In spite of, or perhaps because of, the horrors of the twentieth century, the cause of “human rights” has become one of the most powerful forces in contemporary world politics. The evidence for this is not only to be found in decent societies with a long record of protecting civil rights and political freedoms, or in the recent triumphs of human rights activists in Solidarity and Charter 77. Even more compelling proof lies in the tribute that vice pays to virtue: in the fact that virtually every tyranny in the world today tries to justify its repressions in the name of an “alternative” understanding of “human rights.”
The modern human rights movement has various roots, some of them reaching deep into the cultural subsoil of Western civilization. As Peter L. Berger once put it, a long view of human rights advocacy today would find evidence of the movement’s origins in some of the defining locales and experiences in the history of the West: “in the Temple in Jerusalem, in the agora of Athens, in the schools of Jewish rabbis, among Roman jurists and medieval moral philosophers.” The deepest of these roots is, I believe, the biblical notion of man as created in the image and likeness of God: as a moral agent with intelligence and free will, and thus endowed (to use Mr. Jefferson’s language) with a certain “inalienable” dignity. This moral claim—that the individual has an irreducible value and dignity prior to his or her “public” status (as citizen, or slave, or indentured servant, or freedman, or member of the aristocracy)—is the sturdiest possible foundation for any scheme of “human rights” that seeks to protect human beings from arbitrary (and often brutal) state power.
Mediated through the reflections of political philosophers during the English and Scottish Enlightenments, this great Western moral understanding shaped the revolution of 1776 and 1787 -89 in the United States; its influence is palpable in the most important political self-expressions of the American founders and framers, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. And in this historical tradition, “human rights” meant two things: civil rights, understood as personal liberties that state power may not abrogate (thus the “right” to freedom of religion, of speech, of association, and of assembly); and political freedoms, such as the right to vote, to organize a political opposition, to petition for redress of grievances, and to be judged by a jury of one’s peers. “Human rights,” on the Anglo-Scottish-American model, meant a societal (and constitutional) recognition that certain spheres of personal and communal activity were to be protected from the tendency of all states (but especially modern states) to expand the reach of their power.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the European discussion of “human rights” was confused by two historical phenomena, not unrelated. The first was the proto-totalitarianism of the Jacobin wing of the French Revolution, which interpreted Rousseau’s doctrine of the “general will” to mean that the state had the power (and even the obligation) to trump individual claims to civil rights and political freedoms. The second was the use of the language of “rights” by various Marxist theoreticians to ascribe a thick moral content to their social and economic goals. (An interesting attempt to embody in a European context the human rights tradition that shaped the American Revolution was the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791—a tragically short-lived experiment that came to grief just months after the constitution was adopted.) In Europe, the older human rights tradition—the tradition of civil rights and political freedoms—was revivified by the French philosopher Jacques Maritain in response to the threat of Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s (a development that would have a profound effect on the human rights thinking of the Roman Catholic Church, and that helped give birth to post-war Christian Democracy in Western Europe). But the newer Marxist notion of “social and economic rights” would prove to have considerable staying power in the post-World War II period: among intellectuals and politicians of the Left, and later among various post-colonial Third World rulers.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.