Human Rights and Moral Responsibility

Paper by Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad (now Patriarch of Russia) presented at the 10-th World Russian People’s Council.

Your Holiness, ladies and gentlemen, dear brothers and sisters,

For Russia and her peoples in the 21st century, questions of science and technology, the economy and social development will most likely remain important, if not of primary importance. It is clear, however, that the energy necessary for any kind of human endeavor can be drawn only from the spiritual realm. Thus, the successful resolution of these problems will very much depend on how they are integrated into the spiritual parameters of the distinguished civilization that is Russia and the entire Russian world. Moreover, relations with the external world, i.e. with other civilizations, above all Western, will remain an important factor affecting the development of all Russian civilization. It is here that the ideological foundations of these relations acquire special significance. In the case of Western civilization we are dealing with human rights and dignity. The Orthodox tradition, which has formed Russian culture, cannot but answer this challenge, otherwise Russian society both at home and abroad will become a marginalized phenomenon in the modern world.

Since 1991 the countries that had emerged as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union have established human rights and liberties as the central norm in social and political relations. Today this choice is not being questioned. 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 believing people as two-faced, to say the least. On the one hand, human rights serve for the benefit of people. 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 Christian but also with the traditional moral understanding of the person. This is alarming since behind human rights stands the compulsory force of the state, which can compel people to commit sin, sympathize with or allow sin to occur through banal conformity.

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 recognition 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 according to faith of the Christian and of the believing person in general? Today, members of the Russian Orthodox Church are called on to ponder these questions. It is necessary to examine this question with the mind of the entire Church.

There is an opinion that human rights are a universal norm. According to this view, there can be no Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist, Russian or American concept of human rights since this would introduce relativity into the understanding of human rights, thus considerably 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 that does not depend on any variables. In fact, Orthodox people are among those who do not object to the existence of certain universal rules of behavior in the modern world. But these rules must be truly universal. The question arises here: Can human rights as set forth today really claim to be universal?

The point is that this concept was generated and developed in Western countries, with their unique historical and cultural destiny. It should be admitted that it succeeded in these countries, but also revealed its shortcomings. The population decline, asocial and amoral behavior, i.e. everything that has become a social problem in the West is often explained namely 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 do not have the right to speak their mind? Of course, they do. 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, a discussion is necessary of the philosophical ideas that lie at the foundation of the concept of human rights and thus affect its development and application.

The idea of “human dignity” is central to the modern concept of human rights. 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 of Western countries, the list of rights and liberties has kept growing, covering ever new areas of social life. Thus political, economic, cultural and social rights have developed. This process shows that new facets of human dignity are revealed in history. In recent years, the problems of sexual relations, the status of human life and bioethics have grown increasingly acute. This means that a new generation of human rights has arisen, rights developing from the definition of what man is on the level of his nature. 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 tied to the social position occupied by the person. 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 honor, that which is of great significance and value”. Thus, two meanings are united in this word. Firstly, it means that a certain subject is of value. Secondly, dignity signifies the correspondence of the life of the subject to this value. For the Orthodox tradition the establishing of the correspondence 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). Highly estimating 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 people after their creation (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 accomplished and continues to accomplish everything for his return to his original calling, i.e. everything 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 fall. 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 creation man not only possessed value in the eyes of God, he also corresponded to this value by 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 of Damascus 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, in his life man should have become ever more similar to God and thus grow to perfection in his 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 correspond to the value of his nature and thus lost his dignity to a significant degree. The goal of man now was to regain his lost dignity and grow in it. In view of what has been said, not all human actions can be considered as corresponding to the norms established by God at creation. Thus, there are actions 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. The person is endowed with freedom, without which even God’s help in correcting behavior 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. We cannot deny that even in contemporary humanistic thought there is the understanding that the person is constantly faced with the choice between good and evil actions. There are thus norms of behavior which are encouraged by laws, as well as actions that are subject to punishment. However, the difference between secular humanism and religious tradition is in their solution to the problem of what to consider as authority in defining good and evil.

For some reason in modern Western thought since the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau the idea has taken root that it is sufficient to grant freedom and rights to the individual, and that he will invariably choose what is good and beneficial for him. Therefore, no external authorities should point out what is good and what is bad. The person himself should define the norms for his behavior. 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 behavior, but on the condition that his behavior 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 substitute. The admissibility of immorality is justified by the teaching on human dignity which, as was mentioned before, has religious roots.

Indeed, man possesses complete autonomy with regard to accepting or rejecting 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 by himself, in a state of sin after the fall, cannot always clearly distinguish 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, homosexuality, 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 absolutization can destroy the foundations of modern civilization and lead to its downfall. As is known, 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 breakup of the family, the appearance of abandoned children, the reduction of the birthrate, the destruction of nature, militant nationalism, xenophobia and the mockery of religious sentiments. To paraphrase a renowned saying of F.M. Dostoevsky, if a person does not see that he is committing sin, then everything is allowed.

Acts of cruelty have shocked our society recently. People ask themselves: 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. Morality 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 the center of Moscow at the Manezh square, when we allow the exhibition “Beware of religion!” to be held and let people in other places 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, coming to the surface, does not spare anyone – neither believers in a synagogue, nor children with a different skin color. These are all links in one chain. Our society should understand that it is impossible to achieve the 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, also become 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 on the understanding that everyone is called on to grow in dignity and bear civic responsibility before the law and moral responsibility for his actions.

In view of this there arises 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 place God’s help above all, which is given to the individual in religious life. Communion with God helps the person to distinguish good from evil and gain the strength to make the choice in favor 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 believing person 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, would guarantee the freedom of the individual, and on the other hand would help him adhere to moral norms. It would probably be incorrect to establish criminal responsibility for gambling, euthanasia and homosexuality, 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 behavior? 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 behavior 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? Society not only calls for the respect of the lifestyle of a certain minority, but is also imposed with the propaganda of homosexuality as a certain norm. As a result this propaganda has become a stumbling-block for those who would otherwise fight against this vice and instead raise normal, full-fledged families.

We can also cite an example from our life. 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 imposing 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 breakup 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. In this case 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, there will automatically arise conflict. 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” (ch. 3, par. 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 behavior on his own interests as having priority over those of society. This only stimulates egoism and individualism. Orthodoxy has always advocated self-sacrificing love toward one’s neighbor, and thus toward one’s family, local community and homeland. One should be able to reject egoism in favor 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 world-view 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 religions. 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 can contemporary society be organized in such a way that human rights might be harmoniously combined with morality?

Firstly, legislation should be sensitive to moral norms that dominate in society. It goes without saying that state structures should not themselves define what is good and what is bad, but at the same time legislation should reflect 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, taking into account moral norms. The state, in close cooperation with social institutions of moral education, including the school and, of course, the country’s religious communities, such handle this preparation. This would imply that the state should take care to work out legislation regulating 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 labor in these areas according to their representation in society. The main thing is that competition in missionizing be categorically rejected in order to avoid inter-religious confrontation, to which the battle of 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 one make moral use of his freedom when television demonstrates 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 such acts have been called temptations.

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 justification 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 egregious 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, the involvement of young people in crime, the slave trade, prostitution, drug abuse and gambling addiction are also inadmissible and must be rejected. We must resist such phenomena since they turn people away from their 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.

It would be appropriate for the World Russian People’s Council to take an active part in this activity for the defense of human rights. We should cooperate with all human rights organizations and institutions that share such views of these rights. In June last year the Council was granted consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN. This opens up additional possibilities for dialogue and cooperation at the global level for working out a common approach to resolving the key problems of modernity, toward a truly universal understanding of the rights and dignity of the person. It is important that the Council make use of this and any other possibility to guarantee the contribution of Russian civilization in questions of world-view to creating a peaceful and just life on our planet.

Translation from Russian by Deacon Basil Bush