Who is entitled to human rights?

Kazimierz Szalata

On 10 December 2008 we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has become an important document of moral sensitivity of societies after the atrocities of World War II. On this occasion it is worth posing several fundamental questions about the place of man in the world, about the threat that our rapidly growing civilisation brings. Today it especially refers to the so-called bioethical issues, connected with the beginning and end of human life. If we rightly demand respect for the rights resulting from the very fact of being human we have more and more frequently doubts about the definition of a human being. Recognising undeniably human life as the highest value we pose questions whether every life deserves to be called human. These doubts bring about euthanasia, which has been legalised here and there, and which is death at wish. Furthermore, we must deal with commonly practised abortion, i.e. death of an unwanted unborn child at the mother’s wish.

What are human rights?

Certainly, they cannot be reduced to some legislation on the national or even international level. Human rights, briefly speaking, are a set of general, fundamental rights that nobody questions and which every personal individual is entitled to. Man, thanks to his rational nature that does not only allow him to get to know the world but also get to know himself and others, can evaluate and make choices freely. He is free as such. He grows and manifests his nature on several levels. Because of his bodily structure he is a biological being, having his place in the specific kind of natural ecosystem. But thanks to the reason, as Pascal said, man surpasses nature infinitely. He surpasses all power that actually can kill him but cannot surpass him. Since if man dies because of some natural power he knows that he dies whereas some blind power does not even know that it kills. Man develops in his cognitive activities thanks to his reason and manifests the activities on the level of intellectual life. Thanks to his reason revealed in volitional activities man makes choices, chooses objectives in some more or less conscious way; he enters into personal relationships creating communities out of which the most important one is family since its aim is giving life. Realising his personal life man chooses what is valuable, what is worthy selecting prudently means to fulfil his ideals. Surpassing the level of nature, the level of biology, he develops his spiritual life. He reaches transcendence, what is timeless, what can meet his desires. St Augustine said, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ Therefore, we find something from religiousness, something from sacrum, in man’s nature regardless of the geographical or cultural conditions.

Struggling for man’s dignity

If human rights are to defend human being in his/her fullness they must protect man’s natural environment in which he can grow not only as a biological structure but as a person realising himself in his personal, intellectual and spiritual life. One should always remind people of this truth when we come to the issue that human rights can constitute a perverse tool of slavery within the reductionistic visions of man. We do remember that here and there the communist regimes also refer to human rights. Moreover, those who in our pluralistic societies struggle for the right to legal euthanasia, free abortion, homosexual marriages and children’s adoption by single-sex relationships refer to human rights. Making human rights a tool for their ideological fight against man’s nature they actually destroy the essence of these rights. Thus we will understand human rights only when we define what their subject exactly is. This subject is human person whose dignity, demanding exceptional respect and awe, results from the very fact of being a person. Personal dignity does not depend on the social status, education, abilities as well as physical and intellectual fitness. It results directly from the fact of humanity. Without understanding this we are not able to comprehend the significance of the norms written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Historically, dignity in the theological perspective (dignité) comes directly from the concept of divinity (divinité). Man understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition, from which our European culture was born, carries God’s image in himself; he is God’s child. In the very description of the creation of the world one can see the uniqueness of man who was not created as one of beings but the whole world was created for man and out of love for man. The entire history of the Revelation, the Incarnation and the Redemption testifies to that. God himself in the mystery of the Nativity became one of us, sharing our fate, and the Son of God brought salvation to man in the sacrifice that was the perfect fulfilment of the mystery of love. For believers the problem of personal dignity of man is almost obvious. But the concept of personal dignity is also readable on the level of natural cognition. In the philosophical perspective dignity results from the effects of man’s rational nature.
After the times of the Enlightenment, when the Christian image of the world was rejected and the classical philosophical anthropology and Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition were resigned, we began having problems with understanding dignity. It does not mean that we stopped using this concept. I think it was the other way round; we misuse it, especially when it is understood in a rather optional way today. We most often refer to the ‘neutral’ definition of Littre who said that respecting the dignity of another man meant the ability to appreciate in others what we would like others to appreciate in us. At the first sight, this definition seems to be right since it allows us to see another man through what we appreciate ourselves. But finally, such a definition leads to total arbitrariness. For we know well how diverse subjective human evaluations are. Some appreciate beauty, some appreciate strength and some appreciate wisdom. Dignity is a fundamental value, not dependent on one’s subjective evaluation. Without dignity human rights lose their objective foundation.

Epistemology of human rights

Another problem is the epistemology of human rights. For me as a philosopher and moralist it is amazing and completely incomprehensible to see that human rights evoke respect in spite of criticism raised here and there, that human rights result from Christian tradition and cannot be recognised as commonly binding. It seems that when we speak about human rights everyone understands more or less what it is all about. When the concept of natural law appears we have the impression that we should seek the explanation in the Dictionary of Foreign Words. But we cannot seriously treat human rights if we question the problem of natural law at the same time. Perhaps on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is worth asking again the question about not perhaps the questioned but rather forgotten natural law (very often improperly confused with God’s law). We discern natural law by our reason and thus it obliges everyone who has reason and can use it whereas God’s law was revealed by power of faith and obliges in conscience all those who believe in God and remain with him in relationships of faith, hope and love, those who try to fulfil what God expects from them.
Most problems and doubts result from the specific character of natural law and ways to discern it. The great philosopher of the 20th century, creator of integral humanism, Jacques Maritain showed as the first feature differentiating natural law from instituted rights, determined by political and administrative authorities, the fact that natural law was written nowhere. It simply is ‘born in man’ open to the truth on the level of wisdom. Everyone that understands what man is can make rational choices, in accordance with the rational nature. Because the enlightenment thesis of Diderot that reason is an addition to the animal nature of man is not true. It was Aristotle that noticed that reason is what determines man’s nature and places him on the level of personal life. Human rights are part of natural law. As such they have not been written anywhere. It is true that the declaration is a text, which mentions what is most important in these rights. But writing this text the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could refer only to the universal, flowing from natural cognition moral awareness. The very origin of the necessity to write down the fundamental inalienable human rights points to the insufficiency – otherwise constituting important tool to order social laws – of the instituted rights. There was the urgent need to evaluate morally the tragic war crimes on some more solid base than the legislation of this or that country. Perhaps today, when we discuss the moral evaluations of the procedures connected with in vitro fertilisation, genetic manipulations, the possibility to clone human beings or growing human-animal hybrids, considering the diverse legislation or lack of any legal regulations protecting man in his most difficult situations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights becomes a tool to order the specific kind of disorder concerning the question of human life if on its foundation dignity and human life are protected in specified conditions or with specified features. A slave, a sick man, an unconscious man, a leper, a man at the end of his life does not stop being human at any moment. This truth constitutes the foundation the disturbance of which must destroy the whole construction of the ‘universal’ Declaration.

"Niedziela" 2/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl