An Empirical Approach to Rights

The following is Yale professor, F. S. C. Northrop's 1947 contribution to the UNESCO symposium on the meaning of and value of human rights.

A Bill of Rights for all the nations cannot be based solely upon the traditional values and ideological assumptions of any one of the nations. If it is to capture the aspirations and ideals of all the peoples of the world, it must be rooted in at least some of the accepted institutions and social doctrines of each and every people.

The usual approach to the Bill of Rights or to the establishment of any other cultural value ignores the foregoing principle. It is usual, for example, to assume that the traditional modern French and Anglo-American concept of freedom and its attendant Bill of Rights exhausts the meaning of the concept. Precisely this assumption operates when anyone proposes to extend the governmental forms of the United States of America to a United States of Europe or a United States of the World. Such proposals have always left their recipients cold.

Yet the reason for such a reaction is surely not far to seek. The classical French and Anglo-American concept of freedom, which its Bill of Rights is designed to achieve, is conceived for the most part in, or after the analogy of, purely political terms. Freedom consists both politically, economically and even religiously in being left alone. Although this is perhaps somewhat of an exaggeration, Emerson's dictum that the best government is the minimum government tends, according to this conception, to hold. Furthermore, the economic freedom to have the work necessary to maintain even a minimum livelihood tends to be left to chance as a mere by-product of the individual actions of men or groups who operate independently. Similarly, psychological freedom of the sentiments, the emotions and the passions, which the Spanish and Latin Americans cherish, is hardly even recognized as existing. And often in the religious field, because of a freedom to believe any faith, there tends to arise a culture in which people have no deep-going convictions about anything. In short, the price of a society rooted in the traditional, modern Bill of Rights, has tended to be a culture of laissez-faire businessmen's values, with all the other values and aspirations of mankind left anemic and spiritually and ideologically unsustained.

Read the rest of the essay, here.

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