Rights Must Be Grounded In Eternal Truths

Published June 22, 2011

Commentary Magazine

Can you champion human rights while at the same time denying natural rights?

This is a core question of political philosophy. It was raised anew for me while re-reading Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, a dialogue with one of the 20th century’s leading political theorists and historian of ideas.

Professor Berlin, a man deeply committed to liberty and pluralism, resisted the idea one could apprehend “non-empirical, universal truths.” When asked by Ramin Jahanbegloo, the interviewer, how one can ground norms and values if one doesn’t believe in the rational method of justifying them, Berlin answered, “You don’t justify them. The norms don’t need justification, it is they which justify the rest, because they are basic.”

When pressed, Berlin admitted he doesn’t deny human rights. “I deny a priori lists of natural rights,” he said. “Of course, I don’t deny that there are general principles of behavior and human activity without which there cannot be a minimally decent society. But … I don’t think there is such a thing as direct non-empirical knowledge, intuition, inspection of eternal principles. Only universal human beliefs.”

When asked about Leo Strauss, Berlin said, “He could not get me to believe in eternal, immutable, absolute values, true for all men everywhere at all times, God-given Natural Law and the like. I cannot claim omniscience. Perhaps there is a world of eternal truths, values, which the magic eye of the true thinker can perceive—surely this can only belong to an elite to which I fear I have never been admitted.”

This conversation goes to the heart of an ancient question: In what is morality grounded? For Berlin, it was grounded in general principles of behavior and human activity, in norms, in a consensus of what constitutes decency and right and wrong. That can work for a time, as people act on an existing moral accordance and intuition. But in the end that is never enough. Norms need to be grounded in permanent rather than provisional truths. Otherwise, we have only our own cultural consensus on what constitutes human rights, which makes it next to impossible to define a universal set of such rights. It also means we have no good justification for telling other societies, or for that matter even our own children, why they should hold to our particular consensus.

As Michael Gerson and I argue in City of Man, philosophers have tried for centuries to formulate a firm, secular theory of human rights. None has gained broad, much less universal assent, and none seems equal to the challenge of Nietzsche: if God is really dead, what is to stop the radical, destructive human will?

Berlin’s theory—liberalism without natural rights—is hung on a peg in midair. To care for and to sacrifice for the rights of other human beings, merely because they are human beings, requires an immutable moral and even metaphysical basis.

So why do human beings possess inherent value? People of the Jewish and Christian faith have an answer: Men and women are created equal in worth, in the image of God. They believe in a human nature, which demands human rights.

Without some transcendent basis, human rights as a doctrine cannot defend itself from attack. Strauss understoodthe fallacy of historicism—the belief that all standards are determined by cultural circumstances and each society should be judged in its own terms rather than measured against a universal standard—was both self-contradictory and relativistic. For historicists there is no ground on which one could prefer a liberal regime over a totalitarian one. Everything, including justice, is arbitrary. “If all values are relative,” Strauss famously said, “then cannibalism is a matter of taste.” For Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany, this debate was not simply an abstract one.

In his interview with Jahanbegloo, Professor Berlin says of Hannah Arendt, “I am not ready to swallow her idea about the banality of the evil. It is false. The Nazis were not ‘banal.’ Eichmann deeply believed in what he did. It was, he admitted, at the center of his being.” Berlin admits to having been “hopelessly secular.” The values of the Enlightenment, what people like Voltaire, Helvetius, Holbach, and Condorcet preached, are “deeply sympathetic to me,” he said. “Maybe they were too narrow, and often wrong about the facts of human experience, but they were great liberators. They liberated people from horrors, obscurantism, fanaticism, monstrous views. They were against cruelty, they were against oppression.”

So was Isaiah Berlin, a man of great intellect and learning. He just couldn’t tell you why.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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