Saturday, May 01, 2010

Relativism and Inalienable Human Rights

If you believe in inalienable human rights, you can't be a moral relativist. A moral relativist holds that all moral obligations are derived from the norms of a society. But a right is a special kind of moral obligation, an obligation not to deprive you of something (life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness). Jefferson said that these come from our creator, which means that a society can't take them away just because it doesn't recognize them.

Of course if there is no creator, you have to rethink where those rights come from. Putting evolution in place of the creator creates this howler, which I gave in one of my first posts to this blog five years ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men have evolved equally, and that they are endowed by Evolution with certain Inalienable Rights, that among these are Life , Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Though this may be a special case of the issue of atheism and objective moral values.

20 comments:

Clayton said...

CR: There are inalienable human rights iff every culture's deeply held moral values requires respecting such rights.
Obs: Every culture's deeply held moral values requires respecting such rights.
C: There are inalienable moral rights.

So, there's an argument from cultural relativism to the conclusion that there are inalienable moral rights. It's valid, so I worry that your claim that a moral relativist cannot believe in rights is not. I take it you'd have to add to your argument a denial of the observation (Obs). You might think Obs is false or that every cultural relativist believes Obs is false, but if the cultural relativist helps himself or herself to Obs, she can say pretty much everything you want to say about rights.

Anonymous said...

That's a mighty funky use of the word "inalienable" there, Clayton. Then again, funky use of the word "moral" too. Hell, funky use of the word "culture"!

And I imagine the fact that a moral relativist can say whatever they want given the most meager attempt at an argument is rather part of the problem. It isn't that a relativist can't say "We have this right!", it's that what "right" means under a relativist scheme is, like "moral", drained of most everything meaningful to begin with.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

It is highly questionable that every culture's deeply held moral values require respecting such rights. A great many cultures have believed in slavery which is treating people like property. Some believed in human sacrifice and cannibalism. Can either Nazism or Communism be regarded as genuinely believing in human rights. But under relativism if a culture should arise tomorrow that did not hold to human rights who is to say they are wrong. Also under relativism what obligation do I have to hold to something just because my culture says so. I think it is a very good thing that most relativist do not consistently follow their philosophy. But that does not change its implications.

Clayton said...

Anon,

It's a simple logical point, so I'll just repeat it.

P: There are inalienable human rights.
Q: P is true iff all cultures accept P.

What Vic said: If you accept Q, you can't accept P.

What I said: No, that's not quite right. Q is consistent with R and (R&Q) entails P.
R: All cultures accept P.

To complete the argument that Vic is putting forward, you have to add the contingent empirical premise ~R. Otherwise, it's clearly invalid for just the reason I gave earlier (and again). It's a simple mistake, easily corrected. But, it's a mistake.

As for the use of "inalienable", you can interpret it however you like, it doesn't change the fact that the argument from relativism to the non-existence of inalienable rights is invalid. But, if you want to know how I'd use it, how's this: A's right to X is inalienable only iff it is all things considered wrong to deprive A of X.

So, if, as a matter of contingent empirical fact, all cultures accepted that it is all things considered wrong to deprive people of life, liberty, property, etc..., it would just follow from relativism that people had inalienable rights. Denying the antecedent of the conditional (which I think you would do, rightly) isn't the same thing as denying the conditional.

"It is highly questionable that every culture's deeply held moral values require respecting such rights."

Agreed. That's why I think Vic should help himself to the premise that not every culture respects rights. Of course, most real relativists will talk about what's consistent with our deeply held values and remind us that we often aren't good at living in accordance with those values or even knowing what it takes to live out those values (e.g., maybe Vic's most deeply held values require him to do what Jesus would do, but it's hardly transparent to Vic or anyone what Jesus would do in Vic's shoes).

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

I cannot vouch for what Mr. Reppert believes. He, himself will have to answer for that but I would maintain both of your premises are false. The fact that every culture held to the idea of human rights would not create any obligation that they should or must continue to. If everyone up to a certain point in history believed the sun moved around the earth that would not create any obligation to continue to believe it. Unless there is some absolute standard on which rights are based they only exist on the of whatever culture holds them.
CR is false
Obs is false
Therefore C cannot be concluded from it.

Clayton said...

"CR is false
Obs is false
Therefore C cannot be concluded from it."

Hmmmmm....
The falsity of the premises has nothing to do with the validity of the argument. (We're in agreement on that, I hope.) You can have valid arguments with false premises. So, I agree that CR and Obs are false. I never said that they were true. I was pointing out that Vic's argument was invalid because it was missing a key premise--Obs.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

I apologize it I misunderstood your argument. I had not seen Mr. Reppert as holding to CR or Obs, but I suppose that is for him to answer.

Clayton said...

"I had not seen Mr. Reppert as holding to CR or Obs"

????

I didn't say he held to CR or Obs. He suggested that you could derive something from CR. I disagreed.

Again, it's a point of logic.
VR: You can derive not-Y from X.
Me: You can't derive not-Y from X if there's some further claim, Z, such that (X&Z) entail Y.

This is a point that Plantinga made ages ago in discussing the free will defense.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

It seems to me you are misunderstanding Mr. Reppert or creating a straw-man (Or perhaps referring to some earlier post that I am unaware of), but that is for Mr. Reppert to answer.
A: The world will end in 2012
B: It will be 2012 in two years
C: Therefore the world will in 2 years.
This is valid argument but it totally irrelevant if no one affirms A. CR in your argument is a relativistic premise (if claims that the existence of right depends on the opinion of culture). It is an opinion I categorically deny and I suspect Mr. Repport categorically deny. After that whether it needs Obs to become a valid argument is totally irrelevant.

Clayton said...

"It seems to me you are misunderstanding Mr. Reppert or creating a straw-man"

Look, it's his argument. It's invalid. I suggested a patch. I don't see how pointing out that an argument is invalid and pointing to a patch counts as creating a straw-man. The point that I suggested Vic missed is that on CR, it's contingent whether there are the sorts of rights Vic is talking about. I guess I think that's interesting. I guess if you don't care about what the relativist view actually is, I don't know why you're contributing to a thread on relativism.

Steven Carr said...

'If you believe in inalienable human rights, you can't be a moral relativist.'

Or a theist, as god can change anything, including 'inalienable' things.

MIKE ERICH
But under relativism if a culture should arise tomorrow that did not hold to human rights who is to say they are wrong

CARR
And if a football coach arose tomorrow who claimed the best way to play football is to fumble the ball on every play, who is to say that they are wrong?

Until somebody comes up with Objectively Best Plays in every situation, then football is a matter of opinion.

And if football is a matter of opinion, with nobody knowing what Objectively Best Plays are, then who is to say that it is wrong to fumble the ball on every snap?

Victor Reppert said...

I guess we have to ask what is packed into the whole idea of a right being inalienable. Is a right inalienable if, tomorrow, a cultural group could decide that the right was null and void? That seems a tad counterintuitive if you ask me.

Of course, we could say that if God can rescind a right, then it's not inalienable either. Theists typically expect God to have a stable moral character and won't start denying rights he once endowed us with. For some reason, they continue to think this in spite of all the Old Testament verses that Steven is going to throw at me right now.

Clayton said...

"I guess we have to ask what is packed into the whole idea of a right being inalienable. Is a right inalienable if, tomorrow, a cultural group could decide that the right was null and void? That seems a tad counterintuitive if you ask me."

Suppose you're a utilitarian. You could say both that A's right to X is inalienable because it would never be optimific (as a matter of contingent fact) to deprive A of X. You could also say that _if_ it were optimific to deprive A of X, then in that far off possible world, A wouldn't have the right to X. It seems the divine command relativist and the cultural relativist can say roughly the same things.

Steven Carr said...

'Theists typically expect God to have a stable moral character and won't start denying rights he once endowed us with. For some reason, they continue to think this in spite of all the Old Testament verses that Steven is going to throw at me right now.'

Why would theists disregard what other theists have claimed about their god in their scriptures?

I wonder if Jewish theists use the New Testament to override the Old Testament passages that Victor thinks should not be thrown at him?

Or perhaps Jewish theists have an understanding of god which lacks the sophistication of Christians, who can use their New Testament (with its claims that Jesus is going to strike Christians dead (see Revelation 2....)


This alleged god could well have a stable moral character.

He always intended from eternity to endow us with rights until 2011, and not afterwards.

There is nothing unstable about issuing something that has limited validity in time.

Is the American Government considered 'unstable' if it issues bonds with a maturity date?

Clayton said...

Vic,

Just a quick follow up.

Suppose the founding fathers got together and said, 'Hey, let's provide the citizens with inalienable _legal_ rights. Wouldn't that make our new country swell?'

The result would be legal obligations derived from the founding of a country that would involve the legal obligation to respect someone's inalienable rights.

I guess my question is this. Is it conceptually impossible for these men to succeed in doing what they were trying to do? It's _true_ that if they hadn't formed the intention to create such laws, there wouldn't be such rights. But, under the conditions I've imagined, there would be such rights.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

I suppose, if everyone agrees that under moral relativism humans rights are no more binding then the arbitrary rules of a football game and are nothing more than a result of a whim of the founding fathers and could just as well have been something else or become something else tomorrow I certainly would not disagree with them. Whether this is a desirable conclusion I suppose must argued on other grounds.

Steven Carr said...

MIKE
I suppose, if everyone agrees that under moral relativism humans rights are no more binding then the arbitrary rules of a football game ...

CARR
Really?

There are 'arbitrary rules' in a football game which prevent you fumbling the ball on every play?


When were they introduced?

Or is Mike claiming that it is purely arbitrary whether or not coaches tell their players to fumble the ball on every play?

Perhaps Mike can actually answer the point of the analogy.

If there are no such things as Objectively Best Plays in football, why are we still entitled to say that it is wrong to fumble the ball on every play, even though that is not against the rules of the game, and it is a matter of opinion what are the best plays.

According to Mike, as soon as something is a matter of opinion, you cannot say something is wrong.

I guess Mike hasn't ever played football, or has studied too much philosophy.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

Mr. Carr,

Football is a game and nothing more than a game. It is something one can can care about or not care about, participate in or not participate in as they feel inclined. It one chooses to participate in a game one does by implication agree to abide by the rules (whether one in fact is another matter). But those rules are purely arbitrary (a part of the game) and one can just as well play a different game with different rules or not play at all. If you think human rights is just some sort of game we play you have the right to your opinion. But remind not to vote for you for political office.

Steven Carr said...

So Mike does not even bother to answer the question of how people can and do say that something is wrong, when what is right or wrong is only a matter of opinion.

In the real world, people do that all the time, which makes all his armchair philosophising pointless.

All he can do is whine that my analogy is unfair.

And claim that there are 'arbitrary rules', as though these rules meant referees penalised people who play bad football(!)

I repeat my question, so Mike can dodge it again.

As there are NO rules preventing people from fumbling the ball on every play, how can Mike say that a coach is a bad coach if he tells his players to fumble the ball on every play?

After all, it is a matter of opinion what are the best plays, so according to Mike's Law of Philosophy, if something is a matter of opinion, nobody can say what is good or bad.

So how can Mike ever criticise any football coaches?

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

Mr. Carr,

You have 100% missed my entire point. Real life is not a game. Do you go up to someone who has been sold into slavery or had his daughter raped and murdered or been thrown in jail for a crime he did not commit and say it is all just a game. I will frankly admit that if someone says that the Holocaust was wonderful party and anarchy, murder and mayhem are just good clean good it is hard to argue against. This is not because it is so obvious, but because it destroys all premises to make a moral argument from. At this point it is best to simply pull back and start the discussion on another topic. But your analogy is not at all to the point. A referee makes a good or bad call based on whether something accords to the rules of the game but those rules are arbitrary. They could just as well be that the man who drops the ball can still pick it up and run with it. If human rights are this arbitrary the Chinese Cultural Revolution was just a fun time that was had by all.