Check out this superb essay on the Heritage website by Roger Scruton, “The Future of European Civilization: Lessons for America.” There’s much to ponder, but I’d like to focus on just one point. Scruton argues that “Human Rights” has replaced Christianity as the religion of Europe’s elites.

Human Rights purports to provide a grounding for morality and social order—what Christianity used to do. The problem, Scruton says, is that Human Rights is itself without foundation and therefore cannot play the role people wish to assign it:

If you ask what religion commands or forbids, you usually get a clear answer in terms of God’s revealed law or the Magisterium of the church. If you ask what rights are human or natural or fundamental, you get a different answer depending on whom you ask, and nobody seems to agree with anyone else regarding the procedure for resolving conflicts.

Consider the dispute over marriage. Is it a right or not? If so, what does it permit? Does it grant a right to marry a partner of the same sex? And if yes, does it therefore permit incestuous marriage too? The arguments are endless, and nobody knows how to settle them.…

We are witnessing, in effect, the removal of the old religion that provided foundations to the moral and legal inheritance of Europe and its replacement with a quasi-religion that is inherently foundationless. Nobody knows how to settle the question whether this or that privilege, freedom, or claim is a “human right,” and the European Court of Human Rights is now overwhelmed by a backlog of cases in which just about every piece of legislation passed by national parliaments in recent times is at stake.

It’s an important point, and Scruton makes it with his usual grace and insight. He’s correct that the left often talks about Human Rights as though it were a kind of religion and, in fact, an improvement on the old faith. For example, in his recent book, Christian Human Rights, which I review in the current issue of the magazine, Harvard scholar Samuel Moyn compares Human Rights with Christianity, and concludes that Human Rights has the potential to do a superior job in improving people and making the world a more moral place.

Scruton is right, too, that competing understandings of Human Rights exist, and that they lead to different practical results in some cases. For example, a Catholic understanding, based on an objective conception of human nature and human dignity, does not allow for same-sex marriage as a human right. By contrast, the dominant secular understanding, based on the value of subjective choice, does. In the contemporary West, the latter view dominates. In the global context, however, it’s not so clear. In addition to the Catholic understanding, there are also Islamic and Orthodox Christian conceptions of human rights that differ markedly from the secular, subjective version—as well from each other.

The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) famously avoided these debates. Philosophical agreement would be unnecessary, they thought, as long as nations signed up for the basic idea of human rights. Besides, nations would always retain some discretion in applying the so-called “universal” rights in the context of their own cultures. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore debates about the grounding for human rights now, and aside from the power of office – “we control international human rights organizations and you don’t”– there doesn’t seem a clear way to resolve them.

Nonetheless, Scruton overstates his case a bit. It’s true that there is much disagreement about Human Rights at the global level. But within Europe? I wonder whether the absence of agreement on particular cases makes today’s commitment to Human Rights all that different, as a practical matter, from yesterday’s commitment to Christianity. It’s not like Christians have always agreed among themselves on what Christianity requires for law and politics, either. (See: The Protestant Reformation). May Christians divorce and remarry? May they use artificial contraception? Some Christian communions say yes, others no. Do these disagreements mean Christianity is useless as a means of ordering society? I wouldn’t think so. Besides, even if one disagrees with it, there is a consistent European Court jurisprudence on many human-rights questions.

I suppose the response would go something like this. Fundamentally, Human Rights – at least, the dominant secular version – denies the basis for any objective truth claims. So there’s no way to resolve any issue, other than deferring to individual subjectivity, which is no basis for a legal system. It’s not a matter of a few difficult cases here and there, but the whole run of possible cases. Without a commitment to some objective value, something other than individual choice, the whole system will ultimately collapse.

I’ll need to think about this more. Whatever your view, Scruton’s essay is, as always, profound, elegant, and thought provoking.

Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.

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