Nation & World

‘Who is the human in human rights?’

6 min read

Harvard Divinity School speaker, panel grapple with complex concepts

What does it mean to be human? Are all people the same, and if so, entitled to an identical set of rights and treatment? Or, in the age of globalization, do wide-ranging cultural, moral, religious, and political beliefs and behaviors make the definition of humans — and therefore human rights — contingent, that is dependent on circumstances? In that context, can human rights ever be truly universal?

Those were some of the questions explored in a discussion co-sponsored by the Harvard Divinity School’s (HDS) Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR), The Harvard-Yenching Institute, and the Humanities Center, at HDS’s Andover Hall Oct. 4.

The talk was the first in a series of five panels that are part of a yearlong CSWR-led initiative, “Rethinking the Human,” an examination of the very notion of what it means to be human through a multireligious, interdisciplinary, and cross-cultural lens. The program will culminate in a two-day conference in May.

To begin the series, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University, gave a talk titled “Who Is the Human in Human Rights?” with respondents Martha Minow, Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and Jay Garfield, Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Smith College.

The basis of An-Na’im’s definition of the human involves the concept of an inner life, something that comes from deep within, an intrinsic, moral compass that guides decisions and actions. For the Sudanese native, that inner life is derived from his beliefs as a Muslim. But he was quick to emphasize that that inner foundation doesn’t have to be religious in nature. Secularists can also have an inner life based on moral values.

“Everyone has to make up their own mind as to why they commit to these values and struggle for their realization,” he said.

An-Na’im, a scholar on Islam and human rights, and human rights in cross-cultural perspectives, and former executive director of the African division of Human Rights Watch, addressed the question of what constitutes universal human rights in terms of a group of paradoxes involving their concept, content, and context.

The reason the concept of human rights is so hard to define, An-Na’im claimed, is because there is no universal human. “What is universal about the human,” he said, “is that there is no universal human.” And if there’s no universal human, he continued, we have a problem when trying to conceptualize universal human rights.

“How can we define and have agreement on what universal rights are in the permanent reality of cultural, contextual, ideological, political, and all kinds of diversities?”

In terms of the context of human rights, he argued, differential power structures hamper the possibility of universal rights. In the United States, for example, An-Na’im asserted that “the premise of universality has been repudiated totally by the fundamental distinction between citizens and aliens,” a categorization that leads, he said, to unequal treatment.

The most effective way to deal with these apparent paradoxes, he said, was to approach these contradictions in an ongoing process, rather than make attempts at ultimate resolution.

“These are paradoxes that cannot be resolved permanently or theoretically but have to be mediated. … You cannot expect to completely overcome any of them once and for all by some sort of proclamation.”

In his response, Garfield warned of a number of dangerous temptations inherent in any discussion of human rights, temptations one must be aware of in order to resist.

For some, it is tempting, he said, to consider human rights as a strictly secular notion. Others can only regard the concept in religious terms. When weighing the sacred versus the secular components, it’s important to balance the two, Garfield suggested. To talk about rights, he said, “you at least need a notion, even if it’s secularized, of the … sanctity of the individual life.”

Another temptation to be avoided is the belief that there is some sort of consensus in principle that we must strive for in order to achieve human rights. There is, indeed, a consensus that needs to happen regarding rights, Garfield said, but it comes long before the talk of human rights can even begin.

“You have to agree on a whole lot about the good, to agree on a whole lot about what makes for a good life, about who counts as a member of our culture, about what counts as what we care about together publicly, and about what is up to us. Once that stuff is settled — and that’s a long, long process of settling — then we can begin to talk about rights,” Garfield said.

In her response, Minow acknowledged her own secular take on the concept of human rights, and thanked An-Na’im for his description of an inner life, which, she said, helped her re-evaluate the dimensions of the discussion.

“Professor An-Na’im gives us such a very moving and memorable picture of the inner life that I think each of us can resonate with, [and] there’s a way in which having that as a meditation may be something we could carry back to the secular legal world.”

Minow agreed with An-Na’im’s argument that human rights need to be understood not as something that already exist but as a work in progress. She supported embracing his paradoxes with a language that would help move the discussion forward, and lobbied for the use of the word “convergence” as an alternative to the term “compromise,” which she felt implied some sort of deal, or sellout.

To illustrate “convergence,” Minow cited the case of the city of San Francisco, which at one point insisted that any agency doing business with it had to provide health-care benefits to the unmarried, same-sex domestic partners of its employees. The Catholic Church objected to the policy, she said, but the archbishop claimed he was open to discussing with the city how to expand health-care access. In the end, the language was changed in a way that allowed for the benefits while not insisting the church acknowledge same-sex partners.

“I think convergence is possible — accommodation — often not by talking about fundamental principles, [but] by imagining that there is a person on the other side. Imagining that there are people who don’t have health care and they deserve it — that made a difference,” said Minow.

To close, Minow quoted the American politician Adlai Stevenson, who said that if human brotherhood was to truly spread, it must be understood that there is no one true faith or path by which it may spread.

“How to hold that in your head — that’s another paradox too: how to hold in your head an idea of human brotherhood, sisterhood [that] you can only get [to] if there’s not one true path.”