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Past Gresham Professor, The Rev Jack Mahoney, will draw from his new book, The Challenge of Human Rights - Origin, Development and Significance in which he considers the charges against human rights of Western ethical imperialism and the counterclaims of cultural relativism, before concluding that human rights are an invaluable moral resource which culminate in a cosmopolitan recognition of the whole human race as a single moral family.

He also comments on recent moves to rewrite the British Human Rights Act, and indicates how human rights can throw valuable light on the ethical conduct of business.

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The Rev Emeritus Professor Jack Mahoney


It is a great pleasure, as well as an honour, for me to be invited to deliver this lecture in Gresham College on the

occasion of the publication of my new book The Challenge of Human Rights, and so to renew my formal connection with the College.[i] For six years from 1987-93 I had the distinction of being Mercers' School Memorial Professor of Commerce at Gresham College. During that time I had the enjoyable task of providing regular lunchtime lectures on business ethics, first at Saint Edmund's Church to the passing trade in Lombard Street, and then transferring them here when the College moved to its new local habitation in Barnard's Inn.  Now, having returned to London after an absence of seven years in Edinburgh, which turned out to be quite sufficient for a Scottish prodigal son, I have been very happy to renew my connection with Gresham College; and it was a particular pleasure for me when the Provost, Lord Sutherland, a previous colleague at King's College London and subsequently at New College Edinburgh, invited me to take part in this book launch at the College, and to lecture on the contents of my book. I just hope that this Gresham lecture will not have an effect similar to the one delivered in the College in 1874 which is recorded by one of the audience as arousing feelings which alternated between 'calm endurance, nervous irritability, savage fury and stolid despair'.[ii]  I am additionally pleased that my publisher, Blackwell's, have accepted the College's proposal to share in this launch.

A further source of pleasure for me has been to discover that I have a highly distinguished predecessor in delivering a Gresham lecture on human rights. For the College's first Special Lecture, delivered in 1983, was on the subject of 'Human Rights and the Democratic Process', and it was given by the highly experienced judge and jurist, Lord Scarman. Fifteen years before Parliament embodied the European Convention on Human Rights into our constitution in 1998 in the Human Rights Act, Lord Scarman was so persuaded of the importance of human rights in Britain that he argued powerfully and influentially for the legal protection of such rights by British law and the British courts. As he concluded in his Gresham lecture, in words which can be considered even more relevant today, 'in a plural society where there are bound to be minorities which are unlikely to exercise political power or influence I would say that the protection by the courts of human rights incorporated into the law as constitutional rights is essential to the freedom of such a society'.[iii]Encouraged by such a powerful precedent I propose in this lecture to survey the origin and development of human rights before considering their strengths and some of the objections raised against them, including those raised recently in Britain against the Human Rights Act, and to conclude by directing attention to the inner dynamic of human rights and their potential to result in a form of cosmopolitanism giving expression to the moral solidarity of the human race.

There can be little doubt that human rights have become the major ethico-political idea of our age. In fact, I should maintain that the growing historical recognition of human rights is a moral phenomenon of astonishing scale and unparalleled significance which has immeasurably enriched the human race's ethical resources. Yet in spite of such enthusiasm for human rights, and notwithstanding their growing popularity and widespread acceptance today, the idea of human rights also prompts major challenges, some of which I wish to consider in this inevitably selective lecture. One of the more obvious challenges is to question the need for human rights at all, when one considers that for centuries human beings appeared to get on very well without them in their ethical discourse and conduct. For the idea of human rights, indeed the whole idea of 'rights' as such, the possession of a legal or moral claim or entitlement to be treated in a specific way, did not exist in the ancient western world. Nor, indeed, is the idea of a right in this sense to be found in the Bible. There is a profound interest there in how God's human creatures behave, of course, but biblical morality draws its primary origin from the divine will rather than from human needs or humanitarian requirements. The point was well made by Lord Habgood as Archbishop of York in concluding  that 'it may be possible to deduce some rights from biblical teaching; but it is a mistake to say that the Bible is about human rights, because that implies commitment to a concept and a way of thinking which did not then exist'.[iv]

Nevertheless, although ancient thought had no idea of rights it did contain two major ethical ideas which were to prove deeply significant in providing a strong base from which in time the concept of rights, including natural and human rights, would emerge. The first of these ideas was the centring of human morality on the idea of justice, or of how people ought to relate appropriately to one another. And the other idea was that of nature, the makeup of things, which was taken as providing a moral clue as to how they should be treated. Underlying reality the ancient world envisaged a divinely ordained order, a transcendent ethical structure of divine intelligence permeating everything. Such was the Stoic idea of universal 'reason', or Logos,undergirding the whole universe and the natures of things, and constituting the basis of a moral 'law of nature', or a natural law, enjoining us to 'act in accordance with nature', from which in time the idea of natural rights would evolve, as the historical precursor of human rights.[v]

Such an ethical development in early Greece and Rome was congenial to Christianity, for it coincided with, or may have influenced, the view of St Paul (Rom 2, 14-15) that those peoples which had not received God's moral commandments in the written Law, as the Jewish people had done through Moses, nevertheless possessed their own source of ethical knowledge in human nature. The Gentiles know, as Paul expressed it, 'by nature' (phusei) what God's moral law requires and how they ought to behave. Thus confirmed by Christian revelation the Stoic idea of a moral law deriving from nature - what became known as 'the natural law' - became a central source of moral awareness up to and including the middle ages. But there was still no idea of rights, far less of natural or human rights, not even in the work of the leading mediaeval thinker, Thomas Aquinas (c1225-74). Indeed it was only gradually during the mediaeval period among canon lawyers in the late twelfth century, as Brian Tierney has established, that the subjective understanding of ius, as a right, began to be introduced.[vi] By the date known to every British schoolboy and girl, 1215, we find explicit reference to the idea of subjective rights in Magna Carta, which is widely considered one of the major landmarks in the historical development of human rights and in which the reluctant King John conceded: 'Wherefore we will and firmly enjoin that... men in our kingdom have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights (jura) and grants... fully and entirely for themselves and their heirs'.[vii] Once it was elaborated, the idea of rights proliferated in mediaeval usage and entered the moral vocabulary of Europe. Natural rights, those based on human nature, were clearly distinguished from, and took precedence over, the civil rights which were the artefacts of society, and they became the standard way of characterising the moral claims which people could make upon each other. The most famous Enlightenment exponent of natural rights, the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), made history by arguing on the basis of the natural rights to life, liberty and property to justify the 1688 Revolution and Bill of Rights in England,[viii] as well as providing a powerful stimulus to the subsequent revolution in Britain's American colonies which appealed to the 'unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness', and then to the French Revolution invoking the 'natural, imprescriptible and inalienable rights of man and the citizen'.

The politically unsettling idea of human rights was not without its opponents, of course, led notably in England by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) with his famous dismissal of natural rights as 'nonsense upon stilts' (which I take to mean 'the height of nonsense'), and by the strongly conservative parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729-97) who eloquently deplored human rights in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.[ix]Bentham's opposition, however, was countered by the utilitarian justification of rights proposed by his more influential follower John Stuart Mill (1806-73); and Burke's patrician nostalgia was deflated by the pamphleteer Tom Paine (1737-1809) as well as by the feminist arguments of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) against what she scathingly dismissed as Burke's 'mortal antipathy to reason'.[x] Elsewhere in Europe the popularity of natural and human rights was strengthened and increased through the impressive support of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who defined human rights as 'moral capacities for putting others under obligations' and who considered that every man and woman possesses such rights as a necessary consequence of their intrinsic dignity as moral beings.[xi]  His fellow-German philosopher, Hegel, also favoured and expanded the doctrine, but the idea met later with strong opposition from Karl Marx (1818-83), who considered human rights as an expression of bourgeois self-interest which was totally opposed to the interests of the community.[xii] As the influence of Marxism and Communism expanded and spread throughout Europe in the early twentieth century as a new powerful economic and political creed, the ideological strictures on human rights led to a marked eclipse in their intellectual and political appeal.[xiii] It was to take a second World War brought about by the massive abuse of human rights for the idea to re-emerge and seize public consciousness, and to assume a totally new expanding role in human history in the modern human rights movement.

This movement dates from the aftermath of the Second World War (1939-45) and the birth in 1945 of the United Nations Organization, whose founding Charter claimed 'to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small'.[xiv] The United Nations was determined that there should be no more wars and it was convinced that an indispensable way to ensure this would be through universal respect for fundamental human rights. Accordingly it set up a Human Rights Commission and this eventually produced in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights based on the claim that 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights'.[xv] The rights enumerated by the Universal Declaration fell into two broad groups comprising, firstly, the traditional Enlightenment civil and political rights which the Declaration identified as 'the right to life, liberty and security of person'; and secondly the group of economic, social and cultural rights which had developed more recently and on which the socialist countries of the UN insisted and which the United States of America found an embarrassment.

The human rights movement thus internationally launched found regional expression in different continents including Europe, North and South America, Africa, and the Arab States. The United Nations Human Rights Commission produced two binding International Covenants on Human Rights, one on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the other on Civil and Political Rights,[xvi] and regular conferences have been organised  to mark the Universal Declaration's anniversaries, including the 1986 Teheran Conference, which maintained that 'since human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible, the full realization of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights is impossible'.[xvii] An important new expansion of human rights was formalised in 1986 with the adoption by the UN General Assembly of a Declaration on the Right to Development, influenced by African states with unhappy memories of colonialism. This recognised that conditions of underdevelopment can involve the widespread denial of access to the essentials of human survival and living conditions which are totally incompatible with human dignity.[xviii] After the end of the Cold War which polarised East and West and their clients the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights assessed the progress made in the field in the 45 years since the Declaration of 1948, and heard the then UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, observe that 'human rights are... the quintessential values through which we affirm together that we are a single human community'.[xix] Many national developments also took place, including in Britain a widespread and heated debate in the 1990s on the creation of a British Bill of Rights which could be connected in some way with the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.[xx] Accordingly, in 1998 the Human Rights Act was passed by Parliament, basically incorporating the European Convention into British law, to which I shall return.[xxi] In addition to governments, of course, innumerable other bodies have sprung up to advocate respect and support for human rights locally and globally, including church and religious groups, dedicated bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and a multitude of NGOs. On the internet the website Human Rights Web, provides a comprehensive approach to the whole subject, and my Google search recently produced links with more than 400 million other sites on the subject.[xxii]

This massive expansion of concern for human rights indicates, in the words of one commentator, Brenda Almond, that they have come to 'provide an accepted international currency for moral and political debate';[xxiii] and they have many other moral strengths and advantages, for instance, throwing light on other ethical theories. When Kant enjoins that we ought to treat humanity both in ourselves and in others as an end and never merely as a means, human rights can provide some empirical ground for this major ethical intuition by pointing to the inalienable dignity and worth of individuals on which rights theory is based and which make human rights the objects of unqualified respect. Where the traditional theory of natural law has become suspect and outmoded its successor in the doctrine of human rights has established its own validity and authority based on the unique dignity of the individual human person. When utilitarianism in its various forms appeals to the protean idea of human happiness, or of human good or, today, of human preferences, as the sole criterion of ethical evaluation of behaviour, human rights provide an identikit of what make up the indispensable components of such human flourishing in every individual. Yet at the same time human rights also have a particularly powerful advantage in countering any utilitarian moves to sacrifice the individual person or minority groups to the interests of the majority. In the fine phrase of Ronald Dworkin 'rights are trumps'.[xxiv] They outrank calculations which, it may be claimed, will on balance make the community better off but only at the expense of some of its individuals. In fact, an additional strength of human rights language is that it has introduced a sort of moral cutting edge, what H. L. A. Hart notes as its 'peremptory' character, confirming the comment of Onora O'Neill  that 'those who complain that their rights have not been respected do not approach the established order as humble petitioners, but as wronged claimants'.[xxv]  Hoffman and Rowe are making a similar point when they maintain that 'an interference with rights always needs to be justified'.[xxvi]

Again, focusing on human rights as they apply within various human activities can serve to highlight the ethical exigencies for which such activities can call. The case is obvious in the field of medicine, where so much relates to the basic right to life and the subsidiary rights to health care which follow from that. And in the City environment in which this lecture is being presented it is worth dwelling briefly on the obvious relevance of human rights to the conduct of business, and this in at least three respects. The first arises from the consideration that business is an area of human activity which is essentially results-oriented, whether in the production of goods and services or share prices and dividends, or more generally in the satisfaction of people's needs. There is thus for business and business people an almost built-in predisposition in practice towards the utilitarian philosophy that what matters most in business, even morally, is results; and for some people the attitude that long term profitability or business success can ethically justify all manner of wrongful acts.  In such a pragmatic context it is salutary to be aware of human rights as the defender of the weak and vulnerable, claiming to stand up and speak up for human dignity in every commercial scenario when such dignity is being imperilled or impugned. Dworkin's maxim that 'rights are trumps' over all utilitarian considerations has a particular corrective relevance in the conduct of business.

A second reason why human rights theory has special relevance as an ethical criterion of business conduct arises from its claim to identify moral values and principles of behaviour which have universal significance and applicability. As business has more impact around the globe the need to identify ethical norms which can be recognised and explicitly acknowledged as applying universally across a whole array of differing cultures becomes at once more acute and more problematic; and human rights theory, based as it is on the inherent dignity of absolutely every human individual, aims to provide just such a basis for world-wide ethical principles and norms, as I shall consider in more detail shortly.

The third, and at least equally important, reason why the doctrine of human rights is especially relevant to the conduct of business is because of the power of business. In my study of business ethics I soon came to the conclusion that business ethics is largely the ethics of power in business; and power is ambiguous. Much of the business done throughout the world obviously uses its power for good, and we must not allow negative reporting to blind us to this. However, it would be utopian not to realise that the power of business also can be, and too often is, misused.  That is why there is a need for business to be confronted when necessary by nothing less than other powers, whether this be the legal power of the law and the courts, or the economic power of purchases and public opinion on which business is so dependent, or the moral power of basic human rights. These can apply powerfully in such areas as the rights of shareholders to true and detailed information about the business they own and for which they are responsible, as the new Companies Act 2006 aims to ensure. They apply also to the rights of employees to health and safety, a fair wage and the absence of all discrimination; to the rights of consumers which President Kennedy proclaimed in his 1962 Consumer Bill of Rights, identifying the four customer rights of safety, of information, of choice and of redress.[xxvii] Human rights also apply in  business to suppliers in requiring fair contracts and timely payment; to competitors in demanding respect for the conditions of fair competition; and, as we are becoming increasingly aware, human rights also apply to communities with regard to their cultural and environmental integrity.  The need for ethics in business, and indeed for the moral demands of human rights, has never been greater, precisely because the power of business in society and around the globe has never been so manifold nor so pervasive as it is today. 

If we can, then, find good grounds for welcoming the origin and the deployment of human rights there still remain other arguments to be considered against the way in which they have developed. The most important objection raised against them is that which views them as of western origin and therefore as alien to other cultures, so much so that attempting to impose human rights on other non-western societies is tantamount to exercising a form of ethical imperialism. Against this charge, it is noteworthy how many politicians and statesmen of non-Western background were willing in the United Nations debates to subscribe to the agreements reached in formulating the International Declaration of Human Rights. Again, the issue of ethical imperialism was faced and rejected by the 1993 Vienna conference on Human Rights, and much successful research is being conducted on the compatibility of human rights with the ethical values at the roots of various cultures and proclaimed by various world religions.[xxviii]  Moreover, at the heart of this objection about ethical imperialism lies the claim for cultural relativism, which questions the very possibility of drawing up one set of universal ethical standards which will apply worldwide in every society and culture. Yet when one comes down to examine particular cases it is difficult to maintain that different cultures can legitimately subscribe to different ethical standards calling for equal respect. It is not morally possible to accept or even tolerate such cultural phenomena and practices as discrimination against so called lower castes; physical mutilation, either as a female cultural tradition or as a method of criminal punishment; the 'honour killing' of women judged to have disgraced their family; the systematic exploitation of child labour; genocide or 'ethnic cleansing'; xenophobia, or taking routine advantage of foreigners; or spoliation of the environment. Even bribery in business, which is regularly appealed to as justifying ethical relativism, is in fact mostly a matter of surrendering to a culture of extortion and is more a case of reluctantly accepting a lesser evil than an instance of engaging in a practice to be approved of as ethically desirable and commendable in any particular society.[xxix]

As a matter of fact, the claim to justify respect for cultural moral relativism suffers from a major fallacy:  it presumes that cultures are ethically sacrosanct and are above ethical critique. Grand generalisations that all cultures are equally to be respected ethically  cannot find room for moral reformers, for the William Wilberforce or the Martin Luther King. Jones makes a perfectly valid point when he maintains that 'a doctrine of human rights cannot give its blessing to practices that it identifies as morally grotesque and inhuman merely because those practices are shrouded in the mantle of culture'.[xxx]  The current celebration of the abolition of slavery is an outstanding example of history and ethical insight coming in time to question cultures. The struggle for women's rights today, which encounters more entrenched cultural opposition in some areas of the globe than in others, is another striking instance of all cultures being ethically challenged almost as part of their social evolution. We are accustomed to individuals having what might be called ethical blind spots and of their moral vision being impaired in some areas of behaviour, such as respect for the truth, for others' feelings or reputations, or for other people's property.  Likewise, it is entirely possible for cultures, and not only individuals, to be what Little describes as 'morally handicapped', and to suffer from such handicap for centuries.[xxxi]

The truth is that, rather than any society being exempt or immune from human rights criticisms, part of the function of human rights today is to provide a continuing moral critique on all societies and cultures, North and South, East and West.  For a human rights audit of societies even in the West is far from being unsullied in recent years or at the present time. The doctrine of universal human rights, then, sits in ethical judgement on all societies and cultures and it de-absolutizes in the name of human dignity all political, social, and economic structures or regimes. Its purpose may even be described as to diagnose moral blind spots and to prescribe for them, wherever societies suffer from such blind spots, or from Little's 'moral handicap', around the globe. The UN Vienna Declaration expressed the point well when it recognised that 'the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind', yet went on to insist that 'it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms'.[xxxii]

Other difficulties and objections raised against the idea of human rights include the alleged multiplication and trivialisation of human rights claims, their adversarial and divisive character within society and regular complaints about people claiming their rights rather than recognising their responsibilities. On this last, my favourite exchange occurred in theEconomist's editorial comment (25 Oct 1997) on Tony Blair's ringing declaration to general acclaim at the Labour Party Conference of 1997, that 'A decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty. Our duty to each other.' 'These', the Economist observed, 'are fine sounding words, but one of those duties is to respect each other's rights.' Within the past two years a series of events in Britain has led to increasing expressions of discontent about human rights and how they are being applied, especially in particular legal decisions; and complaints are not infrequent that human rights are applied only to wrongdoers to the neglect of their innocent victims. As a consequence it has been proposed to revoke the British Human Rights Act incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and to replace it with our own made-in-Britain Bill of Rights.

It appears to me that much of this hostility to the Human Rights Act is fanned by the anti-Europe sentiment which exists in Britain, which is hostile to our membership of the European Union and which, especially in some quarters of the press, welcomes every opportunity to depict the Human Rights Act as another European imposition. In addition, such dislike of the Act has been exploited by politicians of both major parties for their own purposes. It is a matter of record that some government departments and officials have been reprimanded and humiliated by court decisions invoking the Act to protect individuals from a misuse of bureaucratic authority, and this resulted in severe displeasure of such government parties, not excluding the Prime Minister (The Economist20.5.2006). In other cases, what is really at fault is not the Act unjustifiably protecting individuals but the carelessness and incompetence of responsible officials in applying the Act in particular cases, especially in not appreciating that on occasion the Act recognises competing rights and allows for official discretion in deciding between them. Only last week the anti-European press was happy to welcome the Parthian shot of the outgoing Home Secretary when the Sun reported (14 May 2007): 'Home Secretary John Reid says the hated Human Rights Act should be axed to protect Britain from terror. Yet in November last year the Thirty-Second  Report of the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights examined recent sensationalised court and criminal incidents related to the Human Rights Act, and concluded first, that there was no evidence of a need to amend or repeal the Act, second, that from the prime minister down the Act had been used as a scapegoat for failings in government departments, and finally that a welcome should be given to the government's move to debunk what the Committee called public 'myths' about the Act.  The committee also highlighted benefits from the Act, which regrettably receive considerably less notice in the media.[xxxiii]

So far as concerns David Cameron's claim last June that the Prime Minister was to blame for bringing in an Act that made the fight against terrorism and crime harder, and the Conservative leader's proposal to replace the law with a British Bill of Rights (The Times 26.6.06), not only is he mistaken in sharing the government's wrong perception of the alleged faults of the Act (The Economist 1.7.06). In addition, his proposal to create a British Bill of Rights, if it is not to be quietly buried as a case of party opportunism, is sufficient to make the strongest heart quail, when one considers all that would be involved in terms of time, expense, energy and divisions, not to mention the extreme unlikelihood of eventual acceptance, and the ultimate irony that any challenge to a native bill of British rights would end up being adjudicated on in Strasbourg by the European Court of Human Rights, in the light of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms to which Britain is a signatory and which is incorporated in our current allegedly inadequate legislation.

What does seem to me to be called for in Britain today is not a re-writing of the Human Rights Act but a concerted move to embed respect for human rights within British society. There is much debate today about the social divisions and alienation created by growing ethnic and religious multiculturalism in Britain, and about proposals to encourage the assimilation and integration of immigrant, notably Muslim, communities into British society. However, rather than aim to define some nebulous idea of Britishness and to inculcate, or even impose on incomers, a shared national identity - whatever that might be -, it would be better, and might even be less difficult, to focus our efforts on creating among all our country's inhabitants, including not only ethnic and immigrant groups but also other potentially disaffected groups and sub-cultures, a climate of shared respect and tolerance based on human rights, or on what the Harvard human rights lawyer, Mary Ann Glendon, disarmingly called 'a few common standards of decency'.[xxxiv] Encouraging and promoting the work of the country's Commission for Equality and Human Rights and of the British Institute of Human Rights would do more to educate our population to live peaceably together than any attempt to go back to the human rights drawing board and start again.[xxxv]  Moreover, moving now to my final point, I suggest that working to inculcate human rights further in British society will mean going with the tide of history and entering into the dynamic and trajectory of human rights which logically points to their expression on a global and unifying scale.  

What I mean is that in addition to their other assets human rights provide us with an impressive ethical response to the phenomenon of increasing globalization, and can reach a powerful moral climax in urging us to embrace moral cosmopolitanism as a recognition of our human solidarity. The striking ambiguity of globalisation is that it not only increases and multiplies human resources and market opportunities to the benefit of many of the world's inhabitants, but that it also shows as on a giant cosmic screen the dire poverty which increasingly affects large groups of the world's population, and in so doing expands to a global scale the moral demands of basic human rights.

Global poverty and resulting global mortality rates exacerbated by discriminatory trade tariffs, international debt and corrupt governments all form a depressing aspect of globalisation;[xxxvi] and, if basic human rights have any ethical purchase, this downside of globalization must morally question all of its present advantages for the privileged inhabitants of the richer, more powerful nations on the globe. Addressing this tragic situation of global poverty the 1993 Vienna Declaration of the UN World Conference on Human Rights identified the promotion and protecting of human rights as a 'global task'.[xxxvii]

A second human rights issue which is especially topical and urgent today and which is assuming a global dimension concerns HIV/AIDS, which has expanded, as James Keenan has shown, from being a medical issue to constituting a socio-political issue.[xxxviii] Another human right which has all too clearly taken on a global dimension is the right to a safe environment. Increasing urgency about what we have come to call global warming, affecting the quality of our air, as well as of our earth and its waters, has multiplied anxieties to bring environmental interests and rights to the forefront of global concern, and to produce what Norberto Bobbio, among others, described as one of the new third generation of human rights, 'the right to live in an unpolluted environment'.[xxxix]

It is considerations such as these which are from a practical point of view leading many people to realise that global issues require global solutions based on a global ethic which transcends national and continental borders, and that the jealously-guarded sovereignty of individual countries is being found increasingly inadequate to address these and other problems confronting us on a world scale. A further critical instance of the need for some form of global approach is to be found in the phenomenon of unregulated global capitalism where the market operates in such a way that large companies can transcend the territorial boundaries, and therefore the control, of individual states as they move around the world in order to minimise their labour, tax, environmental and other local costs. Hayden summed up the situation in concluding that 'the significance of state boundaries is increasingly unsettled as globalization provides for escalating public and private interactions and transnational flows of people, money, technology and culture, as well as disease, drugs, arms and pollution'.[xl] A UN Report of 1992 on Global Governance recognised the need for 'people and governments to transcend narrow self-interests and agree that the interests of humanity as a whole will be best served by acceptance of a set of common rights and responsibilities'.[xli]

There is therefore a whole series of increasingly urgent pragmatic reasons in terms of human survival for us to move to accept the idea of cosmopolitanism, that is, the growing realisation that we are citizens of one world, more importantly than being individuals belonging to separate states and countries. The idea of cosmopolitanism goes back to the answer of the Greek philosopher, Diogenes, when he was asked where he came from, that he was a 'citizen of the world'.[xlii] Through Greek and Roman Stoic influence the idea of humanity forming a single community was later taken up by Enlightenment thinkers,[xliii] notably by Kant,[xliv]and cosmopolitanism has today found increasing support among people who are increasingly aware of the growing global dimension of many human activities and interactions in the modern world and of the pragmatic need to deal with them on the same scale. This can be done at least by making various national boundaries 'porous', to use the term of Onora O'Neill, and more designedly by creating structures to guide, moderate and regulate those global activities.[xlv]

I want to suggest, however, that alongside this response of pragmatic cosmopolitanism to global needs there is another, deeper, current of thought: that which has historically brought human rights into human moral consciousness and with them has immeasurably enriched the human race?s ethical resources to a point which I would call 'moral cosmopolitanism.' David Fergusson has observed that 'the language of human rights is the only plausible candidate for a global moral language';[xlvi] and this can only be because, as Julie Clague concluded, 'human rights serve an important transcultural and international purpose in expressing a set of universally applicable minimum standards for social living'.[xlvii]  This they do by invoking shared human dignity as the paramount ethical criterion for how human beings ought to deal with each other. In so doing, I submit, they disclose the characteristic of human solidarity, and reveal the truth that the human race consists of a single moral family, one in which every individual, whether child, woman or man, has a call on their fellows as well as a duty to all their fellows to treat one another only with respect for their intrinsic dignity as human beings.

It has continually to be recognised, of course, that the history of human rights focuses on the origin, development and deployment of an ethical idea. It far from follows that the idea has invariably been successfully applied and respected in human history. Indeed, it would be much less than honest to acknowledge that, for all the support and popularity of human rights campaigns and movements, the actual acknowledgement and recognition of human rights today around the world fall very far short indeed of the vision, even ironically among the member countries of the recently reformed United Nations Human Rights Council, as the Economisthas pointed out (4.3.06). As one commentator ruefully recognised, 'the twentieth century has witnessed an unprecedented global diffusion of the idea of rights'. But whereas the idea of rights has spread, this has not necessarily been accompanied by greater universal acceptance of rights'.[xlviii] Coupled, then, with a conviction of the profound significance of human rights for the gradual advancement of society worldwide must come the continual awareness of the need for vigilance to work for their recognition and implementation in every corner of that society, including here in Britain. The challenge of human rights is to identify, confront and where possible to eliminate what Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, once described feelingly as 'man's inhumanity to man.' Much has been done, but there is still much to do, in pursuing the inner dynamism of human rights to create a better world for all its human inhabitants. In the words of one UN General-Secretary, we must 'continue to mobilize our efforts, so that human rights may one day emerge at last as the common language of humanity'.[xlix]



The Rev Jack Mahoney SJ MA DD is Emeritus Professor of Moral and Social Theology in the University of London, and was Mercers' School Memorial Professor of Commerce at Gresham College from 1987-93. This lecture draws on his latest book, The Challenge of Human Rights. Origin, Development and Significance, Oxford, Blackwell, 2007. His other works include Bioethics and Belief. Religion and Medicine in Dialogue (1981), The Making of Moral Theology. A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (1987) and Teaching Business Ethics in the UK, Europe and the USA (1990).





[i]           Mahoney, J., The Challenge of Human Rights. Origin, Development and Significance, Blackwell, Oxford, 2007.

[ii]          Chartres, R.  & Vermont, D.,  A Brief History of Gresham College 1597-1997, Gresham College, London, 1998, p. 49.

[iii]         Scarman, Lord, The Rt Hon., OBE, Human Rights and the Democratic Process, Gresham College, London, 1984, p. 8.

[iv]          Habgood, J., Human nature and human rights, in idem, Making Sense, SPCK, London.1993, p. 96.

[v]       Weinreb, L. L., Natural Law and Justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, 1987, p.150.

[vi]      Tierney, B. The Idea of Natural Rights. Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law and Church Law 1150-1625, Emory University, Atlanta GA., 1997, p. 3; cf. pp 27-42.

[vii]      Holt, J. C. (1982) ed., Magna Carta and the Idea of Liberty,Robert E. Krieger, Malabar, Florida, 1982, p. 184.

[viii]        Lowe, E.J., Locke, Routledge, London.

[ix]      Waldron, J. (ed.) Nonsense upon Stilts, Methuen, London, 1987, p. 69.  Burke, E., Reflections on the Revolution in France,  ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien, Penguin, London, 1988.

[x]       Paine, T., Rights of Man, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1984. Wollstonecraft, M., A Vindication of the Rights of Men with A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Hints, ed. Sylvana Tomaselli, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 12-13.

[xi]      Kant, I., The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. M. Gregor, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, p. 63.

[xii]        Marx, K., On the Jewish Question, in Early Writings, ed. Colletti, L, Penguin, London, 1992, pp. 211-    41.

[xiii]     Klug, F., Values for a Godless Age. The Story of the UK's New Bill of Rights, Penguin, London, 2000, pp. 84-5.

[xiv]         United Nations Charter, Department of Public Information, United Nations, New York, 1995.

[xv]          United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, United Nations, New York, 1948.

[xvi]         The United Nations and Human Rights 1945-1995, United Nations, New York, 1995, pp. 229-244.

[xvii]       The UN and Human Rights, p. 248.

[xviii]      The UN and Human Right,, par. 341 and pp. 322-324, par. 347.

[xix]        The UN and Human Rights, p. 442.

[xx]          Gordon, R. & Wilmot-Smith, R. (eds.) Human Rights in the United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, especially pp. 59-77.

[xxi]         Klug, 2000.

[xxii]        <http://www.hrweb.org> accessed on 1 May 2007.

[xxiii]       Almond, B., Rights, in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics, Blackwell, Oxford, 1993, p. 259.

[xxiv]        Dworkin, R., Rights as trumps, in J. Waldron, ed., Theories of Rights, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985, p. 153.

[xxv]        Hart, H. L. A., Essays on Bentham. Jurisprudence and Political Theory, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982, p. 86. O'Neill, O., Faces of Hunger. An Essay on Poverty, Justice and Development, Allen & Unwin, London, 1986, p. 105.

[xxvi]     Hoffman, D. & Rowe, J, Human Rights in the UK. An Introduction to the Human Rights Act 1998, Pearson Longman, Harlow, 2003, p. 10.

[xxvii]       Tybout, A.M. & Zaltman, G. 'Ethics in Marketing Research: Their Practical Relevance', Journal of Marketing Research, 11 (November 1974), pp. 357-68.

[xxviii]      Donnelly, J., Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 2nd rev. ed., Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2003, pp. 71-84. Shestack, J. J., The Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, in Symonides, J. Human Rights: Concepts and             Standards, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2000, pp. 31-66.

[xxix]        Mahoney, J., Ethical attitudes to bribery and extortion, inWhose Business Values?  Some Asian and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, eds. Stewart, S. & Donleavy, G., Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 1995.

[xxx]        Jones, P., Rights, Macmillan, London, 1994, pp. 218-20.

[xxxi]        Little, D., The nature and basis of human rights, in Outka, G. & Reeder, J.P., eds., Prospects for a Common Morality,  Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.,  1993, p. 85.

[xxxii]       The United Nations and Human Rights 1945-1995, p. 450.

[xxxiii]     http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200506/jtselect/jtrights/278/27803.htm

[xxxiv]    Glendon, M.A., A World Made New. Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Random House, New York, 2001, p. xix.

[xxxv]       <www.cehr.org.uk/> ; <www.bihr.org/>

[xxxvi]      McGrew, A.G. Human rights in a global age: coming to terms with globalization, in Tony Evans, ed., Human Rights Fifty Years On. A Reappraisal, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1998, p. 196.

[xxxvii]     UN Vienna Declaration, United Nations, New York, 1993.

[xxxviii]     Keenan, J., Development in bioethics from the perspective of HIV/AIDS, Cambridge Quarterly of Health Care Ethics, 14, 2005, 4, pp. 416-423.

[xxxix]      Bobbio, N., The Age of Rights, trans. Allan Cameron, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996, p 69.

[xl]          Hayden, P., Cosmopolitan Global Politics, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, p. 99.

[xli]         United Nations Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighbourhood,      Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, chapter 2.

[xlii]         Copleston, F. C., A History of Philosophy, vol. 1, Burns, Oates & Washbourne, London, 1944, p. 20.

[xliii]        Hayden, pp. 12-22. 

[xliv]        Kant, I., Perpetual Peace, in Reiss, H., Kant, Political Writings, 2nd enlarged ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.

[xlv]        O'Neill, O., Bounds of Justice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, p.    201.

[xlvi]        Fergusson, D., Community, Liberalism and Christian Ethics, Cambridge University Press,

Cambridge, 1998, p. 450.

[xlvii]       Clague, J., A dubious idiom and rhetoric: how problematic is the language of human rights in Catholic social thought? In Boswell, J. S., McHugh, F. P. and Verstraeten, J., eds., Catholic Social Thought: Twilight or Renaissance? Leuven University Press, Leuven, 2000, p. 140.

[xlviii]       McGrew, pp. 194-5.

[xlix]        United Nations and Human Rights, p. 533.



                                             ©The Rev Emeritus Professor Jack Mahoney, Gresham College, 17 May 2007

This event was on Thu, 17 May 2007


The Rev Emeritus Professor Jack Mahoney

Mercers’ School Memorial Professor of Business

Reverend Jack Mahoney was the Gresham Professor of Commerce between 1988 and 1993. He has written several books including The Challenge of Human Rights which...

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