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Fifty years ago, on December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration marked a decisive moment in the moral, cultural, and political history of the world. It gave powerful testimony to a widespread longing for freedom, justice, peace, and solidarity. Affirming the dignity of the human person, it specified and sought to secure certain freedoms and rights as essential to the protection of that dignity. The Preamble calls the Declaration “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” and as such the Declaration is itself one of the signal achievements of the modern world.

Written in the aftermath of World War II and the horrors that attended that conflict, the document was a response to the “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The subsequent fifty years have not been lacking in barbarous acts that outrage the conscience of mankind. In 1948, one form of totalitarianism had been defeated, but other threats to the idea of human rights remained, generating confusions in the understanding and application of the Declaration. Such confusions were exacerbated by the presence among the victorious powers of another totalitarian system. After the demise of Soviet Communism in 1989-91, it was hoped that the Universal Declaration might be universally affirmed with greater clarity and persuasive force. That has not happened. Instead, the end of the Cold War has witnessed other distortions in the understanding of human rights.

We must frankly recognize that, in both theory and practice, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is today under attack. The very idea of universal human rights is challenged from several directions, and must therefore be given a more secure grounding in religious, philosophical, and moral reason. As believing Christians and Jews, our purpose is to help provide such a grounding in a way that is faithful both to the text of the Declaration and to the intentions of its authors. We readily acknowledge that ours is not the only way of understanding the Declaration. We believe that it is a way that invites firm adherence to the Declaration by Christians and Jews, and we hope it will be convincing to many others as well.

While both biblical faith and the philosophical tradition of natural law offer profound illuminations, we welcome diverse ways of affirming the universality of human rights. Every constructive analysis will aim at strengthening the Declaration as an instrument for the defense of human rights by providing a coherent and integrated interpretation that protects the document from the distortions to which it has too often been subjected.

The Dignity of the Human Person

Attacks on what we would call the human rights project take several forms. They all end up by denying, implicitly or explicitly, the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. Alluding to the Charter of the United Nations, the Declaration says that the nations have “reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom” (Preamble). The keystone of this reaffirmation is the dignity of the human person. In ancient and still continuing practices such as torture and slavery, the human person is subordinated to economic, political, or other ends. Respect for human dignity is also made contingent upon distinctions “such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status” (Article 2). Today, human beings are increasingly ranked by a “quality of life” index, and some lives are deemed not worth living (the contemporary equivalent of the Nazi lebensunwertes Leben -life unworthy of life). This degrading of human lives is evident in proposals for coercive population control, as well as in the return of eugenics in various manipulations of human reproduction. In population control, euthanasia, abortion, and eugenics, the human person is treated as an object or product to be used or eliminated according to the purposes of those who have power over others.

Indispensable Truths

Today’s theoretical attack on the Declaration frequently involves the denial of the universality of human nature, and even of human nature itself. Moreover, the truth about the unity of the human family-an indispensable presupposition of the Declaration-is denied by those intellectuals who deny the possibility of “the truth” about anything. The Preamble of the Declaration recognizes that the truth “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.” The very first article declares the truth, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Such are the foundational and indispensable truths upon which any credible affirmation of universal rights must be based. Although the formulation of these truths has a cultural history, they are not the possession of any one culture, nor does their universal recognition constitute a cultural imposition upon others. The appreciation of cultural diversity is closely related to the advance of freedom and should be carefully nurtured. Multiculturalism that takes seriously our undeniable and important differences within the human community is to be warmly welcomed. Multiculturalism that claims all truths are only cultural constructs necessarily denies the truth of the human community. In the absence of that truth, the Universal Declaration is an exercise in sentimental delusion. There is today a curious and dangerous convergence between philosophical nihilists and radical multiculturalists, on the one hand, and, on the other, those states that reject the idea of universal human rights as an instance of cultural imperialism. Complaints about the cultural “imposition” of ideas about universal human rights are, more often than not, in the service of nationalism, racism, ideology, or power politics-or all of these in combination. Thus educated elites in some countries join forces, wittingly or otherwise, with despotisms in various parts of the world that denigrate the dignity of the human person and the rights attending that dignity.

The Source of Rights

The inviolable dignity of the human person is derived from and directed to that which transcends the authority of the state. Article 1 declares that the person is “endowed with reason and conscience,” and reason and conscience direct the person to the source of that endowment. This orientation is typically expressed in religion. The Declaration affirms: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance” (Article 18). Because religion most directly addresses the foundation of human dignity, religious freedom is the source and safeguard of all rights and freedoms. For most people, religion is a communal and public commitment, underscoring the fact that the person is not simply an isolated, autonomous individual but a person in solidarity with others. This solidarity is underscored also in other communities of memory and mutual aid, and most particularly in the family. The Declaration affirms, “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” (Article 16). In such communities people keep faith with the allegiances that give meaning to their lives. Respect for human rights requires the protection of the communities and associations by which a culture of human dignity either flourishes or dies. We know from historical experience that, when these communities are weakened or destroyed, individuals become abstract instruments of collective power and the way is opened to tyranny and totalitarian control. The state is the servant and not the master of the communities of allegiance in which free persons express their identity and solidarity with others.

A Developing Grammar

The Declaration’s language of universal human rights is not the only moral language available to us in confronting threats to human dignity. It is, however, a language deeply rooted in our shared history, drawing on ancient and variously expressed precepts to respect the neighbor. Moreover, in our time the language of universal human rights is the most available discourse for cross-cultural deliberation about the dignity of the human person. The language of rights might be viewed as a developing grammar that makes possible a truly universal dialogue about our common human future. Rejecting the moral nihilism that gave rise to the “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,” the Declaration affirms that we have obligations to one another arising from our participation in a common humanity and common moral order. If the dialogue about our common future is to be secured and advanced, we must be able to give a reasonable account of such obligations. As Jews and Christians, we recognize that we have obligations in justice to God the Creator and to the entire human family of his creation. All human beings are endowed with basic rights by God, in whose image they are created. These rights and their corresponding obligations are indispensable aspects of the universal moral law. Such rights and obligations are intimately and necessarily related. The contemporary habit of speaking about rights apart from obligations is alien to the biblical tradition and, we would argue, alien to the logic of the Universal Declaration. To speak of a universal human nature and of universal human rights is not to deny the pluralism that marks the human condition. Universality and particularity are not to be pitted against one another. It is through particular traditions that we come to an understanding of the universal. The universal human experience is to discover that the other is different. The Declaration invites us to recognize that the other is different within a universal human experience. Our very capacity to engage our differences testifies to our unity. The truths of universal moral order, of human dignity, of solidarity, and of obligation are not self-evident in the sense that they have been or are now acknowledged by everyone. The Declaration itself was occasioned by events in massive opposition to these truths-by totalitarianism, world war, and genocide. One must make a reasoned decision about these truths, and in that sense the United Nations Charter and the Declaration reaffirm “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women.” That the nations were in 1948, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, able to reaffirm such faith is itself reason for hope.

The Accountability of Nations

Among the great achievements of the Declaration is to establish the principle that nations are accountable to others for the way they treat their own people. This is an achievement of historic proportions. It has contributed powerfully in our time to the spread of the idea of human dignity, the growth of democracy and constitutionalism, and the demise of authoritarian and totalitarian governments. Our hope that the world will continue on this course is not a matter of mere optimism or naive belief in historical progress. The potential for good and evil is equally present to every moment of history. The Universal Declaration is not an achievement secured once and for all. It embodies a project that is still young and vulnerable. The writers of the Declaration were keenly aware of differences and disagreements about both the scope and the nature of human rights. They recognized that “a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for [their] full realization” (Preamble). Fifty years later, it is obvious that such a common understanding is by no means secure. Nations still defy the principle of accountability to others. Today, nations of considerable size and influence attempt to justify the violation of human rights by appealing to “national interest” or “diverse cultural traditions” and claim, in the name of state sovereignty, that such actions are exclusively a matter of domestic concern. Moreover, in a time of global economics, even nations that are more respectful of the Declaration are pressed by interested parties to give economic considerations precedence over the moral imperatives of human rights.

Rights Against Rights

In addition, human rights are threatened in the name of human rights. When claims to rights are severed from the just requirements of morality and the common good, the inevitable result is a distorted understanding of human rights that all too often leads to the violation of the rights of others. There is, moreover, a powerful inclination to pick and choose among human rights, which results in favoring some (e.g., the right to privacy) at the expense of others (e.g., the rights of the family). Such selectivity undermines the necessary connections between rights, wrenching “favored” rights out of context and weakening “disfavored” rights. Also in the name of human rights, the number of rights is multiplied to the point that the very idea of rights is dangerously diluted. The Declaration is neither exhaustive nor perfect in its articulation of rights. But the essential rights specified by the Declaration are weakened by multiplying the number of interests, goods, and desires that are elevated to the status of rights. A most particular threat to the human rights project is the coercive use of foreign aid and other international programs in order to advance alleged rights related to procreation, population control, and the independence of children from their parents (in the name of “children’s rights”). Such putative rights as, for instance, the right to abortion not only have no warrant in the Declaration but clearly violate its insistence upon the rights of the family, of religion, and of conscience. Efforts to promote such changes in the guise of human rights are correctly condemned as egregious instances of “cultural imperialism” by which elites of certain rich nations, not least of the United States, attempt to impose their values on the rest of the world. A better understanding of the Declaration is a strong guard against such abuses. The rights specified by the Declaration do not compose an arbitrary list of disparate goods that are to be protected. It is necessary to reread the Declaration as a whole in order to see the logic and coherence of its claims. Far from asserting a random collection of unconnected rights, the Declaration is an integrated document that turns on a concept of the human person in community, and of the free and just society required for human flourishing.

Freedom for Community

The Declaration lifts up the crucial importance of the individual. Almost all of its thirty articles begin with the word “Everyone.” As we have seen, however, this “everyone” is not an isolated, solitary bearer of rights but the person in community. In addition to the family and religion, the Declaration recognizes communities of work (Article 23), of cultural life (Article 27), and of political participation (Article 21). In the last instance, it is asserted that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” In the sphere of education, it is said that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Article 26). This theme of the communally situated “everyone,” in which freedom is understood not simply as freedom from community but as freedom for community, is an often neglected integrating feature of the Universal Declaration. Article 29 succinctly summarizes this theme: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” The exercise of rights and freedoms is limited “for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order, and general welfare in a democratic society.” The protection of human rights is the business not just of the state but of “every individual and organ of society” (Preamble). The understanding that society has many organs invites us to view human rights in the light of the teachings of “subsidiarity” and “spheres of sovereignty.” Subsidiarity means that authority has been vested in and should be exercised by those communities closest to the persons most affected by decisions. Such communities possess a sphere of sovereignty that is to be respected, limited only by the undeniable demands of the common good. In sum, an integrated reading of the Declaration makes clear that it is neither individualistic nor statist, but a charter of rights for the flourishing of persons in community.

Inviolable Rights and Just Claims

Many confusions have stemmed from different uses of the term “right” in different sections of the Declaration. Articles 3 through 20 refer chiefly to what must not be done to people; Articles 22 through 27 refer chiefly to what should be done for people. The latter obligations, as noted in Article 22, are conditioned upon the “organization and resources of each State.” These obligations are not generally enforceable by law. How or whether these goods are provided depends upon political decision and economic circumstance. There is no doubt that work, an adequate standard of living, health care, food, clothing, housing, and education are all human goods that are, as the Declaration says, “indispensable for [a person’s] dignity and the free development of his personality” (Article 22). Support for the Declaration entails a recognition that we are all obliged to strive to make such goods available to all members of the human family. The Declaration does not specify how we are to strive toward that goal-whether through state policy, international initiatives, market dynamics, voluntary action, charity, or all of these combined. But there must be no question about the goal. In retrospect, it would have been better if the human goods specified in the last six articles had been described as our duties of solidarity rather than as the rights of others. We can always not do the wrong that is not to be done (such as violating the rights of others); we cannot always do the good that we ought to do or want to do (such as ensuring basic economic goods for all). We recognize, however, that the political exigencies of the time seemed to require the conflation of these distinct commitments under the one title of “rights.” For almost fifty years, the influence of collectivist and totalitarian regimes created a confusing moral symmetry between civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic and social rights, on the other. There is now no excuse for continuing this confusion. A renewed adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires a clearer distinction between rights as endowments that we must never violate and rights as claims that we must strive to satisfy. The former are the certain possession of all people; the latter are the just claims of all people. The former can and must be guaranteed by law; the latter can and must be met as a duty of solidarity.


The framers of the Declaration knew that they could not at that time spell out fully the moral and philosophical reasons undergirding universal human rights. The agreement among nations was tenuous; the conflict between democratic and totalitarian forms of government was intense. In view of the circumstances, the measure of moral and philosophical coherence that was achieved is remarkable. Despite the threats discussed above, our time may be more propitious for giving a fuller account of the human rights project, for clarifying its scope, strengthening its foundations, and keeping it on a straight path. As Jews and Christians informed by the biblical understanding of the one human family created, sustained, and judged by the one God of all, we have here attempted to contribute to such an account of the human rights project. We invite others to offer from their own traditions alternative ways to clarify, strengthen, and direct this great enterprise. Thus, building on the work begun in 1948, we may be able to develop together a grammar for a universal dialogue about our common human future. Nothing less than that is required of those who are the heirs and guardians of the historic achievement that is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Ramsey Colloquium is sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life. The Colloquium is a group of Jewish and Christian theologians, ethicists, philosophers, and scholars that meets periodically to consider questions of morality, religion, and public life. It is named after Paul Ramsey (1913-1988), the distinguished Methodist ethicist.

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