Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Argument from Inalienable Rights

This is a redated post from a couple of years ago.

In the series on inalienable human rights, I have been working on the possibility of a moral argument for theism based on the idea that we have inalienable human rights. The argument is a spinoff of a more typical type of moral argument, found in people like C. S. Lewis and C. Stephen Evans, which goes as follows:

1. (Probably) unless there is a God, there cannot be objectively binding moral obligations.
2. But there are objectively binding moral obligations.
3. Therefore (probably) there is a God.

Now, why do I introduce the idea of inalienable rights? Because I think some people who might be inclined to deny premise 2 in the argument might be strongly inclined to accept the idea that we have inalienable rights. And because the Declaration of Independence says that we have these rights in virtue of our having been created equal.

Now I think I can use successfully argue that someone who rejects 2 must reject Jefferson's statement that we have inalienable rights. What Jefferson is claiming is that is that if the King deprives a citizen of life, liberty, or the opportunity to pursue happiness, if the laws of the State permit the king to do this, and the king gets away with it and goes unpunished, the king nevertheless has acted wrongly. It implies that there is a "natural law" over and above the laws of the state or the decrees of the king.

Perhaps the first time we see this kind of a claim made is in story of David and Bathsheba. David impregnates Bathsheba, arranges her husband Uriah's death in battle, and then admits Bathsheba to his harem. The prophet Nathan gets David to admit that he violated Uriah's rights and therefore deserved to die, based on the claim that the law of God stands above the acts of the king. In polytheistic countries, no such Divine law would have been recognized. The king would have arranged a neck operation for Nathan's foolish effrontery, and that would have been the end of it. What sets David apart from other kings of the time is not the fact that he took the woman he wanted, but that he recognized a law above his own decrees.

Do natural inalienable rights exist if atheism is true? To borrow J. L. Mackie's terminology, this seems to be a queer kind of fact to exist in a naturalistic universe. Typically naturalists claim that what is true about the world can be discovered by some variant of the natural sciences. Physics looks at the really basic stuff, chemistry looks at chemically bonded physical stuff, biology looks at living systems of matter, psychology looks at living systems when they have mental states, sociology looks at systems of creatures with mental states as the relate to one another socially. It's hard to see how anything discoverable by any of these sciences entails the claim that we have inalienable human rights.

So it seems to be that a theistic argument could be forumated as follows;

1. (Probably) unless there is a God, there cannot be inalienable human rights.
2. There are inalienable human rights.
Therefore 3. (Probably) there is a God.

But of course the argument can go the other way. Someone could use the following argument:
1. same as above
2. There is not God.
Therefore 3. Probably there are no inalienable human rights. See the Wallace article I reference in the previous post.

17 comments:

Playwrighter said...

One other point regarding David & God. God wanted David to steal Bathsheeba. After all, his son by her was his heir.....

Dale Andersen
http://playwrighter.blogspot.com/

Rakshasas said...

I'm simply confused by the entire argument that rights must require a God.

You can argue that God is the uncaused source of moral rights, but then will reject the atheist claim that moral rights can be properly basic.

Why must the source of morality be God and not morality itself?

Victor Reppert said...

Rakshasas: I suppose you could have a metaphysics that isn't specifically theistic that in which objects with moral properties can be fundamental entities. Most versions of naturalism reject this; for the naturalist the universe, at its base, is closed, mechanistic (non-purposive) and everything in it is there because that mechanistic substrate is the way it is. The fundamental causes at work in the universe, if naturalism is true, are amoral; morality "emerges" through evolution as a set of rules that people make up to get along. There is a lack of fit between the fundamental objects of the univese and the existence of inalienable rights. I don't see how the argument works from any physicalistically acceptable description of me as a person to the statement that I have inalienable rights.

God, on the other hand, accoding to the tradition, has moral essential properties. God does't just happen to love, God is love. I suppose you could argue that the universe has moral characteristics essentially, but that would be to give the universe at least one God-like characteristic.

With respect to David and God, the point I was making was that Nathan was insisting that even as king, David could not rightfully deprive him of his life and his property (I think that's how they would have thought of it in those days; feminism was still centuries away)
And Scripture teaches very clearly that God can use bad things for good; that doesn't make them any less bad.

Championing the rights of the weaker against the stronger is a characteristic of the Jewish-Christian-Islam tradition that we don't find in the ancient world outside those traditions, at least not as a rule. For example, the rights of infants not to suffer infanticide was unheard of in the Roman Empire apart from the Christian community.

Rakshasas said...

Championing the rights of the weaker against the stronger is a characteristic of the Jewish-Christian-Islam tradition that we don't find in the ancient world outside those traditions, at least not as a rule.Please. It's a component of several Buddhist texts, of several Hindi texts, and is present in a multitude of more primative religions.

And while it's present in Christianity, it's regularly ignored.

Let' see . ..

Constantine had several hundred Christian families executed (totalling over 3000 victimes, mostly women and children) because he felt they were heretical in their beliefs.

Charlemagne had 4500 Saxon men women and children beheaded in one morning because they wouldn't convert.

In the 600's, the Jews were banished from Spain, those that didn't wish to leave were enslaved, women and children alike, and given by the governing lords to Christians.

In 1122 Christian crusaders slaughtered women and children in Jerusalem until, by one account, "their horses were knee deep in blood. We then went to the church to thank the Lord for his mercy."


The Spanish Inquisition of Isabella's time tortured and exectued numerous women and children as well as Men.

In England, we have a lovely history of women being burned at the stake for witchcraft, and beheaded for being Catholic.

Across Christiandom you have the slaughter of entire families for heresy, a practice nearly as old as Christiandom itself.

So yeah, maybe it's a big part of the religous doctrine, but it doesn't stop the priests from sodomizing little boys and then suing the US government claiming they have first ammendment protections because they're a religious body so they shouldn't have to pay for it.

Victor Reppert said...

I'm quite sure Christians exploit others. Of course the Hindu and Buddhist teachings come out of non-naturalistic world-views, even though they aren't theistic, but I should have qualified my statement further. Though of course you have the practice of encouraging suttee, etc, in the Hindu traditions.

As for Christian atrocities, of course. People fail to live up to their principles. Does the name Sally Hemmings ring a bell, so to speak? But it is perfectly possible that someone can believe, and have the metaphysical basis for believing, that people should be treated in one way, and then treat them in another way.

On the other hand, the only time atheism was the state ideology was under communism in the Soviet bloc. That is what atheists have done with political power, so far. That is why I don't like political movements in the name of Christ. If Christian faith is the way to get political power, then people will use the religion to exercise power, or misuse the political power they have to advance their religion. And it doesn't matter one bit whether or not the religion is theistic or atheistic.

In fact, if you don't have hypocrites, it's a bad thing, it means your moral standard are too low.

But this is a different issue: does theism provide metaphysical grounds for the idea of inalienable rights which atheism does not?

Rakshasas said...

Victor,

I don't disagree that States regularly abuse political power for various reasons. Christian states do this (witness the Spanish Inquisition), and atheists states do this.

My problem with your comment was the unqualified claim that the notion of compassion for those with less power is unique to the Judaic/Islam roots of theistic religions. That claim as stated doesn't hold water.

My other point is that the claims of the religion really don't matter, the practice does.

If more Christians were Francis of Assissi and fewer were Torquamada then the real issues many folks have with Christians wouldn't exist. Sadly, at least in the USA today, the prevailing view of Christians is not compassionate people giving charity to widows and orphans. It's "compasionate conservatism," championed by the likes of Pat Robertson, which is clearly less than compassionate.

Your statement about hypocrites applies to atheists as well, and is one I entirely endorse. Far too many people contend that because one can't live up to standards, that they shouldn't have them. A view that leads directly to social decline.

Rasmus Møller said...

Comment on rakshasas quote:
> My other point is that the claims of the religion really don't matter, the practice does.

Truly when judging someones character, practice matters more.

However "The argument from inalienable rights", as I understand it, relies on the fact that that certain moral obligations are actually derived from a source external to us, and cannot have any absolute authority over us, if they are just what most of us happen to agree upon.

I have followed the now extinct "argument from ..." debate last year on alt.books.cs-lewis with great interest and I am new to posting...

psuche said...

Morality exists objectively without a God and some of the morality practiced under a God can actually be immoral. See Ethics of Liberty by Murray Rothbard on the objective reasons why this is the case and judge for yourself:

http://www.mises.org/rothbard/ethics/ethics.asp

Rasmus Møller said...

> Morality exists objectively without a God

I shall read the book before commenting...

>and some of the morality practiced under a >God can actually be immoral.

Hard to disagree.

J. Clark said...

Just wanted to throw Chesterton (yes, he comes from the horribly, wicked English people) into the talk, "The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man." - Chapter 19, What I Saw In America, 1922

rakshasas, stop watching so much tv and reading newspapers. Read the classics and Reppert and J.M. Roberts (another English monster), "A History of the World."

Ilíon said...

Rakshasas: "I'm simply confused by the entire argument that rights must require a God.

You can argue that God is the uncaused source of moral rights, but then will reject the atheist claim that moral rights can be properly basic.

Why must the source of morality be God and not morality itself?
"


"Why must the source of morality be God and not morality itself?"

If we wish to speak meaningfully of "the source of rights" (or of morality), then this "source" must be ['the' not 'a'] God, and cannot be rights themselves (or morality itself), as though these things were self-existant entities, because all such things are *personal* -- it's not merely that it is senseless to speak of these and similar intellectual things (the word 'spiritual' also works in this context) without reference to persons, it is that these things don't even exist if there are no persons.

Though, when 'morality' is more fully understood, this question you've asked vanishes, collapsing in upon itself; for God *is* morality, just as God is justice, and God is mercy, and God is love, and God is truth, and God is reason, etc. It's not that God knows about such things (as you and I do) as something "out there," it's that this is God's character; when we meaningfully speak of these things (by which I mean not as mere "ideas in our heads" but as really-existing things) we are speaking about God.


"You can argue that God is the uncaused source of moral rights, but then will reject the atheist claim that moral rights can be properly basic."

It's so easy to reject the atheistic claim because it is absurd. The atheistic claim logically resolves to the claim that such things are self-existant entities, which is an absurdity. To claim that a right exists is precisely to claim that an obligation exists; there cannot be the one without the other and there cannot be either if there are no persons who own rights and who owe obligations.


So, since moral rights are personal, in a vain attempt to rescue the claim of the (sans God) "properly basicness" of moral rights, our 'atheist' must retreat into moral subjectivism/relativism. But that is precisely what he was trying to avoid.

Timmo said...

Victor,

Why suppose that atheists are unable to deny (1)? There are plenty of options here that do no commit us to "queer facts." One might follow Hume and ground ethics in our sympathetic nature; one might ground ethics in an implicit social contract that we all accept; one might hold, with Kant, that moral norms spring from the activity of practical reason. I find this last possibility very attractive, especially after reading Christine Korsgaard's book The Sources of Normativity.

Mike Darus said...

The Declaration of Independence attributed individual rights to a gift from a creator God. In the historical context, this was a necessary argument because of the prevailing belief in the divine rights of kings. In order to challenge a king, there was a need for an equal and challenging divine right, therefore the appeal to individual inalienable rights.

The divine right of kings is no longer a viable foe. The current political structure is the social contract. Government is permitted by the governed under certain terms. In the US, the Constitution is the primary legal document supplemented by legislation, court rulings, executive orders, etc.

If non-theists were honest, they would concede that there are no inalienable rights. They would agree that we only have rights because the constitution is the rule of the land. There are only international human rights because we impose it on others or they agree to international contracts.

The Declaration of Independence is a verty theistic document. A good atheist must reject its premises.

Mike Darus said...

Dale Anderson said,
"God wanted David to steal Bathsheeba. After all, his son by her was his heir....."

You might want to re-evaluate your statement based on Gen 50:20 which summarizes Joseph's challenges:
Genesis 50:20
"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

"God wanted" is probably simplistic and misleading. The process of God permitting an evil because He knows He car redirect the consequences is a complex interplay of responsible human agency and divine sovereignty.

Clayton said...

Most versions of naturalism reject this; for the naturalist the universe, at its base, is closed, mechanistic (non-purposive) and everything in it is there because that mechanistic substrate is the way it is. The fundamental causes at work in the universe, if naturalism is true, are amoral; morality "emerges" through evolution as a set of rules that people make up to get along. There is a lack of fit between the fundamental objects of the univese and the existence of inalienable rights. I don't see how the argument works from any physicalistically acceptable description of me as a person to the statement that I have inalienable rights.

Why do you keep saying such things? Most philosophers I know are naturalists and I know no philosophers who adopt this as their view. There might be a handful, but one of the reasons their views get into print is that they strike many of us as interesting and novel as opposed to the expected outcome of naturalism.

I'm actually curious as to how the theist could say that we have inalienable rights at God's good grace. On its face, that claim is incoherent. Is God not free to refrain from granting us rights? If he's free, do we not have rights without inalienable rights?

This matters for this argument. For even if we bracket the connection between naturalism and the possession of rights, until you make sense of inalienable rights being something bestowed rather than recognized as inherent, you face the following problem:

1. Either naturalism or theism.
2. If naturalism, no inalienable rights.
3. If theism, no inalienable rights.
C. No inalienable rights.

It looks like VR endorses 2. I can't see what grounds he has for rejecting 3, but if 3 is rejected it will be hard to see how he could deny that we have rights in virtue of our natures. That imperils 2. If C is accepted, the existence of inalienable rights is not the stick to beat naturalists with.

Mike Darus said...

Clayton,
I think you are pusing "inalienable" too far. The perspective of the Declaration of Indpendence is that our rights are "edowed by our creator." This means that the source was the creator and presumably the rights could have been withheld and (perish the thought) retracted by the same source. You seem to assume the rights exist apart from the creator. You are free to posit this, but it is not the perspective of the Declaration.

Clayton said...

I don't think I'm pushing it too far. If you say that not even God can revoke the rights we have, they are inalienable. If you say that God cannot resist recognizing our rights, they are inalienable. If you deny this, they are not inalienable for just the reasons you mention. Either those who signed the declaration are (a) confused, (b) wedded to a view on which God' giving was compulsory, or (c) just talking the talk in a context where talk of divine this and that counted for something. I'm happy thinking that the truth is contained somewhere in these options. I would not be surprised if many theists went for (a) or (c) and admitted that sometimes people have pressing concerns that stands in the way of paying attention to the philosophical niceties.