Human rights stand revealed as an idea that polarizes, encouraging uncritical support and also extreme reaction from both secularists and religionists. But the stark reality of man’s inhumanity to man in our time compels us to take the human rights movement with the utmost seriousness.

Today, the term “human rights” is part of everyone’s vocabulary. It has become essential coin of the realm for the statesman, the journalist, and the man on the street. Philosopher R. G. Frey does not exaggerate when he writes:

There is a tendency today to clothe virtually all moral and social issues in the language of rights, in order to be able to demand one’s due. Thus, issues about the treatment of children have given way to children’s rights, about the demands of (some) women to women’s rights, about the despoliation of forests to the rights of trees or of the environment generally, about abortion to the rights of the foetus and the rights of the mother, and about the farming and treatment of animals to animal rights.

So far as I can see, our alleged moral rights have proliferated to such an extent that they now run to every corner of our lives, and only someone completely out of touch with American social and political reality today would find surprising a friend’s claim that we have a moral right to a society free of nuclear power plants and free of the terrible noises of modern contraptions, or Alan Gewirth’s claim that we have a moral right not to have cancer inflicted upon us.

Moral rights have become the fashionable terms of contemporary moral debate, and one interest group after another has moved to formulate its position in terms of them. [1]

Human Rights Violations Are Universal

The Uganda of Idi Amin Dada demonstrated that the Third World was fully capable of modern barbarism. Apartheid policy in the Union of South Africa has been universally condemned [2]—and South African scholars have countered with a massive publication showing the extent of human rights violations in the very countries condemning South Africa. [3] Responsible organizations such as the International Commission of Jurists and Amnesty International have recorded the appalling extent and universality of contemporary man’s inhumanity toward his fellows. Thus—to take but one example—Amnesty International has just published a report evidencing the practice of torture or ill-treatment of prisoners in nearly one hundred countries; the report leaves no doubt that in the past four years prisoners have been tortured or cruelly treated in at least one out of every three countries in the world. [4]

Human Rights Are Too Important to Be Dismissed

Inescapably, one is forced to the conclusion that whatever the deficiencies of human rights thinking, the movement draws attention to a global problem of overwhelming significance. The area of human rights is not merely a forum for academic or theological critique; it is (or should be) a battleground in which human dignity is at stake and the enemy is no less than barbarism. Joel Feinberg is surely correct when he maintains that human rights are indispensably valuable possessions. A world without [them], no matter how full of benevolence and devotion to duty, would suffer an immense moral impoverishment. Persons would no longer hope for decent treatment from others on the ground of a rightful claim. Indeed, they would come to think of themselves as having no special claim to kindness or consideration from others, so that whenever even minimally decent treatment is forthcoming they would think themselves lucky rather than inherently deserving, and their benefactors extraordinarily virtuous and worthy of great gratitude.

A world with claim-rights is one in which all persons, as actual or potential claimants, are dignified objects of respect, both in their own eyes and in the view of others.

Rights, on the other hand, are not mere gifts or favors, motivated by love or pity, for which gratitude is the sole fitting response. A right is something a man can stand on, something that can be demanded or insisted upon without embarrassment or shame….A world with claim-rights is one in which all persons, as actual or potential claimants, are dignified objects of respect, both in their own eyes and in the view of others. No amount of love and compassion, or obedience to a higher authority, or noblesse oblige, can substitute for those values. [5]

The Task

The task, therefore, is twofold: to establish a system of effective human rights protection (the practical task), entailing the satisfactory identification and justification of human rights (the theoretical task). Logically, to be sure, the second precedes the first, but—as we shall quickly see—the human rights field affords an illustration of the adage that life is bigger than logic: human rights activity goes on with considerable vitality and positive results in spite of the most serious theoretical shortcomings. We shall consequently begin with an overview of the juridical and other means currently available for the protection of human rights internationally and nationally, and endeavor to see how well they work. Then we will face the underlying issue of what properly constitutes—and may ultimately be capable of justifying—human dignity.

Adapted from, “Human Rights and Human Dignity,” written by John Warwick Montgomery (1517 Publishing, 2016), pgs. 17-18, 25-27, Used by permission.