Back to Square One

Published March 1, 1995

What can be done about these threats to the classic Anglo-American understanding of “universal and inalienable human rights”—which is to say, to the political morality that was instrumental in the defeat of Nazism and Communism?

The easier part of my prescription touches on the new “reproductive rights” agenda pushed at Cairo, and certain to return to the fore at Beijing. This, it can be simply and forcefully urged, is an act of cultural imperialism of the first chop—Planned Parenthood of New York, embodying the mores of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, telling everybody else in the world what to do and enlisting coercive state power in its cause. The “rights” proposed by the Libertine Party are so inherently implausible, however, and the offense they give to a variety of moral systems is so comprehensive, that, as Cairo demonstrated, an effective resistance movement capable of meeting the attack of the Lifestyle Left can be mounted. That movement will have its work cut out for it, especially while some of the Clinton Administration’s zaniest characters remain at the throttle of U.S. “global affairs” policy. But the resistance has shown that it can win, and we can only hope that it continues to do so, especially at the Beijing consistory in September.

The harder part of my prescription involves the unavoidable question of reforming the international definition of “human rights.” Here, I propose that we conduct something of a strategic retreat. The Universal Declaration is under attack today from those who, like the Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, dismiss it as the product of an era when the West was writing the rules of international public life. The charge is replicated in certain activist Islamic circles. In these political circumstances, it may be thought foolhardy to agree to a serious and comprehensive re-examination of the Universal Declaration.

But I think a case can be made that, to borrow an image from poker, we should see Ambassador Mahbubani and raise him. In other words, the West should revisit the mistakes it made in 1948, and fight the fight that it declined to carry to a satisfactory conclusion then: that is, to identify certain basic and inalienable immunities of persons and communities from coercive state power, and insist that these, and nothing other than these, are “basic, universal, and inalienable ‘human rights.'”4

How might this be done?

Some eighteen years ago, the distinguished sociologist Peter L. Berger, writing in Commentary, proposed that a distinction be made between “those notions of human rights that emerge exclusively from a Western view of the world, and which will only be plausible to those sharing this view, and those notions of human rights that derive their warrant from a wider consensus.” The first step in drawing that distinction was to distinguish “those rights that derive from the specifically Western values of liberty and equality from those that pertain to the human condition as such.”

Berger then outlined, along an empirical via negativa, a scheme of “fundamental human rights” by listing a series of gross depredations that would be morally condemned by all the major world cultures, especially those with deep religious roots:



Genocide; the massacre of large numbers of innocent people by their own government or by alien conquerors; the deliberate abandonment of entire sections of a population to starvation; the systematic use of terror (including torture) as government policy; the expulsion of large numbers of people from their homes; enslavement through various forms of forced labor; the forced separation of families (including the taking away of children from their parents by actions of government); the deliberate desecration of religious symbols and the persecution of those adhering to them; the destruction of institutions that embody ethnic identity. [Commentary, September 1977]


In condemning these widespread abuses, Berger argued, the West would appeal to moral warrants deeply embedded in non-Western cultural and religious systems: and thus to an international moral consensus that would be proof against the charges of “cultural imperialism.”

Such a reconception of “basic human rights” could also help facilitate a kind of “development of doctrine” (to borrow a theological term) in other cultures. I recently heard a Chinese scholar suggest that the seemingly Western concept of “the dignity of the human person” had achieved a new cultural grip in some Confucian circles in the People’s Republic of China, precisely because the awfulness of the Beijing regime had compelled a certain “stretching” of traditional moral understandings in which the claims of individuals were usually regarded as subordinate to the demands of public order. Why couldn’t such a development, legitimated by an evolving Confucian moral anthropology, eventually support an understanding of civil liberties that would be parallel to, if not identical with, Western notions of the minimal conditions of civil society?

Such a strategy of “emergent understanding” should not, however, lead the West to ignore the fact that certain moral claims first adumbrated in the West have a universal validity. Thus, if religious freedom is the first of human rights, then the moral claim embedded in the notion of “religious freedom” is as valid in Shanghai, Riyadh, and Mogadishu as in Washington and London. If the very nature of human personhood precludes treating women as property for the purposes of marriage, then that is true in Khartoum as well as in Baltimore and Coventry. If the notion of the equality of persons before the law rests on certain irreducible features of humanness, then the equality of persons before the law should be recognized in Singapore as well as in the Cook County Courthouse or the Old Bailey. Moreover, the West ought to be prepared to argue that these moral claims are true, no matter how different may be the social and political forms developed in different societies to embody the universal principles of religious freedom, freedom to marry, and legal equality.

But why, some will ask, should we bother? The history of the twentieth century shouts the answer. We should bother because in international life, as in national economies, there is at work a Gresham’s Law, in which bad money drives out good. The world can stand a certain debasing of the currency of international political discourse and exchange, but only so much.

The twentieth century is replete with examples of what happens, “on the ground,” when corrosive ideas—especially those that deny to the individual human person his distinctive and inalienable dignity and worth—remain unchallenged. If the freedom for which the English-speaking peoples have contended so bravely in the past is to survive, we dare not enter the twenty-first century without having learned this hard lesson of the twentieth.

It has unfortunately been reduced to a cliché, but Richard Weaver’s aphorism that “ideas have consequences” is one of the central truths of our age. That is why we ought to defend, boldly, the classic Anglo-American understanding of “universal and inalienable human rights.”

That defense requires two strategies today, most particularly in confronting the U.N. system. First, there must be vigorous resistance to the unholy alliance of the old Socialist Left and the new Lifestyle Left and their attempted takeover of the “social development” aspects of the U.N. system. And second, new (in reality, old) arguments must be pressed on behalf of the priority of basic civil liberties in the construction of a humane and decent society: arguments that will meet the charge of “cultural imperialism” by demonstrating the possibility of a universal moral discourse based on the fundamental dictates of a universal moral reason.

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.

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