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  • Human Dignity, Human Rights, and Religious Pluralism:Buddhist and Christian Perspectives1
  • John D'Arcy May

The question of how the concept of human rights—so crucially important for the implementation of justice in a rapidly globalizing world—relates to the plurality of cultures and religions has still not been solved. Controversies such as those over land rights in Aboriginal Australia and Asian values in Southeast Asia have shown this repeatedly. In such cases, discussion eventually becomes focused on the universality of human rights, not just the global scope of the idea itself but the universal validity of catalogues of specific rights such as those contained in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 1948). There is something arbitrary and unsystematic about such charters, as is shown by the rather different emphases in the African and Islamic documents which were meant to correct the UN's lack of universality.2 But if, in attempting to explore this problem seriously, one appears to tamper with the principle of universality, one can easily be accused of diluting the ethical force of human rights by questioning their applicability to every human being without exception. Nothing could be further from my mind, so before explaining what I wish to do in this paper I shall first set out some presuppositions that I take to be axiomatic:

  1. 1. Our starting point is the dignity of the human, the unique value of each individual human life as a world constituted by consciousness, an originating source of free acts, which is therefore an end in itself and must never be misused as a means to other people's ends.3 This principle is reflected in formulations such as dignitas humana in the social teaching of the Catholic Church, which goes back to the biblical doctrine of the creation of human beings in the image of God, or in the unique status of the human being in the Buddhist scale of existence, on which neither animals nor gods but only humans are in a position to grasp the reality of their situation and strive for definitive release from the chain of becoming; hence the severity of the prohibition on taking human life as the third of the four cardinal offences (pārājika).4

  2. 2. The concept of "human rights" is one way of acknowledging this unique moral status of human dignity, in that rights accrue to the individual person [End Page 51] simply by virtue of his or her being rational, autonomous, and free. To this extent human rights language belongs within the Western tradition of liberal discourse, which lies at the heart of Western democracies and was profoundly influenced by Christianity. Conceptions of what it is that makes the human uniquely valuable, however, are very differently constructed in different cultural and religious traditions.5

  3. 3. What rights language tries to express in the conceptual framework provided by European culture has universal validity, although it is otherwise expressed in other cultures, for example, in terms of "duty," "obedience," "taboo," and so on. Problematic as it is in the context of postmodern discourse, the sameness-in-difference of the human as the criterion for rights everywhere and without exception is a categorical imperative on which the effectiveness of human rights as an instrument of justice depends.

  4. 4. Conceptions of universality, however, may themselves be culturally determined and usually arise in contexts of domination: what is taken to be universally valid is often somebody's particular version of the truth of things which by virtue of a claim to universality is then imposed on others as "the" truth. Such conceptions are necessarily generalizations, whereas the moral impulse arises in the face-to-face encounter with the alien, unexpected and unwanted "other," as Levinas has shown.

  5. 5. Universality is thus not available a priori but remains implicit in the intersubjectivity of human interaction until it is realized through shared practice and the negotiation of meanings; this applies all the more to interactions between religions and across cultures.6

  6. 6. Rights language, though a powerful instrument for the implementation of justice, is thus incomplete unless its Western (and Christian) conceptual presuppositions are complemented by the metaphors, stories, and...


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