A Problem of Definition
The issue of human rights has become so important in modern discourse. Last week the world observed the International Day of Human Rights. Human rights are commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights “to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being,” and which are “inherent in all human beings” regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status.
Ever since that momentous day 68 years ago, after the deeply regrettable horrors of the first half of 20th century, a lot of effort has gone into implementing this vision of a truly global community founded on humanist secular principles. As we can all see the world is still a very dangerous place and millions of people still do not have access to something as basic as clean drinking water. What happened? There are a lot of things that went wrong but to begin with, there is an inherent difficulty with the term “human rights.” Essentially, it’s a problem of meaning. What does it mean to be human, what is right, and who is to say what is right for humans?
These questions are so basic yet the decades since the world adopted it have shown, the world does not subscribe to the same vision of human society. One of the great problems I have observed in the discussion of rights in general is that we have failed to articulate clearly what we properly mean by the words we are saying. There is a lot of political rhetoric but very little open public discussion of the ideas behind the terms that are used. In future posts I want to take a stab at these questions. I do not have the space or the expertise to offer a comprehensive response but I want to proffer a few personal thoughts in recognition of current trends, the historic nature of human societies and most importantly its relationship to the scriptural vision of humanity. As impressive as that goal might sound, there are far better people at talking about these sort of things than myself. I just hope my personal observations will at least make some sense and help us think about these issues more clearly.