It might seem paradoxical that whilst the UDHR, sometimes referred to as the ‘new universal ethics’, 108 is a document bent on ‘moral persuasion’, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, 109 it makes no mention of a ‘higher being’, whilst the bills of rights that emanated from the ‘rationalist’ Enlightenment do indeed call on the ‘creator’ for validation. The ‘natural rights’ revolutionaries, in revolt against the established church and any vestige of ‘the divine right of kings’, nevertheless turned to their maker for legitimization of their cause. Many of them were Christians, and those who were not were generally ‘deists’ rather than atheists, believing in a higher force which could be discovered through reason and observation. So the 1776 American Declaration of Independence asserted that ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are . . . endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights’ (my emphasis) whilst the 1789 French National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen ‘under the auspices of the Supreme Being’. Yet you would be hard pressed to characterize the thrust of iconic ‘natural rights’ charters like the American Bill of Rights or the French Declaration as anything other than measures intended to protect the individual citizens of their respective countries against the vagaries of the state (especially if you were a white, male citizen). If there was a moral framework to articulate it is to be found in Article 4 of the French Declaration:
Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except
those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.