Rawls’s ideas make no sense without a prior belief that each life counts as much as every other. He takes for granted the notion that we have no automatic right to our privileges, that we are not intrinsically better than others, and that we might just as easily have occupied another’s position in life, and they ours. Or consider Jeremy Bentham’s famous utilitarian theory of rights. Bentham is committed to seeking “the greatest good of the greatest number,” but that’s because he presumes that every human being has a right to happiness, and that the happiness of each person counts equally. Otherwise my happiness alone could count more than that of everyone else put together, and Bentham’s utilitarianism is in ruins.
Today there are two types of human rights doctrines: moral doctrines and legal doctrines. Both are products of Christianity. Consider a moral theory like the doctrine of “just war.” It specifies the ethical conditions under which wars should operate. The radicalism of this concept can be gleaned by reading the Melian Dialogue in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. There the Athenians dismiss the moral arguments of the Melians with the cool insistence that in war “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” When the Melians eventually surrendered, the Athenians killed all the men and sold the women and children into slavery. This has been, as the Athenian ambassador told the Melians, the way of the world. If it horrifies us today, that’s because our social conscience has been molded by Christianity.
The Christian “just war” principles say that even in war you should not deliberately kill civilians. It also says that war should be waged defensively: you should not attack first. A just war should be a last resort, undertaken only when other measures have been exhausted and when there is a reasonable chance of success. Moreover, retaliation should be proportionate to the original offense. If someone raids your tribe and kills ten people, you are not justified in raiding theirs and killing ten thousand people. The “just war” doctrine is a product of Christianity. It has its roots in Augustine, was developed further by Aquinas, and was then given its first modern expression by such thinkers as Francisco de Vitoria, Hugo Grotius, and John Locke.
Now consider a legal doctrine such as the Declaration of Human Rights in the charter of the United Nations. This declaration, adopted on December 10, 1948, by the UN General Assembly without a single dissenting vote, asserts rights common to all people on earth.13Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of governments. Each adult person has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex through free consent and to form a family. No one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman punishment. All are equal before the law. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and property. There shall be equal pay for equal work. These ringing declarations are a standing indictment to tyranny and oppression everywhere.
Yet the universalism of this declaration is based on the particular teachings of Christianity. The rights in the declaration are based on the premise that all human lives have worth and that all lives count equally; this is not the teaching of all the world’s cultures and religions. Even so, it is entirely appropriate that a doctrine Christian in origin should be universal in application because Christianity articulates its message in universal terms. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Here Christian individualism is combined with Christian universalism, and the two together are responsible for one of the great political miracles of our day, a global agreement on rights held to be inviolable.