On the 3rd July 1884, four sailors aboard a yacht, the Mignonette, encountered a terrible Atlantic storm. The yacht sank, leaving them stranded in a tiny wooden lifeboat.With little food and no water, by their eighth day adrift they were desperate and so made the fateful decision to kill the cabin boy. For four more days until their rescue, the three surviving sailors fed on the cabin boy’s body.
Free and equal
Whether it’s a small crime against humanity (the murder of a cabin boy under desperate circumstances) or a major one (the Rwandan genocide or Stalin’s Russia), most people have the same reaction: it is wrong to violate the dignity of another human being. This year is the 72nd anniversary of the document that most famously encapsulates this idea: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations on 10th December 1948 in Paris.
The UDHR opens with these powerful words: “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.”
We’re passionate about human rights, we award Nobel Prizes for them, but a fairly basic question is often overlooked. These rights, this dignity that human beings are claimed to have – where is it located? What is its basis, its foundation? In short, however noble the UDHR may sound, is it true?
There is a grave problem with trying to ground rights and dignity in somebody’s abilities. Even leading atheist Sam Harris has pointed it out: “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 from our moral community.”
Invented or discovered?
So how do we solve the problem that many of us are committed to human rights but we can’t ground human rights? Well, the first thing to say is we need to get beyond preference. There’s a huge temptation today to see morals, values and choices as just our personal preference.
I was surprised to discover that even Singer drifts this way at times. I reminded him during our conversation of the passage in his famous book, Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press), where he basically admits there isn’t really a way to differentiate between a life spent stamp-collecting, a life spent watching football, or a life spent helping the poor. If ethics is just something we make up, then I can see why he is stuck here.
But what if ethics, human rights and human dignity aren’t made up? One of the brilliant insights that the world leaders, philosophers and theologians who crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had was the assumption that human rights and dignity aren’t invented but discovered. During our conversation, Singer actually admitted this, remarking that he increasingly thinks that moral values and duties exist independently of us, in a “similar way to mathematical truths existing”.
By contrast, the Christian view of what it means to be a human being and a bearer of rights and dignity starts from a very different place. Christians ground human rights in the incredible truth, proclaimed in texts like Genesis 1:26-27, that human beings bear the image of God, the imago dei. Incidentally, that idea is unique to the Bible. It’s not found in Islam, or Hinduism or Buddhism – it’s a uniquely Judaeo-Christian concept.
Many atheists throughout history have reluctantly recognised this is a far better foundation for human rights than attempting to arbitrarily ground value and dignity in other places. Some of them have also raised the next obvious question of what happens to value and dignity if you pull God out as the foundation. The 19th Century German atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (who hated Christian ethics as he felt it elevated the weak and the poor) was brutally honest: “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.”
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. Or you can reject that narrative, ignore the consequences, refuse to answer Nietzsche and pretend everything is OK.
Where are we going?
But one last thought. If human beings have dignity, why should that affect how we behave? Suppose you are walking down your local high street when a passer-by trips you up, pokes you in the eye, and steals your Starbucks. “Hey!” you cry. “I have dignity! How dare you!” And they look at you and say: “So what?” How can you compel them to take your rights seriously?
You see, you can’t talk about rights without talking about duties. What is our duty towards a dignity-bearer, towards a fellow human, and why? That question opens a whole new can of worms. Is there a way we are supposed to be? Are some actions really wrong, and some really right? Harvard University law professor, Michael Sandel says: “Debates about justice and rights are often, unavoidably, debates about purpose…Despite our best efforts to make law neutral on such questions, it may not be possible to say what’s just without arguing about the nature of the good life.”
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?
This was a topic that Singer and I returned to many times in our ‘Big Conversation’ (see dialogue box above). I remarked to Peter that it’s all very well calling a book Practical Ethics, but that only goes so far. Imagine that I get home from a trip and I say to my wife: “Hey, I just bought this amazing book, Practical Canoeing, at the airport!” Next day I load my wife and children into a canoe and start paddling out into the North Sea. “What precisely is the plan?” my wife begins to ask, increasingly insistently. To which I keep replying: “Honey, stop asking silly questions! Can’t you see how wonderful this canoe is? It’s so practical.” Finally, she shouts at me: “But where are we going?”
Practical ethics, utilitarianism, human rights, and so forth – all these things are all very well, but unless we ask what the purpose of a human life is, what we are supposed to be, what we are supposed to be aiming at, we really will just end up paddling in circles.
This is why atheists face such a sharp dilemma. Only if the Christian story is true do humans have dignity and worth. And only on that basis can you talk meaningfully about rights and about responsibilities. Who created human rights? The one who created humans.
Watch Peter Singer and Andy Bannister’s Big Conversation