Is there a secular basis for human rights?

July 27, 2022

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Most of us—regardless of whether we subscribe to any particular set of religious beliefs or not—would say that we are committed to universal human rights and the equality of all people. You don't have to be a Christian or a religious person to affirm or defend human rights. But have you ever stopped to consider where human dignity comes from or how we know that we actually have it?

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    Many people, regardless of whether they subscribe to any particular set of religious beliefs or not, would say that they are committed to universal human rights and the equality of all people. I am certainly glad that they do! I wish everyone would not only affirm but protect human dignity–no matter who they are or what they believe. But have you ever stopped to consider where this dignity comes from or how we know that we actually have it? 

    Take the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an example. Article One states, “All human beings are born free, and equal in dignity and rights.” Hopefully every single one of us could affirm that statement, but take a moment to consider this. The declaration assumes that there is something about human beings that not only gives us dignity, but equal dignity. Yet the declaration never tries to explain what this dignity is or how we can be sure that we really have it.

    This has led at least two different Christian philosophers who taught at Yale, Nicholas Wolterstorff and John Hare, to argue that there is, in fact, no secular basis for human rights. That's not to suggest that you have to be a Christian or a religious person to affirm human rights or to defend human rights. We know that's not true. Anyone can fight for human rights. The point is simply that there is no secular rationale for believing that human rights are grounded in reality. 

    How do secular people deal with this issue? Wolterstorff would say that the closest a secular person can get to an explanation for human rights would be called a "capacities based argument" for human dignity. These people would say human beings have dignity because of what we are capable of doing. Most often, they would cite our capacity for reason or self-awareness. Human beings have equal dignity because we possess the capacity for reason and self-awareness. But there's one little problem with that argument. Not every human being has that capacity. This argument for human dignity covers most people, but not all. It doesn't cover some of the most vulnerable members at the margins of our society like the unborn, the infant, the mentally handicapped, the person in a permanent coma, or the person suffering from Alzheimers. 

    You might say: “That's okay. We don't need to worry about that because those on the margins are never going to be treated as less than human.” I'm not so sure that's true. Take Peter Singer as an example. He is an ethicist who teaches at Princeton. Peter Singer would argue that all “Persons” should be treated according to moral guidelines. But here’s the catch. Singer explicitly states that not all human beings are “Persons.” In order to be considered a “Person,” in his view, you must possess self-awareness. If you do not possess self-awareness, then you do not count as a “Person,” and the same moral laws do not apply. Therefore, he would say that those who suffer from significant cognitive disabilities, or even those who suffer from chronic illnesses, are less valuable than those who are not disabled. In some cases, it might be appropriate to kill them, if it would be better for the non-disabled people around them.

    We know instinctively in our bones, there's something wrong with that. That is why this is so important. We need some kind of basis for human dignity and human rights that is not grounded in our capacities. You can't get that from a secular view of the world. There is no secular basis for human rights. 

    So where did we get this idea that every human being has equal dignity and that we all have a responsibility to defend the most vulnerable members of society? It came from the Bible. The Scriptures teach that every single human being without exception is created in the image of God, loved by God, and called to love God in response. As a result, every human being is imbued with infinite value and possesses an inherent right to be treated in accordance with his or her worth. 

    It is a good thing that there are so many people who care about human rights. But if we want to uphold the dignity of every human being without exception, then we need to remember where that worth comes from and why it can never be taken away.

    Written by Jason Harris
    Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
    Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker