Just a Good Idea?

Book cover
The Challenge of Human Rightsby By Jack MahoneyBlackwell. 232p $29.95 (paperback)

Human rights is the idea of our time,” wrote Louis Henkin in The Age of Rights. Throughout the field of ethics today, it is impossible to escape the language of human rights. Not surprisingly, we find this language in social ethics; but we also encounter it in sexual ethics, medical ethics and even the ethics of the environment. Take, for instance, the topic of H.I.V./AIDS. Inevitably, we must ask: why are there 14,000 new infections every day, with more than half occurring in women? Moreover, of these new infections, why is one out of seven found in children under 15? Why are the burdens of this virus being borne by women and children? What leaves them so vulnerable?

When people are desperate in their poverty and do not have access to basic goods like drinking water, food, health care, education and work, inevitably they come to depend on persons who sooner or later compromise their health. Public health officials have been telling us for years: the greater the social and economic stability, the greater the protection from the virus. Is not the guarantee of human rights to these goods pivotal for securing a stable world in which the transmission of the virus is greatly reduced? Can we study a pandemic that has already infected 62 million persons without elaborating on human rights?


Admittedly, human rights have become indispensable for ethical discourse, but what does that term mean? Individual rights, or social ones? Are human rights nothing more than simple assertions of power, or are they based in human reason? How many rights are there? Do they automatically multiply, or is there a method for arbitrating which are real and which are not? Who decides what is and is not a human right? Are they nothing more than Western creations, or do they have universal applications?

In The Challenge of Human Rights: Origin, Development, and Significance, Jack Mahoney, S.J., emeritus professor of moral and social theology, University of London, answers each of these questions in a thoroughly engaging introduction to the topic. His book is the most comprehensive and accessible work on human rights that I have yet seen.

Readers of America are familiar with Mahoney for his landmark work, The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (Oxford, 1989). In this new work on human rights, he provides five chapters on the historical roots of human rights, the modern human rights movement, philosophical clarifications about these rights, the basic logic for them and a forecast for their future. Each chapter is complemented by a comprehensive bibliography.

Let me highlight the first and fourth chapters. In the first, while noting that the concept of human rights is a product of the Enlightenment, Mahoney traces two deeply significant features that contributed to the eventual emergence of human rights: “the centering of human morality on the idea of justice and the recourse to human nature as a source of moral knowledge.” Here, Mahoney mines the Greek, Roman and biblical traditions, but he pauses in the medieval world. There he sides with Brian Tierney, the author of The Idea of Natural Rights. Tierney argues that contemporary rights are not inimical to ecclesial purpose but rather an essential part of it. He demonstrates that 12th-century canonical decretals about papal and episcopal rights and responsibilities carried within them this ongoing sensibility about human nature’s dependency on equal justice. Rather than thinking of rights as arbitrary assertions of power, Tierney conveys them as deeply rational and deeply human.

In the fourth chapter, Mahoney carefully surveys and discusses the various attempts to explain human rights in order to formulate a single compelling, logical proof for their existence. The religious argument from creation and another from natural law (itself a theological argument) are fine, so long as we grant religious belief. “Intuitionist approaches,” as the author calls them, concern the fact that we recognize an emerging, international consensus about human rights: is there not in that recognition itself evidence that we are claiming their essential validity? But which comes first: their validity or our recognition, which establishes their validity? Under the rubric of “human dignity,” he argues that human rights are indispensable guarantees of the future of humanity.

But then he notes that we human beings have sustained some sense of human dignity for thousands of years before we ever articulated human rights. History shows, then, that human dignity does not necessarily depend on human rights. Thus for every argument for human rights that Mahoney offers, he proffers a contrary claim; here he helps us to see that no single argument will ever emerge that in itself compels us to assent to the existence of human rights. So he turns to John Henry Newman and the “convergence of probabilities” to suggest that taken together, all these arguments form a type of moral certitude about the legitimacy of these human rights.

In both of these chapters, the reader cannot help but note Mahoney’s use of Catholic claims from natural law, natural rights and human dignity—which allows him to suggest, at least implicitly, a certain affinity between moral theology and human rights. Here this splendid book also stands as a certain Catholic apologia for human rights.

At the end of the book, in discussing the notion of cosmopolitanism Mahoney advocates a greater expansion of human rights. This concept helps us to understand ourselves better as citizens of the world. In a world in which there are such grave economic and social disparities, where, for instance, the ecological damage already done now deprives the poor of even their drinking water, we can no longer think of the two issues of justice and human nature from the vantage point of national self-interests.

The key to the future of human rights, as Mahoney’s work makes abundantly clear, lies in an appreciation of our humanity, undifferentiated by nationalities, but rather bound together in solidarity. This, above all, is the “idea of our time.”


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James Whalen
10 years 5 months ago
My neighbor has AIDS and by his present lifestyle infecting others. Does he have a human right to do so? Do I have a human right to prevent his spread of this disease? I think we do and I propose we quarantine ALL AID patients until we find a cure which may be never.


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