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The Sacred and the Humane

July 21, 2011

Anat Biletzki in the NYT.

Human Rights are all the rage. They have become, currently, a very popular arena for both political activism and rampant discourse. Human rights, as we all know, are the rights humans are due simply by virtue of being human. But there is nothing simple here, since both “human” and “rights” are concepts in need of investigation.

One deep philosophical issue that invigorates debates in human rights is the question of their foundation and justification, the question “where do human rights come from, and what grounds them?” There are two essentially different approaches to answering that question — the religious way and the secular, or philosophical, way. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in 1993 (“Life Is Sacred: That’s the Easy Part”) Ronald Dworkin put this very succinctly: “We almost all accept …  that human life in all its forms issacred—that it has intrinsic and objective value quite apart from any value it might have to the person whose life it is. For some of us, this is a matter of religious faith; for others, of secular but deep philosophical belief.” A good representative of the first camp is the religious historian and educator R. H. Tawney: “The essence of all morality is this: to believe that every human being is of infinite importance, and therefore that no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another. But to believe this it is necessary to believe in God.” [More]

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