Printer Friendly

SACRED AND INVIOLABLE.

Michael J. Perry: The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, Pg. 157. $35.00. $19.95, paper.)

In these "four inquiries" Michael Perry, holder of the University Distinguished Chair in Law at Wake Forest University, takes on the major issues concerning the claim that there are human rights, and addresses them with admirable clarity, tough argumentation, and extraordinary learning. The result is a provocative, state-of-the-art discussion.

Perry's overarching thesis that "the idea of human rights consists of two parts: the premise or claim that every human being is sacred (inviolable, etc.), and the further claim that because every human being is sacred ... certain things ought not to be done to any human being and certain other things ought to be done for every human being" (p. 57). His four inquiries then are these: Is the premise or claim, that every human being is sacred, ineliminably religious? What is it that is being said with rights talk, and is such talk inherently problematic in some way? Are there in fact rights which attach to human beings just by virtue of their being human, or is it instead the case that it is only by virtue of contingent particularities that we possess the rights we do? And lastly, assuming that there are certain rights which attach to us just by virtue of our humanity, are any of those rights unconditional--that is to say do any of them attach to us no matter what our condition?

I think I can best pay tribute to the high quality and extraordinary interest of Perry's discussion by urging on him a few refinements. The fact that I call them "refinements" signals that I endorse almost all of Perry's main theses. To me too it appears that no "secular" defense can be given for the assumption which underlies the claim that there are human rights--the assumption, to put it in Perry's words, that each human being is "sacred." I too regard the use of rights talk not only as having nothing inherently problematic about it but as exceedingly important--indispensable even. And I too believe that we possess certain rights just by virtue of being human. The only main thesis of Perry's with which I am inclined to disagree is his thesis that, for every human right, there are some circumstances such that it is possible that a human being would be in those circumstances and, if she were, she would not possess that right. Concerning the right not to be tortured, for example, though I am willing to liste n to Perry's arguments that circumstances might arise in which one ought to choose against the very great good of not torturing someone in favor of achieving some yet greater good, I would hold that the person tortured had nonetheless been morally wronged. Rather than her not having the right, in that situation, not to be tortured, her right has been violated, and--awful to say--rightly so.

As my first refinement, I suggest that the importance of rights talk goes beyond its providing us with a rhetorically effective way of speaking of certain obligations. As noted above, Perry's formula for the second part of the idea of human rights is that "certain things ought not to be done to any human being and certain other things ought to be done for every human being." And he himself observes, about this use of the concept of obligation to explain the concept of rights, "Even though the language of moral rights is.. .useful, it is not essential. Indeed, properly understood, rights talk is a derivative and even dispensable feature of modern moral discourse" (pp. 55-56). If it is dispensable, why not dispense with it? Perry's answer is that "The language of rights is the principal language in which, in this century, claims about what ought not to be done to any human being and claims about what ought to be done for every human being have come to be expressed" (p. 43).

In the first place, I think it is important to note that thought and talk of rights do not first turn up when we discuss those high and mighty things which are human rights; they pervade the fine texture of our moral thought and discourse. If Pete Sampras wins the Wimbledon, he has a right to the trophy; if candy is going to be distributed to the children in the class, then each child has a right to an equal share. Only befuddlement and mystification ensue if we who are theorists fail to note that natural human rights are not, qua rights, exotic moral phenomena, but merely special examples of what pervades our moral, social, and legal existence--namely, rights in general.

More to the immediate point, however, obligations talk and rights talk deal with two distinct, albeit related, sides of our moral existence. The easiest way to see this is to take note of the "dark side" of obligations and of the "dark side" of rights. If I fail to perform my obligations, I am guilty; if I fail to enjoy what I have a right to, I am wronged. Not only are being guilty and being wronged obviously different phenomena; they do not always come paired off with each other. I must confine myself here to citing an example of just one of the several ways in which such discrepancy comes about. Suppose the law says that residents of the city have the right to walk in the city park until 7:00 p.m., but that the new keeper of the gate has somehow come to be of the view that it is his responsibility to close the gates at 6:00 p.m.; add that that mistake on his part is nonculpable. Then, though I have the right to walk in the park at 6:30, he does not have the obligation to let me do so; in fact, he has the duty to hustle me out. He would rightly have a bad conscience if he did not do so.

Many are the cases in which we find it clear that one person has a right to some good while nonetheless finding it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to specify who ought to be doing what so as to make it likely that that person enjoys that good. Perry handles this by using an impersonal "ought": certain things ought not to be done to any human being and certain other things ought to be done for every human being. Especially concerning the latter we want to ask: exactly which things ought to be done and who ought to be doing them? Suppose rights were reducible to obligations. Then rights talk would nonetheless remain useful for dealing with those cases in which we know that a person has a right to some good without knowing who ought to be doing what so as to make it likely that that person enjoys that right. (Though of course we could also use the impersonal "ought," as Perry regularly does, and just say that she ought to be enjoying that good.) In fact, however, since there are rights to which there ar e no corresponding obligations--and obligations to which there are no corresponding rights--rights talk is not just useful but indispensable. Nothing of substance would have to be altered in Perry's argument if he accepted this point; rather, his insistence on the importance of rights talk would be even more firmly grounded than it is.

A second point at which I would urge a revision on Perry pertains to his "each and every" formula. Certain things ought not to be done to any human being, he says, and certain other things ought to be done for every human being. This formula is to be understood conditionally, he adds, not absolutely. As already noted, even the right not to be tortured is conditional, on Perry's view; it is possible that a person would be in a condition such that, in that condition, he does not have a right not to be tortured.

It seems to me that Perry is not putting his basic point here in quite the right way. Given his view that there are no absolute human rights, it cannot be correct for him to parse out the idea of human rights by saying that certain things ought not to be done to any human being (and certain other things ought to be done for every human being). The natural understanding of that formula is that certain things ought never to be done to any human being. It turns out that Perry does not believe there are any such things. Does that imply that, malgr[acute{e}] lui, he has himself given up on the idea of human rights? Yes he has if the idea is that certain things ought never to be done to any human being. But there is another and better way of thinking about human rights which every now and then Perry himself appeals to, namely, a right that one has is a human right if one has that right simply on account of being a human being. The right of Pete Sampras to the 1999 Wimbledon trophy is not a human right on this acco unt; he has that right not by virtue of being human but by virtue of having won the Wimbledon tournament. By contrast, the right not to be tortured surely is a human right on this account; it is just by virtue of being a human being that one has a right to that good. Even if we grant, as I do not, that it is possible that a human being find herself in the awful situation of not having that right, nonetheless, when she does have it, all she has to cite as ground for claiming the good of not being tortured is that she is human. Whether or not human rights are rights which all human beings always have, they are rights which human beings, when they have them, have them just on account of being human.

Lastly, I want to make a comment about Perry's provocative argument, in his first chapter, that the thesis which underlies the idea of human rights, that every human being is sacred, is ineliminably religious.

The concept of sacredness which Perry has in mind is not itself a religious concept. The claim that human beings are sacred comes down to the same thing, for him, as the claim that human beings are inviolable, that they are ends in themselves, and that they possess inherent dignity and worth. And this claim, in turn, comes to no more than the claim that each hurnan being is a good of such a sort as to require of each of us that we acknowledge that good by respecting each human being's right to such goods as are listed in the international human rights documents.

So what does Perry mean by claiming that this thesis, of the sacredness of each human being, is "ineliminably religious"? He means that religious persons are able to offer reasons which genuinely support the thesis whereas nonreligious persons are not able to do so. (In the present book, Perry does not take the further step of arguing that some of such religious reasons are true.) Obviously this claim, if it is to get off the ground, needs a working definition of "religious." Perry provides that. To say that a person holds a religious worldview or vision is to say that that person holds a worldview or vision which is "grounded or embedded in a vision of the finally or ultimately meaningful nature of the world and of our place in it" (p. 15).

I myself find this use of the concept of meaning problematic. I do not doubt that there is something to it; but what that something is has never, to the best of my knowledge, been made clear. For that state of affairs I do not hold Perry responsible, however, but those who theorize about religion. More to the point of Perry's discussion, it is not really this definition of religion which plays a role in his argument. Perry does not show that those who hold that life and the world are meaningful thereby have a reason for regarding each human being as sacred. What (he shows instead is that certain theists have such a reason-specifically, those who hold that we human beings are all beloved children of God and hence brothers and sisters of each other. The person who believes in such a God has a reason for regarding each human being as sacred, that is, as worthy (at a minimum) of that respect which consists of acknowledging those rights cited in international human rights documents. For he will regard his love of God as requiring that he love what God loves; and such love requires such respect.

Here then is my question for Perry. Given his definition of "religious," is it his view that religious people in general have reasons for regarding each human being as sacred, or is it his view that only certain theists have such reasons? If the former, then we are owed not only some nontheistic examples of such reasons, but some account of why it would be that regarding the world and life as meaningful necessarily provides a reason for regarding each human being as sacred. If the latter, then the contrast religious/nonreligious does not mark out the division between those who have good reasons for regarding each human being as sacred and those who do not; it is instead the contrast theist/nontheist which marks out that division. Or perhaps not even that; perhaps there are some theisms which provide no such reasons. In short: is the conviction that life and the world are meaningful sufficient to ground sacredness, or is belief in God necessary?

One final point. Perry scrutinizes the secular reasons that Ronald Dworkin offers for the thesis that each human being is sacred, and concludes that they do not support the conclusion. I agree. And I too know of no better secular reasons than those Dworkin offers. But what if the secular person offers no reasons? What if he says that he simply finds himself believing that each human being is of such a pitch of goodness as to require of each of us that we acknowledge that goodness by, as a minimum, respecting such rights as the international human rights documents list? He has no good reason to offer for this belief of his. Reasons have to come to an end somewhere, and this is where his reasons end. It is, to use the terminology of epistemologists, a "basic" belief on his part, an "immediate" belief. He is willing to listen to reasons against it; but he himself does not hold it for reasons.

What would Perry say about this response of the "secularist"? I do not know. It is an end-run around his line of argumentation. Perhaps any good reason for regarding each and every human being as sacred will prove to be religious -- more specifically, theistic. But is there something intellectually disreputable about regarding each human being as sacred without having a reason for doing so? Or if not intellectually disreputable, is there nonetheless something precarious and unstable about such a position?

NICHOLAS WOLTERSTORFF is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology in Yale University.
COPYRIGHT 2000 University of Notre Dame
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Wolterstorff, Nicholas
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:2576
Previous Article:ETHICS AS SCIENCE.
Next Article:WHAT IT REALLY MEANT.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters