Are Human Rights Just an Outgrowth of Christian Culture?

I was inspired to write this thread, by this Wikipedia article. As you can see, some Muslim nations and cultures are skeptical of the western notion of universal human rights:

(BTW, here is the link to the “UDHR”, he is referring to.)

Anyways, human rights have certainly come from nations that are, or once were, predominantly Christian. Take France, and the French Revolution. The French Revolution was (I think you’ll agree, without a cite) anti-Christian, in many ways. (And even the American Revolution was not entirely Christian: cf. this article.)

So, I will simply phrase my question thus: Are human rights mainly the product (or “outgrowth”, as per the title of this thread) of Christian cultures? And if so, why? And are Muslim cultures right for feeling bullied in this way by us non-Muslims?

I will start the discussion on one point myself, by taking a direct jab at some Muslim practices, and also the idea of cultural relativism (as a moral view, in itself, that is). I feel very justified in imposing Western views on some Muslim cultures. This is esp. true for things like torture, public dismemberment and female genital mutilation. I think all three of these things are disgusting. And I think the countries that practice them (whatever their religion or culture may be), should be forced to stop these barbaric practices at once.

What do the rest of you think:)?


I think we don’t have the moral high ground to lecture other countries about torture. And female genital mutilation isn’t a Muslim practice, it’s a cultural practice that cuts across several religions - including Christianity.

You might have some traction on the dismemberment thing, I suppose.

As a plain fact, yes. Let’s rewind the clock to about 1600 A.D. In England the Magna Carta has been in effect for centuries. Protections exist in law guaranteeing that there can’t be criminal punishment without trial, that trials must follow certain procedures, that the government can’t seize a person’s property without due process of law, etc… Similar progress exists in various state and cities across Europe. But did the Ottoman Empire, or China, or any other civilization have similar protections? Ottoman Sultans or Chinese Emperors could seize property whenever and however they pleased, imprison or otherwise punish whoever they pleased, and so forth.

Indeed one could look at medieval Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas and note that their views on just government contains the foundation of these ideas. As they saw it, certain behaviors by rulers are just. If rulers take property or mete out punishments for selfish reason, this is unjust, and then “unjust law is no law at all”, as Aquinas put it. Quoting Augustine:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”
This differs markedly from ancient Greek and Roman theories of government.

One should not neglect to note the important Jewish contributions dating, in some cases, prior to Christianity. Talmudic Law had many decrees and rules protecting individuals against government abuse, mob mentality, and violence.

Human rights thinking as we have it today is a product of the Enlightenment which, yes, was informed by Christianity (but not exclusively by Christianity). But Christianity in turn was informed by Judaism and also by classical Greek philosophy. So to say that human rights philosophy is a product of Christian culture is at best a gross oversimplification.

As for Magna Carta, the fact that the law guarantees, e.g, trial by jury, etc, doesn’t itself mean that Magna Carta was informed by a human rights philosophy. It could equally have been influenced by a social compact philosophy, or by a pragmatic utilitarian philosophy in which maintaining order and ensuring predictability were the highest goods of government. (And, in fact, I think this is a good deal closer to the truth.) As for the claim that “Ottoman Sultans or Chinese Emperors could seize property whenever and however they pleased, imprison or otherwise punish whoever they pleased, and so forth”, well, I’m not convinced that this is necessarily correct.

Aquinas held that the proper end of government was to secure the common good - i.e. the good of the community, which is somewhat at odds with human rights philosophy which tends to think of rights as something that inhere in individuals, and which if necessary prevail over the good of the community. Certainly, Aquinas was keen on justice and felt government should promote it, but that was because he considered that justice served the common good. I think we’d look in vain for any coherent human rights philosophy in Aquinas’s writing on government.

Indeed, I think the idea of people having rights has grown more from the power struggles , first between feudal lords and their king later between, then between wealthy burghers and nobility and then between workers and employers.

^this. There were rights for citizens in ancient Greece and Rome. The modern acceptance (in principle) of universal human rights and equality before the law are pretty recent and probably owe more to increased secularisation of societies. The ideas have always been around, but people had to fight for them to be taken seriously. As you say, the French revolution and the US constitution were a big part of the modern view. The main reason we see so many dictatorships in the Muslim world is that democracies invariably vote to keep all of their oil wealth and spend it on things like schools and hospitals. The idea that the western powers promote democracy in the middle east is an orwellian inversion of the truth. They crush it whenever it rears its head.

The only rights that are have any universality across cultures are the most basic ‘rights’: not to murder, not to steal, and not to lie. And even these last few aren’t really all that widely enforced among some primitive people. Almost all human rights are intrinsic to Western Christian culture.

Surely those are obligations, not rights.

Or rather, morals.

There’s no contradiction there. They are obligations morally but also legally in cultures with laws. They are forbidden and punished in virtually all cultures that I know of. That’s why I omitted ‘telling lies’ from the quote. It’s usually not illegal (outside of a courtroom for example).

I don’t think there’s any meaningful debate to be had in splitting the difference between a legal right and a moral obligation. Those are the things you’re not supposed to do anywhere in the world.

In the context of the OP, I think the term “rights” applies to how the government must treat the citizens. Not how citizen A should treat citizen B.

Then you don’t think people have a right to a decent wage?
Nothing to prevent a house owner to milk his tenants?

I don’t think it is so much the government per sé as any power wielder that can have rights demanded from him/it.

It would be an odd use of “human rights” to say that the are operative against employers or landlords. They operate against government, and sometimes obligate it to regulate employers or landlords.

It’s certainly true that the UDHR is a western-oriented document; Saudi Arabia, for example, abstained from the vote to adopt it in 1948 because of concerns over the freedom of belief article (18). It would be very weird to say it has anything to do with Christian culture since many of the provisions are in opposition to Biblical morality. The views of countries that happen to be majority-Christian, yes.

Well the US culture, which seems to be very Christian, allows for torture, genital mutilation, has the death penalty, and a huge prison population that is being used as slave labour. A lot of that prison population is made up by people who did not try to hurt anyone, but are rather there as a moral punishment (I’m thinking of non-violent drug offenders). Add to that a couple of wars, kidnappings, assassinations, and establishing illegal and/or secret prisons outside it’s borders and color me very unimpressed with the “human rights”.

It would seem to me that most advances in human rights have been despite organized religion, not because of it. The most recent example would be SSM. As far as I could tell there wasn’t exactly a lot of support for that coming from the Christian community.

In most of history it actually seems like Christianity has been among the least progressive when it comes to human rights.

Let’s say your employer insists on paying you less than MW. What is your recourse? Do you bring a lawsuit against her for violating your right to a decent wage or a lawsuit for violating the laws regulating pay?

Let’s say your landlord triples your rent. Similar question.

You’re right. The difference between a right and an obligation is trivial. I am indeed glad to live in a society in which I am allowed to not murder people. I have decided however not to exercise this particular right from now on. Look out for me on the news.

If you see someone dying on the side of the road, most of us would agree that you have a moral obligation to help that person, even if it just means calling for an ambulance. That’s quite distinct from the right to free speech or the right to unreasonable search and seizure.

Human Rights are a result of technological advancement, not spiritual theorizing. When you develop machines that wash your clothes or pick your cotton, you’re more inclined to treat the people who used to do those tasks like fellow humans and not just organic washing machines and cotton-pickers. When you improve the machines so they don’t need to be serviced by children, it becomes permissible to send the children to school. When you invented camera phones that easily recorded police abuses, reforms were undertaken (next up: reforms in the camera phone Hellhole factories). Human Rights came from the powerful relinquishing small doses of that power when it became convenient to do so: more through technical revolution than political revolution.

The Industrial Revolution was largely the work of Quakers and Methodist Dissenters who went into business and industry because their unwillingness to pledge loyalty to the Crown as head of Church barred them from the established professions.

It’s equally plausible to argue that human rights represent a rejection of Christian culture. Europeans were lucky; they had strong historical examples of functioning non-Christian systems as role models. Muslims didn’t have that; their historical antecedents were either disorganized tribal structures like Arabia or autocratic empires like Persia and Egypt. So Muslims made the mistake of equating religion with civilization.