I approach this opportunity to deliver the "Civil Rights – Human Rights Lectures" at Notre Dame with humility and misgiving. Misgiving because others are much more qualified by experience and erudition, humility because of the great jurist who inaugurated this lecture series only two years ago -- Chief Justice Earl Warren. Not Martin Luther King nor John F. Kennedy nor Lyndon Johnson surpasses Earl Warren in his pre-eminent place in the history of civil rights in America. To be associated, even as a successor-lecturer, with such an historic figure is an honor, but that honor brings heavy responsibilities to maintain the quality of these lectures. Of that burden, I am acutely conscious as I speak to you tonight.
Yet, despite my inadequacies for this task, I am joyful to be speaking at this moment and in this place on the subject and challenge of civil and human rights.
It is a fitting moment because this year marks the twentieth anniversary of Earl Warren's historic ruling on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court that equality before the law forbids segregation in the schools, that the bitter heritage of slavery should not enslave another generation.
And the place is fitting, too. First, because your President in whose honor these lectures are held, has lived in the cause of civil rights the full mission of a Christian vocation; he has been a minister to the nation; he has made God's work here on earth truly his own. As the Chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, Father Hesburgh was a conscience for all of us. Because he used his power in the pursuit of justice, men who abused theirs could not abide him. But we value him for the truth, he teaches, not for the title he had, just as he has valued principle more than any office in the land.
And it is fitting that these civil rights lectures are an annual event at Notre Dame. When others grow weary, you have a responsibility to stay strong. While others surrender, you must continue to resist. For as William Stringfellow reminds us, "...the vocation to oppose and transcend the power of death, the calling to live humanly in the midst of death, is unceasing and incessant....that resistance goes on wherever human beings truly esteem the gift of their humanity, which at the same time means...wherever human beings esteem the word of God." Notre Dame was founded and flourishes on the word of God; and of all the work given to this world and taken up here, none is more important than civil right; it is "whatever we do to the least of our brethren;" it is what "we do unto Him."
The Nature of the Question
It would be proper and productive to take as my task the history of civil rights since 1954, counting the successes and recalling the setbacks, charting where we have been and where we are now. I have chosen instead to broaden the theme, to expand its scope and explore the larger implications. I propose in these lectures first, to examine the relationship of civil and human rights, domestically and internationally, and second, to look not to the distance we have come already but to the miles we must go before we can sleep.
I take this approach because all the experiences of my life, especially my most recent activities, persuade me that no other approach can succeed. Those who have lived during recent decades, from the legally segregated society of the twenties, thirties, and forties, into the dawn of the enlightenment of the fifties and sixties, and who now witness the Nixon negations, realize that civil and human rights will not be established or maintained in this land, or in our world, unless we can establish an ethical and moral understanding of man, his nature, and his destiny clear and strong enough to sustain a universal, not only a domestic effort, for justice. Nothing less can succeed.
Campaigning for the Vice Presidency proved to me that only universal values and total honesty can bring the Wallaceites of Alabama together with the liberals on the West Side of New York City.
Visiting the Soviet Union ten times in the last twelve months convinces me that only universal values and total honesty can match the intelligence and courage of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn or speak across the seeming void between Communism and Capitalism.
Traveling the world for the Peace Corps, or, seeing want in America during the war against poverty, convinced me that only universal values and total honesty can touch poor and rich alike within our own country.
The fusion of intelligence and courage explains the impact of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, of Kennedy and King, of Hammarskjold and Pope John, of Boenhoeffer and Gandhi. That fusion of intelligence and courage is what we need today from the men and women of Notre Dame. With any lesser vision, we shall have nothing more.
Thus we must always recall and remember that what we call civil rights in America is part of a broader category of human rights which must apply everywhere in the world. While it is important to recognize the legitimate distinction between the whole and its American part, at the same time we must see and understand them together. They are philosophically related: Our conception of civil rights flows from deeper conceptions of the nature of man and society, the same sources for our conception of human rights. They are politically related: If the United States is to stand as an advocate for human rights abroad, as I think it must, then we must act for civil rights at home. Finally, they are problematically related: A series of emerging issues before us cuts across the traditional distinctions between domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, we now face practical problems of a transnational nature which witness empirically to insights which poets and philosophers have expressed for centuries about the unity of the human family, its solidarity and its single destiny.
Initially, therefore, we must establish a framework for the discussion of human and civil rights questions by examining the problems we face and by probing the philosophic foundations of those problems. Without such philosophic foundations, we cannot deal well or truly with the dimensions of the issues, domestically or internationally. We need to know where we stand intellectually and morally before we can decide where we want to go and how we are going to get there problematically.
I will argue tonight that the human rights tradition needs to be expanded in scope and refined in structural articulation. I begin with a reaffirmation of the basic elements of this tradition.
At the heart of a human rights view of society stands the concept of the person, a spiritual being set apart from the rest of creation with a capacity for thought, generosity, friendship and love. The unique character or nature of the person means that he or she is possessed of a spectrum of rights, moral claims which can be asserted as a means of defending personality, property and privacy and enhancing his or her human potential. Without rights, human dignity is vulnerable to attack from both the organized powers of the state and the disorganized chaos into which human relationships deteriorate when the values of personhood no longer command our respect.
In order for human rights to be respected, however, it is necessary that the concept of the person be supplemented with a certain vision of society as a community, not a community crowd. The human rights philosophy affirms an interdependence of persons and an interrelationship of rights existing in such a society. This view requires that we be responsible for one another and responsible to one another. The basis of this responsibility is the bond of solidarity existing among all us who share human existence, recognition of our mutual responsibility, and realization of our common bonds are the basic components of our interdependence. Implicit in the concept of interdependence is the idea that the fulfillment of our destiny as human beings is dependent upon the protection of the rights of all.
Both of these ideas -- that we are responsible to one another and that in the end our destiny is linked with each other -- that human dignity is not a divisible concept but must be protected as a universal value if it is to be possessed as an individual attribute -- are the essential elements of human rights views of society. It is the implication of these ideas in contemporary issues of immense importance which I intend to explore in these lectures.
Domestically, we have seen in recent years the relationship of philosophical ideals and practical effectiveness in the luminous example of Martin Luther King. Above all else, he showed us ourselves as we truly were. Armed not with weapons, but with love, he nonviolently forced America to confront what Gunnar Myrdal described a third of a century ago as our dilemma -- the dichotomy between the philosophical and religious ideals we espouse as a nation and the social and legal practices we tolerate in our daily existence. Like Lincoln a century earlier, Martin Luther King invoked the values of the ideal America to move the conscience of the real America; and to create the informed conscience America needed for a reformed society. This fusion of philosophy and politics in the civil rights struggle of the 60s was an important landmark and is now an important learning experience for us as we respond to the issues of the 70s and the 80s.
The results of the civil rights movement of the 60s were built upon the Brown decision of the 50s; as Brown constituted the decisive step in the judicial order, so the 60s constituted the decisive period for legislative action. Now the task is different. The momentum of the last decade has slowed and in some areas, even reversed. Broad segments of our society are apathetic. Others are exhausted. Many are left, not with a commitment to justice, but with the sense that enough or too much has been done, that more can be achieved only at the expense of their own interests. On the other hand, the legislative accomplishments of our past momentum have taken us perhaps as far as the law alone can go. The challenge of the 70s is more in the political order, less a law-making endeavor. The pressing need today in civil rights is for leadership, not legislation. We must muster the political will to implement the design we legislated in the struggle of the 60s. And this calls for much more than a supine policy of "benign neglect."
Leadership in a democracy is a product and a measure of the people who elect it. On that basis we have little to be proud of today. But perhaps we can learn even from our current leadership that high moral purpose in public policy is not a luxury but a necessity; and that moral purpose is vain unless it be grounded on a shared understanding of what goals are worthy and what means are worthwhile. Only from such an understanding and vision can we forge the political will and fortitude required.
The "shared vision" we seek must be shaped by the universities as well as political parties, by the churches and the business corporations, and by every institution. Such a vision, though a product of many men and institutions, is not meant to be a lowest common denominator. It must reveal a normative view of society; not the least we can conceive, but the most for which we can strive.
Perhaps the unique aspect of our day, however, in the demands it places upon us and the possibilities it opens to us, is the need to include in our normative vision of civil and human rights not only domestic but international questions. As we extend our scope from the national entity to the international arena, as we expand our charge to the human rights of which civil rights are a part, we find that the problems are more complex; the structures for dealing with them are rudimentary or non-existent; and the will to confront them is weaker still. Yet a proposal to think in more than national terms is not a philosophical ideal or a utopian idea. It is a necessity. In the face of problems which are not taking a pre-eminent place on the foreign policy agenda, anything other than an international conception of society is an inadequate and ineffective frame of reference, even for dealing with domestic issues.
The essence of our dilemma is that we live in a world of transnational problems which is still organized and controlled on the basis of the nation-state. I have no illusions about the state withering away or the international system being radically transformed overnight. But to say this is not to dismiss our urgent need for a common conceptual framework to organize a world which has changed faster than our capacity to understand it intellectually, or to adjust to living in it, psychologically, politically or ethically. Examples drawn from the heart of international relations illustrate the point.
The basic strategic reality of the international system is the fact of nuclear deterrent, the mutual death risk in which the super-powers are locked, with both possessing the power to destroy people on every side. Traditional notions of defense are obsolete. The idea that a sovereign state can defend its borders and protect its population from attack is not the operative idea of deterrence. Rather, each side depends upon the shared knowledge that in any major conflict, the citizens and the society of both would be destroyed; without a shared conception among adversaries, this system will not function.
Economically, the same interdependence is evident. No developed nation can stand alone amid the complex web of existing monetary and trade arrangements. Obviously, the economic system does not exhibit a high degree of reciprocal dependence. Instead it is grievously distorted, with islands of affluence in a vast sea of poverty and misery. Yet even here, despite the disparities of power and wealth, a model of interdependence is a more accurate reflection of world realities than a picture of autonomous sovereign units, each in absolute control of its own destiny.
Demographically and socially the same interdependence appears. The population problem, the emigration problems, the race problem all defy national borders and cannot be solved by national means. Finally, the most visible transnational issue is probably environmental pollution. No nation can save itself from the effects of environmental damage, only a concerted effort by all can secure clean air and water for each.
These problems, of course, are more complex than any brief mention can reveal. Yet even without further analysis, they highlight the transnational process at work on this planet. Transnational dynamics, supplemented by global communications systems and technology transfers are creating a world physically more compressed every day. Yet the fact of material interdependence, created either by economic relationships, communications systems or technological bonds, cannot and does not inevitably produce an awareness of human or moral interdependence. The transition from material to moral interdependence involves the creation of a consensus in society of how we ought to organize our interdependence, how we should share its benefits and distribute its burdens equitably at the national or international level. The conceptual problem we foresee today is how we can draw upon the accumulated wisdom contained in the human rights tradition to provide a moral framework for our material interdependence. The pressing need for such a philosophical or moral framework derives from the fact that material interdependence is by itself an ambiguous reality: It can push us together in a crowd competing for limited resources or it can be a means of calling us together in a community bound by acknowledged ties of responsibility. The margin of difference between those two options will be determined by whether we can establish a rationale for interdependence as a chosen way of life, nationally and internationally, not an imposed fate created by technology and media.
Yet today a moral, political and psychological unity is absent. Thus we find ourselves incapable politically or psychologically of solving the problems we face. Energy, population, food, money, jobs, trade, even health, defy solution. We have no more than a marginal possibility of protecting human rights and distributing human resources in a just manner, if we act alone.
In light of these two broadly drawn agenda, one domestic, the other international, we come to the question: What philosophical foundation is necessary -- what shared vision of society, what criteria for distributing benefits and burdens, what senses of personal responsibility and professional vocation are required to solve-these transnational problems? And what is their relationship to civil rights and human rights?
These questions are beyond the capacity of any one person to answer; they may not admit of any final answer; but we can point towards certain criteria which may open approaches to a shared vision. The two criteria or test questions I propose to examine concern, first, the scope which our concern for these rights must encompass, and second, the structure or logic of the moral argument supporting civil and human rights.
If the rationale for interdependence is to be worthy of the human dignity which is the moral basis of our life and society, then such a rationale must be rooted in the human rights conception. A human rights conception both broadens the scope of the moral vision of society to a transnational range, and provides a multidimensional structure of moral discourse for a diverse range of problems. The scope of our sense of moral responsibility, that is to say, how far our sense of responsibility extends and to whom we extend it, is a fundamental moral and political issue. The reason for its pre-eminence at this point reflects the factual situation I described earlier; we are living in a world of transnational problems, but we are operating on a nation-state model in which national interest functions as the primary moral and political category. In this framework, the legitimate but limited concept of national interest assumes a position and a weight out of proportion to its value validity.
The national interest model or moral responsibility tends to see reality through the prism of power, while an alternative model would offer a vision of how society should be rather than how it is; it would seek to direct and control the defacto uses of power by the dejure norms of principle. Both power and principle are part of the organization of any social structure; the question which the civil and human rights tradition has always raised and which we foresee today on a scale never previously equaled is this: Which has priority, power or principle? Do we shape principle to fit existing power realities or shall we strive to direct power through principles drawn from an adequate vision of man and society? Although this is not a new question, it has taken on a new significance and urgency in our age. Romano Guardini in his description of the post-modern age argued twenty years ago that the struggle between power and principle would be the distinguishing mark of our time. As Guardini puts it, the basic challenge is whether we can develop the moral capacity to control and direct the power we have created. This phrasing of the challenge takes seriously the reality of power, but refuses to let us live comfortably with a society formed solely by the exigencies of power, political, military, scientific or technological.
The contention between power and principle is central to the theme of interdependence and to all questions of civil and human rights. How shall we determine the scope of our responsibility in an interdependent world, through the perceived requirements of power or the perceived demands of principle? The choice becomes more critical each day, as we recognize more and more a common reliance on the same resources in a world of resources which is finite and rapidly depleting. The energy crisis has given Americans our first experience with shortages of a commodity we consider a basic necessity. The fact of interdependence points us toward the correlative fact of limited economic and natural resources, but neither fact provides a sufficient framework for reflection. We must move from the material and economic order to the level of politics and finally to the level of ethics or moral reflection if we are to make sense out of the recent, perhaps passing, but clearly prophetic episode of energy shortfalls.
The transition from economics to politics requires a change in vocabulary and concepts. Instead of material shortages we must speak of the politics of scarcity. The politics of scarcity assumes limited resources as a fact of future existence; it challenges us order our society so that it may confront scarcity as a universal fact of life, not the particular fate of the poor. The technical debate here is immensely complicated; rather than pursuing it to a pointless extreme, I would point out that simply raising the political question -- how do we order our life together -- forces us to the highest level of political discourse, political philosophy, where politics passes into the realm of ethics.
There the question of social organization demands as a precondition to any answer that we address another, more fundamental question: By what norm shall we judge our success or failure? What is our standard of judgment? It is a short trip from the long line at the local gas station to the basic moral issue; for as material shortages are translated into economic facts, they provoke political questions about political processes, which in turn are dependent upon moral principles.
The choice of power or principle as an organizing precept will produce very different concepts of moral responsibility and quite different consequences for society. The direct relationship between policy decisions in one part of the globe and consequences in another is the most striking moral attribute of interdependence. Perhaps it is true that some such relationships always existed in the human community, but today two factors distinguish our situation from the past -- first, the bonds of the relationship are more direct and its impact more immediate; second, we now know if we care to invoke, listen and investigate, how responsible we are for one another. In the face of this knowledge, we can continue to invoke inadequate concepts, to base policy decisions primarily on self-interest, and to ignore the situation with an attitude of malevolent neglect, but then we cannot deny our guilt. To understand the consequences of our action wipes away the last shield which guards our innocence. We cannot know the results of our actions and remain without responsibility.
Nothing puts more vividly the choice between power and principle than the question of food, hunger and consumption which has acquired surprising force and immediacy in the past two years. Food is a typically transnational problem for our nationally organized global system; food raises a fundamental moral problem, starvation and affluence; food also is a prismatic example of the resource-consumption-population matrix which is at the heart of the energy crisis. For all these reasons I have taken the food question as a test case to think through and illuminate the scope of our moral responsibility in an interdependent world, and as a means whereby we can also ascertain where we stand and where we must go and why, with respect to questions of civil and human rights.
Forgive me then for an analysis which may seem like a digression. I believe it will cast light on our predicament domestically and world-wide.
We are in the midst of a transnational food crisis, more terrifying and important than the energy crisis. Its seriousness is manifest not merely in the tragic outbreaks of famine in the sub-Saharan African nations and in India and Bangladesh, but in the rising prices on the international market for principal food commodities such as wheat, rice, feed-grains, and soybeans. There have been poor rice harvests in Asia, a short fall in the Soviet wheat crop, and for two consecutive years a drought of anchovetta off the coast of Peru. In an effort to control rising domestic food prices, the United States in the summer of 1973 announced restrictions on the export of soybeans and related foodstuffs.
Since the grim predictions of Malthus, the relationship between rising population and declining food resources has been a recurrent worry. More and more mouths to feed due to rapid population growth is of course a continual challenge to any nation. But an added challenge is the insatiable affluence which pressures world food resources. And here a startling picture of disproportionate consumption appears. This disproportion is typified by grain consumption, which accounts for more than 70% of the world's crop area. Grain consumed directly provides 52% of our food energy supply. Agricultural economist Lester Brown notes:
"In the poor countries the annual availability of grain per person averages only about 400 pounds per year. Nearly all of this small amount must be consumed directly to meet minimum energy needs. Little can be spared for conversion into animal protein. In the United States and Canada, per capita grain utilization is currently approaching 1 ton per year. Of this total only about 150 pounds are consumed directly in the form of break, pastries, and breakfast cereals. The remainder is consumed indirectly in the form of meat, milk, and eggs. The agricultural resources -- land, water, fertilizer -- required to support an average North American are nearly five times those of the average Indian, Nigerian, or Colombian."
The food and agricultural organization of the United Nations periodically issues reports which warn that one-third to one-half of the world's population is undernourished because they do not consume enough calories or malnourished because the diet is protein-deficient. Since the mid-1940’s, protein content has increased 6% in the diets of people in the developed countries and decreased 6% in the diets of people in the developing countries. Total protein supply per capita in the U.S., Canada, France Australia and New Zealand is approximately 100 grams per day. For India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and many parts of Africa and Latin America, it is only half as much. Although the so called "Green Revolution" has brought considerable hope, it is not without serious difficulties and by no means is it alone the remedy. The development of special strains of corn, wheat and beans has multiplied the food supply of the developing world. But several barriers bound that multiplication: (1) cultivated land suitable for high-yield seeds is becoming scarce, (2) intensive chemical fertilizers pose ecological dangers and their supply is now threatened by the energy crisis; and (3) the displacement of small farmers increases unemployment and aggravates problems of urbanization.
The oceans of course, offer extensive opportunities for harvesting food -- if they are rationally managed. But so far in this transnational area rational management has been a prescription, not a practice: the result has been over-fishing that defeats its own purpose as world fish supply and catch continue to stagnate or decline.
Because rising population and rising affluence are straining the world's food supply just as finite limits on food production are becoming a reality, the question of distribution is more and more critical. But the attention which the question of distribution will receive depends upon the moral vision underpinning our view of society. The wide contrast in food consumption between the developing nations and the developed nations poses a typical transnational moral challenge. As Brown notes:
"...those living in the poor countries are sustained on 400 pounds or less of grain a year, while those in the wealthier ones require nearly a ton of grain. It is difficult to envisage a situation in which all of mankind could progressively increase per capita claims on the earth's food-producing resources until everyone reached the level now, enjoyed by the average North American. Thus thought should be given to how diets could be simplified in the wealthy nations in order to reduce per capita claims on the Earth's scarce of land and water."
I have consciously drawn a depiction of the factual situation which contrasts levels of consumption in the face of declining food supply; this contrast is one dimension of an interdependent world with a limited supply of essential commodities. However, there is another dimension in the food crisis, equally important in understanding the demands of our interdependence and the choices which it puts to us. We are not only the principal consumer of food in the world but the principal consumer of food in the world but the principal supplier of food for the rest of the world. Some sense of the significance of our position is conveyed by the fact that "... the United States and Canada today control a larger share of the world's exportable supplies of grain than the Middle East does of oil." In an interdependent world what is the nature and scope of the responsibility which comes with this position? Is President Nixon's proposed Project Independence a responsive policy or an irresponsible anachronism? Are we to hoard food now to guard against some distant American famine?
One answer is that we should determine how we exercise our power as a supplier in a seller's market according to the demands of our national interest alone. This proposition is neither wholly invalid nor irrelevant, but I think it important to ask whether it is adequate any longer. Such reliance on calculations of self-interest would result in decisions which most of us and millions of others in this country and abroad would regard as not only politically dangerous but morally reprehensible. Yet this is precisely what happened last Spring, when we imposed export controls on soybeans and other foodstuffs for the purpose of controlling inflation. Domestically, from our point of view, this was an understandable response. In the classic moral dispensation, there is a duty to care for those closest to us before we turn to others far away. Yet from another point of view, namely the demands of interdependence and the fact that we are in control of an essential commodity, the consumption of which cannot be postponed simply by choice. The decision sets a precedent in the international system which could turn interdependence into a continuing power struggle of frightening proportions. The immediate effect of our action was to intensify inflationary pressures on food prices in other parts of the world. This caused resentment even in the developed nations, where starvation is not yet the problem. But if we are really to assess the impact of our adjudication of our domestic needs against international needs, we should heed the following comment about the impact of rising food prices on the poorest countries of the world:
"When one spends about 80 percent of one’s income on food, as a sizeable segment of mankind does today, a doubling in the price of wheat or rice cannot possible be met by increased food expenditures. It can only drive a subsistence diet below the subsistence or survival level. Today's wheat prices of $5 per bushel will without doubt be reflected in higher death rates in many poor nations in months ahead."
In an interdependent world forced to live with the politics of scarcity, such stark moral trade-offs between the essential needs of some and the preferences of others will continue to be with us. A human rights view of adjudicating these needs and choices calls us to adopt a very specific definition of the community for which we are responsible and to which each of us stands accountable; that view of community in turn is based on how we evaluate the role, place and significance of the person in the political process. In the national interest framework the nation-state and the national community have a unique significance in the formulation of policy and the evaluation of duty to the larger international community. Interdependence as a material fact may complicate the implementation of policy, but it does not change the hierarchy of value in its formulation. The national community is seen as having an ultimate and overriding value in the disposition of any issue. Given that judgment, the nation state may then balance relative domestic needs against absolute foreign needs and still decide in favor of the domestic needs. The scope of responsibility determines the scale of priorities. In this matrix of evaluation, to impose export controls on essential commodities, even though an absolute need exists for them abroad is a sound judgment. If one has the power and if one's assessment of the national interest ranks relative domestic need over absolute international need, then power should be used to protect the national interest.
A human rights view of the organization of society would yield a different standard. It refuses the status of absolute or ultimate value to any national entity in an interdependent world. It asserts instead a moral premise of universal community even if that community is flawed by "structural defect" as Pope John warned, because it is without a public authority to meet the basic needs of the human family. Thus, the human rights view posits an existing community even in the absence of a full structure of an organized society because this view assigns weight and value to the individual person in political society. The human rights view is superior to existing norms and practices precisely because it accords the kind of ultimate status to the person which the national interest view accords to the nation/state. The human rights tradition is rooted in the proposition that the person is the foundation for the political process. So each system of political organization must be tested by how well it protects the dignity of the person and whether it adequately fulfills the rights of the person. And those rights are rights, not privileges; they belong to persons solely by virtue their existence as persons.
This view of the value of the person and his or her significance in the political process is very much part of our own political heritage as a country. The legitimate criticism can be made that America's assessment of rights has been cast more in political than in social or economic terns, but the ideal of judging the political process according to its contribution to the rights and dignity of the person is central to our Constitutional system and to the Civil Rights struggle. The extension of this insight from civil right to the world-wide human rights which include civil rights is what our interdependence now demands. The primacy of the person in the civil rights tradition lays the foundation for such a transition. It argues, I think, that the ultimate community to which we owe responsibility is the community of all those who possess human dignity. It asserts that within the confines of that ultimate community, in an interdependent world of a limited supply of basic resources, the total community has an obligation to satisfy the fundamental needs of each person before satisfying the acquired tastes of some people. Hence in this model, starvation outside the nation/state takes precedence over a disagreeable but tolerable inflation within the nation/state. The international order is not yet shaped to such a standard. But this is precisely where the moral tradition of the higher law functions -- it bridges the gap by calling into question existing organizations and by asserting a sense of moral responsibility even where legal and political norms are still lacking.
In the case at hand, a concept of moral, responsibility suggests, among other things, the creation of a common grain reserve upon which nations could lay claim, not in the first instance because they have the power to make demands upon other nations, or because they have the finances to bargain in the open market, but because, even without these things, they have people who share our human dignity and who must depend for a time upon a sense of human responsibility to sustain their existence at a tolerable level.
Only such a sense of responsibility can transform mere material interdependence into true moral interdependence. Instead of attending to ourselves alone, or only to our own country, we must place a unique, uncompromising value on the person in a political process which today is dominated by power realities. At the same time, we must clarify the structural relationship among categories of human rights. There is a moral logic to the human rights tradition which envisions not a random selection of isolated rights, but an intrinsically related spectrum of rights, rooted in the dignity of the person, shaped to protect and enhance that dignity across the entire human life cycle. The spectrum of rights must exist first in the moral order, but it must also be translated into the legal and political order so that moral claims are explicit, institutionalized and subject to effective adjudication.
Yet at this moment in the U.S., twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and twenty-five years after the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, we seem to have a lesser grasp on the moral logic of the human rights tradition than at any time in the American past. It is difficult to determine precisely the source of the confusion – whether it is our incomprehension of the basic moral arguments for a human rights philosophy, or whether it is an understandable perplexity about how the tradition relates to new issues and to old issues sharpened to a new intensity in an interdependent context. Whatever the cause, the result is clear -- we have no consistent appreciation or application of a human rights philosophy to public policy. The absence of an integrated view leads to selective perception of human rights issues which arise in the political or legal order. Different issues call forth different constituencies; and in any attempt to relate the defense of one right to the defense of another, discussions among the various constituencies resemble a dialogue of the deaf.
The lack of a coherent philosophy of rights, of a consensus on the theory of rights, whether among philosophers, or political leaders or the people, is not an aesthetic or esoteric concern. For the discordance resonates in the public forum as issues are debated -- and the human rights debate itself becomes "politicized" at the very time when it should be "philosophized."
The need for a renewal of the human rights tradition is especially apparent in three major areas of public concern.
The cornerstone of the human rights tradition in our constitutional system has been the protection of liberty in the political or civil order. We have sought to protect an individual from unwarranted intrusion in state power. This issue has commanded more philosophical and just prudential reflection in American scholarship than other elements in the spectrum of human rights. Now the experience of Watergate has revealed the strength of the threat to individual political rights which is inherent in the modern bureaucratic state, where leadership is armed with sophisticated technological means of surveillance, and when it is unrestrained by private conscience or public duty, ready to invoke ill-defined notions of national security, to use and abuse power for undemocratic purposes. The immediate consequences of Watergate obviously need to be settled in the Congress, and the Courts. All of us will watch the process closely, but hopefully none of us will be deflected from a larger issue. We must move from fascination with the scandal to an examination of the fundamental question it raises: How can we secure individual freedom amid the complexity of the modern state?
A second area where lack of philosophical or moral agreement impedes our progress is the social and economic rights of the person. The very strength of the American commitment to political rights has tended to distract us from the task of articulating a charter of socio-economic rights 'which would guarantee to all a minimum level of economic welfare. Yet it is precisely this area of rights which both the civil rights movement of the 60’s and the War on Poverty have forced to the forefront of public debate. The quality of that debate, reflected in discussions of welfare, income maintenance, tax reform, full employment, and comprehensive health care, reveals a profound dissonance in the moral philosophy of the nation. In the political or civil order we speak easily of rights -- of the moral claims a person has on society, but in the socio-economic order we rarely speak of claims a person can assert, even for basic necessities, but of favors which the poor can beg. We need a moral consensus about socio-economic rights as a pre-condition to decisive action on the political or legal level.
Finally, the most recent, and in the long run potentially the most far-reaching challenge posed to the human rights tradition has emerged in the area of biology, genetics, and their attendant technologies. The cracking of the genetic code, the experiments with in vitro fertilization, new developments in medical technology, the capabilities we now have to sustain life mechanically far below the point where life support systems function spontaneously -- all these raise fundamental issues about the beginnings of human life and its termination. Guardini's question about the relationship of principle and power is now put to us by the biological revolution as urgently as it was put to us after World War II by the nuclear revolution. By what conception of human rights and social morality will we direct and control the far-reaching authority we have acquired over life and death? We are only starting to develop a conceptual framework to apply human rights considerations to some of the issues. Others like human experimentation and problems of death and dying have been probed in previous ages, but they reappear today in the new forms of advanced technology.
Already we see a division in the moral discussion of such questions. Fundamentally, it is a split between those who give human life itself primacy in their ethical judgments and those who emphasize the quality of life. This dichotomy, manifest in a discussion of population policy, abortion, and death and dying, has several subtle dimensions. Even a cursory exploration of the different positions and their public policy implications clearly reveals the phenomenon of selective perception in the area of civil and human rights. On the philosophical level, the quality of life argument is used against the right to life argument; on the practical level, right to life constituencies, while deeply and legitimately concerned about the human rights of a fetus, seem less interested in quality of life questions like civil rights, or socio-economic rights. Conversely, in the past decade we have seen constituencies profoundly committed to the stopping of the taking of innocent life in Vietnam--or even of criminal life by capital punishment here at home--who failed to examine or could not be touched by the taking of human life through liberalized abortion legislation.
Such selective perception points to the structural questions of the human rights tradition. The need is for an aggiornamento of moral logic to expand and refine the content of the human rights argument in a way which relates it viably and creatively to pressing political, socio-economic, military, biomedical, and transnational issues. An aggiornamento always involves the process of resourcement, by which I mean a return to the sources of moral wisdom in the human rights tradition, applying its implications to a set of concerns which face us in a new way today.
I have taken some care to point out that this is a need of the moment; it has not yet been met satisfactorily and it certainly is not the work of one man. It is a task for a generation. What we need is an integrated view of human rights, held not simply by specialists or academicians or jurists, but by a consensus of the people. Human rights are secure only in a society where they are the living faith of the electorate, not the esoteric formulations of an elite. And a systematic view of human rights must be consistent in structure and comprehensive in scope. The comprehension must include the entire spectrum of rights from womb to tomb; and correlatively the consistency must defend similar rights in different situations. Such a systematic view has the possibility, I suggest, of making a value of life ethic and a quality of life ethic complementary, not antagonistic. This is the theme which we must explore in search of a coherent structural view of human rights.
Allow me to conclude by summarizing the task I set for myself this evening and synthesizing the questions I have put before you. I have sought to use this civil rights occasion to examine some of the human rights questions which face us domestically and internationally in the interdependent world we inhabit in the last third of this century. I have sought to illustrate why on the one end we are urgently called to extend the scope of our received moral responsibility to the full dimensions called for by a human rights view of international life. Secondly, I have sought to probe the problem inherent in our current lack of consensus on the structure of human rights claims as this structure is related to existing or emerging issues of public policy.
In both areas I have sought to articulate problems, to raise questions, to convey a sense of the urgency about the need we have for a moral frame of reference if we are ever to develop an adequate political and legal framework for our life together domestically and internationally. I have consciously kept the focus of the discussion on the philosophical level and admitted my own limitations in dealing with such broad questions. This approach seems to me entirely proper when a person of public life is called to address a university community. If we are ever to develop a philosophical rationale to transform material interdependence into moral interdependence the university will have to be one source of our political and moral wisdom. I believe the university exists not only to raise questions for the reflection of others, but to address itself to the concerns of society. When these concerns include the human rights or the person, the quality of life we are seeking to develop on this planet and the kind of society we should be building, I think they should find a special hearing on a Catholic campus. This is the mandate I have sought to offer tonight.