Ideas & Philosophy — 31 May 2011
Universal Human Rights: Who defines them and how?

The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was updated towards the end of last year – thus, demonstrating that its universality was not that universally accepted. This is a statement guaranteeing equal treatment, non-discrimination, and the right to life regardless of colour, race or language. In November 2010 the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee on Social, Cultural and Humanitarian issues removed the phrase “sexual orientation” from a resolution addressing extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Gay and lesbian groups claim that the removed “sexual orientation” from the resolution gives the green light for gays to be murdered by governments, death squads and vigilantes without cause.

November 2010 was indeed an important month for changes in established opinions from bodies of authority. This was the month that Pope Benedict XVI condoned condoms. Thereby, overturning one of those recognised certainties that he referred to in his famous “dictatorship of relativism” speech. When he was merely Cardinal Ratzinger he stated: “we are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” These edicts from both secular and theocratic powers raise certain questions. Is there such a thing as a universal declaration of human rights? Are there recognised certainties? Is there a universal morality?

An exploration of the development of morality reveals disparate opinions on how common moral values imbue society. There is a notion that morals emerge among a community out of the common interests of the community members. Actions done for the ‘good’ of group become the main source of morality. Thus morals may be born of the emotion of empathy with other people. The process of putting oneself in other people’s shoes results in the individual adopting certain sentiments, attitudes and opinions. So ideas such as; respecting the sanctity of life, the inviolability of private property and the dignity of the individual can be seen as being central tenets of any community. Order, with respect to the above mentioned, is necessary for the community to survive in the intermediate-to-long term as a functioning entirety. Some have suggested that this is a natural state of living as a communal being. That is, morals are nature’s law of social existence. This is understandable when we consider that the human predicament is precarious. We are susceptible to catastrophes at the hands of natural phenomena or at the hands of other people. Living together as social beings require us to give and take, show empathy with the situation and condition of others.  Morality lies in humankind’s ability to empathise with others. Morality comes from our compassion and our feeling that the next man is just like us. There are many things that most of us find repugnant, murdering indiscriminately for example. Thus we feel murder is morally wrong. It may also be argued that the source of this moral code is not an inherent communal quality rather it is a code that must be devised and adopted. It either comes from humans as an empirical source or it comes from a transcendental source, a divine law.

In post reformation Europe, the position of religion as a source of law has declined. Thus the idea of a morality, as topic in its own right, prevails. Prior to this, codes for life’s affairs were taken from the authority of church. Therefore in the modern secular world morality is an important issue and the controversies over the correct sources become exacerbated in the absence of an overarching religious authority. Earlier, this was not such an important topic. Aristotle considered morals merely as a prelude to politics, and many have found it difficult to separate politics from morals. Whichever approach is adopted it is clear that the affairs of state are inextricably linked to the general behavioural codes adopted by the intervals and groups within the state.

So in the modern age what role does religion have in moulding morals. The answer to that question is not straight forward, and cannot easily be accessed through scientific means. Some sociological studies have suggested that the prominence of religion in a community has a negative effect on certain moral indexes.  Gregory S Paul has compared developed countries based on religiousness and found a negative correlation between religiousness and suicide-rates, homicide-rates, rates of marital breakdown and teenage pregnancy. In simple terms; the more religious people are the more common these phenomena become. This seems counterintuitive. However it may reflect the muddled position of religion in the modern world. That is, religion adopted by individuals but without a social and political context.

Contradiction, or apparent contradictions, would naturally be a characteristic feature of religion adopted in this manner. Take the doctrine of the sanctity of life. Many from the Christian point of view may consider a group of human embryonic cells to be protected under the sanctity of life. In contrast the same people may be quite comfortable with the killing of an adult who had been convicted of murder by 12 honest men. They may also support the idea of mass killing if in the context of the ‘just war’; as defined by the Christian philosophers Augustine and Aquinas. The concept of greed and excess as a taboo is a common feature of many religions and cultures. However this is a necessary part of modern capitalism. It is central to modern economies to function. People are constantly lectured, by economists, politicians and capitalists, that they should spend their way out of recession. Buy more consumer goods and build a better future. The culture of consumerism and credit is a tenet of modern economics. Going back to these ‘just wars’ such as the one waged by US in Iraq and Afghanistan, these are wars waged just to support US greed, by influencing the supplies and, in turn, prices of fossil fuels.

Can there be a congruous relationship between religion and morality? We suggest yes, providing the source is authentic and agreed upon, and contextualised. The mere conviction, that a creator exists, is not enough for that creator to automatically provide a user guide for day-to-day living. Indeed it is not even enough to have a code on how to relate to that creator in any manner whatsoever. This includes perceiving who, where, or what form this creator has. We cannot jump from believing in the existence of a creator to believing that humans were created in his image and likeness. Christians have a written book that provides that information.  We cannot jump to the belief that his son has blue eyes and blond hair. We cannot jump to the belief that (based on the son being a chip of the old block) that the creator must also have blue eyes and blond hair. Neither can we develop a series of codes for ritual worship (the Eucharist) centred on eating the flesh and drinking the blood of that son. It is not automatic that we have a clear image of God. It is not automatic that that we have defined rituals. Then why should it follow that; believe in a God would result, automatically, in an implementable comprehensive moral code. An authenticated verified link of communication with that creator is necessary to obtain this information.

By adapting that there is the need for a creator, one can infer merely that a creator exists. With regards to the creator’s attributes or character one can know nothing, based only on that adoption of belief. Therefore the follow-up discussion must be related to the authenticity of any communications with that creator. Once a communication has been established the next phase is the implementation, of the code that is told to humankind for life’s affairs. This code, provided it is comprehensive enough, i.e. deals with individual morals, through to rituals; all the way up to the political realm would be the natural way of life for humankind.


Salim Fredericks is the author of “Political and Cultural Invasion”. His family is originally from Cape Town, South Africa, while he was born and raised in the UK. He is currently working as a University teacher.

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