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Kirill (Gundyaev), patr. Human rights and moral responsibility (Address to the 10th World Russian People’s Council ‘Faith, Man, Land: Russia’s mission in the twenty-first century’, Moscow, April 4, 2006)
HUMAN RIGHTS AND MORAL
Address to the 10th World Russian People’s Council, ‘Faith, Man, Land’:
Russia’s Mission in the twenty-first century’, Moscow, April 4, 2006
For Russia and her peoples in the twenty-first century, questions of science and technology, economics and social development will remain of primary importance. It is clear, however, that the energy necessary for any human endeavour can be drawn only from the spiritual realm. This means that the successful implementation of these tasks will very much depend on how they are integrated into the spiritual parameters of the civilization that is particular to Russia and to the entire Russian world. Moreover, relations with the external world, that is with other civilizations, above all Western, will remain an important factor in the development of Russian civilization as a whole. It is here that the ideological foundations of these relations acquire special significance. In the case ofWestern civilization we are dealing with human rights and dignity. The Orthodox tradition, which has formed Russian culture, has to respond to this challenge, otherwise Russian society both at home and abroad will become a marginalized phenomenon in the modern world.
Since 1991 the countries that emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union have established human rights and liberties as the central norm in social and political relations. No one questions this choice. On the contrary, political and social leaders constantly affirm their faithfulness to these principles.
However, over the last few years tendencies have developed in the area of human rights which are viewed by believers as two- faced, to say the least. On the one hand, human rights exist for the good of mankind. We must not forget that it is thanks to their influence on public opinion in the countries of the former socialist bloc that the Russian Orthodox Church and other religious communities in Eastern Europe were freed from the shackles of atheism. Moreover, human rights combat various abuses, humiliation and evils committed against the person in society.
But on the other hand, we have become witnesses to the fact that the human rights concept is used to cover up lies, falsehood and insults against religious and national values. Moreover, the catalogue of human rights and freedoms is gradually being augmented by ideas which conflict not only with the Christian but also with the traditional moral understanding of the person. This is alarming since behind human rights stands the coercive power of the state, which can compel people to commit sin, tolerate it, or allow it to take place through banal conformism.
All of this moves the issue of human rights from the purely political realm into one that affects the lives and fates of people - something that we would refer to in Church parlance as the salvation of the person. It should be remembered that soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation, lies at the heart of the Christian message. It is thus important for the believing person to answer the following questions. Do the acceptance of and adherence to the norms of the concept of human rights in their current form in international and national law contradict God’s plan for humankind? To what degree can human rights foster or hinder the life of the Christian and of the believer in general? Today, members of the Russian Orthodox Church are called on to ponder these questions, on which the common mind of the Church needs to be bought to bear also.
It is widely held that human rights are a universal norm, that there can be no specific Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist, Russian or American concept of human rights, since this would introduce relativity into the understanding of human rights, thus consider-
ably restricting their functioning in international life. This is the thinking of many politicians and public leaders. Indeed, one can understand the desire to preserve the universal character of the concept of rights and liberties, not dependent on any variables. In fact, Orthodox people do not object to the existence of certain universal rules of behaviour in the modern world. But these rules must be truly universal. Can human rights as set forth today really lay claim to such universality?
The point is that this concept was generated and developed in Western countries, with their unique historical and cultural destiny. In these countries it successfully took root, but also revealed its shortcomings. Population decline and asocial and amoral behaviour, (i.e. everything that has become a social problem in the West), is often explained precisely by excessive individualism. But does this mean that Western standards of human happiness are applicable to all countries and all cultures? Other civilizations also have their positive experience of social life. Why is it that they are not entitled to speak their mind? Of course they have such a right. This is the right of every people.
In order for Russian civilization to speak its word on human rights, it is necessary to conduct a careful analysis of this concept in its present state. Above all, discussion is needed of the philosophical ideas that lie at the foundation of the concept of human rights and thus affect its development and application.
Central to the modern concept of human rights is the idea of ‘human dignity’. Human dignity is the main motive for and justification of the existence of rights and liberties. It is for the protection of human dignity that particular rights and liberties have been formulated. In the historical development ofWestern countries, the list of rights and liberties has kept growing, covering ever new areas of social life. Political, economic, cultural and social rights have developed. New facets of human dignity have appeared. In recent years, the problems of sexual relations, the status of human life and bioethics have grown increasingly acute. In this way a new generation of human rights has arisen as people continue to define the
essence of man. Therefore it is important today as never before to try to clarify what human dignity is.
In various languages the word ‘dignity’ has always been linked to a person’s social position.To act according to one’s dignity meant to act in accordance with the rights and duties that accompanied one’s social status. The very word ‘dignity’ means ‘that which deserves respect and honour, that which is of great significance and value’. Thus, two meanings are united in this word. Firstly, that a certain subject is of value. Secondly, dignity signifies the conformity of the life of the subject to this value. For the Orthodox tradition, establishing the correlation between these two aspects of dignity is very important.
In Christian culture the value of the person is unshakeable and objective. The person is part of God’s creation, of which the Lord said: ‘it is good’ (Gen. 1:25). Investing particular value in man, God made him stand out from the rest of creation, for in the book of Genesis it is written that God blessed the first human beings after creating them (Gen. 1:28). This means that God wished good to the human race, and that His wishes are unchanging. Thus, the value of the person is defined by his value in the eyes of God. This is confirmed by the presence in human nature of the seal of God Himself- His image. We know of this also from the Book of Genesis (1:26).
Even the Fall of man did not diminish this value. God did not destroy man who had walked away from Him, but did and continues to do everything to make possible his return to his original calling - i.e. for man’s salvation. The fact of the Incarnation of the Son of God is an especially important testimony to the fact that man was not forsaken by God after the Fail. The Lord Jesus Christ took on human nature and cleansed it from sin. The Incarnation is testimony of the pre-eminent value of human nature, assumed by Jesus Christ and brought into the life of the Triune God.
After his creation, man not only possessed value in the eyes of God, he also reflected this value in his life. In other words, he had dignity, and his task was to grow in this dignity. The book of Genesis
tells of how God placed man on this path, blessing him to cultivate the created world. Commenting on the biblical account of human nature, some Fathers of the Church have pointed to the simultaneous presence of static and dynamic elements in human nature. The presence of the image of God in human nature signifies his intransient value, while ‘likeness’ signifies the task of developing this value. St.John Damascene writes: ‘The expression “in the image of” refers to the capabilities of the mind and freedom, while “in the likeness of” signifies the degree of similarity to God in virtue, inasmuch as it is possible for man’. Thus, man’s task in life was to become ever more similar to God and thus grow in dignity.
The Fall did not change this task, but made it impossible for man without God’s help. Having desired to reach perfection without God, humankind lost its tie with the source that had nourished its creative activity. What happened? Although human nature continued to be of value in the eyes of God due to the presence in it of God’s image, man ceased to act in keeping with the value inherent in his nature and thus lost his dignity to a significant degree. Man’s goal now was to regain his lost dignity and increase it. In this light not all human actions can be considered as reflecting to the norms established by God at Creation, from which it follows that there are forms of behaviour activities that cannot be included in the catalogue of human rights and liberties.
The most important aspect of the process of restoring man to his dignity is the direction of his will. Man is endowed with freedom, without which even God’s help in correcting behaviour is impossible. Thanks to his freedom man has a choice: to adhere to the good and thus regain his dignity or to choose evil and thus diminish his dignity. Even in contemporary humanistic thought, there is the understanding that man is constantly faced with the choice between good and evil actions. There are thus norms of behaviour which are encouraged by legislation, as well as actions that are subject to punishment. However, the difference between secular humanism and religious tradition lies in what they take as their authority in defining good and evil.
For some reason the idea has taken root in modern Western thought since the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that it is sufficient to grant freedom and rights to the individual for him to invariably choose what is good and beneficial for him. Therefore, no external authorities should point out to him what is good and what is bad. The person himself should define the norms for his behaviour. This is known as the moral autonomy of the person. This autonomy can be limited only by the autonomy of another person. The notion of sin is absent from this ideology, characterized by a pluralism of opinions. The individual may choose for himself any variant of behaviour, but on condition that his behaviour not limit the freedom of other people. The regrettable consequence of this anthropocentric approach is that many countries today are building a social system which is lenient toward sin and distances itself from the task of promoting the moral perfection of the person. Society, including ours, finds itself facing a cynical substitution. The admissibility of immoral behaviour is justified by the teaching on human dignity which, as I have mentioned above, has religious roots.
And man indeed possesses complete autonomy to accept or reject rules. God endowed him with the capability of self-determination. This is the freedom before which God Himself stops. I would like to stress that Christianity cannot contest this affirmation in the dialogue with secular humanism. It only challenges the affirmation of the capability of the individual to autonomously make choices that will always correspond to his real good.The individual, in a state of sin after the Fall, cannot always clearly distinguish by himself the good from the bad. This is not because he is foolish, but because his reason, will and feelings can be influenced by sin, and he may make mistakes in defining goals for his life. The tragedy is that the very notions of good and evil remain in the person, but he is not always able to clearly distinguish the two. God helps man to maintain this ability to discern through His Revelation, which contains a well-known code of moral rules accepted by practically all religious traditions.
For the believer who is aware of the problem of the self-determination of the will, the claim that moral anthropocentrism is a universal principle that should regulate social and personal activity gives cause for doubt. Conscience is an important criterion that helps distinguish between good and evil. It is not by chance that folk wisdom calls the conscience the voice of God, for the moral law placed by God into human nature is known in the voice of conscience. But the voice of conscience can be stifled by sin. Therefore, when making moral choices one must also be guided by external criteria, above all by the commandments given by God. In this respect it is an important fact that in the Decalogue all main world religions are in accord with each other in their definition of good and evil. The religious tradition thus contains a criterion for discerning good from evil. From the perspective of this tradition, the following cannot be accepted as normative: mockery of sacred things, abortion, homosexual activity, euthanasia and other actions that are actively advocated today by the concept of human rights. Unfortunately, today the absolutization of the state characteristic of modernity is being replaced by the absolutization of the sovereignty of the individual and his rights without moral responsibility. This absolutisation can destroy the foundations of modern civilization and lead to its downfall. It is a well-established fact that the trampling on of the moral law has led many powerful civilizations to destruction and their disappearance from the face of the earth. Humankind cannot live outside a moral context. No laws can help us keep society viable or put an end to corruption, the misuse of power, the break-up of the family, the abandoning of children, the reduction of the birth rate, the destruction of nature, militant nationalism, xenophobia or the mockery of religious sentiments. To paraphrase a well-known saying of Dostoevsky, if a person does not see that he is committing sin, then everything is allowed.
Acts of cruelty have shocked our society recently. Why is this happening in our country? I would say: because we have forgotten about morality and about how we must make efforts to preserve it. The language of moral norms is understandable for everybody. Mo-
rality is one and indivisible. If, pointing to the rights and liberties of the individual, we make way for sin and do not stop manifestations of human barbarism, when we allow icons to be chopped to pieces in Manezh Square in the centre of Moscow, when we allow the exhibition ‘Beware of Religion’ to be held and let people elsewhere mock the sentiments of believers through caricatures, then why are we appalled at the appearance of people willing to commit murder based on national and religious identity? The instinct of destruction, when it comes to the surface, does not spare anyone - neither believers in a synagogue, nor children with a different skin colour. These are all links in one chain. Our society should understand that it is impossible to achieve respect for people of different nationalities and faiths without re-examining its attitude toward morality in the mass media, school, politics, the economy and culture.
Is it uncontested that a society in which the individual is disdained, in which the state and the collective possess all rights over the person, is unstable and inhumane. But societies in which human rights become an instrument for the emancipation of the instinct, in which the notions of good and evil are confused and driven out by the idea of moral autonomy and pluralism, become equally inhumane. Such societies lose their mechanisms of moral influence on the personality. In civilized society - let us call it so - the balance between these polarities must be maintained. It should base itself on the understanding that each person by nature possesses unchanging value, and at the same time that everyone is called on to grow in dignity and bear civic responsibility before the law and moral responsibility for his actions.
All this poses a very important question: how can we guarantee the free choice of the person while supporting the moral direction of this choice? In doing so both human efforts and God’s help play an important role.
Of course, we should give first place to God’s help, which is granted to the individual in religious life. Communion with God helps a person to distinguish good from evil and gain the strength to make the choice in favour of the good. In prayer, the sacramental
life of the Church and good works is accomplished the uniting of man with God, which brings with itself strengthening in the doing of good. This is why for the believer religious life and all notions associated with it acquire primary significance. Along with freedom, it becomes the main condition for the successful life of the person both on earth and in eternity.
But human efforts are also important. They should be directed toward a shaping of social relations which, on the one hand, can guarantee the freedom of the individual, and on the other hand can help him adhere to moral norms. It would probably be incorrect to establish criminal responsibility for gambling, euthanasia and homosexual activity, but we also cannot accept them as a legislative norm and, what is more important, as a moral norm approved of by society.
What happens when laws are passed that officially allow such forms of behaviour? They no longer remain the practice of a small minority that has already made its choice. These laws become the foundation for the unhindered propaganda of such forms of behaviour in society. And since sin is attractive, it quickly infects large segments of society, especially if large sums of money are put into its propaganda and advanced methods of influencing consciousness are employed.
Such is the case with homosexuality. The resolution adopted in January of this year by the European Parliament requires schools to educate pupils in the spirit of acceptance of homosexuality and even fixes a day in the year dedicated to the fight against homophobia. What has been the result of this? Not only is society called on to respect the lifestyle of a certain minority, but it is required to undertake propaganda of the homosexual lifestyle as a certain norm. As a result this propaganda becomes a stumbling-block for those who would otherwise fight against this vice and raise normal, fully-fledged families.
We can also cite an example from our own life in Russia. Today, in many cities gambling houses and casinos have appeared like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Naturally, nobody forces anyone to
visit these institutions, but their advertising is so intrusive and the passion for gambling so easily aroused that today we have to deal with real family tragedies. Fathers, mothers and children gamble away the little money they have and leave their families without a penny. People come to church and weep because of the break-up of their families. As a result the freedom of the gambling business, not reasonably restricted in any way, is destroying society.
I have tried to mention the dangers that arise for believers when an approach to human rights unbalanced by moral norms lays claims to being the only true understanding of these rights. According to this logic, all other traditions should be silent and submit. I am not making this up, and I am not exaggerating the dictatorial attitude of the adherents of such a reading of human rights. This approach is already moving forward confidently in contemporary international legislation. Thus, in 2005 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution entitled ‘Women and Religion in Europe’, which states that ‘the freedom of religion is limited by human rights’. This affirmation subjugates religious life to human rights. If the former does not correspond to a certain understanding of freedom, it must be changed. For the believing person this sounds like a call to deriding God’s will for the sake of human notions.
In saying so I would like to stress that it would nevertheless be unjust to downplay the very concept of human rights. What we have here is a situation in which a certain philosophy shared by a small circle of people is hiding behind the mask of human rights. According to this philosophy, if women are not ordained to the priesthood or episcopacy of a certain religious community, the community should be subject to punishment by the state and derision by society. However, for the believer the norms of religious tradition are more authoritative than earthly laws. If this militant spirit of the secular humanistic approach, which may eventually enter international law, is not eliminated today, conflict will automatically arise. Thank God, in the case of the Council of Europe’s resolution, its requirements do not have legal consequences, but they do create a certain climate in public opinion.
There is one more liberal affirmation that is laying claims to universality. It states that human rights should prevail over the interests of society. This was repeated in the following words in the UNESCO declaration on the universal principles of bioethics of 2005: ‘The interests and good of the individual should have priority over those of science and society’ (chap. 3, para. 2). It is quite clear that this affirmation is positive when it concerns state and public decision-making affecting the life and welfare of individual citizens. Society should cherish every life, every person.
However, this approach becomes very dangerous when the individual begins to base his behaviour on his own interests as having priority over those of society. This only stimulates egoism and individualism. Orthodoxy has always advocated self-sacrificing love towards one’s neighbour, and thus towards one’s family, local community and homeland. It is important to be able to put aside egoism in favour of another person. Therefore, in our opinion, it would be correct that liberties and rights always be balanced by social solidarity.
Orthodox believers are ready to accept the choice of worldview of other nations, but they cannot keep silent when norms contradicting the foundations of Orthodox faith are imposed upon them. I think we can say that this view is shared by Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and people of other faiths. In order to avoid conflict in today’s world, it is necessary to engage in an intensive effort to harmonize various world-views. General principles for the life of the world community should be worked out jointly by various civilizations.
How then can contemporary society be organized in such a way that human rights might be harmoniously combined with morality?
Firstly, legislation should be sensitive to the moral norms that predominate in society. It is not for state structures to define what is good and what is bad, but at the same time legislation should reflect the moral norms shared by the majority of society. If society feels that arousing the passion for drinking and exploiting the sexual
instinct for commercial purposes are unacceptable, there should be appropriate legislation forbidding the advertising of them.
Secondly, the vacuum of moral education in our society must be filled. Freedom and rights are a significant achievement of human civilization, but we must also prepare citizens to make use of these rights, with proper regard for moral norms.The state, in close cooperation with social institutions of moral education, including schools and, of course, the country’s religious communities, should undertake this preparation. This implies that the state should take it upon itself to work out legislation governing the access of religious organizations to public educational structures, social service, health and the armed forces.
In doing so all religious communities in the country should labour in these areas according to their representation in society.Very important here is that competition in mission work be categorically rejected in order to avoid inter-religious confrontation, to which battling between religious organizations for new adherents inevitably leads.
Finally, the attitude of the mass media toward the harmonization of human rights with morality is very important today. They should give positive examples of the use of freedom. How can a person make moral use of his or her freedom when television proposes consumerism, violence, debauchery, gambling and other vices as a successful way of life? To justify themselves people working in television and in mass media as a whole say that such products are in demand and sell well. Nobody will argue that vice sells easily, since it is easily accepted by fallen human nature, which tends toward sin. From ancient times this has gone under the heading of temptation.
However, it is not true that modern man demands only vice. He seeks happiness, peace, true love and other virtues. It is astonishing that today old Soviet, newer Russian and foreign films dealing with serious questions of life are in great demand.
Orthodox people are willing to accept human rights norms and work toward strengthening them, but on the condition that these norms promote the perfection of the individual, not the justifica-
tion of his sinful condition.The task of the concept of human rights is to defend the value of the person and foster the development of his dignity. In this we see the most important and the only possible purpose of this concept from the Christian perspective.
It is wrong and sinful when the rights of nations and ethnic groups to their own religion, language and culture are violated, and the freedom of religion and rights of believers to their own way of life are limited, when crimes of religion and nationality are committed. Our moral sensitivities cannot remain silent when people are subjected to the whims of civil servants and employers, when soldiers are helpless before hazing, when children and the elderly become the objects of mockery in social institutions. The manipulation of consciousness by destructive sects and the involvement of young people in crime, slavery, prostitution, drug abuse and gambling addiction are also inadmissible and must be rejected.We must resist such phenomena as diminishing human dignity. Today our society should be called on to combat such vices, and the Church should join in this battle. From the Orthodox perspective this is the meaning of the activities for the defence of human rights today.
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