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In Search of a Talking Point on Human Rights

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Justice & Law

Nothing can raise the emotional level of a conversation as quickly as a sudden shift to the subject of human rights. This is especially but not exclusively the case in Asia, where national leaders, tired of the carping criticism of the Western press, peevishly argue that human rights are a creation of the West. Cultures differ, the argument goes, and the West would do well to solve its own problems (which stem in part from libertarianism) before admonishing others on abuses. The Western penchant for pushing human rights on non-Western nations, some maintain, is just one more example of neocolonialism.

Because of the controversial nature of human rights, I suggest that we begin our conversation elsewhere. A starting point I think we can all agree upon, whatever our culture and religious tradition, is the dignity of the human individual. Buddhists, Christians, Muslims all affirm the brotherhood (or sisterhood) and dignity of the human person.

To affirm the dignity of the human person is not to say that the individual is all-important, or to deny that each individual has genuine social responsibilities. It is to recognize that the human person is something more than a cog in the wheel of society--a being who has importance in himself/herself. It is to recognize that there is something sacred in a person.

Such an affirmation is important because everywhere and in all times there has existed a tension between the individual and society. The tension takes some of the color of the old analogy of the battle between the elephant and the ants. Societies, large and powerful as they are, can usually look after themselves very well. Individuals, especially unimportant ones, generally have a much harder time. What is there to ensure that the ants don't get trampled in this cosmic battle?

In his paper for this conference, Fr. Archie Intengan put his finger on the two "moral commodities" (as he calls them) that protected individuals long before the invention of the concept of individual rights: justice and love.

The moral codes developed in societies were one means of safeguarding the interests of human individuals. The Old Testament ethic, which we should remember was the product of an Asian culture, laid out in considerable detail the responsibilities of persons towards one another. Implicitly, therefore, it also described what individuals could expect from one another and from the state: what today we might refer to as their "rights." Persons were not to have their oxen slaughtered, their wife or daughter seized, or their house burned at the whim of their neighbor or of the state. To live under the law, whatever form this law might take, was to be shielded and sheltered to some degree.

Another device that protected the poor and the powerless was the ethic of compassion found in nearly every society. Old Testament Israel enjoined on its people the sacred duty of defending and showing compassion toward those unable to protect their own interests: the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Other Asian societies were not much different. A Thai political scientist, Dr. Chaiwat Satha-anand, expressly mentions compassion as a traditional virtue of his own country. A term like compassion, one of the "wealth of homegrown concepts for rights activists to choose from," is a part of the Thai vocabulary and a more acceptable term than human rights, he maintains.

In no traditional societies throughout the world we can expect to find any charter of individual rights. This is as true of pre-modern Europe, by the way, as of Asia. Human rights terminology is as alien to Africa, the Pacific, and the rest of what is called the Third World as it is to Asia. The very concept of individual rights is regarded with suspicion among most older people in the part of the Pacific in which I work, and my guess is that it meets with similar skepticism in other parts of the world.

To understand why this is so, we must recall the more traditional view of human society. In the past people tended to think of social structures as divinely ordained rather than as fabricated by human beings. The structure of society was usually in the shape of a pyramid with the ruler at the top, nobles below him, and other classes ranked in descending order down to the very base of the pyramid. The god who had created this society entrusted power to its rulers, who were in turn expected to provide for the welfare of their subjects. Society was a given, and the members of a society were thought to have no more right to reshape their society than they had to transform their own nature.

In these traditional societies, static and hierarchical as they were, the person was first and foremost defined as a social being. Emphasis was placed on the individual's contribution to society as a whole, with each person having a fixed position and a set of duties and responsibilities to the society. Personal satisfaction was very much a secondary consideration, almost a byproduct of one's social status. The prevailing social ethic in such societies was grounded in the individual's duties to society, rather than in what he might expect to receive from others. Any formal rights that individuals possessed were linked to their status rather than to their personhood as such.

This is not to say that individuals were regarded as mere chattel. Even if individual rights were not named as such, the dignity of individuals was implicitly recognized and protection afforded them, as we have seen. It would have been impossible for societies to have functioned without providing some safeguards for the lives and property of their members. These safeguards were embedded in a code of justice, whether this was expressed in legal terms or not, and the ethic of compassion offered an additional protection for the individual.

All this was slow to change in the West. Individualism is said to have stemmed from the Enlightenment that sprang up in Europe in the 17th Century, but this is far from the whole story. The intellectual currents emphasizing the importance of the individual that swept Europe at this time didn't emerge from a vacuum. The mercantile development and the rise of the modern nation-state were the wellsprings from which the stress on individual flowed. I don't think it is an exaggeration to suggest that the stress on the individual could never have happened except in reaction to the forces of modernization that were at work on Europe at that time. Individualism and the new emphasis on individual rights were, at least in part, a reaction to statism.

As the powerful new modern state rose in Europe, perceptions of society began to change. The state came to be seen no longer as a divine creation but as a product of human forces. It was viewed as a man-made institution to which individuals voluntarily surrendered some of their freedom so as to achieve certain common goals. Why this profound change? Perhaps it can be attributed to growing self-awareness. Possibly the mighty new state was seen to present a greater threat to the individual than the ancient society.

The Catholic Church bitterly resisted this new mode of thinking, which was known as Liberalism, for two centuries. In fact, the church continuing issuing its condemnations of this revolutionary mindset long after most of Europe embraced it. Only in the last decade of the 19th Century, with the publication of Rerum Novarum, the first of the modern social encyclicals, did the church give its tentative blessing to this new way of thinking.

Why the sudden turnabout in the position of the Catholic Church? Because it was obvious that people in modern Europe were not being adequately provided for by their societies. The Industrial Revolution, while working technological wonders in the West, had taken an enormous social toll of the people who provided the labor. The cities were crowded with people seeking work in the new factories, women and children were laboring long hours for a pittance, and thousands lived in appalling misery. Governments, which were supposed to bear the responsibility for seeing to the welfare of their citizens, were too enthralled with the economic gains to be reaped by industry to do so. In response to this crisis the Catholic Church began to develop an ethic of individual rights. Although the church's concern was initially the economic rights of the individual, it soon developed a theory of political rights when Marxism threatened to sacrifice political liberty for the sake of economic advancement.

The Catholic Church has developed its rights ethic in each succeeding social encyclical since then. In doing so, it has been obliged to walk a delicate balance. While maintaining the rights of individuals, the church continued to assert the social nature of the human person. In other words, the individual remains a social animal with obligations to other individuals and society at large. Moreover, the church's rights ethic must be grounded on the freedom of the person, but without losing sight of the end for which the human person is ordered. In other words, freedom is not an absolute; but it is seen as a necessary condition to enable persons to achieve the goals for which they were created. Finally, the rights ascribed to individuals had to be rooted in an intelligible order (which was called "human nature"), even though it had to be acknowledged that the human person was affected by historical changes. Hence, human beings have always had inherent "rights" (even if they were not always called that), but circumstances in our modern day have made it necessary to draw attention to these rights for the protection of the individual.

The ethic that has grown from the recognition of individual rights has not been without its problems. Misunderstandings have arisen. More traditional societies have often felt bludgeoned by what is taken to be a Western category of thought. People in the place I come from have reacted strongly and negatively to the new emphasis on rights, for they see the traditional communitarian base of their society shattering in today's modern world. The rights ethic is seen as one more blow at the communal nature of society, this one an ideological assault in the name of libertarianism: the radical freedom of the individual to do and be what he or she wishes. With their old world slipping away, many of them feel that a reminder of communitarian responsibilities is much more called for today than an appeal to individualism.

There is much truth in some of these charges. Irresponsibility has often been condoned in the name of "individual freedom," and it probably will in the future as well. Cultures on the threshold of modernization fear that radical individualism will spell the loss of the traditional values that have sustained them for centuries, even millennia. Yet, all this should not blind us to the simple truth with which this paper began. Whatever our cultural and religious tradition, we can agree on the basic fact that each individual possesses human dignity. The human being is not simply the building block of society, or the drayhorse whose sole destiny is to bear any burden and labor without complaint for the good of society.

In the inevitable tension between the individual and society, the social nature of the human person must not be slighted. Human persons are bound to others in their society by a covenant. But if society itself enjoys a quasi-sacral quality, so does each individual in that society. The human person is an end in itself. If modernization, with its market economy and its centralized political power, seems to imperil the very foundations of society, it also threatens to grind the human individual under the wheel of progress. The human rights ethic developed in the West as a historical response to that danger. What strategy will Asian nations, who have faced this crisis more recently, use to protect the individual? Whatever the strategy chosen and the terminology employed, this remains the hidden but central issue in the great debate over individual rights.


Umanidat, Vol. 3, No. 1, November 1995: 111-116. Also published in: Promotio Justitiae, No. 64, June, 1996: 52-55.

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