What We Mean by Human Rights, and Why

by Richard John Neuhaus

Mr. Neuhaus is a pastor, writer and lecturer who lives in New York City.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 6, 1978, pp. 1177-1180. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


We must resist the claim of any government that it represents some mystical “general will of the people,” thus relegating its opponents to the categories of subversive, subhuman or counterrevolutionary. In the age of electronic torture, computers and sophisticated behavioral controls, the Leviathan of the modern state, here and elsewhere, must be resisted.

We are deceived if we place our trust in the current enthusiasm for human rights. Serious commitment to human rights will always be a minority obsession. Government policy may at times implement that commitment but cannot sustain it. After Vietnam and Watergate, many Americans are understandably euphoric about the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights. The advancement of human rights and what President Carter has termed the "new "agenda for democracy" (Paris, January 4, 1978) appear to offer a moral rationale for the exercise of American power that has been sorely lacking in recent years.

In the 1930s the Italian writer Carlo Levi noted that in many poor peasant homes a picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt was hung alongside that of the pope. "Why FDR?" Levi asked a woman in one of the poorest sections of southern Italy. "Because," she answered, simply, "he’s on our side." Today in numerous villages, prisons and torture chambers around the world victims of oppression give voice to the hope that the president and people of the United States are once again on their side. It would be churlish of us not to celebrate this turn of events, but it would be foolish to trust it. The warning of the psalmist applies: "Put not your trust in princes. . .When his breath departs he returns to his earth on that very day his plans perish" (Ps. 146:3-4) when his breath departs, or his priorities are changed, or his mandate is withdrawn.

Grasping the Horror

Such skepticism has less to do with the personality of Jimmy Carter than with the vagaries of political power. Skepticism is not cynicism. Cynicism corrodes our commitment; skepticism compels us to seek a more sure foundation for a commitment that can survive the eclipse of political fashions. When political styles, slogans and sentiments give way to their successors -- as they certainly will -- the cause of human rights must be sustained.

We are deceived if we think that the passion for human rights is the inevitable wave of the future or that it will be carried by the spirit of the times. The Zeitgeist of our century is more accurately seen as one of horror and barbarity. Hitler, Stalin, Amin and the butchers of Cambodia leave no room for sentimentality or optimism. The only devotion to human rights that can be trusted is a long-distance devotion that has pondered the bloody face of our age. Like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it has cried, "The horror! The horror!" The human rights cause is a hope posited against that horror. Only those who have grasped the horror can help more firmly to ground the hope.

In addressing the question of what we mean by human rights -- and why -- I am less concerned with cataloguing than with conceptualizing. It is important to list those rights that must be protected; it is more important to understand the moral foundations of rights as such. If the "what" of human rights is to be grounded in American public policy, the "why" must be grounded in the religious beliefs of the American people. If the minority obsession for human rights is to enjoy sustained popular support, it must speak the moral language of the American people. For the great majority of Americans, moral discourse -- beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil -- is shaped and carried by the biblical tradition. That tradition is premised upon the understanding that we live in a "fallen" creation that is far from the best of all possible worlds.

A Transcendent Promise

In this understanding, human rights are not founded upon a myth about a "natural state of innocence." Nor are they achieved through the evolution or revolutions of an "inevitable historical process." Nor are they exhaustively defined in positive law. Nor are they limited by the actual behavior of societies. Far from being "natural," respect for human rights represents human victory over the apparent laws of nature.

In the biblical view, one is surprised not by the violation of human persons but, by the habits and institutions that secure a measure of decency. As to history, small comfort can be elicited from withered theories about inevitable progress or from revolutionary promises of brave new worlds. As to positive law, it is a weak but necessary need. Law and social conduct may reflect but do not establish or limit understanding of human rights. That understanding is grounded in a transcendent promise to which all laws and all societies are accountable, whether they know it or not.

That promise has not yet been consummated in history. Believing Christians and Jews still await the Messianic age. Therefore, unlike others, we know that our commitment to human rights does not depend on the consistency with which that commitment can be implemented. We have no illusions that governmental policy can ever perfectly embody any ideal or moral imperative. If a good policy, such as the advancement of human rights, is inconsistently applied or even betrayed, that fact does not make the policy less good. It does say something about the limitations of government short of the Messianic age, and it may say something about the moral default of those in power.

The rightness of a policy is not established by its observance. Against positivists of all stripes, we must insist that practice and law do not establish duty. Duty is prior to law and practice and is, at best, recognized by them. In a society where everyone lied, and there was no law against lying, it would still be wrong to lie. In a world where most regimes torture their subjects and do so under the guise of law, it is still wrong to torture. Our commitment to human rights, if it is to be sustained, must depend not on practice, law, or the passing policies of governments (though we must be earnestly concerned about all of these), but rather on a promise that bestows dignity upon every person and demands of every person a respect -- no, a reverence -- for the dignity of all others. This demanding promise is the "why" of our concern for human rights.

Rights and Needs

Today there is heated debate about the what and why of human rights. Those who think that human rights is a "motherhood issue" around which all rational people can unite have not given the question much thought. What I have said about the "why" of human rights is disputed in many quarters. But even if we could agree on the "why," it comes up against the hard wall of the "‘what." How do we define rights? And which rights have priority? There are civil and political rights; there are economic, social and cultural rights. Are all rights of a piece? Is it possible to establish a hierarchy of rights? And who is to decide which rights are most important to whom? Maybe we should ask the people most immediately involved. But how can we ask or how can they say, unless there is freedom of information and expression? Who shall speak for whom? And is it possible that, if rights are universal, some people might not know which rights are most important?

As though all this were not complicated enough, it is argued that rights are really equivalent to needs -- and needs are infinitely expandable. For example, it is argued that there is a need for an adequate diet; therefore, everyone has a right to an adequate diet. Others have argued the need for, and therefore the right to, a psychologically secure childhood. Others contend that equality is both a need and a right.

One suspects that those who advocate a long and infinitely expandable list of "rights" are in fact the enemies of any serious consideration of human rights. As with almost any purpose, the intent can be stretched to absurdity and made complex to the point of paralysis. We should not be deceived or intimidated by those who would fix our attention on the inscrutable and impossible so as to distract our energies from the obvious and imperative.

A Short List

It is not always true that less is more. In some areas of life, more is more. But the axiom does apply to the advancement of human rights. Long lists of human rights, while they may sometimes be well intended, only obfuscate the question and distract us from the work at hand. We should rather cultivate a bias toward the short and specific. Nor should we be dismayed that such a "short list" is predominantly negative -- specifying things that should not be done. Those who have seen the horror know that the positive struggle for human rights will, for the foreseeable future, have more than enough to do in resisting unqualified evil. Prescinding from the conventional debate over the relative importance of civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic and social rights on the other, we ought to be able to agree on those elementary rights that have priority over any political or economic program, regardless of that program’s ideological label.

Others may phrase it differently, but such a short list is suggested by Cyrus Vance’s April 1977 speech in Athens, Georgia: "First, there is the right to be free from governmental violation of the integrity of the person. Such violations include torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; and arbitrary arrest or imprisonment. And they include denial of fair public trial, and invasion of the home." These rights regarding "the integrity of the person" are universal, and the violation of them is always an evil to be protested. It is to be feared that those who disagree with that proposition do not really care about human rights at all. To be sure, in sincere love for humanity they may care about advancing a program that they believe will enhance the economic and social well-being of people. But they do not care about human rights that are prior to and superior to any program of putative social improvement.

Today most regimes in the world systematically violate these elementary rights. They do so in the name of maintaining national security, defending Christian civilization, advancing the revolution of the proletariat. Our kind of world makes necessary the most robust skepticism toward all ideological labels. Whether a repressive regime describes itself as socialist or capitalist, as revolutionary or traditional, the salient characteristics are the same. People are not allowed to leave the country. The secret police are not restrained by law, and there is no appeal from police power. Persons are not permitted to protest government actions, and there is no provision for popular participation in the transfer of governmental power.

Today we witness police states and military dictatorships that justify their actions by appealing to the necessities of "socialist revolution," "national security," or both. The ideological labels are subterfuges designed to deceive the unwary. We have been warned about "the principalities and powers" of the present time. Those who know the tendency of power to corrupt people, and of people to corrupt power, will not be taken in. The salient characteristic of all these regimes, whether they call themselves leftist or rightist, is that they recognize no transcendent point of reference to which they are accountable and by which they are restrained. More specifically, they refuse to acknowledge the transcendent value embodied in every person.

A word must nonetheless be said about the old debate that posits political and civil rights against economic and social rights. First, there is little or no evidence that regimes that have denied civil and political rights have done a better job of advancing economic and social rights, or that there is a causal connection between the denial of one and the advancement of the other. The fact is that Mussolini did not, in any economically significant sense, "make the trains run on time." To the contrary, there is considerable evidence, also in the Third World, that countries more respectful of civil and political rights have done a better job economically and socially.

Second, those who give economic rights priority over other rights tend to forget that every repressive regime in the world, whether "left" as’ "right," shares their viewpoint. That is, one could hardly find a regime that does not justify its repressive actions on the basis of advancing social and economic rights. Brazil no less than Cuba, South Korea no less than Mozambique, claims to be pursuing programs of economic and social betterment. Whether the rhetoric is "building the revolution" or "creating an economic miracle," the reality is the violation of personal, civil and political rights in the name of a worthy social purpose.

To put the matter as sharply as possible: if one excuses torture in Brazil while condemning it in Cuba, one does not really care about human rights. Likewise, if one is silent about political prisoners in Vietnam while protesting such prisoners in South Korea, one does not really care about human rights. In saying that such a person does not really care about human rights, I do not mean that he or she is necessarily hypocritical or insincere. Such individuals may be deeply sincere, but it is not about human rights that they are sincere. They are sincere about favoring one form of political and social organization over another, and for the sake of advancing their favored program they are prepared to see human rights sacrificed, or at least severely compromised.

Food and the Free Press

I have argued that all who care about human rights should be able to agree on a short list of prior and superior rights regarding the integrity of the person. In determining the "core rights" that constitute the heart of our human rights agenda, it is important to consider the way we use language. We variously speak of a right as something to be "respected," or to be "met," or to be "fulfilled." In our ordinary use of language, needs are to be met and desires are to be fulfilled. Rights, properly speaking, have, as it were, an ontological status, and their existence is simply to be respected. Only with great care should we call needs and desires "rights." Yet at times we may do just that. For example, the Bread for the World organization successfully lobbied Congress to adopt a bill declaring the "right to food." That is, in view of the fact that it is possible for everyone on earth to have at least a subsistence diet, everyone therefore has a right to have this elementary need met. I suspect that most of us would agree on including a subsistence diet on our short list of human rights.

But would we agree on putting freedom of expression there? It is commonly dismissed as an esoteric and elitist concern. After all, it is said, a free press is not a high priority for a hungry person. Many people profess to be concerned about the right to a subsistence diet. They are prepared to go along with a regime that promises to deliver that, even if it denies free access to and dissemination of information. I would suggest that such people not really concerned even about the right to a subsistence diet. If we are concerned about whether people have enough to eat, we want to know whether they have enough to eat. And the simple fact is that there is no way of knowing unless information is freely available, disseminated and subject to critical examination.

To say that one is concerned about the right to food but not about the right to know is self-deception sentimentality. The right to know -- to seek, question and share information -- may be called a "supporting" or "facilitating" right. But far from being an elitist preoccupation, it is an essential component of genuine concern for such elementary rights as the right to food or the right not to be tortured.

Nations Under Judgment

To be sure, there are people who say they care but do not need to know. That is because they trust the information issuing from the regime of their choice. They believe what they are told by the military junta about economic progress in Argentina or, alternatively, what they are told by the party leadership in Peking about conditions in China. One cannot put it too baldly: such people have, for whatever reasons, made a faith commitment that excludes them from the community of reasonable discourse about human rights. Or, in theological terms, they have, in submitting their reason and conscience to an earthly power, committed the sin of idolatry. In any case, while they may . care about many things, they do not care about human rights.

Every regime claims to advance the well-being of its people, and almost every regime claims to represent the will of its people. Yet the fact remains that every form of government means the rule of some people over the lives of other people. We remember the old question, "What is the difference between capitalism and socialism?" -- to which the answer is, "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man, while, socialism is precisely the opposite." We must resist the claim of any government that it represents some mystical "general will of the people," thus relegating its opponents to the categories of subversive, subhuman or counterrevolutionary. In the age of electronic torture, computers and sophisticated behavioral controls, the Leviathan of the modern state, here and elsewhere, must be resisted.

The resources for such resistance and restraint are essentially religious in nature. That is, only by positing a point of transcendent accountability can the appetite of Leviathan be checked. To say that ours is a nation "under God" is to say that it is a nation under judgment. And so it is with all nations and all governments, whether they acknowledge the reality or not.

The churches must develop a theology and a piety that undergird our commitment to human rights with a transcendent understanding of the dignity of the person. In building long-distance devotion to human rights we need not and should not draw primarily on the secular Enlightenment of the 18th century, which has so often been hostile to the biblical tradition. We are indebted to the Enlightenment for many things, but our charter for human rights is in the prophet’s insight that each person, including the weak and oppressed, is the subject of infinite worth and divine love. Our manifesto for the dignity of the individual is contained in the parables of the one lost coin and the one lost sheep. Our belief in human solidarity is articulated in the words of Matthew 25: "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me." It is not mere poetry but a most solemn truth-claim of the biblical tradition that "no man is an island." It was not the secular Enlightenment but the Cromwellian revolution of a century earlier that gave birth to the democratic ideal that government is accountable to the Holy Spirit in each person. There it was that Thomas Rainborowe declared, "The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as doth the greatest he."

The poorest he and the poorest she in the whole world have lives to live as do the richest he and the richest she. That is a standard by which we can measure the horror of what is, and define the hope for what might be. That is the belief by which we can sustain a long-distance devotion that will outlast the political fashions of this moment. That is the rule by which we will be judged. That is the what, and that is the why, of human rights.