Power, Principles and Human Rights
ONE OF THE factions in the early Christian Church, followers of the charismatic preacher Montanus, believed that only those who ate a steady diet of radishes would be saved. The women of the community, who played an inordinately powerful role in the life of the movement, especially promoted this healthy regimen. Had Montanism prevailed, Christians might be eating vegetables at Holy Communion rather than wafers and the Roman Catholic Church might suffer today no shortage of priests. But whether it was resentment of roots or of "rabble", the Church fathers of the day declared the Montanists enemies of the Church in 170 AD and that, for all intents and purposes, was the end of that.
Why did the Montanists fade into history? Did God really have no taste for radishes? Was it somehow a violation of natural law for women to assume a leadership role in the Church? Or did the Montanists simply lack the capacity to build an adequate consensus for their views? Had they been operating in China, where a saying has it that "only those who appreciate root vegetables can know the true meaning of life", might the story have been different?
Whether it be a religion, a nation or the world at large, the norms that govern reflect either the views of those who are at the moment holding the power, or the principles that have managed to claim a consensus among enough people that the powerful dare not challenge them. This is true, too, of human rights.
From the standpoint of those of us active in the human rights movement, it would be wonderful if we could prove to the satisfaction of the world that some universally recognized deity had imbued human beings with a set of rights that happened to coincide with the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). But absent that unlikely scenario, we are left with two other options upon which to base the notion of human rights, one of which -- the theory of natural rights--has been the subject of considerable debate in recent issues of The National Interest.
In the Winter 2000/01 issue, anthropologist Robin Fox warns that if we base human rights claims on our understanding of human nature, we may end up with some pretty distasteful maxims, such as a "right" to impregnate females belonging to tribes whose members have killed my offspring and diminished my gene pool. Most of what we call "human rights", Fox says, "either run counter to nature or, at best, concern things about which nature is strictly neutral." (1) Francis Fukuyama takes a more sanguine approach to the doctrine of natural rights in the Summer 2001 issue. Dismissing Hume's criticism of the "naturalistic fallacy" (the idea that we can derive moral imperatives from factual indicatives), Fukuyama claims that human nature "does ... allow us to establish a hierarchy of rights, and it allows us to rule out certain solutions to the problem of rights that have been politically powerful in the course of human history."