Religion Unplugged

Confucianism and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
(Wikimedia Commons)

This Sunday marks the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most widely agreed upon global standard for protecting rights and dignity. In practice it is, of course, widely ignored, but its power is shown in that even those who violate try to pretend that they are really respecting it.

More recent assaults on the UDHR have claimed that it, or its current interpretations, are simply a Western standard imposed on the rest of the world. With several Western governments now pushing for novel rights in matters sexual, this is indeed cause for concern, but it needs to be emphasized that the core human rights documents do not include these innovations and have drawn on many cultures and religions.

This is shown in the key role of Peng Chun Chang, vice chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that actually produced the UDHR. Chang expressly drew on traditional Chinese thought and especially its underlying themes of human dignity.

Most attention on those who drafted the UDHR has properly focused first on Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of America’s late president, because of her prestige and her role in chairing the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. After that, most consideration has deservedly focused on the large roles played by France’s Rene Cassin and Lebanon’s Charles Malik.

But Chang played an equally prominent, perhaps greater, role. He was the Chinese representative to the commission and was its vice chair, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt herself. He was also chosen by the commission to be a member of the eight-member drafting committee, charged with the actual wording of the Declaration itself.

Chang had studied literature and theater, produced many plays, and was also a scholar of Confucian thought who drew extensively on this thinking in his vital contributions to shaping the UDHR. He was also learned in Western culture, earning a doctorate from Columbia University, where he studied with the eminent philosopher and educator John Dewey. He taught at the University of Chicago. In addition, he had been an ambassador to Chile, hence knew of Latin America, and ambassador to Turkey, and so was knowledgeable about the Islamic world. Much of his life was spent learning, analyzing, and comparing these different thought worlds, searching for common and differing themes.

As both a philosopher and diplomat, Chang had a deep understanding of Confucianism and related teachings and he believed that their emphasis on moral cultivation, ethical behavior, and social order had much to offer the modern world. He saw Confucianism as wisdom or religion that could integrate personal responsibility and ethical governance. He stressed its importance in understanding dignity and rights.

Chang emphasized the concept of “Ren” (仁) as “two­ man-mindedness,” the literal meaning of the character, which depicts the relation between two people, representing “benevolence” or “human-heartedness.” He stressed that attaining moral excellence was the highest form of human achievement. Drawing on these resources, he played a major part in shaping the UDHR's Article 27, which addresses rights to culture and science.

He argued that moral development was closely linked to a human dignity that could neither be granted nor taken away by external forces. Here he drew on the idea of “Li” (礼), which includes proper social behavior and regard, to emphasize that others must always be treated with dignity and respect.

Speaking to the opening of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, which preceded the commission, he quoted the Chinese sage Mencius to stress that the council's principal task should be to “subdue people with goodness.”

Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly, he countered the idea that Confucian notions of hierarchy made it a weak basis for dignity and rights, instead arguing that Western Enlightenment philosophers, such as Voltaire, Quesnay and Diderot, shared ideas with Confucius. He frequently quoted Mencius: Harvard human rights scholar Mary Ann Glendon stresses that he did so not because Mencius was Chinese but because he believed that what the sage taught was universally valid.

The first draft of the UDHR was a committee document with no individual authors, and its first draft went through many revisions suggested by the full commission. Hence, we should be cautious about attributing parts of a collegial committee document to any particular person. But reports on the drafting process stress Chang’s and Malik’s roles and connect Chang particularly to the stress on dignity. He was reported to have argued with Malik, with Chang stressing a universal rather than what he thought was a more limited Western basis for rights.

John Humphrey, who was charged with the painful legwork of putting the debated committee deliberations into agreed text, stated in his private diary that Chang and Charles Malik sometimes “hate(d) each other” in disputes on the bases of dignity.

However, this might have been merely in the immediate stress of debate on vital issues, since they also lunched together and, later, Malik praised Chang highly. Humphrey also credits Chang with using his mastery of Confucian philosophy to find compromise language at particularly difficult points. He wrote that Chang “was a formidable intellectual force and in intellectual capacity he far surpassed all the rest of us on the Committee.”

The words “the spirit of brotherhood” were added to Article I to emphasize the social relations that Chang thought were so important to include along with personal notions of rights. Perhaps most striking among his contributions was his insistence on including the phrases “inherent dignity” in the preamble and “All men are born free and equal in dignity and rights” in Article I.

Early Chinese philosophy or wisdom is complex and is neither unified nor easily reduced to or even translated into common Western categories, but there are good grounds for thinking that it can contain a robust view of human dignity, especially that others must always be treated with respect.

Unraveling the key personal contributions in drafting the UDHR is also complex. But there are good grounds that thinking that Peng Chun Chang played a major role, particularly in grounding human rights in a notion of human dignity and hence resisting more individualist views.

In doing so, he sought to relate such dignity to traditional patterns of Chinese thought. Hence, we might say that Confucian ideas have helped shape our understandings of human dignity in the international arena.

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