Human Rights as a Global Project
Human rights are made up of all the values that concern social and political life, and are supposed to be universal. Though their origin is Western, human rights today are to be applied globally.
Taken as a global political ethos, then, human rights form a minimum moral standard for civilized life, meaning one that is founded on full respect for human dignity.
What Political Ethics Are Implicit in the Notion of Human Rights?
It’s important to note that human rights do not exist in a cultural or institutional void. Moreover, they are not different to particular forms of political ethics Opens in new window and its embodiment in a whole set of political, legal, and social institutions.
Human rights are the expression of a political culture that exists in a constitutional democracy and that is characterized by the following traits:
- the rule of law, that is, the submission of governing power to the law;
- the guarantee of fundamental freedoms, along with security, autonomy, and individual responsibility, to all citizens;
- the impartiality of judges and justice, such that the rules established by the law are respected (which are, above all, rules of procedure, such as the Latin adage nulla poena sine lege, or “no penalty without a law”);
- parliamentary representation decided through elections, accompanied by universal suffrage and secret balloting; majority rule, along with protection of minorities;
- freedom of religion and a corresponding freedom from prejudice;
- the right to solidarity with others, exercised through a public authority according to the principle of subsidiarity, so that the support necessary to enjoy one’s rights, freedoms, and responsibility is available.
In order for the modern idea of human rights and its corresponding political ethos to develop, what has been termed the constitutive or direct historical causes were necessary, namely (in simplified form): the development, firstly, of the sovereign territorial state, produced by what Georges de Lagarde has called “the birth of the secular mind,” and secondly, the splitting of Christianity, along with the social conflict caused by cultural and ideological pluralism.
Together these developments brought about the sovereign modern state, whose essential function was to ensure peace and to make a shared life possible for individuals who were profoundly divided in terms of religion and ideology. The modern political ethos thus became an ethos of peace.
The peace ethos, formulated classically by Jean Bodin and the “politiques” of the sixteenth century, affirmed the primacy of peace and of the measures that secure it over the public recognition of moral and religious truth.
The peace ethos followed as a reaction, in a pluralist and heterogeneous society, to public authorities’ prejudice causing the worst of social evils: civil war. The peace ethos alone, however, is not enough. It can justify all sorts of violations of the physical and moral integrity of the individual. The peace ethos is but a necessary precursor of what follows, which is the ethos of liberty.
The call for freedom rose against the abuse of power in the sovereign state, which was instituted to protect the individual against his or her equals by providing the security necessary to enjoy the fruits of his or her labor, but which had been transformed into a threat to the individual.
The arbitrary power of the state had superseded individual rights and converted individuals into instruments of its own functioning. It was against this Leviathan that the liberal—in the broad political sense—constitutionalist proclaimed the priority of freedom and the rights of the individual, asserting the legitimacy of his or her own rights in the face of the false pretensions of public common interests that were constricting the rights and freedoms of the individual.
Later, this upheaval led to the proclamation of the superiority of a free economy over that which had been organized by the state and for the state (as had been the case mercantilist system of the absolute state). The new claim was based on the fundamental idea that the wealth of nations consisted not in the accumulation of riches by the state, but in the work of individuals and in the free exchange of products on the market.
The modern political ethos thus became an ethos of freedom, the rights of the individual, and the sovereignty of law over power (“the rule of law”), a nation that was institutionalized, along with the medieval principle of the right to resistance, with the advent of the constitutional state.
The ethos of freedom in the face of public business and the various conditions imposed by a state that pretends to use its authority to foster the happiness of its citizens. Against these collective forces, liberal constitutionalism promotes individual responsibility and autonomy.
Meanwhile, liberal freedom did not mean freedom for everyone (at least, not immediately). After the industrial revolution brought with it the formation of the working and majority rule, a third step was imminent, which would involve the restriction of the freedom and civil rights of those with property titles, and especially those enjoyed by the landed, because of they had become outdated.
A redistribution of liberty was needed: equality of freedom, of representation, and of rights for all as human beings: that was the third step. It led to the ethos of justice Opens in new window, which was also an ethos of equality and of solidarity, an equality that was nonetheless qualified and not necessarily egalitarian, that is, equality in the sense of equal rights and freedoms for all.
The understanding that for such an equality to be realized, certain socioeconomic conditions had to be met has profoundly shaped the modern conception of human rights.