The Table Video

Keith Ward

The Foundation for Human Dignity and Rights

Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford / Fellow of the British Academy / Priest of the Church of England
July 24, 2013

Keith Ward sat down with the Biola University Center for Christian Thought in San Diego, California in July of 2013. In this clip, Ward claims that human dignity and rights are grounded in the nature and purpose of human persons as placed upon them by God and not dependent on human character, actions, or physicality.


One of the important questions about persons, I think, is the question of why you should give persons a special dignity, or why you should have human rights. I presume human rights really means personal rights, and anything with free moral responsibility and intelligence would have the same sorts of rights that humans have, we just don’t know, or don’t think perhaps, that other things have.

But why should you give such dignity to people? I think that’s a very difficult question. I myself believe that if I thought that people were just very complicated physical mechanisms and nothing more, I would give people really no more respect than I would give to atoms. I mean I might give some respect to an atom. I don’t know how I’d do that. But I don’t know.

No, I have no idea what I’d do. But why should I give respect to people? It’s not just that I like to have people around, or I may not like to have people around, but that whatever I like or don’t like about people, I have to try to preserve their freedom, and their life, and their health. And I should care for every person, to as great a degree as I possibly can.

So I think there has to be some foundation. I don’t think you can just say, “I decide to do that.” Because then somebody could just say, “Okay, you decide to do that, “I decide to do something different.” There must be a foundation. There must be a reason. It’s gotta be a metaphysical foundation. That is to say, it’s got to be founded in the nature of human persons. So what is in the nature of human persons that makes you give them respect? And I think at this point I have to say something rather nasty, which is that most human persons are very dis likable.

Present company excepted of course [laughs] That people really are pretty vile, and they do terrible things to one another. The number of wars we have in the world, the violence we have in the world, the competitiveness, the sheer bloody mindedness of people towards one another, personal relationships always breaking down over property, and over money, and over what they want. So people, just viewed as organisms, you may think they don’t seem to deserve much respect. If respect depended upon the sort of personalities they had, not everybody would get respect. Very few people would.

So it must be something more than that. It must be something more than are people likable. So here’s your problem, and to cut a rather long story short, I think you could only say that if persons have some ultimate value which is placed upon them, it doesn’t arise out of their own actual character that they’re developing. The most natural and shortest way to say this, if there were a god who had created everything, but had created persons specifically to have an eternal destiny, fellowship, with God, and that was their destiny, and God wanted them to achieve that, that was God’s purpose, and you would be frustrating God’s purpose if you didn’t help him to achieve that destiny, that would give a good justification for respecting human persons as persons who were valued by God for what they could become.

Not just for what they are, because that might be not very good at all, but you have to cherish what they are because of what they are meant to become, and what they are able to become with God’s help. So, I think if you believe in God, you have a good reason, a good foundation, for saying persons have inherent dignity, put upon them by God’s purpose for their lives.

You take that away, and say there is no purpose for their lives at all, they are purely physical organisms, I wouldn’t really say that I would believe in human rights. And the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham put it very well when he said, “Talk about human rights is nonsense, “as talk about inalienable human rights “is nonsense on stilts.” [laughs] And that makes me tremble [laughs] [inspiring music]

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