February 3, 2008

BUT THERE'S JUST ONE SET OF FOOTPRINTS...:

Keep the faith (Sholto Byrnes, 31 January 2008, New Statesman)

"Without God," wrote Dostoevsky, "everything is permitted." Proponents of secular liberal democracy would vehemently disagree, pointing to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights or the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. We're very fond of talking about rights, and we are highly attached to them. But even when we are not using the term sloppily - unless it's enshrined in law, for instance, you no more have the "right" not to breathe in my second-hand smoke on the street than I have the "right" to your last Rolo - we are all too hazy about where they come from.

Thomas Jefferson wasn't. Men's "certain unalienable Rights", he wrote in the American Declaration of Independence, were "endowed by their Creator". When God is in the picture it may well be "self-evident" where natural rights, or the human rights we talk of today, originate. When He isn't, these rights have their very foundations removed. If they don't come from God, they must come from man; and that puts them on a very different footing.

This isn't a problem for everyone. Some are happy to think of rights as no more than human constructs, the scaffolding of law we build around implicit social contracts. Rights become meaningful only when they are legally recognised as such, and are therefore mutable and subjective. You may have the right not to be hanged for a sheep today, but you wouldn't have done several centuries ago and, if parliament so votes, you might not do tomorrow. Under this interpretation, you have to accept that other societies may decide upon other types of rights, even ones that you might consider barbaric.

Yet this is far too thin a gruel to sustain most of us. The powerful appeal of the UN Declaration rests not solely on the fact that the General Assembly voted to adopt it in 1948. Groups of men and women have, after all, cast their ballots in all sorts of ways since ancient times; on its own, the act is not sufficient to bear lasting moral weight. We invest such declarations and conventions with a far profounder authority than that provided by a momentary human agreement. At a more basic level, this authority informs our attitude towards the law. The punishment for stealing, for instance, is not just the jail sentence; it's also societal disapproval, the sense that the thief has done something deeply wrong.

Ask anyone where all this comes from with-out God, and there is no satisfying answer. Talk about human nature or "inherent" rights may seem to make passable sense, but on examination fails to rise above assertion, or "nonsense upon stilts", as Bentham called the idea of natural rights; neither does it explain how some societies could have such different notions of property that our concept of theft made no sense in theirs, or why others found headhunting and cannibalism perfectly acceptable pursuits.

We have forgotten that there are tablets of stone on which we in Europe can find the ob jective morality we now prize so dearly. These tablets aren't hovering in thin air or somehow sewn into the fabric of the universe. They belong to the millennia of Judaeo-Christian tradition of which our societies are the product.

We have forgotten, too, that this objective morality did not exist separately from God; He was its source. No act was wrong in itself, it was wrong because God said so. Buried within the mulch of generations of practice, assumption, agnosticism and unchallenged belief are the real roots of our deep-seated notions of right and wrong, of freedom, liberty and natural rights.

Fukuyama acknowledged the link when he wrote, soon after September 11, that "the universalism of democratic rights can be seen as a secular form of Christian universalism". We may think we have removed the projectionist, but the projection - and the strength of our faith in it - remains even if, without a firm guiding hand on the machine, the images have become blurred.


For all Mr. Fukuyama's brilliance, that classic neocon failure to recognize the fundamental importance of faith mars his classic. Everyone can reach the End just by aping our forms, but without the sustaining content their societies just die off more comfortably than otherwise.


Posted by Orrin Judd at February 3, 2008 11:50 AM
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