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Human rights have no foundation

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 12 July 2013

This article follows from Peter Sellick's previous article Truth, justice and human rights

Atheists that insist that God can only be conceived as a supernatural being have hijacked the topic of God and his existence. Framed in this way it is obvious that God is conceived as a part of nature and, as such, evidence must be provided for his existence, as one would require evidence for the existence of another moon of Jupiter. This process involves an objectification of God that is forbidden in the traditions of the Church and obscures God as existential truth. This is an amazing sleight of hand that can only hold in the complete ignorance of biblical texts.

Another reason that talk about God is forbidden is because such talk is understood to be exclusive; it is true only for the believer. By contrast, human rights are understood to be universal; they do not depend upon religious affiliation. This universal language is understood to be the panacea for sectarian strife. At last we can forget all of the religious rivalries that were so damaging in the past and gather under the umbrella of human rights and all of the evil in the world will be vanquished.


Human rights have no foundation; they are, as Jeremy Bentham remarked "nonsense on stilts". They have displaced an understanding of justice that has been central to our society from the beginning. While a discussion of the origins of law in the West would include influences from Roman Law I suggest that a key concept was derived from verses in the book of Genesis; specifically, the proclamation that God created humankind in his own image. (Gen.1:27) This is supported as the basis of just dealing with others in the covenant with Noah: "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed; for in his own image God created humankind." (Gen 9:6) Although we might recoil at the capital punishment recommended, our law does reflect the unique status of every person. An offence against any person is an offence against God; it is an offence against the truth. We can contrast this with the language of human rights in which the person is protected from offence via his human rights. We do not say that a person is abused but that his human rights are abused. This essentially removes the person and covers only those things that have been named as rights. Injustice takes on an abstract quality divorced from the actual suffering caused by injustice.

It would seem that a secularised society could not fall back on what is understood to be a religious foundation for justice, i.e. that all are made in the image of God. But this conclusion has to assume that religious foundations are devoid of truth despite their long heritage and the fact that our justice system continues to rely on them. Human rights, on the other hand, seem to have no foundation except utopian fantasy. While justice is embedded in a community and upheld by a community for the good of all, rights are manufactured, often in the United Nations, and float down from on high. As such, they require support, usually from international bodies who are distant from the community's reality. If we are to escape from the notion of human rights we will have to begin by thinking about the truth that pertains to human existence and thriving.

Pilate, in the gospel of John, asks "What is truth?" He does so before Jesus who says "everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." The irony in the gospel is that Jesus is proclaimed to be the truth and that Pilate does not see that which stands before him. We, in the age of late modernity, ask the same question as Pilate because our doubt, instituted to protect the truth, has demolished any understanding of what truth may mean.

The statement that Jesus is the truth is related to the question of truth that we find in the humanities rather than the truth derived from empirical investigation into the objective world. This is not a matter of evidence as is propositional truth but a matter of identification that is connected with the concept of beauty or grace. For most of us this kind of truth may be discussed in relation to the dramatic arts, although the other arts can be included. We can recognise the difference between escapist action movies in which many bad people are killed and the hero escapes unscathed physically and emotionally and drama that reveals some groped-for truth about our lives. While the former may provide entertainment or distraction, the latter will build in us a more solid ground of the human. This is not just about the intellect, although it is that too, truth and beauty are attractive to us. This constitutes an aesthetic foundation of the self that is derived from outside of ourselves. Thus art becomes transformative.

For such a response to occur we must first believe that it might. While Enlightenment rationality insists on radical doubt until the evidence for a proposition is overwhelming, the rationality of faith (we will call it) demands belief first of all. We believe in order to know. This is what Enlightenment rationality set out to eliminate and it has almost succeeded. In this regard the Enlightenment has been misnamed. When we venture into the artistic we must open ourselves to revelation, the hope that something truthful will be revealed to us. Without that hope, that believing in order to see, we would never be influenced by great art and our lives would be the poorer.

Rational ethical theories have been found wanting for many reasons. They require complex categorization of actions that are often inconsistent with our affect. A reliance on highly cerebral analysis contained in an overarching ethical system is unlikely to gain traction and to be irrelevant when spur of the moment action is essential. We went through a time in which we thought that the behaviour of the leaders of industry would improve if we sent them to courses in ethics. Then came the GFC and it was found that many in financial services blindly did what was necessary to improve the bottom line even when their clients, for whom they were responsible, suffered. But behaviour does not spring from an understanding of ethics, whatever that may be; behaviour springs from deeper sources. It comes from who we have become. We do not have to think about it. Becoming, contrary to the thought of the Enlightenment, requires an immersion in true narratives of the human that teach us who we are. These narratives are attractive to us. There is something attractive about Miss Bennett's final response to Mr. Darcy that we find admirable and emotionally satisfying. We learn to become human through true narratives of the human. This is where spontaneous feeling and action spring.


In a like manner, the gospels are attractive to us. The trajectory of this nobody from Nazareth from wandering preacher to last supper to betrayal and rigged trial and execution is a drama that stays with us and informs us of the truth and the lie. While all true narrative does this, and they are true because they do, the story of Jesus is perhaps the prototype and the most profound. For in the passion narrative we find played out in a drama the collision between the truth and the lie. Contrary to Pilate we are bid to see the truth embodied in the actions of a man. Surely this is a fine foundation for our understanding of the things unseen, of what is true and just.

It is this realization that makes it possible to believe that Christ not only stands for the truth but also is the truth. The astonishing rise of early Christianity and the fall of the ancient idols that had captured the hearts of men and women, bears witness to the power of its truth. People did not become Christian because it was rational, they were attracted to it. It was beautiful to them.

It may be said that I have replaced the subjectivity of the autonomous rational self with that of the believer. For the former, subjectivity is thought to be cut off from external "brain washing" and secured by methodological doubt. Such a one must invent himself from the ground up using his own rationality. The subjectivity of the latter, the believer, if you like, is formed in a tradition of understanding much older and wiser than himself. It is a tradition, founded in ancient Israel, of learning from experience about the connection between truth and human being. The fatal move of Enlightenment thought was radical doubt and isolation. This was nothing less, in biblical terms, than the death of the soul. It has left us to limp along in a liberalism that is easily exposed as illiberal because it forbids certain ideas; that we are not the author of our own lives, that we are created in another's image and that we receive life not as a personal project but as a gift. The triumphant proclamation of freedom and choice has become tired because it leads only to more isolation. We are eternally directed towards the self and there is no room for the neighbour, the other.

What are we to conclude from all of this? The thought of the Enlightenment has brought us a mixed blessing. While the material advantage is obvious, what is less obvious is the crippling of the human soul to the point that we can no longer think about truth and justice. Human triumphalism, the proclamation of freedom and choice is a chimera to the extent that the only comfort to hand is to consume. However, like all consumption it has begun to stale and life is in danger of becoming unpalatable.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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