In observance of Human Rights Day, which marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, University Professor Jeremy Waldron delivered the annual Human Rights Day lecture in the Great Hall of the Royal Castle in Warsaw on December 10. Waldron, who spoke at the invitation of the Polish ombudsman, also known as the commissioner for civil rights protection, lectured on “Human Rights in Judaeo-Christian Thought.”

At the beginning of his address, Waldron observed that, for a number of years, Christian leaders remained largely silent in the U.S.’s national post-9/11 debate on torture; in fact, a 2005 Pew Research Center poll indicated that American Christians were more inclined to support torture than secularists were. This phenomenon, Waldron argued, led to a broader question: “What is the role of religious belief in supporting and elaborating conceptions of human rights in general?”

Pointing out that the legal documents and jurisprudence of human rights convey a largely secular conception of such rights, Waldron said, “A religious foundation for the prohibition [of torture] may be particularly important in circumstances where the prohibition is costly and is supposed to apply for the benefit of those—like suspects—that we think we have particular reason to regard as beyond the reach of any pragmatically justified moral concern.”

Waldron also highlighted the difficulty faced by moral philosophers trying to settle on a conception of a moral absolute, whereas “the religious understanding can make sense of an absolute prohibition—in ways that secular theory cannot—by appealing to conceptions of the sacredness of the human person.” He added that any religiously founded elements of public discourse ought to be readily translatable for a secular audience.

Using as an example imago dei, the religious idea that people are created in God’s image, Waldron suggested that the doctrine, as applied to human rights, “might be seen as the basis of our dignity, the special rank that we hold in creation. And it contributes also to a sense of our equality as the bearers of that status.... The foundational work that imago dei does for dignity is, in my view, indispensable for overriding the temptation to demonize or bestialize our enemies in the war against terrorism.”

Readily acknowledging the difficulties and shortcomings of applying a religious concept to public discourse, Waldron concluded that a framework of human rights based on imago dei would necessarily entail “some differences between the conception that results and conceptions erected on other foundations or arrived at pragmatically with no foundations at all. Some of these changes we may find congenial. Other changes we may find disconcerting.... Either way, we will be conscious, I think, of an enrichment of our thought.”

The full text of “Human Rights in Judaeo-Christian Thought”

Posted on December 11, 2009