Lots of people are hooked on the idea of Truth these days. For instance, some might say the Bible is true, every word of it, and others might suggest that it does not meet the criteria reserved for judging the veracity of fact claims. Others might say that it is certainly true that human beings or nation states have a right to defend themselves from violent attacks on personal or national sovereignty. I believe that, amongst Quakers, there is a consistently held view that universal human rights not only exist, but that human beings are obligated to struggle – politically or militarily – to preserve the universal application of such rights. The question that I have for all of you who demand that universal human rights are – well – rights, is…who says.
How can anyone empirically prove that rights do in fact exist, or, that there are “universal rights” that should receive protected status? Where do human rights come from, if they do exist? Are they a universal expression of what is best for humanity to thrive, or are human rights simply a projection of a collective western fantasy that all people are born equal.
It is my experience human beings are born no more equal to one another than they were in the eighteenth century when a few white guys suggested that we were. Of course, women and slaves were not born into equality, and while the western world has spoken out against slavery and sexism over the past hundred and fifty years or so, the assumed equality enjoyed by every human is still not universal.
I suggest that if westerners really believed that humans had basic rights, they might extend beyond universal suffrage, free speech, and prohibitions against discriminating against one’s involuntary particulars such as race.
It seems to me that if Nicaraguans or Haitians, Afghanis and Palestinians were born equal, they would have immediate access to western health care, control of their own capital resources, and freedom from foreign intervention concerning economic decisions. I’ll hazard to guess that most Quakers will agree with these premises, and even say that they stress such values in their daily lives. This brings me to two points.
First, values are not rights. Values are, at least in the western world, individual preferences concerning one’s personal ethic. Values in the 21st century are fairly subjective, if not arbitrary. I might even suggest that most peoples’ values are more informed by their quest for political power than any sense of good or bad. So, just as one might question the validity of values based upon religious faith as subjective values centered upon beliefs and not Truth, I suggest that “rights” are simply the secular expression of certain values with the implication that they are somehow “objective.”
Secondly, I want to suggest that our Quaker perception of “rights” actually interferes with our ability to agree upon values that more properly reflect a just society, or a society that focuses on social justice as the ultimate expression of humanity, and not universal rights.
How do Quakers feel about the rights of certain historically marginalized peoples to hold combat roles in the military? Should women and homosexuals have the right to fight for the empire? How do Quakers feel about free speech when the rich dominate political speech, and the marginalized cannot afford to enjoy it? How do Quakers feel when a personal right to acquire unlimited resources and wealth conflicts with the right of marginalized peoples to control their own economic destiny? None of us generally discuss the possibility that the personal rights we enjoy might conflict with the human rights we suggest exist, possibly so that we can formally claim our own right to enjoy the benefits of exploitation without taking responsibility.
Many of us will say that we believe in a God who directs us toward lifestyles that benefit humanity, that strives for social justice, and most importantly, that does so in a nonviolent way that reflects the love our Creator has for creation. Of course, then we are admitting that God has a will for humanity, a purpose that we can discern and live out the best we are able. If the striving for justice is to be anything other than just another values claim to be thrown upon the Enlightenment’s trash heap of assertions that failed to meet the criteria of empiricism, Quakers might consider a corporate expression of who God is, and what that God’s will might entail. Or is a God of justice and peace a God who has been put in a box?