Thursday, September 06, 2007

Human rights and religion, one more time

Andrew Koppelman

Chris Green’s post on the relation between human rights and religion has produced one of the most thoughtful discussion threads that I’ve seen on this blog. Chris has shown, persuasively to me, that there are some ontological problems about rights that can be more easily answered if one assumes the existence of God than if one doubts this assumption.

On the other hand, the existence of God is by no means an uncontroversial assumption. So I continue to think that the epistemological parity emphasized by Brian Tamanaha has an ontological analogue: it remains doubtful when our views on rights rest on solid foundations. God provides such a foundation if and only if God exists. If God doesn’t exist, then the atheist who recognizes this and clings to rights as his moral bedrock is on firmer ground than the theist. And if God’s existence is unknowable, then the agnostic who admits this has the advantage of not being saddled with unprovable metaphysical propositions. Now it may further be that the atheist’s bedrock points to something transcendent that grounds it, and that this provides some reason (though not necessarily a conclusive one) to revisit his atheism. I'm inclined to think so. That's why I've been an enthusiast for the idea that religion is a good thing. It's good for people to try to grasp that Transcendent Something as best they can, and religion is the way in which most people attempt that.

But here things get murky. One candidate for the Transcendent Something is an omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely good being Who presides over the universe. But that candidate has well-known problems of His own.

In short, the theistic and atheistic believers in human rights each have holes in their story. I don't know how to compare the size of the holes. This is relevant to the familiar contemporary American discourse that tends to frame the question as whether theists are fools or atheists are knaves. The difficulties shared by both positions do not justify smugness on either side.


Before we get to the matter at hand, I'd like to examine the meaning of "atheist." The posting suggests that it is a person who "recognizes" that God doesn't exist. But, as it is impossible to prove the non-existence of anything, most atheists do not assert that God does not exist; to assert that would require a leap of faith. Rather, atheists assert that, in the absence of evidence for God's existence, we do not believe that God exists. It's exactly the same as with unicorns or Santa Clause: we don't believe that they exist, but we also don't "recognize" that they don't exist. Yet we are not agnostics because we do not consider the existence of God (or of unicorns or Santa Clause) to be a serious possibility.

Sorry, I meant "Santa Claus," not "Clause." I suppose that lawyers are prone to that error. In "A Night at the Opera," Chico Marx said, "You can't fool me, there ain't no sanity clause."

Speaking of 'some ontological problems about rights' that can be 'answered' more adequately from this or that assumption seems to presuppose that rights exist somehow independently of the cultural, historical, or institutional frameworks of their expression and enforcement. What could such an 'ontological problem' be? The difficulty that those who are already committed to promoting the observance of human rights have in constructing logically consistent justifications for such rights? But why are such difficulties problems? Is it not so the rights exist in their exercise, rather than in some evasive essence? Human rights are not a property of humans but a practice of humans.

Human rights are of course contingent upon human beings. Unless one takes the existence of humans as necessary (which would be odd, as humans have not always existed, nor will they always exist), there is nothing necessary about human rights.

Yet it seems to me that there is something both precious and precarious in their contingency. Human rights are the expression of a community of value and practice. Is it not enough to say that human rights are perfectly consistent with the vision of a world in which I want to live and I stand in solidarity with all other human beings who share that vision and will live a life so as to allow even those who do not share that vision to live in it? Or perhaps rather than 'allow' others to live in such a world, I am willing to take certain measures to compel them to live in such a world.

Such thoughtful discussions as the ones that have been had here are stimulating and increase a sense of shared value and a sense of belonging within a community of practice (the observance and promotion of human rights). I hold strongly to these values which both deep intuition and difficult reasoning have nurtured in me, but it is not necessary for me to insist that my values are grounded in any logical necessity or transcendent ground. 3daisy


Thanks to you, Chris G., Chris E., Michael P., etc., etc., for a wonderfully illuminating discussion.

The person who obtains their sense of human rights through reason, has a stronger foundation than those who don't.

Certainly the sense that we hold a strongly reasoned position often motivates us to act consistently with that position. But all the positions advanced here have been reasonable and I have not noted anyone arguing against human rights during the course of this discussion. No one has said, 'oh, my justifications appear not to have been as strong as I thought, my sense that human rights are valuable has diminished'. No, all parties come to the discussion already holding human rights to be desirable and work backwards from there. This discussion is an activity that draws closer a group of people who share certain values. Such an activity is valuable in itself, but the conclusion of the debate is secondary to its effect. Its value lies in how it motivates people to promote the rights they are seeking strong grounds for, and the strategic value that their increasingly finessed arguments offer in the course of such promotion.

Religion removes the requirement that a position is "strongly reasoned". In religion the position is dictated, and any questioning of that position is discouraged.

I have to agree with miuw's anthropological take on the discussion. I, too, think that it's been a complex, wonderful, and sincere conversation that highlights the possible in terms of blog interchanges, but I have a hard time--as I've mentioned before in another thread--accepting the premise that moral claims (or a certain subset thereof) are necessarily true.

Moral claims are indeed contingent upon the particular "cultural, historical, or institutional frameworks." One need not look beyond the differential normative commitment in our own society to realize that truths we hold to be self-evident may not be so self-evident to everyone. Given the unfathomable diversity in such frameworks throughout history (and prehistory), it seems ridiculous to seek the (true) foundation of (true) human rights in either an inherent common sense / reason or a religious framework. I should say that I agree wholeheartedly that discussions like this one are beneficial in the way they present strategies for furthering the cause of the rights we feel we've already established as "human rights."

The messier task of actually agreeing on what they are and enforcing them, however, must be negotiated between the people in the various overlapping and sometimes contradictory social networks and institutions that make up the present on-the-ground reality.

I agree with miuw and go a step further. To me, this whole discussion is rather silly because all sides seem to be afraid to admit the obvious truth that human rights exist by virtue of people having fought and sacrificed to create, assert, and institute those rights. That also implies that preservation of human rights may require more fighting and sacrifice. If we become cowards and unwilling to sacrifice, the consequence would not be just that rights that eternally exist in some real form would be denied to us; it would be much worse: the rights would cease to exist. That's all there is to it. Metaphysical arguments are, at best, PR and propaganda. They may be quite effective, as in the case of the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence. But don't forget that those words were only effective as motivators for actions, and only actions enforced or instituted any rights.

miuw: "Human rights are of course contingent upon human beings. Unless one takes the existence of humans as necessary ... there is nothing necessary about human rights."

This is true. But presumably humans have rights in virtue of some more general moral principles that are true even in possible worlds where humans don't exist. For instance, if there were beings with a different internal structure, but who did everything that human beings can do, and were otherwise situated as we are, they wouldn't be human beings. But it would still be wrong to harm those beings in the same ways it is wrong to harm human beings.

If they literally did everything "as human beings do", they would be equivalent to human beings. It would imply also that their thinking and feeling would be the same as humans', at least to the extent that is relevant to their decisions. (Otherwise, they would do some things differently.) They would, therefore, for all practical purposes be indistinguishable from humans, which also means that the condition "human beings don't exist" would not hold in your example. Your example provides no valid support for your conjecture that moral principles are independent of human existence (and circumstances).

bullfighter: "They would, therefore, for all practical purposes be indistinguishable from humans, which also means that the condition 'human beings don't exist' would not hold in your example."

No. See XYZ & water. A difference in internal structure can require a difference in kind, even if surface phenomena are the same.

But independent of that point, surely there are also possible ETs significantly different from human beings who have moral rights. It seems just speciesist, in the purest and most straightforward sense of the term, to suggest that it is impossible for any beings other than human beings to have moral entitlements.

You are attacking a straw man. Nobody is saying it would be impossible for non-humans to have moral entitlements. As a matter of fact, we observe certain aspects of morality among other animals, and it is practically certain that highly intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe would develop rules of behavior and (the equivalent of) moral values.

But in your previous comment you asserted there were "more general moral principles that are true even in possible worlds where humans don't exist." Do you have a very low requirement on those possible worlds, that is satisfied if we replace humans by other intelligent beings that live in groups? Or are you asserting a "truth" in moral principles independent of existence of any such beings?

If it is the latter, I don't know what it would mean that moral principles are "true" if there were no beings to live by them.

If it is the former, I agree that all such beings would have some form of morality, and that a few rules would probably be common to all. Totally destroying your own species would probably be bad in every moral code. Deceiving or killing those who help you would probably be frowned upon in every group of intelligent beings that normally depend on some form of cooperation. But even those most universal rules have a good explanation as circumstantial/contingent rules. (Actually, the only reason I think they'd be universal is that they tend to be helpful to survival in virtually every imaginable circumstance.) Their universality would be no evidence for absolute moral truths.

bullfighter: "You are attacking a straw man. Nobody is saying it would be impossible for non-humans to have moral entitlements."

You suggested above that it is not true that "moral principles are independent of human existence"--I take that to mean that the moral principles in virtue of which human beings have value would not apply to ETs if human beings did not exist.

"[A]re you asserting a 'truth' in moral principles independent of existence of any such beings?"

First off, I should say that in making my argument, I take the truth of our normal moral beliefs as a given; I'm asking what has to be the case for that to make sense. Now, I think that those beliefs have to be true in possible worlds where human beings don't exist, because we can test the application of those beliefs to consider the moral entitlements of non-human beings like ET. Note, I'm not asking about what ETs might require of each other; I'm asking what morality requires in the world where ETs, but not human beings, exist.

So, I think that the moral reality in virtue of which ETs would have value is the same moral reality in virtue of which we have value. I'm asserting the existence of principles that apply independently of the existence of any particular beings like humans or ETs.

Your assumption that our normal (or any) moral beliefs are true is a discussion stopper, because that assumption is controversial. You can't procede from there until you justify the assumption. What makes a moral statement true? By what standard can truth of moral statements be evaluated? I have never seen convincing answers to those questions, so I don't believe that the concept of truth can be applied to moral statements.

bullfighter: "Your assumption that our normal (or any) moral beliefs are true is a discussion stopper, because that assumption is controversial."

This doesn't seem right to me. Controversial assumptions are inevitable if the topic is interesting. Far from ending conversation, they're actually the precondition of the existence of conversation in the first place.

"You can't proceed from there until you justify the assumption. What makes a moral statement true?"

These are different considerations. In fact, my argument considers what could make a moral statement true--that is, what could serve as an ontological ground for a moral statement. But considering that question is different from justifying our initial assumption that moral facts exist.

Consider a parallel to facts about math. We all think that 2 plus 2 is 4, but it's surprisingly hard to specify exactly what it is that makes that true. Philosophers of mathematics take the facts for granted even while they discuss their ontological underpinnings. it seems to me we can do the same with ethics.

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