Sunday, January 28, 2018

Human rights and moral objectivity

It is part of the idea of a human right that it exists even when it is being violated. If someone is born a slave and dies a slave, defenders of human rights will say that the slave nonetheless has the right to liberty. What sense can be made of this idea? The best sense I can make of it is that there is an objectively binding moral obligation on the part of everyone to permit this person to be free, and that those who are enslaving him are violating that. The idea of human rights seems to entail moral objectivity, and on the view that there are no moral facts, it is hard to see what human rights could mean. 

1 comment:

David Brightly said...

There seem to be three, maybe four, notions here:

1. human right,
2. (objectively binding) moral obligation,
3. moral objectivity/moral fact.

I'm only really comfortable with (2). At least, I know what it is to feel a moral obligation and I assume other people do too, though I don't know what 'objectively binding' adds to this. Does it qualify or merely unpack some of the sense of 'moral obligation'? Anyway, 'moral obligation' has an empirical or at least phenomenological status. The other terms, though, strike me as in some degree theoretical. Regarding (3), here is a candidate moral fact:

4. Most people feel obliged to keep their promises.

I think that's true but I suspect it's not quite what some people mean by 'moral fact'. Does the truth of (4) establish

5. There's a moral obligation to keep one's promises?

This seems an uncontroversial inference to me. It seems to capture what we mean by an existential claim with regard to a moral obligation. But is (5) a moral fact? Presumably, if it's reasonable to deny the existence of moral facts, then the answer is No. So just what is the sense of 'moral fact' in play here?

On (1), it's certainly possible to see possession of a right as a kind of moral fact or at least to formulate moral intuitions in terms of rights and duties. This notion inherits the ambiguities around moral facts. But most talk of human rights seems to me to be in support of a political movement, primarily in the West, to persuade non-Western states to limit their powers over their citizens, to modify constitutional and legal practices, etc, to be more compatible with Western precepts.