Essays on Religion and Human Rights

Ground to Stand On

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David Little
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     2016.
     420 pages.
     £65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781107072626.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Editor's Note: This review also covers Linda Hogan's Keeping Faith with Human Rights.

David Little and Linda Hogan each address the need for, and complexity of, human rights discourse in our contemporary context. Little’s work defends the universal human rights tradition that grew out of natural rights in the twelfth century, and draws upon later figures like John Locke and Roger Williams to argue for the salience of individual rights against oppressive social systems. Linda Hogan’s book takes up challenges posed by feminist and postcolonial critics to imagine rights in ways that are not dependent on a notion of a shared and fixed human nature and a concept of objective, universal truth. Both books convey the challenge of conceptualizing and legislating human rights in a morally pluralistic, diverse world.

Little presents a two-tiered system of justification for human rights. The first, a natural/secular tier that is accessible to all human beings, protects against arbitrary force and arbitrary neglect. Human rights, in this first justification, prohibit the inflicting of unnecessary pain. The second tier, which allows for a range of extra-natural (religious) considerations, accounts for diverse beliefs and ways of life that may conflict with the state. Each tier can function as a limit on the reach and power of the other.

A recurring tension in contemporary rights discourse is the relationship between the historical-contextual nature of human rights claims, and the need to conceptualize rights as inviolable independent of context. In responding to the work of Muslim human rights theorist Abdullahi An-Na'im, who favors more of a consensus-based approach for human rights, Little asserts that the first-tier justification—illustrated by the logic of pain—remains independent of religious, and specifically statist, considerations. Accordingly, there are certain practices—such as genocide—that can never be justifiable. Although the first tier holds priority for Little, one should not overlook the potentially dialogical nature of these two tiers and how they mutually inform one another.

One of Little’s more interesting chapters focuses on the legacy of Calvinism for human rights, and in particular his view of the sovereignty of conscience. Little uses this chapter to contest the idea that human rights is a secular invention that is hostile to religion. Calvin, however, had an imperfect record on rights, given that he wanted to maintain the primacy of individual conscience and the separation of civil and ecclesial authority, and yet was instrumental in the execution of Severtus on account of his theological heresy. Little explains that Calvin’s inconsistency was due in large part to his authoritarian character and his inability to discuss ideas (Calvin was not interested in consensus). Nevertheless, says Little, Calvin paved the way for Roger Williams, who was instrumental in developing the voluntary nature of belief and the argument against civil/state coercion. Williams argued for shared social responsibility in protecting natural rights, based on accountability before God.

In several instances, Little articulately rebuts charges raised by human rights critics. For example, he argues that despite our reliance on sovereign states to enforce human rights, international human rights covenants and treaties should hold states accountable for the ways they treat their citizens. This argument does not account for the gap in practice, or the means by which these international agreements are enforced, however, and more needs to be said about this matter.

In contrast to Little, Linda Hogan diverges from the focus on human rights in terms of universal values and instead pursues a conception of human rights through political constructivism. According to Hogan, the three pillars of human rights in the contemporary context are the nature of personhood, the structure of moral truth, and the role of the community. Incorporating criticisms from feminist and postmodern theories, Hogan revisits the traditional human rights notion of the person as autonomous and detached from the processes of social formation. At the same time, she does not endorse epistemological and moral relativism, and argues for a situated and dialogical conception of subjectivity. Vulnerability, rather than strict autonomy, is the basis for comprehending personhood.

More so than Little, Hogan wrestles with the question of how social difference affects how we imagine others and construct human rights. Her chapter “Ethical Formations” addresses the importance of developing an inclusive notion of subjectivity, given the historical exclusion of certain persons from civic participation. Whereas Little’s argument for human rights is grounded in a conception of conscience as something shared by all persons, Hogan is more interested in how difference troubles what we think of as “natural,” and how human rights discourse might respond to this challenge. For Westerners in particular, this process involves a critical awareness of the contingent nature of our epistemological categories and the role they play in forming moral judgments.

Little and Hogan share a commitment to human rights discourse, despite its historical shortcomings in theory and practice. Little offers a more traditional defense of rights, arguing that there exist, a priori, inalienable human rights. Hogan, while retaining the commitment to human flourishing as an aim of human rights, proposes a more dynamic interaction between particular cultural traditions and the Western rights tradition. For Hogan, rights advocates must recognize how social privilege informs their conceptions of good/right or bad/wrong, and “unlearn our conviction that we are entitled and able to speak for the marginalized” (86). Yet, somewhat paradoxically, advocates must nevertheless speak for the marginalized, though legitimate speech must be expressed through practices of solidarity rather than political hegemony.

One difference in Little’s and Hogan’s respective approaches lies in how they understand personhood. Little’s approach to human rights asserts the autonomy and sovereignty of the individual, expressed in the right of the individual to be free from arbitrary pain and coercion. Hogan, informed by feminist approaches, conceptualizes the person in terms of her particularity and vulnerability, noting an inevitable social dimension to personhood. While Hogan argues that these positions can be complementary to one another—especially in their rejection of coercion— there remains a question about what, exactly,  universality means in terms of how we conceptualize the person and human rights. My suspicion is that this question is far from settled, and that it will continue as a point of debate in human rights literature for some time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shannon Dunn is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University.

Date of Review: 
May 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David LittleBerkley Center of Religion, Peace, and International Affairs, Georgetown University
David Little is a Research Fellow at the Berkley Center of Religion, Peace, and International Affairs, Georgetown University. He retired in 2009 as Professor of the Practice in Religion, Ethnicity, and International Conflict at Harvard Divinity School and as an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He was a member of the US State Department Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad from 1996 to 1998.

Comments

Yong Huang

A great book and a great review.

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