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Defending what matters: Human Rights Day

On Human Rights Day we celebrate the proclamation on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); and this is all very well and good. Members of the school’s very successful MUN proudly brandish their pocket-sized copies of the 30 Articles ready to defend themselves and others against the tyranny of evil; and this is all very well and good. When we speak of British Values which we hope will continue to shape the next generation of leaders coming from schools around the country, advocating Human Rights is amongst the priorities. All very well and good. But, where exactly do these rights come from? 

Students in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics often enlist the Utilitarian Principle of Utility when considering moral questions – whether in Year 8 when first taught about this idea or in the Year 10 Core PRE lessons wrestling with a multitude of Trolley Problem cases. It seems like a neat solution sometimes even though our ‘wrongness detector’ intuitions tend to display error messages with tricky cases, like saving the lives of many over one family member. The Sixth Form philosophers go back to the texts of the father of Utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham; a good old British Empiricist. It doesn’t take long before they discover that Bentham described natural rights as ‘nonsense on stilts’. Not only did he think that when you look ‘beyond the letters’ of the 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man you find nothing meaningful, but he claimed the idea of these natural rights were undesirable because they would lead to an individualism which would harm society as a whole. By the time our Sixth Form philosophers study modern virtue theory they are able to see how history is littered with conflicting moral theories and the ‘Enlightenment project’ seemingly failed to give a convincing rationalist account of why we should accept self-evident, often clashing truths, such as the right to life and the right to liberty. The Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously asserted in the 1980s that ‘there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with witches and in unicorns.’ 

Year 9 have been working on comparisons of the Christian principle of the Sanctity of Life and the Right to life, which issues from the Preamble of the UDHR. It was fascinating to hear them discussing the concept of human dignity as a seemingly obvious concept whilst still wrestling with the difficulty of interpreting what “made in the Image and likeness of God” could possibly mean. The inclusion of this phrase was debated over several days in the drafting of the UDHR along with references to Natural Law. Even though both were omitted, Christianity has a profound influence over the final wording not least perhaps because of Charles Malik, the Lebanese diplomat jointly responsible with Eleanor Roosevelt for drafting the document in 1948. Malik is an intriguing character – existentialist philosopher turned Thomist advocate of Natural Law morality. He was concerned with Human Rights being more than just legislation. 

The L6th IB Philosophers have been reading about this continuing dichotomy; are Human Rights a Natural Law or only conventions agreed in legal terms? Surely, slavery, torture and racial discrimination did not suddenly become human-rights violations only when they were legally prohibited? Do we have human-rights law in order to give force to rights that in some sense pre-exist the documents of 1789 or 1948? Our Year 7 classes this term began their philosophical journey grappling with the underlying question. They were asked to give reasons for the position of ‘laws’ (among other things such as love and numbers) on a reality scale. Most groups were adamant that we know laws exist because they are written down, but then just because something is written down does that make it real? Laws can be broken and then consequences follow. Is this what makes them real? It didn’t seem to convince all Year 7 that this means all laws are right even if they are in some sense real. 

In assembly, Rosa and Katie of the BGS Amnesty International Club did a brilliant job this week of showing us how Human Rights campaigns can make a difference in the world. To protect our commitment to human rights we cannot avoid engaging with the question of how these rights might be justified. There may be disagreement about how best to achieve justification but we cannot rest on the assumption that our culture probably just accepts them. The disagreement is healthy because it shows that what we are defending matters. This is not only the preserve of professional philosophers, just as Human Rights are not to be left only in the hands of politicians. John Tasioulas, Professor of Ethics and Law at Oxford University, described this as, ‘a process of public reasoning to which all citizens are called to contribute’. Maybe we could start with Year 7?

Richard Smith
Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics