A Beginner’s Guide to the Argument from Human Value and Dignity

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In 1884, three English sailors were charged with murder. Their yacht, Mignonette, had sunk leaving them stranded in a tiny wooden lifeboat. Starving to death, they had killed and eaten the cabin boy. Their defence was that it was a necessity for survival.[1]

Their argument was purely utilitarian: one person was killed, but three people survived. And the cabin boy, unlike the older sailors, had no dependents and his death left no grieving children. However, I suspect very few people would agree with them. Rather I suspect most of us have a more visceral reaction: what those three sailors did was wrong—fundamentally wrong—because they violated the cabin boy’s rights, his dignity, his value.


Whether it’s a single murder in desperate circumstances, or a mass genocide, most of us would have the same reaction: it is wrong, evil even, to violate the dignity of another human being. This powerful belief is enshrined in the words of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):

Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world … All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.[2]

We’re passionate about human rights, but these rights, this dignity that human beings are claimed to have—where is it located? Are the noble words of the UDHR actually true?


Imagine we draw a circle that represents the genomes of every living thing on planet earth—everything from ants to aardvarks to human beings. Now, when we talk of human rights, what we are doing is drawing a smaller circle inside the larger circle and saying “If you live in the smaller circle, you have special dignity that anything outside doesn’t.” But here’s the problem: what’s to stop the white supremacist drawing a smaller circle inside your circle and saying, “No, dignity and rights only belong to a subset of the human family”. Both of you have arbitrarily drawn circles: why is one admirable and the other condemnable?

There are limited number of options here. The first option is just to bluntly assert that rights exist. When I debated one of the world’s leading secular human rights campaigners, Peter Tatchell, this was his approach: Peter basically said rights exist because they exist.[3] The problem is not merely that his argument is circular, but that a racist could employ it too. He can claim superiority to other races and when we ask why, reply, “because I am”.

Maybe we can locate rights by finding something special about human beings. Maybe it’s the fact we have speech, or consciousness, or moral agency, or folk music, or something. Well, this fails for a reason that atheist Sam Harris identifies:

The problem is that whatever attribute we use to differentiate between humans and animals—intelligence, language-use, moral sentiments, and so on—will equally differentiate between human beings themselves. If people are more important to us than orangutans because they can articulate their interests, why aren’t more articulate people more important still? And what about those poor men and women with aphasia? It would seem that we have just excluded them.[4]

Or maybe we can say that human rights and dignity exist because they matter to me; because they’re personally important to us. The problem, of course, is that when Martin Luther King cries “I have a dream!” how do we answer the person who says “I’m glad you care; but personally I don’t”. Isn’t the point about rights and dignity that we should all care? We need more than mere personal preference.

The last option is to appeal to the state. Human rights exist because the government grants them. The problem here is that if rights are something the state gives, the state can equally take them away. In 1857, an African-American slave named Dred Scott sued his owner for his freedom. The US Supreme Court ruled against Scott, the Justices stating that as a “negro”, he did not possess rights.[5]

One hears a story like that, 150 years on, and winces with embarrassment at how our ancestors behaved. Yet all the Justices did in that ruling was to draw a circle: simply a smaller circle than the one that most of us today would draw. But they are both arbitrary circles nonetheless.


How do we solve this problem? Many of us are committed to human rights but we can’t ground human rights? Perhaps history can help us here.

Father Francisco de Vitoria, is considered by many to be “the father of international law”. In response to Spanish colonial mistreatment of South Americans, Vitoria argued that all men were equally free and had the right to life, culture and property. Likewise Francisco Suárez, whose 1610 essay, ‘On The Laws’, argued that human beings have rights because they have been endowed with them by their Creator, using language later picked up by America’s founding fathers.[6]

These thinkers, who laid the first foundations of human rights, were not moralising in a vacuum. Rather they rooted their idea in the uniquely biblical belief that human beings bear the image of God.

One of the most influential atheist philosophers writing today, Luc Ferry, agrees. In, A Brief History of Thought, Ferry writes that in the Greco-Roman world, it was assumed that some people were inferior to others: slaves, women, and children, for example. He writes:

Christianity.. introduce[d] the notion … that men were equal in dignity—an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.[7]

As one of the most influential atheists of all time, Friedrich Nietzsche remarked:

The masses blink and say ‘We are all equal—Man is but man, before God we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.”[8]

So, there is a stark choice: one can adopt a Christian understanding of humanity—that we have real value and real dignity, because we are made in God’s image.[9] Or you can reject that narrative, ignore the consequences, refuse to answer Nietzsche and pretend everything is okay.


The well-known Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel argues that we can’t discuss human rights while avoiding the question of human purpose.[10] Sandel’s observation gets to the heart of what it means to be a human being. Are we creatures designed to seek justice, goodness, and fairness, or are we just primates that got lucky in the evolutionary lottery and whose genes are purely directed at reproductive success? As atheist philosopher John Gray memorably put it:

Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth—and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.[11]

Only if Gray is wrong and we are made for something can we talk about things like responsibility, about a way we should live.

If the Christian story is true, then we were made with a purpose, we were made for something. We were made to discover God’s love, to love God in return, and to love our neighbour. If Christianity is true, love is the supreme ethic—that’s what it means to be human and it gives an oughtness to human life.

Raymond Gaita, the Australian atheist, recognised this. He writes that all talk of human rights and dignity:

[Is best] derived from the unashamedly anthropomorphic character of the claim that we are sacred because God loves us, his children.[12]

As a Christian, I believe that human rights can only be grounded if love is the supreme ethic, built into the fundamental fabric of the universe by the God who created us in his image.

But if we say “human rights only works if God exists” that raises the question: which God are we talking about? In Jesus, we have a God who looks very different. Economic theory tells us that something’s value is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it. Christianity says that God was willing to pay an incredible price for each one of us, the price of his son, Jesus Christ. That’s why we have value.

If the Christian story is true, humans have dignity, they have worth, and on that basis, you can talk meaningfully about rights and about responsibilities. Otherwise what you have are noble sounding words, but ultimately just hot air.

Andy Bannister Short Answers 13Andy Bannister is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity

Further Reading


[1]        The story is told in Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2010) 32.

[2]        ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/, accessed 9 November 2019). Quotations from the Preamble and Article 1 (emphasis mine).

[3]        ‘Unbelievable? Can atheists believe in human rights? Peter Tatchell vs. Andy Bannister’, Premier Radio, Saturday 1 April 2017 (online at https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Can-atheists-believe-in-human-rights-Peter-Tatchell-vs-Andy-Bannister)

[4] Sam Harris, The End of Faith (London: The Free Press, 2006) 177-178. (Aphasia is the inability to speak, for medical reasons, typically having had a stroke)

[5]        Scott v. Sandford – 60 U.S. 393 (1856), available online at http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/60/393/case.html “Negro” was the terminology used in that case, and is quoted here in its historic context.

[6]        See the discussion in Thomas E. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2005) 133-150.

[7]        Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011 [2010]) 72.

[8]        Cited in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) 154.

[9]        Genesis 1:26-27.

[10]       Sandel, Justice,  207.

[11]       John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003) 26.

[12]       Michael J. Perry, Toward a Theory of Human Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 7.

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