CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND — The 20th Century has witnessed an unprecedented expansion of scientific knowledge. It has also seen episodes of human- rights abuse unparalleled both in magnitude and cruelty.
Even as the double-helix discovery, the quantum theory and the development of a polio vaccine have manifested some of man’s most ennobling capabilities, the gulags and gas chambers have demonstrated with equal force that scientific prowess alone does not confirm the existence of civilization — if civilization is to be measured by a commitment to protecting human rights.
Indeed, in a great many places during the 20th Century, human rights have been an imperiled commodity. Yet in every situation, the protections accorded human rights have reflected what cultures and governments think about the value and dignity of man. The scientific disciplines, which have increasingly helped to define our century’s view of mankind, have indirectly played an important role in the discussion of human rights, precisely because man’s idea of man ultimately decides the respect such rights receive.
Human rights might be defined as the legal and political manifestation of a culture’s perception of human dignity. Yet cultures do not create human dignity any more than governments create human rights; at best, societies will acknowledge dignity by preserving rights. Former Harvard law professor Harold J. Berman has detected this assumption at the heart of American constitutionalism. In the United States, he notes, “the fundamental rights of individual persons exist independently of the state.” Under Soviet Marxism, by contrast, “all rights are granted by the state and are inevitably subordinate to (its) power.”
But which way should it be? Do human rights have validity apart from government decree or are they merely granted by it?
In the Western tradition, human rights have been said to exist independently of the state because they have been based upon human dignity. The American Bill of Rights, for example, offers what Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. has called “a sublime oration on the dignity of man.” The word dignity comes from the Latin dignitas, meaning “glory.” Historically, Western society has derived its belief in the dignity of man from its Judeo-Christian belief that man is the glory of God, made in his image. According to this view, human rights depend upon the Creator who made man with dignity, not upon the state. In the American formulation, “men … are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Many educated citizens in the West, however, have abandoned the traditional view of man and replaced it with a more contemporary scientific view — one that promulgates a less exalted view of man. In purely material, scientific terms, human beings are insignificant oddities cast up by chance in an immense and impersonal universe. As British philosopher Bertrand Russell concluded, “Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving” and which, in turn, predestine him “to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” Such pessimism has persisted despite the spectacular advances that have occurred in science during the 20th Century. Though Einsteinian and quantum concepts have revolutionized accepted ideas of matter, space and time, science has discovered nothing to elevate the modern view of man. In this modern scientific view, only man’s material complexity distinguishes him from the other biological structures that inhabit the universe.
This loss of what is distinctively human will in time require either promoting animals to the human estate, or more likely, relegating man to the level of animals. UC Berkeley biologist Thomas H. Jukes has declared that in a few years we will hear of “the rights of bacteria,” since all that differentiates bacteria from humanity is a “disparity in the length and sequence of DNA molecules.” Such predictions are not merely theoretical. Dolphin experiments prompted John Lilly to say that “the day that communication is established the (dolphin) becomes a legal, ethical, moral and social problem.” The dolphin will have qualified for “human rights.” A court case in California about a great ape that learned sign language further illustrates the point. With research funds exhausted, the ape’s teachers claimed that because the ape had learned language, it qualified for legal protection and that to return it to the zoo would be “dehumanizing.”
While some researchers have “personified” their apes, others have mechanized their concept of man. One Carnegie-Mellon robotics researcher has suggested that those who deny the “consciousness” of his mobile robots display a gross chauvinism in favor of their own form of mental machinery. A conference at Yale last year on artificial intelligence produced several informal discussions about the problem of defining the political rights of “thinking” machines. In his widely read article in Science, “The New Biology: What Price Relieving Man’s Estate?” Leon R. Kass of the University of Chicago wrote “we are witnessing the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as something splendid or divine, and its replacement with a view that sees man, no less than nature, as simply more raw material for manipulation and homogenization. Hence our peculiar moral crisis.”
In the face of this situation, Western nations have signed the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Most all still abide by its provisions. Without the concept of “the distinctively human,” however, governments are inevitably playing a global game of “let’s pretend.” The most impassioned appeals for human rights by politicians and scientists will mean nothing if they have abandoned belief in the distinctive dignity of man. Without this conviction there is no logical ground for supporting human rights in the West or in the Soviet Union; there is no logical ground for human rights at all. In such a context, those who advocate human rights practice species chauvinism.
In response to such absurd but seemingly inescapable conclusions, some have hoped that merely reiterating the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation will restore the grounds for preserving human dignity. But no doctrine can give man dignity, let alone one that is no longer believed. No “useful fiction” can rescue man from his current moral dilemma; for fictions remain useful only as long as they are not regarded as such. Even so, Judaism and Christianity do not teach that the doctrine of man’s creation in the Divine image establishes his dignity. They teach that the fact of man’s creation has established human dignity. Only if man is (in fact) a product of special Divine purposes can his claim to distinctive or intrinsic dignity be sustained. Indeed, if dignity is built into man by his Creator, then certain rights are “inalienable.” Moreover it follows that if man’s dignity is a fact of his origin, human rights are independent of his religious or philosophical convictions, just as they are independent of the state. In short, if the traditional view of man’s origin is correct, people have human rights whether they believe they do or not.
Voltaire said that madness is to have erroneous perceptions and to reason correctly from them. Historically, from the standpoint of human rights, madness has prevailed in the Eastern Bloc under Soviet domination. Moreover, the Soviet madness adheres to the pattern Voltaire described: Soviet indifference to human rights is reasoned correctly from an erroneous perception of man called Marxism–a materialist perception that Karl Marx himself held to be scientific.
Yet we in the West with our own scientific view of man have created a curious situation. The orthodoxy of Judaism and Christianity contends that man has dignity because he has been created in the image of God. If the orthodox view is false, as is now widely assumed in the academic and legal professions, then one wonders how long it will be until we in the West reason correctly from a strictly scientific perception of human nature. As renewed Soviet-American dialogue again raises the question of human rights, we might well remember that neither the edifice of Western technical sophistication nor the “science” of Marx can provide any firm ground for asserting these rights. Instead, productive proclamations of human rights depend upon a shared conviction that man’s dignity is inherent — safe from any political expedient — as our Western religious heritage once asserted.
Public, and especially political, references to this heritage can doubtless offend the sensibilities of a secular age. Yet if the traditional understanding of man is correct, if it is not only doctrinal but factual, then governments can derive human rights from a dignity that actually exists. But if the traditional view is false and the modern scientific view prevails, then there is no dignity and human rights are a delusion, not only in Moscow but here in the West as well.
Charles B. Thaxton, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, was a postdoctoral Harvard Fellow in history and philosophy of science; he is co-author of The Mystery of Life’s Origin; (Philosophical Library).
Stephen C. Meyer is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Whitworth College. and Director of Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science & Culture.