Emergence of Humanism

Defining Universal Humanism

Defining Universal Human Rights

Obligations Entailed by Rights

Basic Assumptions

The Scope of Human Obligations

    To Individuals

    To Marriage and Children

    To Provide Legal Process

    To Provide Work and Social Security 

    To Provide Education

    To Culture and Leisure

    To International Movement

    To Non-Discriminatiion

    To World Order



The material in Humanistic Texts by its nature includes many writings by humanists of different belief systems. These belief systems give rise to particular types of humanism, with different and conflicting world views. At one extreme is atheistic humanism, at the other is religious humanism. And within these there are various subgroups. As achieving a harmonious understanding among different cultures is so important, it is worth seeking broad grounds for agreement among all of these groups. This might be reached by means of the process adopted in Humanistic Texts of borrowing from philosophies, religions, and beliefs ideas that most people can agree on, leaving untouched ideas that are causes for dissension. We might call this process a search for a universal humanism that defines the minimum moral requirements for a philosophy, religion, or belief. 

2  During the past century, the possibility of universal humanism has arisen from an increased willingness among competing philosophies, religions, and beliefs to discuss common human values on which they might reach agreement. This has been prompted to a large degree by the unprecedented violence of the Twentieth Century and its assault on civilization. In turn, identification of common values—preserving human equality, dignity, rights and freedoms, for example—defines the nature of universal humanism.


Emergence of Humanism

3  As different cultures have emerged in the world, they have each brought forward a set of humanistic values. The evolution of universality in these values occurs when different cultures interact. In western Europe, humanism came to the fore in the Renaissance with the emergence of the Italian humanists in the Fifteenth Century. This group of scholars (Petrarch, Bruni, Manetti, Valla, for example) rediscovered the literature, philosophy and civilization of ancient Greece and Rome. By translating neglected early works they accelerated the recognition of a realm of secular knowledge from other cultures able to make a contribution to human welfare, distinct from that made by religious knowledge. The Italian humanists were devoted members of the Christian church, as were their successors, the religious humanists of Northern Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Erasmus, More, Vives, for example).

4  The humanistic knowledge being discovered by these renaissance scholars came from different cultural environments, namely those of ancient Greece and Rome (Democritus, Aeschylus, Epicurus, Epictetus). As ancient Greek thought was being written down, similar humanistic knowledge was appearing in China (Confucius, Mencius, Mo Tzu) and India (Buddha, Carvaka, Vardhamana) under yet other cultural systems. It is clear that humanistic thought has co-existed with different cultures, philosophies, and religious systems over many centuries.

 5  Early in this 2500-year period (and probably before), alternatives to religious thought emerged that rejected the supernatural but accepted humanistic ideas (Confucius, the Buddha, Mo Tzu, Carvaka, for example). That is, humanistic values are found in both religious and non-religious doctrines. In fact, a person can be a humanist within any religious or non-religious doctrine. Mohandas Gandhi was a Hindu humanist and Martin Luther King was a Christian humanist. And there are Muslim and Jewish humanists, and humanists of various agnostic and atheistic philosophies. Universal humanism is ecumenical, in the sense of being able to exist within many different world views. On the other hand, members of any given philosophy, religion, or belief are not necessarily humanists. The Hindu who murdered Mohandas Gandhi and the Christian who murdered Martin Luther King were not humanists, nor were any of the adherents of various belief systems who murdered and tortured their fellow human beings in the course of the Twentieth Century.  



Defining Universal Humanism


6  This brings us back to the earlier point, that universal humanism should encapsulate an area of common agreement between different philosophies, religions, and beliefs, and that it leaves out the areas of dissension between these different systems of thought. This feature puts it in the middle ground between the religious extreme that sees an individual as governed solely by supernatural forces and the scientific extreme that sees an individual as governed solely by material forces. Universal humanism should also be free from those abstract assumptions that characterize individual philosophies, religions and beliefs, such as the prior existence of ideas (or the reverse), the existence of a true and unchanging reality (or the reverse), the innate goodness of human beings (or the reverse), the illusion of space and time (or the reverse), a created finite universe (or the reverse), and so on (or the reverse). Consequently it might be said to have no rational procedure for reaching specific conclusions, because it has no set of general axioms that form the starting point from which to deduce various consequences. Except, perhaps,  one humanistic axiom: that it is better to come to a peaceful agreement about matters of behavior than to settle such disputes by violence. Much better.

7  Thus, the only way a search for universal humanism can proceed is for men and women to sit down together, agree to set aside their differences, and attempt to hammer out some common rules of conduct that will enable them to live with one another as human beings. This is what happened in the middle of the Twentieth Century, and produced what can be considered a program for universal humanism, in the form of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Developed under the auspices of the United Nations, this declaration was subsequently adopted by the vast majority of world’s nations, and has general acceptance as a set of aspirations. The declaration does not provide, however, a complete statement of universal humanism, because it does not explicitly set forth guidelines of how to act in a multicultural world. These can be derived from it, however, once one accepts the procedure and assumptions used to develop the statement of rights.


Defining Universal Human Rights

8  The United Nations was formed after the end of World War II, which saw the deaths of 45 million people and unparalleled destruction of civil communities. With the goal of saving future generations from such disasters, the founding nations declared their belief in the dignity and worth of the human person and in fundamental human rights and freedoms. Stating that this belief is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, the nations pledged themselves to produce and promote a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

9  Development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was carried out during 1947 and 1948 by a committee set up by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. It came up with a draft declaration whose main authors were John Humphrey, a Canadian law professor, who had lost an arm in a youthful accident, René Cassin, a French Jew wounded in World War I and legal adviser to General de Gaulle, Peng-chun Chang, a Chinese scholar, poet and playwright (with a doctorate of philosophy earned under John Dewey), and Charles Malik, a Lebanese Greek Orthodox Thomist philosopher. The committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, previously First Lady of the United States.

10  Humphrey was given the task of summarizing all past thinking on rights and freedoms. His 400-page report and draft set of rights was then given to Cassin, an expert in constitutional law, to turn into a formal logical structure. The Committee then debated each point and came up with a final draft. The contrasting viewpoints of Chang and Malik provided a balance between secular and religious world views and were essential to achieving a truly universal document..

11 The Committee’s draft went to the Social Affairs Committee of the UN General Assembly. After 80 meetings of this body and 170 amendments, the Declaration went before the General Assembly and was adopted.

12  Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was indeed developed by a group of people committed to different philosophies, religions and beliefs. They were able to draw on their knowledge of history, their familiarity with previous declarations, and their experience of the atrocities and human suffering caused by political and religious doctrines in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The Declaration was produced by discussion of opinions, not by scientific demonstration or logical deduction from axioms. It also did not depend on divine revelation, although it drew on both religious and secular history. It thus was developed by the basic process available to formulating a statement of universal humanism. It is a sincere statement of belief in shared humanistic values reached by extensive discussion that took into account widely differing viewpoints.

13  When the final draft went before the 58 members of the United Nations in 1948, it was accepted by 50 countries, with abstentions by Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the Soviet Bloc. It was attacked by the Soviet Union as interference with the domestic affairs of certain countries, and by the president of the American Bar Association as promoting state socialism. In 1993, 171 countries reaffirmed their acceptance of the Declaration as a statement of common aspirations.


Obligations Entailed by Rights

14  This declaration of rights entails obligations that constitute explicit guidelines for humanistic conduct. Rights do not exist in a vacuum. The Nineteenth Century English legal philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Austin saw rights as defined by duties. Austin wrote that every right rested on a related duty imposed on one or more persons other than those enjoying the right. As the Declaration itself states, "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible".


15  In India in the Twentieth Century, Gandhi remarked that rights depend on attitudes and habits related to a sense of obligation rather than a sense of entitlement:


 "I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. From this one fundamental statement, perhaps, it is easy enough to define the duties of Man and Woman and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed. Every other right can be shown to be a usurpation hardly worth fighting for." 


16  Similarly, the Chinese professor of philosophy, Chung-Shu Lo, remarked 


"the basic ethical concept of Chinese social political relations is the fulfilment of the duty to one's neighbor, rather than the claiming of rights. The idea of mutual obligations is regarded as the fundamental teaching of Confucianism. . .  Instead of claiming rights, Chinese ethical teaching emphasised the sympathetic attitude of regarding all one's fellow men as having the same desires, and therefore the same rights, as one would like to enjoy oneself. By the fulfilment of mutual obligations the infringement of the rights of the individual should be prevented." 


17  Thus, universal agreement on rights implies universal acceptance of obligations. And the universal obligations that are incurred by agreeing on rights need to be made explicit if one wishes to develop a statement of universal humanism. Both types of declaration constitute a description of how the members of a society agree to behave towards each other. But it is the declaration of obligations that spells out how people agree to act. It is in fact a set of commandments they choose for themselves. Agreeing to set down mutually agreed obligations in this way is an essential step in social evolution. Therefore, since the translation from rights to obligations is simply an exercise in editing, a draft declaration of human obligations has been developed and set out below. And since the resulting declaration is founded on universally accepted rights and freedoms, it is a step towards achieving consensus on human obligations. As such it provides basis for universal humanism.



Basic Assumptions


18  The basic assumptions underlying a declaration of obligations are the same as those for the declaration of rights. They are as as stated in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and can be summarized as follows.


19  It is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations. The advent of a world in which human beings enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people. The members of the United Nations have also agreed to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom. 


20 Recognition of the inherent dignity and equal rights and obligations of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Disregard and contempt for human rights and obligations have resulted in barbarous acts that have outraged the conscience of mankind. It is essential, if people are not to be compelled to have recourse to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, as a last resort, that human rights and obligations should be protected by the rule of law.


21 The peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights and obligations, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights and obligations of men and women. They have pledged themselves, in co-operation with the United Nations, to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms. As a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge, the General Assembly has proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. Most countries in the world have affirmed their commitment to this standard.


22  As a common understanding of the human obligations implicit in the Universal Declaration is also of the greatest importance, the following declaration of human obligations is offered for consideration as a companion document to that setting out rights. 



The Scope of Human Obligations



1   All human beings are born with reason and a conscience. As members of their community, in which alone the free and full development of a person’s personality is possible, every individual, and every organ of society, has the following obligations.

2 These obligations are without exemptions due to race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. 

3 These obligations are without exemptions due to political, jurisdictional or international status of a country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it is independent, a trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.


         To Individuals

4  Act towards other people as brothers and sisters, born free and equal, in dignity and obligations.


5   Respect and protect the life, liberty and safety of all people. 


6  Prevent anyone from being arbitrarily arrested, detained or exiled.


7  Allow all people freedom of opinion and expression without interference. Let them seek, receive and express thoughts and opinions in any way they wish, without regard for frontiers. 


8   Allow all people freedom of movement and place of residence within your country. 


9  Allow all people to assemble peacefully and form associations, without compulsion.


10  Allow all people freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Enable them to freely choose, or change, their religion or belief. 


11  Let all people express their choice or religion or belief in public and in private, alone or with others, in teaching, practice, worship or observance. 


12   Base the authority of government on the will of the people, through periodic free elections by secret vote,  with equal and universal suffrage.


13  Take part in the government of your country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.


14  See that everyone has the right to own property, alone or with others. Let it not be taken from them unlawfully.


15  Do not arbitrarily interfere with another person’s privacy, family, home, or correspondence. Your laws must protect people against such interference.


16  Do not attack a person's honor and reputation. See that the law protects people against such attacks.


17 Free people held in slavery or servitude. Prohibit all forms of slavery and the slave trade.


18 Prevent people from being tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


         To Marriage and Children

19  With your neighbors and government, protect each family. It is the foundation of society.


20  With the free and full consent of each, let a man and a woman of full age marry and found a family, with no limitation regarding race, nationality, or religion.


21 Recognize that men and women have equal rights going into marriage, during marriage, and at the end of marriage.


22  Give special care and assistance to  mothers and children. Give all children, born in or out of wedlock, the same social protection.


To Provide Legal Process

23   Recognize anyone, from anywhere, as a person before the law


24  Treat everyone equally before the law and protect them equally under the law. 


25  In determining a person's rights and obligations or need to respond to a criminal charge, give them, in full equality, a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.


26 Assume that anyone charged with a crime is innocent until proved guilty. Make sure such proof is according to law in a public trial at which the accused has had all the guarantees necessary for a defense.


27  Find no one guilty of any crime because of an act or omission that did not constitute a crime under national or international law at the time it was committed. Do not impose a heavier penalty than the one applicable at the time the crime was committed.


         To Provide Work and Social Security 

28 Carry out, through national effort and international co-operation, the economic, social and cultural obligations indispensable for the dignity and the free development of each person's personality, in accordance with the organization and resources of your State.


29 Make sure everyone can work, can choose their employment, and have just and favorable working conditions.


30 Give everyone equal access to public service in your country.


31 Provide a just and favorable remuneration to people who work, so that they and their families can live out their lives with dignity.


32 Provide everyone with equal pay for equal work, without discrimination.


33 Let anyone form or join a trade union for protection of their own interests.


34 Provide people with security in old age, or when struck by unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, or other threats to livelihood beyond their control.


35 See individuals and families have a standard of living adequate for health and well being, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services.


         To Provide Education

36 Provide everyone with a free education, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Make elementary education compulsory. Make technical and professional education readily available. Give equal access to higher education to all on the basis of merit.

37 Make sure education provides full development of the human personality. It must strengthen respect for human obligations, rights, and freedoms. It must promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all beliefs, religions, races and nations. It must further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

38 Allow parents to choose the kind of education given to their children.


          To Culture and Leisure

39 To allow everyone rest and leisure, put a reasonable limit on working hours, and give holidays with pay,.

40 Make sure everyone can take part in the cultural life of the community, enjoy the arts, and share in scientific advances and their benefits.

41 Protect the moral and material interests in a scientific, literary or artistic work for its creator.


          To International Movement

42 Allow people to leave your country and to return to it.

43 Give a fair hearing to those seeking asylum from persecution. But do not let them enjoy asylum when they have committed non-political crimes or acts contrary to United Nations’ principles.

44 Ensure that everyone in your country has their nationality recognized, is not arbitrarily deprived of it,  and can change it if they want to.


         To Non-Discriminatiion

45  Protect everyone against  incitement to discrimination and against discrimination that violates this Declaration.


46  Ensure that competent national tribunals remedy acts violating obligations, rights and freedoms granted anyone by a constitution or by law.


47  Make sure that exercise of the universal obligations, rights and freedoms is limited by law solely to secure due recognition and respect for the rights, freedoms, and obligations of others and to meet the just requirements of morality, public order and general welfare in a democratic society.

         To World Order

48  Strive for a social and international order that realizes the obligations, rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


49  Ensure that these obligations are not exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.


50  Do not interpret anything in this Declaration as giving you, your group, or your State the right to act in any way to seek destruction of any of the universal obligations, rights and freedoms set forth. 

23  This declaration can provide a statement of universal humanism that is based on recognition of the inherent dignity and equal rights and obligations of all people, of the equal obligations of men and women, of the importance of the rule of law, and of the desire to promote social progress and better standards of life. It is a companion statement to the Declaration of Rights, because it is the dual recognition of both rights and obligations that can form a basis for universal humanism.

24  The initial statement, that human beings are born with reason and conscience, attempts to capture the fact that  human interactions do not depend for their success on reason alone. Compassion, empathy, and understanding are important too. Mary Ann Glendon, in A World Made New, notes that Peng-chun Chang urged this point: he suggested that a translation of the Chinese word 'ren' was needed to complement 'reason'. Ren is a type of virtue in Confucianism that is sometimes translated as 'loving kindness' or 'human sympathy'. It is represented by an ideogram that conveys the notion of two people linked by humanity, of two-mindedness, or of the ability to feel the mind of another. It is something specifically human that is not shared by animals. In the absence of a single word in English to represent this idea, 'Conscience' was selected as a compromise, being associated with an ability to sense the moral goodness, or not, of one's acts in relation to other people.

25 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on the notion that the free and full development of a person's personality is a primary goal, and that this can only take place within one's community. Consequently, human obligations are to be recognized as both personal and as shared by various groups in society. Stable families are recognized as basic to a stable society, and so the family is singled out for protection in more than one of the fifty articles. The importance of freedom in general, and freedom of thought and expression in particular, is emphasized, but no particular religion or belief is favored. The requirements of a legal system are set forth, and goals for the treatment of work, social security, education, culture, and other nations are spelled out.

26  The declaration of obligations that can be derived from the U.N. Declaration is clearly very general, because it tries to cover all of the different activities that impact a person's life. Because of the way its originating document was developed, it is missing topics on which agreement could not be reached. There is also plenty of room for more details on how particular obligations are to be carried out. But this declaration of obligations represents a core set of values shared by representatives from many parts of the world, and so provides a baseline that shows the minimum requirements for a humanistic philosophy, religion, or belief.




The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, Paris, 1948.  The original version is available at the United Nations web site.


A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Mary Ann Glendon, Random House, New York, 2000.


Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations: a Symposium, edited by UNESCO; with an introduction by Jacques Maritain. Alan Wingate, London, 1949.


The derivation of the Declaration of Human Obligations is given at the United Nations page of this web site.


Copyright © Rex Pay 2006