We often defend “human rights” without knowing how to define them. It happens because our world lost the understanding of what “human” means. It is a matter of nature.

by Marco Respinti*

*Conclusions of the webinar “Human Rights, FoRB, and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on December 10, 2023, United Nations Human Rights Day.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 14th, 2023.

The “Garden of Human Rights” in Moorbad Harbach, Austria. Credits.
The “Garden of Human Rights” in Moorbad Harbach, Austria. Credits.

By invitation of the United Nations, today the world honors the international Human Rights Day. The date, December 10, marks the anniversary of the proclamation of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” by the UN General Assembly in 1948, 75 years ago. The value of such a celebration goes of course without saying.

When we honor “human rights,” we celebrate the human beings as carrying an indisputable value. Unfortunately, though, even if I just mentioned that the world honors Human Rights Day, this is more a hope than a fact. In many places of the world, human rights are not honored at all. This means that human beings are not honored. Human beings are often disrespected, vilified, angered, harassed, abused, violated, raped, wounded, tortured, and killed.

I am starting to suspect that the main reason behind this frequent dishonoring of human beings is the frequent ignorance of what human beings are. We live in times where people are afraid of truth: not only of speaking the truth, but of truth itself. In our times, people seem in fact happier to say what an object “is not” rather than to address the distinctive qualities that make an object what it is. Any affirmation or utterance that qualifies and defines objects is regarded suspiciously, and often considered dogmatic, intolerant, and even chauvinistic. In this cultural climate, human beings also lose their specific substance and become a matter of perpetual re-definition. But if we lose the definition of what a human being is, it is hard to defend human beings as indisputable values.

From this widespread confusion on what a human being is, derives an even greater confusion on human rights. On the UN Human Rights Day, we can take the UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” as a highly valuable paradigm. In fact, while the “Declaration” starts by immediately emphasizing the core importance of defending human rights, it does not define what human rights are. And it never does it in its whole text. In its “Preamble,” it starts by affirming that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” but it does not explain what those “equal and inalienable rights” are. This continues for the whole length of the “Preamble.”

Then in Article 1, the “Declaration” re-states, with energy and clarity, that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” but still the reader does not know what these “rights” are. Indeed, the following 29 articles of the “Declaration” list some rights inherent to human beings, yet no clear definition or foundation of them is given. Some are also so general, if not generic, that they may have a meaning and its opposite at the same time. Stating that life and liberty, for example, are basic human rights is of course fundamental. However, if we do not clearly define what the rights to life and to liberty are, we risk defending a notion that can also be used to justify evil wrongdoings. This is not a mere theoretical risk. No matter what the “Declaration” proclaims about the rights to life and liberty, life and liberty are denied daily by a large number of UN member states. These states, not all of them totalitarian, claim that they respect and love the “Declaration”—only, they “interpret” it differently. In sum, the UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is the most perfect and comprehensive example of the problem the world faces when “human rights” are proclaimed but not sufficiently defined.

A mural celebrating human rights outside a school in Bayramic, Türkiye. Credits.
A mural celebrating human rights outside a school in Bayramic, Türkiye. Credits.

If my argument is true, the world is then upholding a notion while ignoring its substance. We defend human rights, but we don’t know how to define them. I suspect that the drafters of UN “Declaration” knew this, or foresaw it, and they avoided any discussion on definitions on purpose because clearer definitions would never have been accepted by all member states. One may wonder how it can be possible that human rights are so vague a concept in a time when so many national and international organizations promote them. I tend to think that the answer is contained in the question.

Human beings are a mystery. Part of that mystery is that they start to appreciate values when they start losing them. This could be the case of human rights as well. The expression “human rights” did not always exist. It started being used in 17th-century Europe. We could even speculate on the fact that the use of the expression “human rights” increased proportionally to the loss of clarity on what those rights were and are, as if simply repeating the formula could fill the void.

Prior to the introduction of the expression “human rights,” Western culture spoke of “natural rights.” The genealogical process leading from natural rights to human rights is an interesting subject to explore. Interestingly, that genealogy also surfaces in documents of the UN beyond the “Declaration.” But if—again—the argument I am proposing is meaningful, the point here is that the substitution of “natural” with “human” created a serious problem.

Natural rights assume and imply the existence of a nature, in this case the nature of human beings. In this sense, nature is defined as the normative identity that makes things as they are. So, the very nature of human beings makes them what they are. It endows them with a few fundamental characteristics that can be ignored or denied only at the price of annihilating the very concept of a human being—and in the end physically annihilating human beings as well.

But if we substitute “natural” with “human,” we lose the normative identity that makes humans what they are. We may imply it, or still allude to it, but over time the notion is slowly diluted and disappears. At the end of the day, we remain with something we generically call “human,” but we don’t know what “human” means. We defend human rights, but in what sense are these rights “human”? It is in fact easy to verify that our world is full of conflictual definitions of “human” and “human beings.”

The central point here is that no agreed notion on human rights is possible until we gain, or regain, a shared notion of human being through a common reverence for human nature. I said “reverence” and not “understanding:” first, because it is not only a matter of reason, but also of will, as well as of love. Secondly, because probably human beings will never reach a full intellectual agreement on what human nature is, yet they can still regard it with awe and fear, wonder and compassion.

It is here that religion, beliefs, creeds, and spiritual ways enter the scene. The gap separating different definitions of human nature can be filled only by cherishing and nurturing the core spiritual dimension of life that can unite human beings even beyond their mutual understanding of their respective philosophies and beliefs. To stop disrespect and violence, it is sufficient that each human being is convinced that a given human nature, whatever its definition is, is inherent in every single human being. In fact, proclaiming this truth is a main feature of Tai Ji Men’s teachings.

Tai Ji Men demonstration in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men demonstration in Taipei.

Tai Ji Men unites different people from every walk of life and cultural or religious background in a shared effort to go beyond definitions—not in contempt of definitions but with the aim of building a solid ground for peace, love, conscience, and respect all can share. Tai Ji Men does not propose yet another definition of the human being, which would only contribute to the confusion, but promotes a reverence for the mystery of the untouchable human nature, based on conscience. This is a grand and universally important task.

The history of culture is full of examples of great human beings who did the right thing before and beyond rationally understanding all its pros and cons. In the world today, this would already be a great achievement: respecting human beings even before understanding them. To do it, only the moral clarity and the purity of the heart grounded in conscience, leading to acting right before thinking wrong, is required.

This is the moral vision that Dr. Hong Tao-Tze is proposing to his dizi and indeed to the whole world. Only at that point, all the conflicting and relativistic definitions of human beings and their rights, which too often cause the world to be transformed into a hell by the same ideologists who promise heaven on earth, will vanish. Justice will be restored, including justice for Tai Ji Men and all those who suffer for the denial of their human rights. What Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men propose to us is not a sugary happy end, but the dawn of a possible and realistic human and humane world.