The Discourse of Dignity and Human Rights

05 February, 2017

Published in January of 2017, Raja Bahlul’s The Discourse of Dignity and Human Rights (160 pp.) is an avowed attempt to create a space where readers can think about recent Arabic writings covering morality, politics and values. In the first, introductory, chapter, Bahlul explains the main objective of his book as elucidating the differences between two theories—or two categories of theory—surrounding the concepts of dignity and human rights. The first such philosophical approach to dignity and human rights is one which seeks to define the rights and duties of individuals from a set of rational principles, as explained by the author. A second category of theoretical approach to dignity and human rights is one which holds that no “rational” understanding of the discourse on human rights can be subject to rational study.  

The second chapter of the book is given over to Bahlul’s historical treatment of the questions of human dignity and the connections between humanitarianism and dignity. Bahlul then moves on to explore the essence of the ideal of human dignity, offering that humans are entitled to dignity as a matter of principle: that dignity and “human rights” were features to which all members of the human race were entitled. The author then goes on to explore how these principles were brought to life in world religions. Bahlul also goes on to explore the various world religions defined humanity; these definitions were not, as he said, “normative” but sought simply to define humanity as “those creatures which walk on two legs and lack feathers”.  

A later chapter in the book is given over to studying “empathy,” and the compulsion to help, which Bahlul distinguishes sharply from the moral duty to help fellow humans. Instead, what Bahlul develops in another chapter of the book is the concept of (mutual respect), arguing that help offered from one person to another from a position of respect is fundamentally different from help offered from a position of “sympathy” or pity.

In the closing sections of the book, the author draws to a close by emphasizing the importance of a rationalized, cognizant approach to human dignity and human rights. According to Bahlul, while human rights are founded on the expansion of our range of sympathies, true morality is based on understanding and cognition.

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