Click here if you don’t see subscription options
William O'NeillNovember 21, 2023

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan questions his brother, Alyosha:

Imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.

Ivan’s question has long ceased to be the stuff of fiction. It is posed for us today by the architects of mass atrocity. And how shall we answer? Postmodernity has left us with a moral bricolage—fragments of traditional moral systems. We speak of victims’ rights in Israel and Gaza, but in the accents of strangers. Still, for many marching under the banner of rights, there are necessary victims, unrequited tears that must be shed. Morally bereft, we have, it seems, become the sum of our grievances, our politics, what Nietzsche called ressentiment—the self-vindicating exercise of rage or indignation.

We must speak, must say, “never again,” again. For in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”

And yet we must speak, must say “never again” again. For in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” Pope Francis has argued in a similar vein, decrying war as “always a defeat” for humanity. Since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church, like Dr. King, has drawn upon what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls our common “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.” It is here, in this common faith, that we might find our answer to Ivan’s question.

As the Universal Declaration reminds us, human rights are tokens of dignity. And dignity implies that we have absolute value. Dignity does not change, nor can it be weighed or measured like desires, interests or profits. It is permanent, inalienable and irreplaceable; no person ever ceases to matter. Dignity can never be lost or sacrificed, even where it is systemically denied by terror, racism, gender or ethnic bias. It follows, then, that every person is always equally worthy of respect, independent of what role a person plays or one’s social status, religion, gender, class, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Whether justified in religious or secular terms, dignity is thus the basis of moral solidarity. Our freedom is “bonded” by the very value we place upon one another. In a sense, we may say that the human community is present in every person. As Pope Francis said in his Angelus message on Trinity Sunday in 2016, being created in the likeness of God “calls us to understand ourselves as beings-in-relationship and to live interpersonal relations in solidarity and mutual love.”

Basic human rights, as claims and not merely privileges, entail correlative duties not only of forbearance but of provision and protection.

Such understanding grounds our rights and correlative duties. In respecting persons as agents and not merely means to another’s ends, we necessarily respect the conditions or capabilities of their exercising agency: security, basic liberties and basic welfare (adequate nutrition, health care, shelter and educational opportunities). Such rights, presumed for agency, are interdependent. Threatening any basic right imperils them all. And basic human rights, as claims and not merely privileges, entail correlative duties not only of forbearance but of provision and protection.

Dignity, solidarity, rights and duties: These form the grammar of our church’s efforts to do justice; and in a world riven by injustice, they require what liberation theology calls a “preferential option for the poor,” for those most vulnerable to unjust systems. The key question in public policy must then be: Whose equal dignity is unequally threatened, whose equal rights are unequally denied? Rights demand, in Albert Camus’s words, that we “take the victim’s side.” Conceived thus, rights do moral work for us. They play a threefold rhetorical role: a critical role in recognizing the unjust suffering of victims, a constructive role in systemically redressing the causes of victimization and a reconstructive role in specific redress of victims.

Critical Recognition

In modern, pluralist polities, the rhetoric of rights gives us a language to recognize what the Universal Declaration calls “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of [hu]mankind.” Rights, according to the philosopher Henry Shue, are the “morality of the depths”; they let us name atrocity, let us recognize victims’ suffering. For the victims are legion, but each ineluctably unique. Rape, torture, mass atrocity, directly attacking civilians—such violations of human dignity are never permissible, nor can they be re-described as anything other than barbarous acts.

There can be no righteous terror, no necessary victims. And so, we answer Ivan’s question, but only to raise others. Surely, one may object, the perpetrators of apartheid, fascism and ethno-nationalism bear the greater guilt than those who suffer at their hands, and they must therefore be held accountable, for the victims are legion. For this reason, some objected to cadres of the African National Congress seeking amnesty in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, lest admitting atrocity imply a “moral equivalence” between the liberation struggle and the apartheid regime. Merely recognizing victims will not suffice. We must say more, and this brings us to the second use of rights.

Rights, according to the philosopher Henry Shue, are the “morality of the depths”; they let us name atrocity, let us recognize victims’ suffering.

Constructive Redemption

We must name victims, yes; but we must also look to the causes of victimization, to the Molochs that require victims. What are the complex, causal factors that lead to genocide, apartheid, mass atrocity? What keeps us from seeing what Emmanuel Levinas calls the “command of the face”: “Thou shalt not kill”? Two years of anguished testimony in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed not only victims, but also the systemic distortions and racial bias that effaced those victims. By the end of the hearings, it was abundantly clear that apartheid was not incidentally, but systemically distorted; rights violations were part of its raison d’être. There could be no melioration, no “good” apartheid.

Neither, for this very reason, could there be any “moral equivalence” between the apartheid regime and the African National Congress. Because we see the command of the face, we say “no” to Ivan’s question about “torturing just one tiny creature.” And it is just because we say “no” that we can constructively redress the causes of victimization. For we cannot invoke human rights in general—defending “my” group, “my” people—yet betray them in particular. Only by saying “no,” then, to Ivan’s question can we offer a comparative assessment of regimes or policies: To what extent have they redeemed or failed to redeem basic human rights and duties?

We cannot condemn victimization without taking the victim’s side; but neither can we take the victim’s side yet remain indifferent to victimization (rights violations). There is no contradiction, then, in condemning the atrocities committed by Hamas while holding Israeli security forces accountable to the jus in bello just war norms of discrimination and proportionality. Atrocity never justifies atrocity. Neither does the critical recognition of atrocity—that Hamas is responsible for atrocities—absolve the Israeli state from rights-based criticism with respect to settlement policies. Human rights must be preserved and protected, whether Israeli or Palestinian.

We must not only take the victim’s side; but like Christ, our good Samaritan, take it as our own.

Reconstructive redress

Finally, we must take the victim’s side even as we redress the causes of victimization. The rhetoric of rights lets us name victims, perpetrators and the inhabitants of the gray zone whose silence or complicity under threat or torture left them morally compromised. And so it is that the denial of basic human rights generates other, ancillary rights of specific redress of victims—rights to reparation, restitution and more. So, too, specific redress imposes duties upon the perpetrator of reparation, restitution, punishment and more. We must name the victims and perpetrators, denying an ethos of impunity while being sure to avoid essentializing either. For we remain morally responsible; the uses of rights go together. Victims can become perpetrators, and perpetrators victims. As the novelist Graham Greene once observed, a writer writes about the victims and the victims change.

Victims and perpetrators are not born such. But neither are we absolved of history.

As a white American male, I am born into a particular social history and narrative—heir to the original blessings of my birthplace but also to its original sins. And so I am responsible for finding my place in the story—for redressing, as best I can, the heritage of white privilege, the systemic distortions that betray the promise of what Dr. King called our beloved community. I am born responsible, but not guilty. Only the choices of my life will determine that.

Our common faith in dignity, I have argued, underwrites a threefold use of rights in taking the victims’ side. And our common faith is itself funded by our deepest religious convictions. For the disciple is called not only to “do justice,” but also to “love tenderly, compassionately,” if we are to “walk humbly with our God” (Mic 6:8). We must not only take the victim’s side, but like Christ, our good Samaritan, take it as our own. But love is never less than just. We too must answer Ivan’s question about the necessary victim: Would you “raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.”

The latest from america

In an interview with Colleen Dulle, Anglican Bishop Jo Bailey Wells talks about attending a meeting of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisors where she spoke about her experience as an ordained woman.
Colleen DulleMarch 04, 2024
The troubled Catholic outlet's fate was announced by a law firm representing a priest who had sued Church Militant for defamation.
The new recording of “How Great Thou Art” features a new verse, a different beat and a chance to provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans in the midst of war.
Is our intense focus on the form of liturgical celebration placing a disproportionate emphasis upon the Eucharist as the summit of Christian life?
Michael OlsonMarch 04, 2024