From protests in Myanmar because of the refusal to recognize the results of a democratic vote, to marches against racial discrimination in the United States, to movements to eradicate human trafficking, people all over the world recognize the importance of upholding human rights.
Human rights are grounded in the fact that every human has inherent dignity. When we deny people their rights or extend those inherent rights to only some, we fail to respect that dignity. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that racial discrimination degrades human personality by not treating people with dignity due to the color of their skin. He shared in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” that his daughter cried when he had to tell her that she could not go to an amusement park because of racial discrimination.1
Philosopher Joel Feinberg imagined a world in which people are virtuous and adhere to moral duties, but in which there is no ability to claim when one’s rights have been violated. Feinberg argued this world would be morally flawed as it failed to recognize human dignity.2 The ability to claim that one’s rights have been violated recognizes human dignity. When we point out that the rights of other people have been abused, and work to vindicate and protect their rights, we treat that person with dignity. We treat them as if they matter—which they do.
The global community has recognized the importance of human rights and their grounding in human dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the wake of World War II and its horrors, states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”3
However, some thinkers, like philosopher Charles Taylor, point out that relying on one’s rights can be problematic because it is based on individualism.4 For example, we have a right to control our property. If I have an assigned parking spot where I live, I can be indignant if someone parks in my spot. They violated my right to park there, I pay for the right to park there. How dare they! However, say an elderly neighbor is on their deathbed with people coming to visit them before they pass. There’s a limited number of parking spaces. If I insist no one can park in my spot, I am within my rights to do so. But it would be selfish of me not to surrender my right in this situation.
It’s often argued that we have a strict moral duty not to infringe on others’ rights (negative duties) but we are not morally obligated to help people in need if we have not violated their rights.This means that positive duties to help people are—as German philosopher Immanuel Kant called them—imperfect duties.5 This essentially means that we use discretion when choosing to help people and are not obligated to help everyone. Many people may see someone in need of help and not come to their aid, comforting themselves with the fact that since they didn’t cause this person’s suffering, they do no wrong by not helping them.
This means I have a moral duty not to park in someone else’s parking spot. However, I’ve no moral duty to give up my parking spot to someone else and, therefore, I’m not violating their rights by not giving them my spot.
So, on the one hand, human rights recognize and, when enforced, protect the dignity of all people everywhere. However, on the other hand, focusing on my rights alone can cause me to be self-absorbed and selfish. How can these two things be reconciled? It is vital to recognize the importance of individuals. Yet a community of people focused solely on their own rights does not lead to a flourishing society. Is the solution to abandon the concept of human rights because it is based on individualism and can be used to justify selfishness? No, there is a model of treating individuals with dignity and, in doing so, protecting their rights while avoiding selfishness in the process.
Christianity, like Judaism, explains that all humans have dignity because we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). Therefore, to respect the dignity of all people, we should protect human rights. But Christianity also supports giving up one’s rights in order to love others. For example, the Good Samaritan risked his physical safety and used his personal property to help the injured traveler. If the Good Samaritan held to the theory that he just had negative moral duties he could have walked by and not been compelled to help because he was not the one who attacked and robbed this poor man (Luke 10:25–37). Jesus pointed to this as the way we should love our neighbors—not claiming we have a right to absolute physical safety and an absolute right to use our personal property as we wish.
Moreover, Jesus is God and gave up his right to be treated as equal with God in order to show the depth of God’s love for humanity. Paul writes that Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6–8)
There is no question that Jesus’s rights were grossly violated in the crucifixion. But he considered the worth of his sacrifice to be greater than the violation of those rights because his sacrifice meant the salvation of all humans who believe and follow him. This shows how Jesus valued the dignity of people.
The protection of human rights recognizes the immense value of people and leads to human flourishing, but we also need to recognize that our rights are not an excuse to focus solely on ourselves. Sometimes we need to give up our rights in order to love other people. Christianity provides us a perfect model in Jesus who surrendered himself as an act of love for us. We don’t have to abandon human rights as a way to avoid risking being self-absorbed. To do so would be a great loss.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” African Studies Center, University of Pennyslvania (April 16, 1963).
- United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.
- Joel Feinberg and Jan Narveson, “The Nature and Value of Rights,” Journal of Value Inquiry 4 (December 1970): 243–260, doi:10.1007/BF00137935.
- Charles Taylor, “A World Consensus on Human Rights,” Dissent, Summer 1996, dissentmagazine.org/article/a-world-consensus-on-human-rights.
- Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd ed., trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993).