We think of human rights today as a fundamental feature of how we relate to other people, and these rights are taken to apply to all humans simply in virtue of being human. This is something we take for granted, but it is a position that required some serious thinking to buttress it, and not even thinkers of such depth and enlightenment as Plato and Aristotle endorsed it.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins by stressing the dignity and equality of all human beings, and this as something rooted in their rational nature. Plato and Aristotle certainly held that humans have a rational nature, and indeed they held that humans have a certain dignity because of their ability to grow in virtue and enjoy goods greater than any non-rational animal can enjoy. But it was not until Christianity began to reflect on the Trinity of persons in God that thinkers started to equate being a rational nature with being a person, and from there to associate personal dignity with all human beings. The history of this kind of reflection goes right back to the influential theologian Boethius and it reached a high point in the thinking of the 13th Century theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, following this theological tradition, the dignity of the human person was something at the heart of Pope St John Paul II’s pontificate and in his philosophical writings.
But how did we get to where we are today with the universal declaration of human rights in the second half of the 20th Century? This is where Charles Malik comes in.
Charles Malik was a Lebanese diplomat to the United Nations, and he was instrumental in drafting the declaration of human rights. Not only that, he was a Catholic and a philosopher/theologian who engaged with the issues of human rights and dignity in his own thinking. The declaration of human rights has the flavour it does with its emphasis on the dignity of every human being as something rooted in their rational nature, not because of some general commitment to equality as the most equitable was of securing rights, but because of the Christian tradition which influenced Malik.
As we have seen the human person is a substance of a rational nature, i.e. it is the kind of thing that is rational. This applies to all human beings, regardless of the capabilities that they have, from the very young to the very old. As rational substances, human beings enjoy dignity precisely because they are things which are ends in themselves and so should be treated as such and not as a means to some further end. Thus, any instrumentalisation of a person for the sake of something else (or somebody else) is at odds with the very nature of the person as a rational substance. This is a position at which thinkers as humane and enlightened as Plato and Aristotle did not arrive; rather it took Christian theological discussion over the Trinity several centuries later and perfected in Aquinas to arrive at this notion of the person. This is the philosophical and theological context within which Malik worked and to which he contributed with his role in the drafting of the declaration of human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights bears the stamp of Christian theological reflection on what it is to be a human person and the rights that follow therefrom. This is significant because the universal declaration of human rights has been adopted by 48 countries, there is an international human rights day every year, and it has been promoted by human rights organisations around the world, including Amnesty international. It is thus appropriate to be aware of the roots of this declaration in Christian philosophical and theological thinking and how such thinking has so deeply influenced our international culture today.