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Nonsense On Stilts? A Quaker View of Human Rights

Mark Frankel examines Quaker perspectives on human rights.

Quakers are non-doctrinaire Christians with a fine tradition of work for peace and social justice. This collection of eight essays by Quaker activists and academics attempts insights into the nature of human rights and the thinking which informs them. It takes its title from the vivid remark of Jeremy Bentham that natural rights are nonsense and inalienable natural rights are ‘nonsense on stilts’. Bentham denied that rights could be deduced from nature, but he would have been quick to agree that basic principles for the protection of the individual could and should be enshrined in law. This collection of essays avoids the abstract question of the naturalness of rights, but takes as read that human have legal rights, and tries to bring a specifically Quaker perspective to the issue.

The Quakers are not the only religious group to have a perspective on the (secular) concept of human rights. For example, the Vatican strongly supports the notion of inherent rights and the dignity of the individual. Human dignity goes beyond cultural and religious differences and unites all humans in one family, the Pope’s representative has said, calling on all political and social institutions to promote the worth of the person. In his contribution to Nonsense on Stilts, Nigel Dower puts this worth in explicitly religious language, founding our human rights on ‘that of God’ which is within us. Indeed, he says that human rights are that which is of God, and the distinction is just a matter of language – thus unhappily for the orthodox suggesting that religion is no more than metaphor. Though the languages of theology and of human rights are rather different, both provide a universalistic ethical framework, Dower claims, and can be seen as supporting a global rights ethic which can be endorsed from many points of view.

If there is such a global ethic, then everyone is for human rights just as everyone is for motherhood and apple pie. The problem is judging how far individual rights extend, and how far they may be overridden for a greater social good. Notoriously, the language of rights can be a way of marking out entrenched positions, so that, for example, the alleged rights of the unborn or of animals become pitted against the rights of distressed pregnant women or sufferers from intractable illnesses. Claims for the existence of a ‘global ethic’ of rights are equally controversial, particularly for those who tar all religious practice with the brush of extremism, and see Islam especially as inimical to shared values. As Michael Bartlet says in one of the papers, rights are not a panacea to social and legal problems. On the other hand, they are a useful currency for building legal and political accountability in a shared international community. Talk of rights is a good approach to moral, legal and political debate, but this is a starting point, not a conclusion.

Nonsense on Stilts is itself ambivalent about the existence of a global ethic of human rights in all cultures, as derived from the good-neighbour principle of do as you would be done by. There are criticisms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a Western-oriented document, and arguments that the interpretation of rights for today’s world should take account of perspectives from differing religious cultures. Nevertheless, the essays argue that it is possible to develop and refine a shared secular and religious understanding of human rights. Alan Pleydell describes how Quakers have helped develop the concept of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) as a duty of governments to end and prevent unconscionable acts of violence wherever they occur. Pleydell’s paper is particularly timely given the current events in Darfur and Zimbabwe.

Pleydell points out that there are no easy solutions to abuses of human rights. Intervention by force is often counterproductive, as has been amply demonstrated in Iraq. More effective, if less headline-grabbing, is patient diplomacy combined with a demonstrable resolve to protect the most vulnerable. Another area in which the Quakers have done good work in developing the suite of human rights stems from their tradition of ‘peace testimony’. Quakers have brought several unpopular ideas into the UN arena and obtained recognition for them, such as the right to conscientious objection to military service. Quakers also campaign for a Peace Tax, which would allow taxpayers to specify that their taxes should be dedicated to non-military purposes only.

The need to protect and promote human rights requires a free exchange of ideas, which is a right without which all other rights are at risk. Discernment, as Quakers call spiritual wisdom and the search for inner light, informs their reli gious practice and their exemplary work for peace and justice. Public and sober debate in the context of a compassionate and thoughtful approach to the treatment of other human beings is the laudable premise of this collection, and consistent with the best traditions of progressive thought both religious and secular. Yet in the weakest paper in the collection, Roger Iredale wants us to look to one journalist, John Pilger, as the sole repository of truth and wisdom. Pilger is a passionate and persuasive propagandist, but does not have the last word in any controversy. To suggest otherwise shows a lack of Quakerly discernment.

© Mark Frankel 2008

Mark Frankel is a civil servant studying for an MA in Philosophy at the University of Wales Lampeter.

Nonsense on Stilts? – A Quaker view of Human Rights edited by Nigel Dower, William Sessions Ltd, 2008, 116pps, £7.50, ISBN: 1850723737

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