“Human Rights and Human Identity” – Rowan Williams – The 2018 Payton Lectures

This year’s Payton Lectures are being given by the Right Reverend Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury – what follows are my notes from this first talk.


Payton Lectures
Theology and Human Rights: Tension or Convergence
“Human Rights and Human Identity” (Lecture)
The Right Reverend Rowan Williams

Are “human rights” – a part of the Christian tradition?

  • Or are they simply a western concept? Cf. John Millbank and McIntyre

Is there a fit between “rights” language and the theological tradition?

  • Traditional religious texts don’t use the language of rights

Oliver O’Donovan – critiques this concept of unindividuated “rights”

  • Unrelated and unconditional demands – ownership/property model
  • But this isn’t actually the way HR works in jurisprudence

Universal Declaration of Human rights – 70 years ago

  • Developed partly by those who had a commitment to Christian personalism
  • The assumption which underlies this is that the dignity of the human person is under threat from totalitarian and liberal ideologies – the affirmation of inalienable rights is a statement about the limit if political authority – so they are not so much about individual claims but an attempt to secure against an “all powerful” state

The difficulty arises when you merge this “negative role” (limiting the state) with two other themes: it becomes a defense against the community

If you claim that all human beings have certain fundamental interests simply in version of being human – that is to say that no political authority can legitimately frustrate those interests w/o losing its moral authority.

Justice is primary among the virtues because it is not simply about me.

UDHR – Social and political order is to safeguard every citizen in the same way – Its not a commitment to subjects in the abstract – it is a recognition of interlocking interests. It falls somewhat short of what a Christian would want to say theologically. It assumes a crucial point: the state is legitimate only when it guarantees not to infringe upon basic securities – especially associations (church, cooperative working units) and families.

The UDHRs theologically ancestry is not to far below the surface.

Does pre-modern Christian thought have any analogy to contemporary rights talk?

  • Medieval discussions treat the word “ius” as an objectively appropriate share in material or social goods – so it concerned the right to perform certain acts.
    • It is my freedom to act it is also a proper expectation that will sustain my life/community
  • AQ [Aquinas] – the superabundance of the rich is owed to the poor for their support.
  • They see this whole issue in light of cosmic harmony – every element in the universe is in a reciprocal relationship with every other. Justice is essentially relational.

Appeal to a universal reciprocity for the good of others is very different than a list of individual entitlements.

AQ – Human law cannot overturn divine. There is a potential tension between a law of a society and the laws of the universe.

The classical theologically framed view of my “right/ius” is a freedom to give what I am meant to give and receive what I am meant to receive depends on a model of mutuality/reciprocity. This latter element has dropped out of modern discussion of human rights.

A contemporary version of AQ’s version of ius would need to address some of the problems in AQ’s views.

We need a strong doctrine of what humans owe one another and why they owe such things.

“Is the prisoner still a member of society – if the answer is no – you have some moral and political problems at hand.”

Dignity – or the value of the agent – is not something earned or conditional.

Definition of Person: One unrepeatable way in which God’s gift to creation becomes actual.

Any challenge to the state all depend on the belief that an individual stands as a point in a nexus of God’s creative activities.

A fuller understanding of language about rights – urges us to attend to the duties that rights entail but also that IUS is about the ability to exercise certain powers, and in a religious universe – maximizing the ability of others to exercise their God given powers. Part of what people is due is the ability to serve the good of their neighbor and community. To argue for a right that is abstracted from this ability is way off the mark.

Example: Freedom of Speech

  • Yes exercise rights – but this does not mean one has the freedom to use one’s speech in such a way that violates another individual’s ius.
  • FOS is not a clash of two rights (i.e. I have a right to free speech and you have a right not to be offended). This is a misunderstanding of rights language.
  • There is NO SUCH THING as a clash between two individual rights. Rights exist in a network of reciprocal relations.

Example: “Right” to Physician Assisted Suicide

  • Why have these debates stalemated? Perhaps we have some residue of communal ius – and we are worried about labeling some lives as not worth living, the relationship of trust between physician and patient – it threatens particular groups of citizens and also particular relationships
  • In this example, we are still operating with a communal understanding of things.

A higher collective authority does not override an individual’s “rights” – however, we need to understand the purpose of human beings to exercise their power towards a God given good – and this ability is always set in the context of entire communities.

Pro-life and pro-choice: stuck in “individual” rights discourse. What if we talked about this in terms of ius (cf. James Mumford), communities, and flourishing of relationships?

We need two things:

  • A thicker experience of shared discernment about what is good for communities.
  • The audible presence of communities who have a fixed commitment to the non-negotiable value of every human being. These communities are an indispensable tool for preventing modernity from seeing itself as infallible.

 

In tomorrow’s lecture: how the divine image can thicken up this account & how the human body grounds our understanding of the inviolable dignity of humans

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