On the higher good

Craig Calhoun asks whether human rights are likely to endure.



Craig Calhoun asks whether human rights are likely to endure.


I think that’s a question that’s really important. So can the modern idea of human rights survive without reference to God, without a theistic grounding? My own sense is probably yes, but it can’t survive without grounding. 

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor had a way of thinking about this that I think is helpful. Religion teaches us that there are some things we consider higher goods – more important than just having a bit more food or a better car to drive. We have different ideas of higher goods. For some people, it’s a religious idea, and the higher good is what pleases God or what’s worshipful to God. But for other people, there may still be higher goods; human rights may even be such a higher good. 

What threatens human rights is the flattening that says there are no higher goods, that nothing is more important than just a cost-benefit analysis of the material pleasures it can bring us. And so I think human rights depends on something religion exemplifies – the idea that there are things that are more important than this moment or mere material reality. But we don’t get those only from religion.