Religion vs ethics: Who cares where human rights came from?

Published: November 15, 2010

Human suffering continues as we remain tangled in the confusion of what rights really are

The election of Asma Jahangir is a welcome development in the establishment of human rights and rule of law in Pakistan. However, the concept of human rights remains one of the most controversial issues in contemporary political and social thought, partly because of the origins and the justifications used in reference to human rights.

The case against rights

The  grounding of human rights in our respective societies is perhaps one of great concern. Why bother with rights? What gives them legitimacy? Do they even exist? What does it mean to have a right? What about responsibilities? Are human rights universal? These are some of the pressing questions that reformers and liberals across the Muslim world face today. It is of course one thing to have human rights legislation, but it is quite another to ground human rights in the political culture and social morality of a nation.

Recently, I argued that grounding human rights in Muslim societies like Pakistan require a shift in our religious thinking. The reply by a respectable and astute columnist on this issue confirmed my thesis.

The summary of my suggestion was that:

Grounding human rights in Muslim societies will require an epistemological shift in religious theology and religious moral reasoning. In short, I argue that we must move from the traditional Asharite concept of divine command ethics (an act is only good or bad if God says that it is; an act is never inherently good or evil) towards the Mu’tazilite concept of natural law (the moral value of an act can be determined by unaided human reason). A theory of Islamic natural law will enable a dialogue between secular and religious reason and participants. This is the shift from the traditionalist-Asharite thesis to the rationalist/naturalist-Mu’tazilite thesis.

The ingredients for the religious justification of human rights are the acceptance of free will, human dignity, the moral worth of all human beings, the historical context of sacred scripture and the value of human reason.

The Mu’tazilites adopt a unique position in affirming the moral value of all human beings, the ability of all human beings, regardless of faith, to comprehend basic values of right and wrong (in contrast to the Asharites who argue our concept of right and wrong must come directly from Revelation, hence only Muslims have the ability to determine right and wrong). The Mu’tazilites adopt, furthermore, a precursor to the historic-critical method of Quranic interpretation and the crucial concept of free will that can be related to moral autonomy, which is critical for any justification for human rights. The Mu’tazilite belief that ethical values are independent of God, that we are endowed with free will and all humans have the same moral worth and dignity is the strongest opposition available to us to deconstruct discriminatory practices on the basis of religion.

The origin of human rights

However, there are still some questions. Do human rights exist purely on the basis of natural law which requires the existence of a Supreme Being? Can human rights exist independently of religious norms? If so what are human rights based on?

There are of course alternatives. The question of where human rights come from does haunt different societies and cultures.

Commonly the following two are common justifications for rights:

Some of the cleverest and most thoughtful [human rights theorists] can even supply two complete theories as to how rights might exist: they might be social constructions, made real because people agree to believe in them and enforce them as true; or they might represent contractual arrangements between individuals who agree to respect each others’ rights.

Social contract theory, utilitarianism, legal positivists and those who use Kantian (or neo Kantian ethics) all have distinct approaches to justifying human rights.

One thing is for sure though, the fact there are so many avenues and schemes for human rights justification does seem to indicate they are not self evident as the US Declaration of Independence describes:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Through the cold hard lens of history, witnessing the cruel and harsh nature of most societies, and civilisations where for the majority of our existence there have been countless vile institutions such as slavery and patriarchy. For the vast majority of human existence, what we would consider human rights abuses today were freely practised for most of our history. Religious societies of the past practised a morality which we today would consider shocking. Any honest examination of history should be enough to extinguish the belief in universal human rights.

The question of an ethical conscience

But for all the theory and problems facing human rights activists in grounding these concepts in their own societies, the real glaring injustices such as gender discrimination and persecution of minorities are examples of real suffering. There does exist in us an intuitive ethical sense, that little voice of conscience nagging us that something is terribly wrong here. But if we have been endowed with this ethical conscience for generations why have our ancestors continued practices like slavery, patriarchy and tribalism without any qualms? The terrible pangs of doubt about why previous generations totally accepted such vile social practices are serious. Why did they continue as they did? Did they not grasp the full import of the ethical message of our faith? If our faith promises equality and liberty then why was it not practised fully in the past?

Inevitably, we must realise human beings are conditioned to a certain extent by their social backgrounds and that we are all children of our time, limited by the historical circumstances that we live in. What is important though is that we have the ability to learn from the posterity of historical experience. We can learn from what was done right and what was done wrong.

Our concept of morality being handed down to us on a silver platter from heaven has been brutally shattered by a frank examination of human history. This mindset of ‘innocence’ in the belief that our morality is universal is perhaps gone forever. But must we adopt moral relativism as an alternative? No, not at all because even though human rights may not have a basis in reality, the great good it can do to alleviate injustice, oppression and suffering is good enough for me to believe that there are indeed human rights.

Humanity is the key

Perhaps in the end we must ground our notion of human rights in our own humanity. Rights are perhaps intrinsic to being human. Perhaps the question should no longer be, “Where do human rights come from?’’, but “Why do we need human rights?’’. Perhaps we must ground human rights in justice and preventing oppression.  We need human rights, precisely because we as human beings are fallible and capable of great evil and inflicting great suffering and hurt. Human rights are a necessary moral limit.

If this is the case then the The Golden Rule present in all faiths is perhaps justification enough for human rights. The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you’’ and furthermore, “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind’’.


Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.