Imago Dei & the (Forgotten) Roots of Human Rights

Campbell Law Review (Regent University Law) recently published Looking For Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition by Professor C. Scott Pryor, also of Regent Law. 33 Campbell L. Rev. 609 (2011).

Professor Pryor argues that the corresponding rights and duties of prototypical Western “human rights” were not free floating:  In Christian, Hebraic, and even Roman civil law traditions they originated in grounded conceptions of human nature.  These notions defined the human being and the rights others owed to him or her and the corresponding duties he or she owed to others.  While the Western conception of human rights has continued to develop, Pryor asserts that knowledge of these rights’ foundation has eroded; as memories fade, consensus as to what are human rights and their implications becomes harder to reach.  When this consensus becomes more remote, human-rights-based arguments lose their salience.  Pryor’s discussion of the weakening of rights discourse is analogous to Alasdair MacIntyre’s bleak premise in  After Virtue (3d ed. 2007) that, over time, “the language of morality [has reached a] state of grave disorder.”  Id. at 2.  (In my post criticizing Richard Dawkins’ overly bellicose rhetoric, I discuss After Virtue in greater depth.)

For further discussion of this problem and Pryor’s solution, please follow the jump.

Pryor describes two well-known scholars’ articulation of the problem:

[The] incoherence of [] proffered foundations for human rights concerns many.  Louis Henkin [writes,]  “[I]nternational expressions of rights themselves claim no philosophical foundation, [reflect no] clear philosophical foundation, [and reflect no] clear philosophical assumptions; they articulate no particular moral principles or any single, comprehensive theory of the relation of the individual to society.”  Jack Donnelly simply [concludes], “There is no strong foundation for human rights . . . .”  Yet, it would seem that providing a foundation for human rights is important [for] dealing with those who deny their existence.  Moreover, rights [without] an account of what it means to be human [and] the end or purpose of human existence lead[] to twin risks: failure to identify a legitimate human right (or rights bearer) and creation of putative human rights that are no more than aspirations for a particular (and perhaps contested) good.

Pryor, supra, at 620–21 (blogger’s alterations).  To resolve this problem, Pryor offers what he labels a “Christian” foundation for human-rights claims:  Human beings are created in the image of God, thereby entitling them to certain rights and demanding of them certain duties.  Pryor’s identification of problem and solution are very close to positions long held by Michael Perry; however, Pryor attempts to distinguish his position from Perry’s, arguing that his solution is not merely a general claim of human worth and dignity, but a more concrete one from Christian revelation that provides a coherent, single, and comprehensive justification for human-rights talk.  Id. at n. 59.

Pryor’s abstract provides further detail on his view of this problem and its solution:

The concept of human rights can be traced back for centuries. Discussion of individual rights can be found in the writers of late medieval times but as Western Europe moved into the early modern period, an additional and somewhat broader emphasis on rights can be found among the political theorists of the Protestant Reformation. Later yet, a rights-based approach became central to several strands of Enlightenment understanding of political order.

Yet, consensus on new human rights has become increasingly difficult and implementation a contentious matter. A reason for these progressively more intractable challenges results from the failure to grapple with the very grounding of human rights. Human rights theories abstracted from real human beings with their thick historical, moral, and theological conceptions of life are insufficient. The more abstract the ground for human rights, the less traction it has for concrete individuals. Harmony on a single account for human rights is not feasible in this pluralistic age but candid discussion of the competing presuppositions — including those arising within religious traditions — can prove helpful. This Article presents one such account in terms of the Christian doctrines of the creation of human beings in the image of God and the divine delegation to humans of authority to rectify wrongs.

One response

  1. The adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was probably based on the generally felt horror for the huge loss of human life in both World Wars and the period in-between, not on a clear philosophical foundation. The assertion that those rights are granted since a human being is endowed with reason and a conscience sounds a little hollow as the logical counterweight of human duties is (virtually) absent from the declaration. (They were left out as a matter of expediency, cf. John H. Knox, Opinio Juris, November 6, 2007). Yet it is those duties that probably provide the most solid foundation for human rights. Please refer to www,humanduties.com for an elaboration.

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