Balkinization  

Friday, August 31, 2007

Irrelevant God?

Andrew Koppelman

Chris Eberle, responding to my earlier post and clarifying Perry’s position on God and human rights (with the evident approval of Perry, who posted Eberle’s statement on Mirror of Justice), writes:

“crucial to human rights morality is the claim that each and every human being has ‘inherent dignity’ – sanctity, great worth, excellence. It’s because each human being has inherent dignity that we ought to treat each human being as inviolable. (I would say, it’s by virtue of the fact that each and every human being has great worth that each human being has a certain set of natural human rights.) Now the natural question to ask at this point is – what is it about each and every human being by virtue of which s/he has this inherent dignity? What property does each and every one of us possess by virtue of which each of us has great worth and yet equal worth? [Perry’s] view . . . is that it’s the property of being loved by God – that’s a relational property each human being has and has in equal ‘measure.’ Note that this is an ‘ontological’ claim – the issue is not how we know whether each human being is loved by God, or whether Christians were goaded to connect their belief about God’s love with rights-talk by their secular Enlightenment critics, or whether those who deny that God loves us can fulfill their moral obligations, but whether there is anything about each member of the human species by virtue of which each human being has this very special moral status. The issue put to secularists is whether they can identify any non-theological property that can take the place of being loved by God. Of course, secularists can just claim that inherent dignity just attached to humanity full stop. But that’s a pretty unsatisfying position.”

But Eberle recognizes that there’s still a problem with the theistic position, which is “why should the fact that each human being has inherent dignity have any claim on my actions?” Put another way, even if God loves every human being, what does that have to do with the attitude I ought to take toward those beings? Why should I have to follow God’s lead in this respect?

Even if one takes Mark Scaperlanda’s side of his debate with Brian Tamanaha, and stipulate that God exists and that God’s existence is rationally knowable, nothing follows about our moral obligations toward others.

This is another instance of the old Humean is-ought problem: you can’t deduce conclusions about what ought to be done from premises that merely state what is the case. Stipulate that God exists and that God loves each of us. Nothing follows about obligation. You can say that God’s omnipotence gives him a really big club with which to thwack those who disobey his commands, so that you’d better do what He says or else. But at that point you’re not talking about any specifically moral obligation. One can say that God is the source of all value, so that the is-ought distinction doesn’t apply to him. But this is a mystical claim that, instead of answering Hume’s problem, simply refuses to engage with it, running “is” and “ought” together into a single ineffable Lump. Whatever its advantages would be, intellectually it’s no more satisfying than the secular “full stop” defense of human rights that Eberle dismisses.

In short, now that it’s clear that we’re arguing about the ontological claim, it’s not clear that the ontological claim can be coherently stated. Moral obligation seems to be primitive. If we have obligations toward other people, then it’s not clear how those obligations would be different if God did or did not exist.

God may be helpful to the cause of human rights, for some people, as an epistemological, historical, or psychological matter. But the ontological connection is obscure.

Comments:

"One can say that God is the source of all value, so that the is-ought distinction doesn’t apply to him. But this is a mystical claim that, instead of answering Hume’s problem, simply refuses to engage with it, running 'is' and 'ought' together into a single ineffable Lump. Whatever its advantages would be, intellectually it’s no more satisfying than the secular 'full stop' defense of human rights that Eberle dismisses."

I don't think it's that unsatisfying. Viewing God as necessarily good would deny the is-ought distinction for God, but it would still exist for the rest of us. And God wouldn't be ineffable; we could still find out all sorts of things about him, and he might reveal things to us from time to time, and our moral intuitions could still be reliable gauges of God's nature. At any rate, the unsatisfyingness is of a different kind from the unsatisfyingness of saying that there are all these ungrounded necessary moral properties out there.
 

>>"At any rate, the unsatisfyingness is of a different kind from the unsatisfyingness of saying that there are all these ungrounded necessary moral properties out there."

Really? In what way is "god" anything more than a collection of such properties bound together for the express purpose of "grounding" them? How is labeling such a collection of properties "god" of any greater intellectual satisfaction than "grounding" the properties in human nature?
 

"I would say, it’s by virtue of the fact that each and every human being has great worth that each human being has a certain set of natural human rights"

Really? Each one of the books on my shelf has some amount of worth. Do my books have rights? Which rights would you say follow as an ineluctable logical consequence of my books' worth?

Since I'm told this is an ontological question, I suppose we'll just pull out our handy worthometers and dignitometers and we'll be able to settle any such questions forthwith.
 

Snedden: "In what way is 'god' anything more than a collection of such properties bound together for the express purpose of 'grounding' them? How is labeling such a collection of properties 'god' of any greater intellectual satisfaction than 'grounding' the properties in human nature?"

I'm not sure what you mean by suggesting that God is just a bunch of properties. The idea is that we have certain roles that need to be filled. Leaving those roles unfilled is unsatisfying. One of those roles is providing an ultimate ground for moral obligation. Of course, just because we've identified a role that God could fill doesn't mean that God fills it; it also doesn't mean that he doesn't do anything else. The God who gives a grounding to moral obligations might do other things too, like speak to us, or create the world, or judge it. I'm not sure what the problem is.
 

Whether or not "God" is "irrelevant," seems to depend, to a significant degree, on whether "God" is primarily a name, as is held by many religious communities, or whether "God" is just a metaphysical, and apparently a rather innocuous, concept.
 

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Forgive me, but all of this philosophizing about human rights seems a bit absurd to me. I'm certain it's brilliant stuff, and although my University of Chicago education is supposed to have bred within me a deep desire to read such conversations, I can't quite track on the appeal.

Why should we turn to ontology for the foundation of universal human rights? Why should anything about behavior (or the control thereof) be inherent within the human?

It's clear that when we move beyond the purely physical (we need to eat to live), we begin to talk about cultural adaptation--social practices form the primary means of assuring our own livelihood in regards to our specific environment. "Rights" are culturally defined and vary from one people to the next (although I disagree with statements like "group X has NO concept of human rights." Rights and obligations exist in all societies; they may not be individualized or parallel to expectations, but they still constitute rights).

Even the "human" portion of the phrase is a cultural construct; just because we determine membership of H. sapiens by a set of empirically verifiable criteria, doesn't mean that we always have, or that groups don't still exist in the world today that refute the humanity of their neighbors.

If one is serious about finding a "proper" or "better" foundation for universal human rights--and not trying to divine the presence of God, which is a different project altogether--one might start by examining what rights are actually universal (or close to it) and move up from there.

In that project, the advantage in a solid foundation isn't given to those who are theists or atheists, but those who are most inclusive. I might buy an argument that says the proselytic drive (and sophisticated syncretism) of a world religion encourages it to be as inclusive as possible when "pre-qualifying" members, but I see no inherent reason that a strictly secular organization couldn't do the same thing.

I agree with Andrew's conclusion in the original piece. We can talk about real world advantages of religions (like wealth, power, and feet on the ground) and their epistemological, historical, and psychological contributions, but that moves us a long way from a priori morality and discussions of ontology.
 

"Each one of the books on my shelf has some amount of worth. Do my books have rights?"

No, because the worth of humans, according the argument under consideration, is inherent worth, whereas books have only instrumental worth; if there were no humans to read them, they would have no worth. Animals, by contrast, have inherent worth, because animals, like humans, have interests of their own, not merely instrumental value.
 

There is no God.
 

The whole discussion is absurd. There is no philosophical reason why human beings have human rights.

It's because that's how we define a human being, and that definition is the root of our civilization. When we don't define it that way, the underpinnings of our society collapses - see Germany, circa '44.

The rest of this is simply mental masturbation, trying to find some kind of "eternal" reason from which to derive our principles. That was thrown out in the 19th century as simply untenable, but too many are still too intellectually confused or cowardly to just accept that matters of the fact.
 

Henry:

Fair enough, as far as books go. In your conception, interests somehow create worth which somehow creates rights:

interest --> worth --> right

It seems to me that people often just throw around words like "worth" and "dignity" and "respect" along with a large amount of hand waving to make it seem like everyone has it and somehow, in some unspecified way, these magical concepts confer a bunch of magical protections.

Since we're all humanitarians, we don't automatically want to deny that most humans have those things in some sense and to some extent. But I rarely see those terms specified with any precision and, having specified the terms, I rarely see any argument establishing that all humans have those worth-giving qualities in the specified sense to the requisite degree, and even were that done, I never see any argument that spells out the logical steps from interest to worth to right.

So please explain the steps from 1)some individual having an interest to 2) how that individual's interest establishes some kind of non-instrumental worth, in the specified sense of worth, and exactly who or what derives its worth from that interest, to 3) how it follows from something having non-instrumental worth that something (the same something?) therefore has a right or rights [which one(s)?] to 4) how all that results in universal human rights?
 

cmarshall4: You are asking the wrong person to supply an ultimate foundation for worth or rights; I've read too much Wittgenstein to consider that a possibility. I cannot prove that Hitler's approach was more moral than mine; rather, I define "moral" to mean respecting others' interests in lives as free from suffering as possible. But, since animals, as I noted, have interests, I am not a humanitarian, if that term excludes animals.
 

"I've read too much Wittgenstein"

Agreed.

I cannot prove that Hitler's approach was more moral than mine; rather, I define "moral" to mean respecting others' interests in lives as free from suffering as possible.

If you can't prove that your approach is more respectful of others' interests than Hitler's, then your approach, whatever it is, must be immoral in the extreme

But, since animals, as I noted, have interests, I am not a humanitarian, if that term excludes animals.

I wwas using "humanitarian" in a very loose, non-exclusive sense. For the purposes of morality, I wouldn't define it in terms of a single species at all. I would appeal to something like interests but I would require a being to have self-conscious interests to qualify as a moral being.

This doesn't rule out all animals per se but it does set a high bar. The cockroach that runs across my kitchen floor has interests. But I don't think they result in much worth or any universal cockroach rights.
 

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

The Dalai Lama, though a spiritual leader in his day job, is pleased to tell us we should practice compassion (as by recognizing human rights) just because it will make us happier. No God necessary. Don't you love those eastern religions? So cool!
 

"If you can't prove that your approach is more respectful of others' interests than Hitler's, then your approach, whatever it is, must be immoral in the extreme."

You misunderstand my meaning. Of course I can prove that my approach is more respectful of others' interests than Hitler's. What I cannot prove is that respecting others' interests is more moral than not respecting them. That is something that we just have to decide to make the foundation of morality.

I agree with you that self-conscious beings have more important interests than merely conscious ones. So does Peter Singer, in PRACTICAL ETHICS.
 

"Forgive me, but all of this philosophizing about human rights seems a bit absurd to me."

So, let's do a bit more, right? Lol. Seriously, given the strength of the claims and the importance given to them by important theorists, there surely is some value to this intellectual exercise. I do find it as one noted 'intellectual masturbation' on some level. But, this is common when theorizing, isn't it?

I always was a bit confused with this whole 'natural rights' idea ... there seemed to be some sort of is/ought problem. Given that ultimately many eventually made 'God' practically an abstract concept anyway, suggesting you need 'religion' (I find the word a bit question begging, as I once mentioned here) for rights seems to me a bit absurd.

[Some want to assume God has to be good. I find this dubious at best. You can spend reams of pages, some like that sort of thing, 'proving the fact,' and it all turns out to be question begging. But, it ultimately is rather hard to convince them otherwise. I don't think these relatively brief essays will, surely.]

Atheists generally will tell you that 'God' is a construct of society. A 'God' that supports universial rights worth honoring surely is. Thus, 'religion' alone isn't enough. You need a certain type of God.

And, in pratice, many atheists are quite moral, thank you very much, more so than theists. QED on the fact that yes Virginia you can set up a system of rights and values w/o one. This is a result of intellect and personal feeling. This is quite powerful.

I'd take that esp. given the mixed results of 'religion' alone, thank you.
 

Chris: "I'm not sure what you mean by suggesting that God is just a bunch of properties."

That "god" is an wholly human invention. But this is irrelevant to the point I was attempting to make. My usage is merely revelatory of my particular bias (again, irrelevant to my point).

Chris: "The idea is that we have certain roles that need to be filled. Leaving those roles unfilled is unsatisfying. One of those roles is providing an ultimate ground for moral obligation."

Sure. And you indicated that somehow "god" was a "more satisfying" filler of this role than "ungrounded" brute necessary moral properties.

I don't see how this can possibly be the case. By "grounding" such properties in "god", all you're doing is staving off the regress one level. How is this any more satisfactory than the naturalist declaring that such necessary properties are "grounded" in human nature, or the nature of existence itself?

It seems to me that the only difference between the two ("god" and "existence") is the ascription of purpose/will/consciousness to "god". But I fail to see any reason why such characteristics are necessary for the instantiation of moral properties. Indeed, if they were required, it would seem to place such a grounding squarely on Euthyphro's first horn.

If such characteristics are not necessary to the existence of moral properties, then how can their existence render a formulation that requires them of greater intellectual satisfaction than one that does not?
 

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Bill Snedden: "How is this any more satisfactory than the naturalist declaring that such necessary properties are 'grounded' in human nature, or the nature of existence itself?"

The big difference between God and human nature is that human nature is contingent. We need a necessarily-existent truthmaker to ground necessarily-true moral claims. I'm not sure what you mean by the suggestion that "the nature of existence" makes moral claims true. The existence of most things is contingent too; why does the mere fact that things can exist, in general, require that we should respect some of those things?

"But I fail to see any reason why such characteristics are necessary for the instantiation of moral properties. Indeed, if they were required, it would seem to place such a grounding squarely on Euthyphro's first horn."

I'm not sure which horn you're referring to. I don't think the Euthyphro problem is fatal to grounding morality in God. I explain some of why I think so on this thread, and will say a little more in a guest post soon.

"If such characteristics [as purpose/will/consciousness] are not necessary to the existence of moral properties, then how can their existence render a formulation that requires them of greater intellectual satisfaction than one that does not?"

I think the issue of a grounding for moral claims is a reason to prefer theism to materialism, but you might decide that there is a necessarily-existent moral law, in addition to the material universe. That would ground moral claims similarly to the way a necessarily-existent moral lawgiver would. But it wouldn't be materialism.
 

Chris: I think the issue of a grounding for moral claims is a reason to prefer theism to materialism, but you might decide that there is a necessarily-existent moral law, in addition to the material universe. That would ground moral claims similarly to the way a necessarily-existent moral lawgiver would. But it wouldn't be materialism.

This is exactly what I meant by intellectually masturbation. Lot's o' fancy words to go in circles.

Human rights is the grounding. They don't require grounding, any more than Euclids axioms require some sort of universal grounding.

That fallacy, of looking for external grounding for principles that are necessary for the internal consistency or even semblance of sanity of the system under discussion, is what then leads one to posit some groundless magical fairy. If human rights require external "grounding", then so does any variety of theism.

Unless you want to declare that Magical Fairies don't require grounding, in which case I can do the same for human rights. Except that my reasoning actually depends on the nature of the system, instead of deus ex machina. And my cut-off doesn't become a universal magical basis for arguments, only moral arguments being made by contemporary people (excepting the few hundred Andaman Islanders who are outside the global system).
 

RandomSequence: "Human rights is the grounding. They don't require grounding, any more than Euclids axioms require some sort of universal grounding...If human rights require external 'grounding', then so does any variety of theism."

We need to distinguish claims--or propositions--from things--or entities. I don't think that things need grounding, only claims. So if "human rights" are some sort of necessarily-existent entities, then there would be a truthmaker for necessary moral claims. And the truthmaker for "human rights exist" would be the human rights themselves. There might be a question why our moral intuitions give us any sort of access to those entities, and an ontology that countenances that sort of thing wouldn't be materialism. But in any event, that would be different from thinking that mathematical claims need no ontological grounding. The truthmaker for theism--if it's true, of course--is just God.
 

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