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The concept of human rights ultimately rests on the premise that there are some things that ought to be done for human beings and other things that ought not to be done to human beings in light of the fact that they are human. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these rights stem from the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” (Ishay 1997: 407). Some would argue that this notion has its roots in the natural law and natural rights tradition that is an important strand of Western political thought, and others would point out that Eastern philosophy neither ignores nor is fundamentally opposed to the concept of rights. Alternately, many people would claim that human rights have their origin in the Jewish and Christian traditions, whereas others would argue that nearly every major religion has its version of the Golden Rule. It may well be from the insistence that we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves that we can deduce the rights we have today, but there is also a long-standing debate about whether rights can be found in traditional religious texts at all. In examining the Bible, for example, we might conclude instead that people have duties to one another—and to God—but no rights, per se. To put a finer point on it, there are injunctions against killing and stealing in the Old Testament, but these do not necessarily correspond to rights to life and property; likewise, the New Testament encourages men to treat one another as they themselves want to be treated but does not provide a mechanism for anyone to claim injury in the event that they do not. In other words, these ancient religious texts do not seem to speak in the language of rights to which we have become accustomed. At the same time, strands of every major world religion seem to be quite supportive of the notion of inherent dignity, which underlies our contemporary understanding of human rights.
In the first section of this article, the discussion focuses on a secular conception of human rights, as outlined by Ronald Dworkin. The second section considers Michael Perry’s objections to Dworkin’s theory of secular sacredness, whereas the final section presents my rebuttal to Perry’s questions, quoted above, about the idea of human rights being a fundamentally religious one. Although both Dworkin and Perry suggest that human rights are based on sacredness, I argue that human dignity actually provides the foundation and that—contrary to existing theoretical work on this subject—sacredness and dignity should not be treated as synonyms.