Human Rights in Jeopardy; Bankers’ Blunders

Social Science Academy Debates Morality and Greed

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, MAY 7, 2009 ( Human rights are becoming so politicized in today’s world that the concept is losing credibility and is in danger of collapse.

That was the stark warning given last week at the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences held at Villa Pia, the academy’s ornate home in the Vatican Gardens.

In a timely presentation, Janne Haaland-Matlary, professor of international politics at the University of Oslo, explained that because of an absence of agreement in society on what constitutes human nature and how it can be defined, human rights are becoming increasingly vulnerable to political exploitation.

This process of manipulation isn’t new, of course; it began accelerating in the 1990s when lobby groups, nongovernmental organizations and governments, using a series of well-trodden paths through supranational and national bodies, have sought to change public opinion on matters such as abortion, and now, increasingly, marriage and the family.

But Matlary, who once served as Norway’s deputy foreign minister, further argued that politicization of human rights by undemocratic governments — ones keen to get on the human rights bandwagon to give themselves legitimacy, or win political points — is also seriously adding to its erosion.

Speaking with me after her presentation, Matlary said the more such governments engage in inflated rhetorical exercises on the subject, «the more human rights lose their value for those who are really concerned.» And she added that if human rights continue along this path, the concept «has to crash because it no longer has symbolic value.»

She gave as an example the recent Durban II conference on racism when Iran used the forum to promote its own view of human rights (delegates walked out after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized Israel as racist, and called for perceived blasphemy to be punished). The incident threw into sharp focus how intensely politicized the human rights arena has become.

«Today all governments apart from a perhaps Myanmar and North Korea talk about human rights, and so this makes it imperative that human rights are defined as objectively as possible,» she said, reminding that human rights «arise from and derive from human dignity» and are «not given, taken away or changed by states.»

«Fundamental human rights are a whole — universal, indivisible, and interdependent,» she explained. «They are premised on individual freedom and responsibility, on a division between politics and religion, and on a difference between the public and the private sphere — in short, they presuppose a specific view of the human person.»

She added that the natural law tradition, as it has been developed in Western thinking and philosophy and preserved by the Catholic Church, «can aid in defining human personhood and the meaning of human rights.»

But appealing to natural law is difficult because of the relativist and value-neutral nature of modern democracies. It is further hampered by the media that tend to create a circle of consensus made up of relativist positions, leaving those who take a principled line outside the circle and vilified for their beliefs.

Matlary further stressed that in today’s international society, that lacks any guiding moral authority and where nominalism trumps any concept of philosophical first principles, law and democracy become simply procedures, making it hard to define anything as ethically wrong. Echoing Benedict XVI, she believes appealing to reason rather than a relativist trend is one way to tackle the danger.

Benedict XVI explained to the academy’s members on Monday, why it is reason — «the pervading presence of a logos» — that enables man «to distinguish not only between true and false, but also good and evil, better and worse, and justice and injustice.»

«This ability to discern — this radical agency — renders every person capable of grasping the natural law,» the Holy Father explained. «The natural law is a universal guide recognizable to everyone, on the basis of which all people can reciprocally understand and love each other.»

But he warned that if this «solid ethical and political basis is ignored, human rights remain fragile since they are deprived of their sound foundation.»

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A Matter of Ethics

Also present at the meeting, whose theme was «Catholic Social Doctrine and Human Rights,» was the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Joseph Stiglitz.

For the American academic, who served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet and is currently a member of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, the challenge facing human rights today is where to draw boundaries on its enforcement. He believes too little has been done to enforce laws on important issues such as torture, and too much on those areas that «should not be within its scope.»

Turning to the subject of the U.S. economy, Stiglitz, who lectures in economics at Columbia University, is outspoken in his criticism of the banking sector for precipitating the current recession. I put it to him whether, as Benedict XVI said at a recent general audience, it was greed in the financial sector that was to blame for today’s economic woes.

«Greed does not fully describe the outrageous behavior of our bankers,» he said. «What they did was prey on the poorest Americans — it was greed without any moral conscience.» He also blamed the financial system that was set up so that no one had to ask moral questions.

«Everyone says ‘I’m just doing my job,’ no one’s accountable and no one has to think of the moral consequences,» he said. The question now, he believes, is how to go from these «systemic failures to individual responsibility.»

He is also equally angry that the U.S. government should have bailed out the banks with trillions of dollars without any sense of accountability. The decision, the former chief economist for the World Bank said, was a «moral outrage» and certainly not in line with Catholic Social Doctrine.

Also speaking at the meeting was Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa in Honduras. The cardinal, who has become a champion for the materially poorest in society, spoke about the implications of globalization from their point of view.

Globalization cannot be reduced to just the free market, he said, but needs «to go deeper» if it is become what Pope John Paul II called the «globalization of solidarity.» Echoing the views of Stiglitz, he believes the economic crisis didn’t happen because of the markets but because of the «deficit of ethics» in the economic world.

«The human being is always subject and inclined to sin, so we need to recover the ethical dimension, but not as though the Church puts a hat on the people, or a straight-jacket,» he explained. «Ethics has to come out from the inside of the person, the best part of the human being, who asks two basic questions: Who am I? And why am I here in this world?»

He added that such an ethical perspective can be formed by each individual looking at the economy in a wider sense, rather than a narrow one limited «to the stock exchange or markets.»

Plenty of food for thought which will no doubt be included in some way in the Pope’s upcoming social encyclical «Caritas in Veritate.»

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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