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The Dignity of the Human Person and the Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries

  • Jean Bethke Elshtain


The heart of Michael Perry's argument lies in his claim that “every human being is sacred” and, that being the case, it follows that there are “some things that ought never (for example, under any circumstances or conditions) to be done to any human being or some things that ought always (under all conditions) to be done for every human being?” The “foundational” claim is that every human being, because sacred, is owed a certain regard and that this regard, in our time, has taken shape as, and congealed around, the idea of human rights. The dignity of the person, in other words, is a necessary prior assumption from which rights derive. The ontological claim, or to put it in a similar if not identical way, certain anthropological presuppositions, necessarily ground any sustainable human rights argument. It is possible, certainly, to make human rights claims on purely conventional grounds or, in more “Rortyesque” language, as just the way we do things around here. But that claim is not sustainable over time, argues Perry. It follows that “there is no intelligible (much less persuasive) secular version of the conviction that every human being is sacred; the only intelligible versions are religious.”



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1. Perry, Michael J., The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries 7 (Oxford U Press, 1998). Perry puts this as a query in his Introduction.

2. Id at 11.

3. The Pope Speaks II, 1 Dignitatis 84 (1966). All quotes from Dignitatis are drawn from this text; therefore, only page numbers will be noted for direct quotes.

4. For the background in contractarianism see Taylor, Charles, Atomism, in Kontos, Alkis, ed, Power, Possessions and Freedom: Essays in Honor of C.B. Macpherson (U Toronto Press, 1969) (note especially p 48).

5. I am culling insights from a talk by Francis Cardinal George delivered May 19, 1998, at the Union League Club in Chicago.

6. Again, I owe much of this to Cardinal George. But I should reference as well my discussion of Hobbes in my Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (Princeton U Press, 2d ed, 1992).

7. On these themes see three of Pope John Paul II's encyclicals, Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae and Fides et Ratio.

8. If, to this, one adds the fact that Western rights culture is various depending upon whether rights has a strongly faith-based or a more constructivist-nominalist basis, one gets into very deep waters very fast.

9. Perry, , The Idea of Human Rights at 11 (cited in note 1).

10. Cahill, Lisa Sowle, Toward a Christian Theory of Human Rights 9 J Religious Ethics 278 (1980).

11. Id at 284. It must be noted here that the more common way of thinking within Catholic social thought is to speak of human persons, not individuals. The human person conjures up a richer, more relational image from the get-go than does “individual,” given its centrality to historically and philosophically liberal and libertarian (rights or left) ways of talking.

12. Id.

13. Dignitatis at 86 (cited in note 3).

14. Id at 90.

15. Glendon, Mary Ann, Rights Talk (Free Press, 1992).

16. Manent, Pierre, Modern Liberty and Its Discontents 99Rowman & Littlefield Pub, ed & trans, Mahoney, Daniel & Seaton, Paul, 1998).

17. Filibeck, Giorgio, ed, Human Rights in the Teaching of the Church: From John XXIII to John Paul II 161–2 (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994).

18. Dignitatis at 86 (cited in note 3).

19. Filibeck, , Human Rights in the Teaching of the Church at 321 (cited in note 17).

20. Id at 51. (To a General Audience, 1984.)

21. Ignatieff, Michael, Human Rights: The Midlife Crisis, in The NY Rev of Books 58 (05 20, 1999).

22. Id at 58. Ignatieff recounts an amusing tale, told in one of the books under review, about an incident that occurred when “Eleanor Roosevelt first convened a drafting committee in her Washington Square apartment in February, 1947.” Apparently, “a Chinese Confucian and a Lebanese Thomist got into such an argument about the philosophical and metaphysical bases of rights that Mrs. Roosevelt concluded that the only way forward lay in West and East agreeing to disagree.” If anything, the urge to refrain from tackling the question of justification is even more exigent now than then given contemporary and often ardent multiculturalisms, or multiculturalism as an ideology.

23. Id.

24. Id at 60.

25. Id at 62.

Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics, The University of Chicago.

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Journal of Law and Religion
  • ISSN: 0748-0814
  • EISSN: 2163-3088
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-law-and-religion
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