The Sacred and the Humane

Human Rights are all the rage. They have become, currently, a very popular arena for both political activism and rampant discourse. Human rights, as we all know, are the rights humans are due simply by virtue of being human. But there is nothing simple here, since both “human” and “rights” are concepts in need of investigation.

One deep philosophical issue that invigorates debates in human rights is the question of their foundation and justification, the question “where do human rights come from, and what grounds them?” There are two essentially different approaches to answering that question — the religious way and the secular, or philosophical, way. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in 1993 (“Life Is Sacred: That’s the Easy Part”) Ronald Dworkin put this very succinctly: “We almost all accept … that human life in all its forms is sacred—that it has intrinsic and objective value quite apart from any value it might have to the person whose life it is. For some of us, this is a matter of religious faith; for others, of secular but deep philosophical belief.” A good representative of the first camp is the religious historian and educator R. H. Tawney: “The essence of all morality is this: to believe that every human being is of infinite importance, and therefore that no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another. But to believe this it is necessary to believe in God.”

The second, non-religious grounding of human rights, is harder to give voice to by a single representative since there is a multiplicity of distinct, non-religious groundings of human rights. But think again of Dworkin’s words. We all accept, he says, that human life is sacred. By using that word — sacred — he seems to have already put the ball in the religious field. And that field, the field of the sacred as opposed to the mundane, plays a straightforward game, claiming that the only possible answer to the question of the foundations of human rights is the religious answer. Only by positing a divine creator of everything (including human beings) can we give a satisfactory account of the sacredness of human beings, of why we “deserve” or “are entitled” to something that derives from our being just that — sacred human beings.

On this view, any highfaluting philosophical concept that is called upon to be a comparable base for human rights is no more than a religious foundation clothed in secular garb; it is really just God by any other name. Thus, in a recent book, The Idea of Human Rights, Michael Perry is unequivocal about the worthlessness of the secular bunch: “[T]here is, finally, no intelligible (much less persuasive) secular version of the conviction that every human being is sacred; the only intelligible versions are religious.” Think of conspicuous elements in the vocabulary of human rights, the notions of “dignity,” “inviolable,” “end in himself” and the like. Although we try to give them meaning and standing without a turn to religious essence, these terms hold no secular water according to thinkers like Perry. There can be no human dignity, no inviolable person, no end in herself, without the supposition of the human as sacred, and therefore as a godly creation.

There is, however, no philosophically robust reason to accept this claim. True, the religious answer is straightforward and clear-cut. True, philosophical theorizing on the foundations of human rights in particular, and morality in general, may be complex, or nuanced, or even convoluted. True, the word “sacred” carries religious connotations. But that could just be a manner of speaking — and dignity and inviolability certainly do not need to be tied down to the sacred.

Aristotelian virtue and natural justice or the Kantian categorical imperative (arising from reason, of course) offer philosophical bases for morality at large. Theories of human needs, human interests and human agency provide analytical foundations for the idea of human rights. And then there is Hart’s one natural right — the equal right to be free; Gewirth’s turn to human action and logic; Sen and Nussbaum’s talk of basic human capabilities, and oh-so-many others, all affording humanistic starting points for the human dignity at the base of human rights that need nary a wink at religion. There is also a legitimate and, to my mind, strong critique of the individualism guiding the liberal idea of human rights that enjoins us to rethink our mantras regarding the autonomous self who is the “human.” That these are intricate and sometimes problematic, that they might be in tension with, even contradict, each other, that we must do considerable analytic and philosophical work in their explication does not cancel out their equal profundity — equal to religion, that is — in justifying human rights.

What difference does it make? Beyond the theoretical discussions on human rights, — What grounds them theoretically? What justifies them theoretically? What legal implications do they carry theoretically? — there is the “so what?” question. Why do we care, or why should we care, if the practice of human rights is born of religious or secular motivation?

Take a look at how we work on the ground, so to speak; look at how we do human rights, for example, in Israel–Palestine. When Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the leader of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, squats in the mud trying to stop soldiers who have come to set a blockade around a village or fights settlers who have come to uproot olive trees (as he has done so often, in villages like Yanoun and Jamain and Biddu, in the last decade) along with me (from B’Tselem — the Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), or a group of secular kids from Anarchists Against the Wall, or people from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions — and he does this on a Friday afternoon, knowing full well that he might be courting religious transgression should the Sabbath arrive — does it matter that his reasons for doing so spring from his faith while the anarchists’ derive from their secular political worldview and B’Tselem’s and ICAHD’s from secular international human rights law? The end-product, the human rights activity, is similar, even identical; but the reason, the intention, the motivation for it are distinctly different. Does that matter?

I think it does. I dare say that religion, even when indirectly in the service of human rights, is not really working for human rights. Although there is recognition of the human as sacred, it is not the concept of rights that propels the religious person. For him, the human status of sacredness draws from divine creation and directive, from man (and woman) having been created in God’s image, and therefore has nothing to do with a human right. As Jack Donnelly says in “Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice,” “ ‘Traditional’ societies…typically have had elaborate systems of duties…conceptions of justice, political legitimacy, and human flourishing that sought to realize human dignity, flourishing, or well-being entirely independent of human rights. These institutions and practices are alternative to, rather than different formulations of, human rights”.

The question, we have seen, is what functions as the source of moral authority, assuming that “human rights” are morally based. Hilary Putnam, in “Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life,” says it beautifully: “Every human being should experience him/herself as commanded to be available to the neediness, the suffering, the vulnerability of the other person.” But notice Putnam’s terminology: “commanded.” Who commands us? The question boils down to who or what is the source of moral authority, God or the human being, religion or ethics? I want to say that that makes a great difference. And I want to ask: If we — the religious person and the secular person — end up engaging in the same activity and also, more so, do it by thinking of ourselves as available to another’s neediness, why does it make a difference?

The problem arises not when we act together, but rather when we don’t. Or put differently, when we act together, the problem stays in the realm of theory, providing fodder for the philosophical game of human rights. It is when we disagree — about abortion, about capital punishment, about settling occupied lands — that the religious authority must vacate the arena of human rights. This is not to say that all religious people hold the same views on these issues or that secular persons are always in agreement (although opinion polls, for whatever they are worth, point to far more unity of thought on the religious side). It is rather that an internal, secular debate on issues that pertain to human rights is structurally and essentially different from the debate between the two camps. In the latter, the authority that is conscripted to “command” us on the religious side is God, while on the secular side it is the human, with her claim to reason, her proclivity to emotion, and her capacity for compassion. In a sense, that is no commandment at all. It is a turn to the human, and a (perhaps axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic) posit of human dignity, that turns the engine of human rights, leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning without ever deserting that first posit. The parallel turn to God puts our actions under his command; if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it. There is no meaning to human rights under divine commandment. A deep acceptance of divine authority — and that is what true religion demands — entails a renunciation of human rights if God so wills. Had God’s angel failed to call out — “Abraham! Abraham!” — Abraham would have slain Isaac.

There might seem to be a dogmatic anti-religiosity arising from my reluctance to admit religion as a legitimate player in the human rights game. I have been using “religion” all along in, you might say, a very conservative, traditional way. Philosophers of religion and anthropologists have opened up the study of religion to recognize a variety of religious experience, religion as a form of life, religion as a cultural framework, religion as a system of symbols, a religious phenomenology, etc. Adopting a certain view on religion or a specific definition of religion is hugely pertinent to how one sees human rights functioning in a religious context. Let me, then, make explicit the definition of religion at the root of my unrest: Religion is a system of myth and ritual; it is a communal system of propositional attitudes — beliefs, hopes, fears, desires — that are related to superhuman agents. This very common definition (recently recognized in academic circles as that of “The Dartmouth School”), along with several essential terms (“myth,” “ritual,” “communal,” “propositional”), asserts the unconditional “superhuman agents,” i.e., God(s), that are necessary for the divorce I espouse between religion and human rights. Other perceptions of religion that are “God-less,” would not, perhaps, suffer the same fate.

And, you may say, what about the wonder of religion, the majestic awe that encompasses the religious person when confronted by a spiritual revelation that motivates and “regulates for in all his life”? (This was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “definition” of religion.) Can secular morals live up to that type of enchantment? Is there not something about secular rationalism that conduces rather to skepticism, fallibility and indifference than to the kind of awesome respect for the sacred human being that comes with religion? Here I have no choice than to turn to dogmatism — call it Kantian dogmatism: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” For some, the physics that runs the natural world and the ethics that provide for our moral sense are seen to be more ordinary than religious experience. I, on the other hand, can think of nothing more awe inspiring than humanity and its fragility and its resilience.

12 comments to The Sacred and the Humane

  • I am grateful for Professor Biletzki’s attention to my work, but the book she describes as “recent” — The Idea of Human Rights — is not so recent: It was published in 1998. For my my recent, ongoing work on the issues Professor Biletzki discusses, see these two papers:

    The Grounds of Human Rights,

    What Is a “Human Right”?,

    Michael Perry
    Emory University

  • I appreciate Ms. Beletzki’s article very much, but I do think it’s based on a caricature of religion, one that, admitedly, many who are “religious” perpetuate. It is better to think of religion less as supernatural agents commanding for the sake of reward and more like artistic traditions. Even in the midst of their ugly histories, there are strands within the history of religions that are traditions of thinking of all that is possible for the human being, especially in terms of love, compassion and forgiveness. Much like an artist engages in practices to be a particular kind of artist, the point of the religious is to engage in practices in the hope of experiencing an immanent transcendence. So Ms. Beletzki may be right that religion may actually not have anything to do with the contractual notion of rights—a necessary mode of perpetual distance between humans; but, not for the reasons she states.

  • Bob Fine

    I thank Ms. Beletzki for clearly pointing out how the essential authoritarianism of traditional God-centered religious belief eventually undercuts an unequivocal acceptance of human equality and human rights.

    Once, when I was teaching in an internationally-known Jewish adult education program, a Philadelphia rabbi teaching the same course sent out advice on how all Jews could enhance their understanding of “being Jewish” by studying Samuel 1. The chapter describes the reason Saul lost his kingship for disobeying God’s command, which was to “… attack Amalek …. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings ….” until they have been “exterminated.”

    I asked the rabbi if, with our awareness of the Holocaust, he would take part in genocidal activity if his God commanded him to do it. His prompt response was an untroubled “of course I would,” after which I expressed my deep shame at being associated with him in the same teaching program.

    The spirit of obedience, which was said rabbi’s key concern, is shared by billions of God-oriented people around the world making it easy for them to trump human rights/equality whenever they sense their God’s command to do so.

    Experience continues to show us that “the strands within the history of religion,” of which Mr. Papanikolaou (and I, though secular) look upon with favor, are no protection for human equality whenever religion is on the march. Ms. Beletzki’s astute article shows us why.

    (Bob Fine, Arizona State University, retired)

  • Brad

    Does RH Tawney really think that the “essence of all morality is to believe that every human being is of infinite importance?”
    ALL morality?
    EVERY human being?
    INFINITE importance?
    Belief in God generates such a belief? Really?
    Where might RH Tawney have found a religious text that teaches such an idea? Surely none of the Abrahamic texts would qualify without cutting out huge swaths of text.

    And even if such a wondrous belief (would that it were so!) might be tortuously extrapolated from a major religious text or belief system, the behavior and practices of the religious both throughout history and today (see Prop 8, Islamic girls missing noses, Catholic abuse scandals from Philadelphia to Ireland, Israeli settlements, etc.) reveal the true function of religion everywhere. That function is to divide human beings one against another, to place one person above another based upon false or faulty premises, and to deny all knowledge and evidence that conflicting with a comforting worldview.

    Mr. Papanikolaou’s comment above suggests that religious people such as those to whom I refer are not the REAL religious, that REAL religion is “more like artistic traditions” and that the goal of religion is to “experience immanent transcendance.”

    These are the sorts of arguments apologists offer tirelessly. Yes, not only is it always those other, lesser, or “not real” religionists who do all the harm, but the “real” religionists are off in contemplation, engaging in some majestic effort requiring lofty and vague language to describe. Upon examination, however, it always seems that things like “immanent transcendance” are either mumbo jumbo inexplicable in plain english (once more allowing the religious speaker to think himself above lesser mortals), or are activities, thought patterns and emotions equally attainable by any thoughtful secular person, but without the ill-defined mystical language.

    In short, I’m reminded of the “moral challenge” Christopher Hitchens offered for quite some time, in which he asked for anyone to suggest a moral action or thought that could not done or conceived by a secular person just as easily as a religious person.
    Still no valid reply to that, it appears.
    Unfortunately, there is also no answer to a person who believes a fundamentally circular argument, such as any with the conclusion, “God did it.”

  • Peter Blewett

    As a history educator I can only applaud Ms. Beletzki’s careful discussion of the dangers of a god-centered system of ethics. If only high school and college history teachers would highlight the destruction and inhumanity visited on “others” since ancient Sumer we might not be facing the sad prospect of a national election revolving around “God’s will” for the U.S. I am currently preparing a course on the French Revolution and once again am struck by the resistance of the God-anointed monarch and his consort along with the privileged church aristocracy to the simple truths of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. When we finally figure out that it is humanity that is sacred and not some special group or scripture we will all be safer and happier. I think that is the point of Dr. Zuckerman’s book Society Without God based on his year-long study of Danes and Swedes. We should all be free to conceive of ultimate Being in whatever way we wish. Political and ethical behavior, however, should always be based on the fundamental rights of all humans as members of the same family.

  • B. Fleming

    As a practicing Christian myself, I agree with Ms. Biletzki, but find fault with the argument which leads her to the same conclusion, “…religion, even when indirectly in the service of human rights, is not really working for human rights”. I appreciate the pains that Ms. Biletzki took to define her understanding of religion, but I would gently ask that she more carefully assert what she means by a religious person. If this person actually believes in God and reads the Bible (upon which his faith should be founded), then I find fault with the following statement:

    “For him [the religious person], the human status of sacredness draws from divine creation and directive, from man (and woman) having been created in God’s image…”

    Why would something being made in God’s image require human rights? Does God require his rights to be protected? The very image of God in the flesh, Jesus, did not defend his right to life when he sacrificed for the sake of others. Therefore, of course this concept of being created in God’s image has nothing to do with human rights as she herself goes on to say. The religious person believes that the human is valuable not because he is God’s image, but because he is God’s creation and beloved child, and God’s love makes him valuable. He also believes that God created all men (Acts 17:26), which means that no man is more valuable than the next, since God, by creating each person, has endowed each with the same value. And God’s intent is that every person, no matter how far gone, have the chance to be reconciled to him. (Romans 6:6-8 and 1 Timothy 2:4)

    Also when she writes that,

    “…the authority that is conscripted to “command” us on the religious side is God, while on the secular side it is the human, with her claim to reason, her proclivity to emotion, and her capacity for compassion.”

    she is also mistaken in assuming that religion is equivalent to God. The religious side is just as much human as the secular side. The underlying assumption of religion is that it is the human interaction with the divine being, and religion, by nature, is as prone to faults as it’s human components are. Moreover God is reasonable, emotional and compassionate (Psalm 145:8-9), so this distinction does not hold much sense for me.

    The reason I take pains to explain these points despite agreeing with Ms. Belitzki, is that I think it important for people to distinguish between imperfect religion, and a perfect God. When speaking of religious people as people who believe in God, it is important, I think, to be precise.

  • Anat Biletzki makes two main arguments against religious foundations for human rights. First, since human rights stem from human beings’ being created in the image of God, “it is not the concept of [human] rights that propels the religious person” to respect rights. Second, human rights are completely subject to divine will or command.

    The first argument is a non sequitur that conflates a claim about what grounds rights with what should motivate us to respect rights. The religious human rights theorist can say that agents need not have any religious content to their thoughts and motivations pertaining to respecting human rights.

    The second misrepresents the landscape of theistic ethics, assuming that any such ethics must be completely voluntaristic. It’s also plainly inconsistent with the first argument. If, for the religious rights theorist, we have rights in virtue of being created in God’s image, it would seem to follow that our rights are not revisable by divine will. It’s not as if the property of being created in God’s image can simply be revoked by God!

    A more general worry is that Biletzki portrays religious human rights as alienated from our humanity, since they are in some sense dependent on God, whereas she thinks secular human rights are more intimately connected with our humanity. But that’s actually very unclear. If human rights are rights we are owed “simply by virtue of being human,” then it’s unclear how the features of humanity that Biletzki emphasizes (our “reason,” “emotion,” and “compassion”) are any closer to human nature as such than being created in God’s image. Those properties, after all, aren’t distinctively human, whereas the religious theorist might argue that being created in God’s image is a distinctively human property. If we want rights to be closely connected to our nature, we may thus be better off on a religious conception of rights– or, at least, not necessarily worse off.

    Finally, while Biletzki frames her essay as an exploration of what grounds or explains human rights, she ends up saying that there isn’t really a foundation at all– rather, an “axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic” reflection on “humanity and its fragility and its resilience” gets human rights off the ground. Not only does this sound tautologous– we have human rights, which by definition we have by being human, in virtue of being human!– the case now looks even worse for the secular human rights theorist. Whereas the religious theorist has a rich theory to offer about the grounding of human rights, it looks like the secular theorist on Biletzki’s view must resort to dogmatism. And if our human rights theory is so impoverished, it’s a deep mystery how we are to go on with our “discussion, disagreement, and questioning” about human rights. If all we can point to when explaining human rights is our mere humanity, then what sets the ground rules for the discussion? What will determine whether this or that is a human right, or no right at all? Without answers to these questions, we don’t have a theory of human rights at all.

    I have some further thoughts at my blog:

  • Anat Biletzki

    Thank you all for the responses to my article, which give me room for pause, thought, and attempts at consistent counter responses. Let me begin at the beginning but probably then meander back and forth as certain points lead to other not-necessarily-in-order ones and some points cohere even though they arose distinctly and separately. This is an interim response, not yet dealing with several points made by B. Fleming and Matt Hoberg.

    I thank Aristotle Papanikolaou, and then others, for explicitly raising the point that I had thought to explicitly lay to rest in what I said. Choosing to focus on, for want of a better name, the “Dartmouth School” definition of religion – and emphasizing that choice – I hoped to do something far-removed from caricaturizing religion; I hoped, rather, to insist that the account of religion that is necessary for my argument involves a transcendent being (usually considered omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent), aka God. Obviously there are other definitions of religion, but this one – beyond serving my argument – is, I believe the most common one, if not for theologians and philosophers, then definitely for the religious person. In fact, one of my favorite versions of philosophical thought on religion, very different from the common one above, is Wittgenstein’s, where religion is perceived (according to some interpreters) as a language-game or as a form of life and belief in God is emptied of its propositional content. But one of the principal critiques of Wittgenstein’s fascinating, original, non-standard understanding of religion is that he is not speaking for, or of, the “really” (more on that in a minute) religious person since religious persons, by and large, proclaim a belief in a transcendent being! And one would expect us philosophers to be attuned to what “ordinary” (religious) people say. Papanikolaou, by putting “religious” in scare quotes, seems to be somewhat scornful of these ordinary religious people. More so, as Brad notices, it is somewhat ingenuous to suppose that “real” religious people are more sophisticated thinkers than those whom Papnikolaou derides as “religious.”

    Other related thoughts: Giving up on that requirement for calling something “religion” would make many other cultural phenomena religions – and I think we would lose much by doing so. Now, this does not mean that I deny aspects of religiosity other than the insistence on a transcendent being. That a religious tradition might also be an artistic one (but so could a non-religious one) does not contradict the core demand that it hold recognition of a transcendent being. Neither does the acknowledgement of the human as being capable of love, compassion or forgiveness. But, like Brad, I admit to being stumped by the concept of “immanent transcendence”. If it is transcendent, then it is not humanly immanent or immanently human. By “transcendent” I mean beyond human reach or possibility; I believe that is the conventional use of the word.

    Brad’s and Peter Blewett’s words bring up an issue which I didn’t have time or space to address, but it is supremely important. There is obviously a difference between the subjective, personal religious belief of the faithful and the religious institutions that organize these faithful and their actions. Brad talks about the behavior of religious individuals, or, amorphously, about the practices of “religion”, and Blewett calls them “systems.” The issue I did not – and would like to – discuss is that of the behavior and practices of religious institutions. I agree that these institutions have been responsible for division, conflict and wars throughout history. (Again, this is not to say that secular communities have been devoid of division, conflict and wars throughout history!) I would, however, go as far as to say that it is the very essence of a Godly religion, expressed in its sacred texts, that gives rise to and occasions such characteristic institutional behaviors. (Of course one can choose to emphasize the more “humane” expressions in sacred texts but a) these are precisely the locales in these texts that are not God-centered, and even if they are, b) the choice of specific texts as opposed to others is a matter of human interpretation.) In other words, it is the theoretical core of religion that entails the kind of religious practice which holds the potential of violating human rights.

    To be continued…

  • Raymond Weitzman

    It is a perennial temptation to give human rights a theologically based foundation, just as philosophers such as Hegel have given one to human freedom. These are just-so stories that people can be made to believe and advocate. Whether such philosophical doctrines conform to the actual practices of a community, nation, or empire is to be doubted. Human behavior is just too varied. Society either accepts this variety or it controls it. If society accepts such variety, it ends up with a lot of chaos and confusion, but also with a lot of vibrancy in the life of the community. If society tries too much to control it, it usually ends up being tyrannical. If society tries to do both at the same time, it is hypocritical.

    To talk about human rights, we have to contextualize them. By contextualizing, we lose the sense of its universality. Any biologist will tell you that despite the Declaration of Independence, we are not born equal. Nor are the environments in which we are born, raised, grow old, and die equal. So what does that say about human rights? Are some afforded more rights than others? You bet. Just look at our own society, not to mention any society that exists or ever has existed that we know anything about.

    Human rights cannot be compared to natural physical laws. You jump off the top of the Empire State Building and you die…certain conditions holding. It’s 100% guaranteed by the laws of gravity. But who or what and by what laws guarantee that we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Certainly it is not nature. Not even the Constitution. The Constitution is our social contract, a legal document. And we all know how good lawyers and judges are at rendering all kinds of interpretations to the words in a contract. Look at how the Supreme Court of the United States has turned corporate entities into persons with many of the same rights as an individual. But, of course, the rights of corporations and the rights of individuals are not the same. Individuals may vote with a ballot to change or influence their governmental representatives. But Corporations vote more influentially with their money and political power. One (individual) plus one (corporation) does not equal two in politics.

    The only reason that human rights are sacred is because someone or some philosophical doctrine declares it is. Nothing we know of the universe can justify our saying so. It is only so because we say it. Animals certain don’t recognize the sacredness of our human rights. They either ignore us or look upon us as a food source or as just something that gets in their way. Bacteria and viruses certain don’t treat us as something sacred. The Bible certainly does not treat human life as sacred. If human life isn’t sacred how can human rights be? Jainism is the only religion that I know of that accords sacredness to human life and that’s because it treats all life, not just human life, as sacred.
    There are no human rights in nature. Human rights, whatever form they take, are whatever privileges are afforded to the individual members of a human community by the practices of the community itself. They are usually never equal and when individuals in the community begin to feel that are not being afforded the privileges they deserve or when they find themselves being adversely treated by other members of their community that outcry for human rights will be heard. We all recognize that human societies human individuals are far from perfect. Unfortunately, there exists no natural, immutable and absolute standard by which to achieve perfection. Because perfection like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. We can only hope to find ourselves in some situation where we are comfortable with each other, where we can behave positively and not adversely toward each other. And even when we achieve this comfort zone, we shouldn’t expect it to last forever.

  • Anat Biletzki

    Continued from my last posting…

    Since there is one statement that seems to be attributed to me by more than one reader (also by many readers of the NYTimes), let me make one point clear(er): nowhere do I claim that religious beliefs or motivations are inferior to secular ones. My argument is simply that religious beliefs and motivations are – or should be understood as being – independent of or even in conflict with the idea of human rights. Peter Blewett says it more stridently when he separates our freedom “to conceive of ultimate Being” from our “political and ethical behavior.” I’m not sure I would go that far, since, for religious persons, faith certainly related to their ethical behavior. But political behavior, when it is based on fundamental human rights, should be free of religion.

    B. Fleming’s challenge is interesting – but I do not purport here to delve deeply into theological issues or interpretative conundrums; neither do I deny that the canonical religious texts have multifarious readings. (So yes, one could say that all persons are of equal value in God’s eyes, but one could just as validly ask why some are “chosen” while others are not.) Still, the creation of man (and woman?) in God’s image is intimately connected with human rights in the following way: When searching for a universal grounding of human rights, it is generally recognized that human dignity provides that grounding. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the “recognition of the inherent dignity… of all members of the human family.” For the religious foundationalist of human rights it is precisely creation in the image of God that roots such inherent dignity. (“The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 1700.) So close is the relationship between dignity and creation in the image of God that, in the Hebrew tradition, the expression, “in the image of God” (b’tselem elohim), has acquired a non-literal meaning: it signifies dignity! Saying in ordinary Hebrew parlance that one was created in the image of God is tantamount to saying that one has dignity. (Or, as is more often the case, saying one has lost the image of God amounts to saying that one has lost all dignity.) Not surprisingly, a leading Israeli human rights organization is called B’Tselem – “In The Image Of.” (The philosopher of language can also be fascinated by the creation of meaningful names that is exhibited by this nomenclature. The word “b’tselem” in Hebrew, one word for the English foursome “in-the-image-of,” is as inappropriate a proper noun, a name, as “In-The-Image-Of” would be in English. In 1989, upon its establishment, it sounded odd, even awkward, to name an organization “In-The-Image-Of.” Today, over twenty-two years later, it functions easily as a proper name for a human rights organization, with no thought to its genesis in the story of human creation in Genesis. But that instance of meaning-as-use is another philosophical story.)

    Matt Hoberg brings up problematic arguments that were not addressed in the article, though they certainly deserve debate in a much longer discussion, and attributes certain positions to someone who might have written the article (but didn’t). (Such are the topics of voluntaristic ethics, human nature, theory vs. motivation, and others.) Most significant for me, however, and contrary to Matt’s perception, is my insistence on the richness of the secular conversation on human rights. That it is a questioning, positing, or even critique of foundations for human rights does not impoverish or empty it of deep meaning. The use of “dogmatic” is, indeed, foundational, to the tune of Wittgenstein’s “my spade is turned.” And, again contrary to Matt’s perception of “mere humanity,” it is precisely the humanistic bedrock that inspires the kind of awe usually reserved for the divine. Raymond Weitzman’s sad description of the contextualized condition of humanity might, indeed, refute such awe. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between talk about the having of rights – a normative statement – and reports of their implementation or violation by states and communities – a descriptive account. Putting this all together consistently, one might then confess to the awe inspired by humanity’s normative potential.

    • Anat Biletzki suggests that some of my objections target positions that she did not defend in the article, and perhaps this is due to my reading her incorrectly or uncharitably. Briefly, I noted that she seemed to think any religious conception of human rights must be voluntaristic– she wrote that “if [God] commands a violation of human rights, then so be it”– and also divorce the motivations to respect human rights from proper concern for humanity — “it is not the concept of [human] rights that propels the religious person,” as she puts it. I pointed out that the literature on religious ethics is by no means completely voluntaristic, and that having some religious foundation to human rights need not entail any particular claims about how one ought to be motivated to respect rights. Since she claims not to have addressed these issues, or at least not to have taken a position on them, I won’t press these points any further.

      What she does address, and here she helpfully goes beyond what she wrote in her column, is my worry that the “dogmatic” or “axiomatic” appeal to humanity, which she sees as the only possible foundation for human rights, entails an impoverishment of our human rights discourse. She insists “on the richness of the secular conversation on human rights,” despite the spade being turned when we reach the “humanistic bedrock.”

      I agree wholeheartedly that there should be a “richness” to the secular– or, for that matter, religious– human rights debate, I suppose I’m still uncertain as to how a thin view of human rights can support the depth and richness that we both think that debate should have. There is perhaps not much left to say at this general level; we must rather look at views that fit Biletzki’s model and see if they deliver on the promise of a rich, fruitful discussion of human rights.

      Thank you, Professor Biletzki, for the chance to engage with you on these perennial questions.

  • This conversation, while ending here, continues on Facebook. Join us there by logging on to your Facebook account and proceeding to our group: On the Human.