Document Type : Research Article


Associate Professor of Law, London School of Economics and Political Science.


The present paper takes as its moniker an assertion of that theologian-cum-state theorist, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel saw the Reformation as a moment of transition from dogma to reason in religion, concomitant with the establishment of the modern secular state in Europe. This paper will argue that whereas human rights appear as the ethical content or desire of the rational state, they do not offer a simple corollary or complement of religion; indeed they tend to reverse or negate principles that are central to most major religions. The argument is straightforward: I suggest that core religious symbologies of obligation and community—the obligation of one toward another and the community in God—are vacated in human rights. Human rights transform relations of obligation into systems of ownership and debt (I am no longer obliged to you; rather you are indebted to me). They idealise a relation between the state and the individual that is fundamentally hostile to notions of community. The argument proceeds under four headings: first I look at ‘freedom’—drawing on Hegel for the thesis that human rights be read as a vehicle of religious ethics in a secular state. Second, I refer to Freud and Levinas for the sense of the divine expressed through (or manifest in) guilt and ‘obligation’; I contrast briefly the religious expression of these notions with that found in human rights discourse. Third, a section on ‘community’ argues that this is not merely ignored in human rights discourse, it is actively undermined. Finally, I look at the contemporary practice and theory of human rights envisaged as a system of self and sovereignty channelled through ‘law’ and the state. The argument does not assume incompatibility between human rights and religion as matters of personal belief—it does however identify rivalry between the normative directives on behaviour and self-understanding that inform each as a matter of practice.


  1. Books & Articles:

    1. Hegel, George (1956). The Philosophy of History, Mineola: Dover.
    2. Hegel, George (1996). The Philosophy of Right, Transl. by S.W. Dyde, New York: Prometheus Books.
    3. Hegel, George (1998). “The Philosophy of Religion”, in: Stephen Houlgate (ed), The Hegel Reader, Oxford: Blackwell.
    4. Freud, Sigmund (1985). “Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays”, in: Freud, The Origins of Religion, ed. James Strachey,Volume 13, New York: Penguin.
    5. Levinas, Emmanuel (1998). Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, Transl. by Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
    6. Finnis, John (2001). Natural Law and Natural Rights, Oxford: Clarendon Press