Human Rights Lecture Prompts Mixed Responses from Fordham Students


Atheism has purportedly muddled the definition of human rights. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

Published: November 13, 2008

On Nov. 3, Fordham University’s Philosophy Society hosted the 24th annual Daniel J. Sullivan lecture series. The discussion of human rights and their relationship to religion both interested and aggravated students, some of whom felt the lecturer strayed from the topic and failed to provide proper evidence to support all of his claims.

The guest speaker was Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. The seminar was held in the 12th floor lounge in Lowenstein at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) and was entitled, “Can Human Rights Survive Secularization?” Approximately 100 people were in attendance, including many Fordham professors.

Wolterstorff is the president of both the American Philosophical Society and the Christian Philosophical Society, and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He began his talk by defining secularization as “the loss of God.” Wolterstorff proceeded to differentiate between general rights – “the rights to be treated a certain way,” and human rights – “rights whose only merit comes from the fact that the person is human.”

The majority of Wolterstorff’s speech was focused on the idea of human dignity and what gives humans their worth. He suggested that this dignity is connected to specific human attributes, like the ability to reason and think rationally.

The trouble Wolterstorff identified with using these characteristics to define human rights and dignity is the fact that this definition does not apply to human beings who are not capable of reason, such as infants, Alzheimer’s patients and comatose adults. Since all ideas of human rights and dignity fall subject to this same concern, Wolterstoff concluded that they all fail.

Wolterstorff concluded that human rights can survive secularization, but that finding a universal means of justifying them, while ideal, is impossible, irrespective of religion.
This question of justification was the real focus of Wolterstorff’s presentation, and a common complaint of the audience was that he did not offer much support for his conclusion. The general consensus was that he did not sufficiently explain why the justification of these rights was necessary to their existence, or how this pertained to the growing secularization of today’s society.

During the question and answer period, Wolterstorff was not only asked to flesh out his reasoning a bit, but was accused of discussing a different topic than the intended one.

Wolterstorff eventually conceded to misusing the term “secularization” and confusing it with atheism, the absolute denial of a higher being. He said that perhaps a more appropriate title for the lecture might have been “Can Human Rights Survive Atheism?”

Wolterstorff offered some suggestions to secularists. Concerning the justification of human rights, he said that one needs to acknowledge that each human has innate dignity, or give up on the idea of universal human rights altogether. He noted that the first of these options would put human rights at serious risk because this option, in a sense, justifies all of society’s present evils. For theists, Wolterstorff offered the common image of God that all humans bear as grounds for the dignity in question.

Leila Tatum, FCLC ’10, is a philosophy major and said that she was “really excited about the intended topic” and was “somewhat disappointed that it was changed.” She felt that “[Wolterstorff] didn’t offer a real conclusion and only talked about what gives humans rights and not about their survival.”

Bridgette Cahalan, FCLC ’12 agreed with Tatum’s views. She said that “while [she] agreed with Wolterstorff’s definitions [she] didn’t feel that they addressed the issue in question sufficiently.”

Dan Drolet, FCLC ’12, was also in the audience and said he was “not fully satisfied by Wolterstorff’s explanations.” He continued, “He discarded a lot of important biblical points.”

Cahalan stated that Wolterstorff offered “unsatisfactory responses to challenges of his assertion.” Despite the general sentiments of discontent among the audience members, most did seem to agree on one point, namely that human rights can survive secularization.