Shared values of dignity and human rights at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Parliament of World Religion’s confirms every person has dignity & rights

Fresno Bee, August 20, 2023

I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions last week in Chicago. It is the largest interfaith gathering in the world. It featured participants from 80 nations and more than 200 different religious traditions. There were also a few nonreligious people, like myself.

My interest in the Parliament is connected to its idea of a global ethic. In 1993, the parliament adopted a declaration, “Toward a Global Ethic,” stating that the world’s religious and ethical traditions agree that “every individual has intrinsic dignity and inalienable rights.” This unifying idea is found in other important international agreements. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states: “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.”

The good news is that there is broad consensus about human dignity and human rights. But we still face challenges. And we disagree about the particulars.

One ongoing challenge is bad actors who reject the general idea of dignity and human rights. Tyrants and psychopaths are not committed to these ideals. In religious language, we might speak here of sin and evil. The challenge of evil is real. How should those who believe in human rights respond to bad guys?

We disagree about this. The debate about retributive justice and restorative justice reflects this disagreement. Defenders of retributivism think evil-doers ought to suffer and pay for their crimes. But advocates of restorative justice think that mercy, forgiveness, and rehabilitation are more important. We also disagree about how to create resilient and humane institutions that can limit the harm done by bad actors.

This disagreement is not about the shared ideal of human dignity. Rather, it is about how we ought to apply that idea. This kind of conflict is typical of the ongoing challenge of what to do when good people disagree about the meaning and application of shared universal values.

There are many examples of this kind of challenge, seen in our disagreements about social justice and social welfare. Consider, for example, the question of abortion. The anti-abortion camp thinks that prenatal human life has dignity and value, and deserves protection. The pro-choice camp thinks that women have the right to choose to control their own reproductive lives.

In cases like these, when good people disagree, we should avoid villainizing and stigmatizing those with whom we disagree. Defenders of retributivism are not evil; nor are advocates of restorative justice. The same is true of the pro-choice vs. pro-life argument. These are not disputes involving goodness on one side and wickedness on the other. Rather, they are disputes in which good people disagree about the meaning and application of dignity and human rights.

Which brings me back to the importance of organizations like the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and documents like the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. It is important to remind ourselves that common ground does exist. Good people can and do agree about basic principles of ethics. There is agreement about values that are important for living well. These shared values include honesty, respect, justice, fairness, integrity, compassion and love.

In our polarized era, it is easy to view others as evil, sinful or delusional. This is not to deny that there are wicked people in the world. But not every ethical dispute is a matter of good vs. evil.

Once we acknowledge that good people can disagree about the application of basic ethical principles, we have an incentive to be more humble and more hospitable. The way forward is to celebrate core values that we can all affirm. And then, with that shared foundation, we can work together to figure out why we continue to disagree, and how we might negotiate and compromise with other good people.

The good news is that there is broad consensus about basic ethical principles. But that is not the end of the story. Rather, these shared values provide a starting point for further dialogue. The remaining work is to explore what these values mean, how we apply them in specific cases, and how we can live together despite our disagreements.

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Never too young to change the system, never too old to hope

Fresno Bee, December 15, 2020

The United Nations commemorated Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 with a focus on youth leadership and voice. The UN notes that young people have often been marginalized and ignored. But youth movements are also in the forefront of social change. The motto of this year’s UN’s Human Rights campaign is, “never too young to change the world.”

Youth power is on the rise. Students have taken to the streets in Hong Kong and in climate action strikes around the globe. A 34-year-old woman, Sanna Marin, became prime minister of Finland. And Time recognized 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg as the magazine’s Person of the Year.

Our irascible president reacted to this last development with an insulting tweet directed at Thunberg. He said that Thunberg should work on her anger management issues and just chill out.

Grumpy old Scrooges have often told young people to chill out. They view youthful outrage as a pathetic phase. They mock youthful impatience to fix a broken world.

At the global climate change summit in Madrid, Thunberg said, “The change we need is not going to come from the people in power.” She said world leaders are betraying us by failing the fix the climate crisis.

Young people have often accused their elders of betrayal. The youth refuses to accept a broken system. They won’t tolerate the hypocrisies of business as usual.

Old folks view all of this as naïve. When you grow up, they say, you will grow out of your idealism. But young people don’t know any better. They don’t know enough, yet, to doubt their dreams.

This self-righteous enthusiasm typically fades over time. We mellow with age. Experience shows us patterns that repeat themselves. Those patterns become ruts, familiar and confining. You grow weary of struggle. You prefer stability. You become skeptical of revolution.


For the youth, however, things look different. The audacity of youth is hopeful, creative and in love with the possible. Each moment is a new opportunity. The patterns are not familiar. There are no ruts to fall into. Revolution is waiting just around the corner.

These are stereotypes, of course. Some oldsters are radical and hopeful. And some youngsters are cynical. There is nothing sadder, I think, than a young person without hope. And there is something inspiring about old folks who encourage the youth to dream.

Consider Socrates. He was accused of corrupting the youth. He was executed at age 72 for daring to encourage the youth to think for themselves – about politics, religion, and the meaning of life. More recently, at age 79, the French philosopher Alan Badiou wrote a book explaining his desire to “corrupt the youth” by turning them away from a typical life spent in endless pursuit of power, money and gratification.

Badiou calls on us to live “a true life.” That would be a life of wisdom that is deeply critical of the hypocrisies of the status quo. To corrupt the youth is to help them become authentic. This means, “to try to ensure that young people don’t go down the paths already mapped out, that they are not condemned to obey social customs, that they can create something new.”

This “something new” is the key to hope. We don’t know what the youth will give birth to. Hope embraces an unknown future, betting that whatever comes tomorrow will be better than today. This is the attitude of youth: a reckless embrace of the future that is not cowed by convention.

Philosophy is not alone in embracing the audacity of youth. The message of youth power is appropriate at Christmas. Christianity began as a youth movement. Mary was a teenage mother, after all. And Jesus was only 33 when he was crucified. It was the old establishment that left Mary out in the cold and rejected the gospel of love.

So let’s hear it for corrupting the youth and empowering them to change the system. The system is broken. Its old cronies are bitter Scrooges and angry Trumps. But something beautiful and different is waiting to be born, if we let it. You are never too young to change the world. And you are never too old to hope.

Charity and Human Rights

Is charity a duty? Human Rights Day helps us realize the importance of extending hospitality to refugees

Fresno Bee, December 10, 2016

On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Human Rights Coalition of the Central Valley is commemorating Human Rights Day with an event at Fresno State focused on the rights of refugees.

Tens of millions of refugees roam the globe. California’s Central Valley often has been a place of refuge for those without a stable home. Our community includes Armenians, Hmong and others. Today we are welcoming Syrians.

Not every migrant is a refugee. Economic migrants seeking jobs are not refugees. Nor are criminals avoiding punishment. But women who fear genital mutilation are refugees, as are members of minority groups who fear slaughter and persecution.

Refugees are flung upon the mercy of the world. They are homeless strangers. What moral obligations do we have for them?

The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights asserts, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” It is wrong to force refugees back into countries where they are persecuted. Once offered asylum, refugees have the same rights as other immigrants. They should be free to speak, work and go to school.

U.N. Declaration of Human Rights

Two different ethical ideas guide our thinking here. A negative form of morality focuses on avoiding harm. But a more proactive morality calls for hospitality, compassion and love. These ideas apply in thinking about refugees and other cases: our treatment of the poor, the homeless and those in need.

Negative morality requires us to do no harm. On this view, it might be OK to close the door to a refugee, so long as you do so politely. It is immoral to pile more misery on the back of refugees. It is wrong to mock them, steal from them, exploit them or further persecute them. Negative morality views rights as protections – not as positive entitlements.

Hospitality goes further. It requires positive aid, compassion and care. This proactive ethic often is associated with Jesus, who explains it in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is not enough to avoid causing harm. We also ought to go the extra mile. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”

There are deep disagreements about whether proactive hospitality is morally required or whether it is something extra. Is charity a duty? Or is giving to the needy something saintly – nice but not necessary?


Certainly it is important to avoid harm. There would be fewer refugees if the countries of the world respected basic rights and just left people alone. But war, intolerance and hate continue to plague humankind.

In our hot, crowded and interconnected world, we are all neighbors. And the world’s moral traditions teach us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The ethic of love is proactive. It calls for caring action that goes beyond avoidance of harm. Victims of hate need our compassion. And homeless people need shelter from the storm.

And yet we wonder, “Who should help, and how much?” Perhaps those who are nearest have the greatest obligation to help. But it might be that those who have the most to give should give the most.

If help begins at home, then neighboring countries with a common culture ought to help local refugees. From this perspective, Arab and Islamic countries ought to help Syrian refugees, Asian countries ought to help Asian refugees, and so on.

Others will maintain that the richest countries ought to help the most, since they have the most to give. If you can help, you should: the greater your blessings, the greater your responsibilities.

Unfortunately, some people respond to the needy with fear and loathing. Some have argued that terrorists will sneak in along with refugees. Others worry that refugees will disrupt cultural homogeneity.

But fear is a poor guide for morality. Any time you invite a stranger into your home, there are dangers. But minor risks are outweighed by major needs. And let’s be honest, displaced children are not terrorists.

Respect for human rights is fundamental. Let’s avoid harm. But let’s also offer hospitality. We build a better world by loving our neighbors as ourselves.