What Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Mean Today? – Quillette

“What is man, that you are mindful of him, human beings that you should care for them?”

The question the Psalmist asks God is the same question philosophers have been asking one another for more than three millennia: What does it mean to be human?What makes us different from the rest of creation?

For Aristotle, the answer was man’s political, or “social,” nature. For Blaise Pascal, it was man’s intellect: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinkingreed.” Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, author of the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, maintained that man’s distinguishing feature is his volition. Immanuel Kant located humanity’s uniqueness in our moral nature.

The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which turned 70 on December 10 this year, offers a different answer: to be human is to have an innate dignity that gives us an irreducible moral worth—a worth that makes all human individuals fundamentally equal to one another and distinct from other forms of life. The UDHR’s first line proudly recognizes “the inherent dignity and . . . equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” principles that are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The UDHR’s crucial claim is that the question of man’s nature is not merely academic or philosophical. It has moral consequences. Philosophers have long argued that man is distinct from animals or plants by emphasizing different aspects of his person. But the UDHR’s claim is different in asserting that a shared human nature gives us each equal moral worth. For most of human history, the notion that all humans are morally valuable was widely rejected.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the UDHR’s foundational statement—that we all share an inherent dignity that implies certain inalienable rights—will one day again fall into global disfavor. For this reason, it is imperative that each successive generation understand the values of this document. To do so, we must remember the atrocities that led to it.

The decision of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission to ground human rights in the idea of universal human dignity was not due to the philosophical force of the idea of dignity itself. As an astute essay by Remy Debes shows, the idea and terminology of dignity in intellectual history is rather amorphous. In his De Officiis (On Duties), Cicero uses dignitas to describe those holding an “honored place.”1 Such has been the case for most of dignity’s history, with the word often being used to describe the respect to which a particular kind of person—of a certain birth of rank—was entitled. In his De Oratore, Cicero uses dignitas and the related notion of gravitas to describe speech that is magisterial and weighty. It was not merely who spoke; dignity also aptly specified an aesthetic quality: i.e. persons who conducted themselves in a “dignified” manner.

This view of dignity would not change for many centuries. In Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédiethe crowning achievement of the European Enlightenment, the entry on Duty is an early proponent of the notion that our common nature, “endowed by [our] Creator with certain faculties,” means that we have certain moral obligations to all members of the human community:

The first absolute duty, of each man towards all others, is to harm no one… The second general, absolute duty of men is that each person must respect and treat others as naturally equal beings; that is, as beings who are as good as oneself, because this is a matter of a natural or moral equality. See Equality. The third general duty respective of men considered as members of society, is that each must contribute, as much as one can possibly do, to the utility of others.2

Immanuel Kant was the first to explicitly link man’s equal nature and moral obligations to our innate dignity.3 He claimed that all persons possess dignity by virtue of being moral beings—and humans alone are moral. More importantly, he asserted that our dignity has certain ethical implications. It is man’s “transcendent kernel” that endows all humans with unconditional, intrinsic worth, which is why in Kant’s famous categorical imperative people must be treated as ends in themselves, and never merely as means to ends.

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity… but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is, dignity. Now, morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.4

It is perhaps with this tradition in mind that the UDHR uses humanity’s universal dignity to condemn the senseless loss of human life the world had so painfully endured (there is no scholarly consensus regarding why the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission chose to ground human rights in human dignity).

More important than the abstract philosophical reasoning, however, was the practical, lived experience of people in the mid-twentieth century. Humanity had just been through one of the bloodiest half-centuries in human history: two disastrous World Wars, the first use of nuclear weapons (on civilians, no less), the Rape of Nanking, the Russian Gulags, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust—which together caused the deaths of more than 100 million human beings—and other, some perhaps still unknown, atrocities. East to West, North to South, the world had been devastated by humankind’s brutality against itself.

The four decades leading up to 1948 confronted those still alive with humanity’s seemingly limitless capacity for evil. It seemed to the survivors that civilization had been resting on a narrow precipice, inches away from complete annihilation. They immediately set about determining how to move humanity further away from such a ledge, and they soon realized that any solution would require recognition of the importance of our irreducible worth as persons. They understood what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would so eloquently describe 25 years later in The Gulag Archipelago: the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. Atrocities can be and were perpetrated by people not so different from us.

With the recent passing of George H.W. Bush, we are reminded that as we lose those who lived through those dark moments—the Greatest Generation who saw the evil of which humanity is capable—we become more nonchalant about concepts such as human dignity. Yet it is important to keep humanity’s capacity for evil salient to avoid losing sight of the need to respect everyone’s inherent worth. Philosophical contemplation is not sufficient for moral growth. Ethical development requires us to reflect on human tragedy and evil—which is why it is so important to study and remember the Holocaust and other atrocities. It is of course perfectly reasonable to disagree about how to apply the principle of human dignity to international affairs or to domestic policy questions, but—as history shows us—we dismiss it at our peril.

Human dignity matters because it takes certain options off the table: it means that we cannot casually dismiss costs to human life or wellbeing when we take decisions. Adam Smith famously observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that we do not feel the same degree of concern for those in China who suffer from an earthquake that we do for our own minor disturbances.5 As a descriptive matter, this is of course entirely true. Yet the fact that we share human dignity means that we ought not to entirely disregard the value of the lives of those who are different or distant from us.

The Book of Genesis tells of God creating man “in his own image.” This gave rise to the theological concept of imago dei—a rich and deeply-mined idea in the Judeo-Christian tradition. That man was created in the image and likeness of God separates him from the rest of life on earth, giving him a moral worth (this concept is also found in Sufism). It is likely that this view of human dignity influenced the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission: some of the Commission’s most influential members—Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Malik (Lebanese existentialist philosopher turned diplomat), and General Carlos P. Romulo of the Philippines—were Episcopalian, Orthodox Christian, and Roman Catholic, respectively.

Yet they knew that if the document were to be taken seriously and have any impact outside the West, the document’s principles needed grounding in a broad cross-cultural consensus. Otherwise, the declaration would be thought of as a manifestation of merely “Western” values that were inapplicable to other cultures. The Commission consulted philosophers from all cultures and religions, from far East to far West, to distill a basic set of values that they could agree upon and unify around. The result was a proclamation of universal human rights grounded in our inherent dignity, affirming the fundamental unity of the human race. The dominant religious and philosophical traditions—Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism, Hinduism, and many of their respective offshoots—take for granted that all members of mankind have basic attributes in common, and that we share a common humanity. These traditions may differ over how to deal with life’s miseries, but not the what of who we are as a human race. It is this common essence that the UDHR captures: for the framers, the fact that every man, woman, and child shared the most fundamental thing in common put other racial, linguistic, national, and religious differences into perspective. As the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain mused, many songs can be played on the document’s thirty strings.

That the Human Rights Commission found such a consensus illustrates the universality of basic truths about the world and the human condition. It recognized that human nature is the same throughout time and culture, and that people everywhere are able to infer certain fundamental principles regarding the nature of freedom, human dignity, and communal flourishing. This ought to be a reminder to us in our own deeply divided moment: it is only when we agree upon shared fundamental values, such as the inherent dignity of all persons, that it is possible to debate the Good. It is also an encouragement: we were able to reach an agreement on first principles in the pursuit of a more just world.

However, today we are in danger of forgetting the consensus of values that once united us. Memories of past atrocities, which once galvanized the world to make such a statement of human value, are fading. This is particularly worrying because the UDHR is not legally binding: there are no armed forces, police, or courts to enforce its 30 articles. Indeed, critics often disparage the utility of the UDHR by pointing to the horrible human rights violations that have been committed in the decades since it was enacted. Yet in declaring the value of each human being—and outlining what they are owed, and owe to others, in light of their personhood—the UDHR was, and continues to be, a beacon of moral authority to the world.

The UDHR is in many ways analogous to America’s Declaration of Independence: another non-binding document which enshrined universal truths of the inviolability of human equality and rights.6 In his speech on the Dred Scott Decision on June 26, 1857, Abraham Lincoln discussed the denial of slaves’ equality and rights, and acknowledged the way in which the Declaration of Independence neither brought about perfect equality nor recognition of fundamental rights:

[America’s framers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

The principles of the Declaration of Independence reveal the moral wrong of slavery. The Declaration did not abolish that abhorrent institution, but as abolitionist Fredrick Douglass would argue, its moral clarity contributed to slavery’s eventual destruction.

The same may be said of the UDHR. The 70 years since its enactment have seen many advancements in the cause of human rights. The UDHR precipitated decolonization and the independence of post-colonial countries. Specific references to the UDHR are made in the constitutions of Algeria, Congo, Chad, Cameroon, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Togo, Somalia, Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Equitorial Guinea, Burundi, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso)—and even informed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and other countries.7 The UDHR also contributed to the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and to the collapse of the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet Bloc. In the United States, it hastened a proliferation of civil rights legislation protecting the freedoms and promoting equality for formerly oppressed and marginalized groups, such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and many others.

No one would argue that the UDHR was a sufficient cause for these developments. (It plainly was insufficient to prevent many of the atrocities that have occurred in the decades following its enactment—the genocides in Darfur, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Serbia, the totalitarianism in North Korea, the Congolese Civil War, and many other brutalities.) But its moral authority was undoubtedly an important instrument to those who worked so hard to effect progressive change.

The UDHR brought the world into a new era. It articulated a new standard to which states were to be accountable in how they treat their citizens. But the UDHR’s demands are not restricted to governments. The UDHR also sets a standard for our moral obligation to one another—citizen to citizen, person to person. The UDHR’s framers understood that culture is prior to law and institutions. The conduct they wished to deter or promote had to be instilled in hearts of minds of leaders and citizens alike.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of FDR and a key contributor to the UDHR, knew that a declaration of abstract ideals carried “no weight unless the people understand them, unless the people demand they be lived.” Judicial decisions and law change only when individuals “progress inwardly.”8 Universal human rights begin with each of us, she said, “in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. They are the world of the individual person.”

In her remarkable biography of the UDHR, A World Made New, Mary Ann Glendon eloquently describes how seriously the UDHR’s framers took the idea that respect for human rights, and for human dignity, begins at home: “[Small places] are where people first learn about their rights and how to exercise them responsibly—families, schools, workplaces, and religious and other associations. These little seedbeds of character and competence, together with the rule of law, political freedoms, social security, international cooperation, are all part of the Declaration’s dynamic ecology of freedom.”9

Seven decades ago, world leaders sought to bring from the ashes of humanity’s evil and darkest moments a document declaring humankind’s commitment to, and capacity for, justice and good. The UDHR was the fruit of this effort, but it was only the beginning. The survival of its principles depends on the decisions we take each day to recognize the inherent, inviolable dignity of all those with whom we interact.

Far from being a document that was an end in itself, let us see this seventieth anniversary as fresh start—a starting point with which we see ourselves as everyday architects of a more just, harmonious world.

Alexandra Hudson is a writer, bibliophile, and refugee from federal politics. She earned an M.S. in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar, lives in the American Midwest, and is currently writing a book on civility. She contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and The Hill. You can contact her at www.alexandraohudson.com and follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson