collecting, a life spent watching football, or a life spent helping the poor. If ethics is just something we make up, then I can see why he is stuck here.

But what if ethics, human rights and human dignity aren’t made up? One of the brilliant insights that the world leaders, philosophers and theologians who crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had was the assumption that human rights and dignity aren’t invented but discovered. During our conversation, Singer actually admitted this, remarking that he increasingly thinks that moral values and duties exist independently of us, in a “similar way to mathematical truths existing”.

There’s a huge temptation today to define morals as just our personal preference

That’s a massive step for an atheist like Singer to take, for it means that as well as physical things (atoms, particles, tables, chairs, chocolate éclairs etc) you also have invisible, non-physical entities floating around, principles such as “love your neighbour”. For somebody like Singer, who believes human beings are the unpurposed product of time plus chance plus natural selection, this looks remarkably peculiar. As I put it to him in our dialogue: it must have been an interesting day on the Serengeti all those thousands of years ago when one of our ancient hominid ancestors woke up to discover themselves bound not just by the law of gravity, but also by the law of “do not murder”. Was their first thought: “Hoorah! I’m now a moral agent!”, or “Bummer, now I can’t whack the hominid in the next door cave over the head and steal his lunch”?

By contrast, the Christian view of what it means to be a human being and a bearer of rights and dignity starts from a very different place. Christians ground human rights in the incredible truth, proclaimed in texts like Genesis 1:26-27, that human beings bear the image of God, the imago dei. Incidentally, that idea is unique to the Bible. It’s not found in Islam, or Hinduism or Buddhism – it’s a uniquely Judaeo-Christian concept.

Many atheists throughout history have reluctantly recognised this is a far better foundation for human rights than attempting to arbitrarily ground value and dignity in other places. Some of them have also raised the next obvious question of what happens to value and dignity if you pull God out as the foundation. The 19th Century German atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (who hated Christian ethics as he felt it elevated the weak and the poor) was brutally honest: “The masses blink and say ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.”

So, there is a stark choice: one can adopt a Christian understanding of humanity – that we have real value and real dignity, because we are made in God’s image. Or you can reject that narrative, ignore the consequences, refuse to answer Nietzsche and pretend everything is OK.

The Big Conversation

Should we end the lives of severely disabled children?

Moral philosopher Peter Singer (PS, pictured left) has provoked controversy among disability rights campaigners. In this edited excerpt from his debate with Andy Bannister (AB, pictured right), hosted by Justin Brierley (JB), he defends the practice of euthanasia for children born with severe disabilities.

PS: Perhaps we should look at this term ‘dignity’ first. An anencephalic is an infant born with only a brainstem but no cortex, so no capacity for consciousness. An anencephalic won’t recognise his or her mother, is not capable of experiencing or feeling anything at all.

Now, compare that with a chimpanzee or a horse. Why should we think that this human, who could have no experiences, has more dignity than the chimpanzee or the horse or the dog who can respond in so many complex ways to their environment?

JB: So you disagree with the declaration that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”?

PS: That’s right. There are exceptions.

JB: What do you think about human dignity, Andy?

AB: Peter, while you take examples of human beings who are born profoundly disabled, I still think you’d recognise they had a degree of dignity. If you met a parent of a child born like that, who was proposing not just committing infanticide but then chopping the corpse into little bits and frying them on the barbecue, you’d think that there has been a failure of moral reasoning. Even in that tragedy there is a degree of dignity.

Some of the great ethicists like Hobbes, Locke and Kant argued that equality is not grounded in an ability that you have or you don’t have. That leads to a sliding scale that says: “Maybe rationality is what grants people inclusion in moral community.” Well, you’re a brilliant philosopher – if we put you up next to Justin and we have to make a choice [to keep just one of them], Justin may not be part of that.

JB: I’d be mincemeat!

PS: We could just say there is a minimal threshold…

AB: We could go that route or we could go the route of Hobbes and Kant and others of intrinsic human dignity. In terms of animal rights and justice for the animal kingdom, that’s also grounded in human dignity because I have a duty to the animal kingdom to treat it in a particular way.

PS: Do you think that your duties to the anencephalic are grounded in some rights?

AB: I think all human beings, whether they have capabilities or they don’t, belong to the human family and with that come rights and dignity. So I would agree with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Watch the full debate between Andy Bannister and Peter Singer

Where are we going? 

But one last thought. If human beings have dignity, why should that affect how we behave? Suppose you are walking down your local high street when a passer-by trips you up, pokes you in the eye, and steals your Starbucks. “Hey!” you cry. “I have dignity! How dare you!” And they look at you and say: “So what?” How can you compel them to take your rights seriously?

You see, you can’t talk about rights without talking about duties. What is our duty towards a dignity-bearer, towards a fellow human, and why? That question opens a whole new can of worms. Is there a way we are supposed to be? Are some actions really wrong, and some really right? Harvard University law professor, Michael Sandel says: “Debates about justice and rights are often, unavoidably, debates about purpose...Despite our best efforts to make law neutral on such questions, it may not be possible to say what’s just without arguing about the nature of the good life.”

Sandel’s observation gets to the heart of what it means to be a human being. Are we creatures designed to seek justice, goodness and fairness? Or are we just primates that got lucky in the evolutionary lottery and whose genes are purely directed at reproductive success?

This was a topic that Singer and I returned to many times in our ‘Big Conversation’ (see dialogue box above). I remarked to Peter that it’s all very well calling a book Practical Ethics, but that only goes so far. Imagine that I get home from a trip and I say to my wife: “Hey, I just bought this amazing book, Practical Canoeing, at the airport!” Next day I load my wife and children into a canoe and start paddling out into the North Sea. “What precisely is the plan?” my wife begins to ask, increasingly insistently. To which I keep replying: “Honey, stop asking silly questions! Can’t you see how wonderful this canoe is? It’s so practical.” Finally, she shouts at me: “But where are we going?”

Practical ethics, utilitarianism, human rights, and so forth – all these things are all very well, but unless we ask what the purpose of a human life is, what we are supposed to be, what we are supposed to be aiming at, we really will just end up paddling in circles.

If Christianity is true, love is the supreme ethic

As the conversation with Singer shows, if you ultimately believe that the universe is just atoms in motion, that there is nothing intrinsically valuable about human beings, and if some humans have more value than others, because the metric you use to measure ‘worth’ or ‘personhood’ assigns them a greater score, then you have a problem.

But by stark, beautiful contrast, if the Christian story is true, then we were made with a purpose. We were made for something. Indeed, made for someone. We were made to discover God’s love, to love God in return, and to love our neighbour. If Christianity is true, love is the supreme ethic – that’s what it means to be human and it gives a value, a purpose, a direction to human life – and a basis not just for human rights but also for our duties to one another.

This is why atheists face such a sharp dilemma. Only if the Christian story is true do humans have dignity and worth. And only on that basis can you talk meaningfully about rights and about responsibilities. Who created human rights? The one who created humans.

Watch Peter Singer and Andy Bannister's Big Conversation

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