Thursday, February 09, 2006

More on inalienable rights

Another redated post on inalienable rights.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005
The Argument from Inalienable Rights
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.
posted by Victor Reppert @ 12:30 PM

At 6:38 PM, 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

At 7:21 PM, 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?

At 8:31 AM, 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.

At 11:48 AM, 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.

At 12:56 PM, 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?

At 2:09 PM, Rakshasas said…


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.

At 5:32 AM, 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...

At 12:15 PM, 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:

At 1:28 AM, 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.


Edwardtbabinski said...

Vic, We had an "inalienably right on" debate about this topic if you recall in a past email:


VIC: So Jefferson didn't mean what he said when he said the rights were endowed by the creator? I find that hard to believe, and if it is true, we need evidence you don't provide here.

ED: Endowed by a creator, or dictated a king, or by the people, or by your neighbor, or your Dad. Authoritarianism is still authoritarianism. Believing you have an authoritarian basis for how you ought to behave does not explain why or how such a basis functions, except on the basis of an authoritarian ("ask no further questions") functioning.

And speaking of the American revolution, many still believed in a "creator" who "endowed" kings with a divine right to rule, including king George in England. ("For the powers that be are placed there by God...and they do not wield the sword in vain.") If both Jefferson and King George believed in a Creator, what made Jefferson's refusal to want to pay taxes to "kings" the more "divine" proposal?


VIC: OK Ed. Do we, on your view, have inalienable rights? Or not?

ED: Again, how do you philosophically prove such a thing as "inalienable rights?" And what about legal rights based on "common sense" instead of "inalienability?" Didn't the common observation that most people didn't like being killed or stolen from come PRIOR to people asserting that we had "inalienable rights?"

To put it another way, questions of philosophy, in this case, moral philosophy, are ones that begin with questions we each ask ourselves. Like you ask yourself how you would react in a similar situation, and how you think others would react to your own reaction. The fact that some reactions have been so widespread among civilizations and elevated to the point of being written down in various "books" and declared "holy," as in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or in the laws of Hammurabi (both of which preceded the Ten Commandments), only means that they were written down. But prior to being written down, people asked questions: "How would I react in a similar situation, and how do I think others would react to my reaction?" You do know that the Babylonians portrayed Hammurabi as having received his laws directly from the sun god Shamash? Moses is portrayed receiving his laws directly from Yahweh. But proof remains lacking in both cases. Heck, just look at the laws of Hammurabi compared with the later laws of Moses, and you see many shared concepts and phrases, and of course changes, an evolution that took place in the later laws, the ones by Moses. But now look at the laws of Moses compared with America's Bill of Rights, and you see further changes, further evolution. I am not saying anything about the existence or non-existence of a creator. I am merely pointing out where I think the line is most plainly drawn concerning what both you and I know and don't know about such questions.

Now tell me exactly what you are trying to argue? Lewis' "Tao?" Are you trying to argue that without absolutely pure laws directly from some supernatural source, mankind will live in chaos? Well, even naturalists have a "source," namely the entire cosmos, and entire history of the evolution of our social species. And all such "sources" aside, disagreements concerning laws, and their penalties, remain.
Believers in a "Creator" turned central Europe into a wasteland following the dawn of the Reformation. (The Thirty Years War, which relatively speaking was as bad as the worst that Europe has ever seen since, according to some historians.) Even today, you have Catholic and Protestant ethicists in disagreement on matters ranging from questions of a "just war," to the "death penalty," and even "condom use."

Whatever "philosophical basis" you posit for ethical laws, the real question is how you get people to agree on the laws themselves, regardless of what "philosophical basis" each person may propose. Can we get supernaturalists and naturalists to agree on specific laws? That is the challenge of an open society.

And when arguing based on authoritarianism, which laws from what "authoritative sources" are you arguing in favor of? Is the Bible or Koran your source? If the Bible, then which parts of the Bible for which laws? Let's pick the law, "Thou shalt not kill." Killing another human being seems like a good one to make authoritatively unquestionable, but Moses even instructed "brother to kill brother" right after he came down from the mountain (and saw people worshiping the golden calf), and ordered fathers to stone and kill their own children if they even "tempt them" to "follow other gods." That's like killing someone for trying to talk you into something. In other words not an eye for an eye, but an eye for a wag of the tongue! And later Moses ordered the slaughter of women and male children (Numb. 31), therefore killing defenseless women and children is just fine whenever it's "godly" enough. I could add God commanding Joshua to kill entire cities. I guess if you believe a creator "god" is behind your actions, your actions are O.K.

Perhaps also, you have not studied the ways theology has interacted with the history of lawmaking in Europe? The trouble, as theologians saw it from Constantine to Luther's day was that Jesus never laid down laws for a nation or said what penalties ought to be enforced for breaking them. He just told people to save their own individual souls. Popes and Protestant leaders agreed that a nation must use whatever power at its disposal to encourage people to turn to God and save their souls, and thus safeguard the nation as well since disobedient nations according to the O.T. were punished by God. An individual Christian shouldn't kill people, but Christian magistrates of Christian nations should not simply allow heretics to run loose polluting people's souls with false beliefs, as even pointed out in Mosaic law for God's chosen nation. As I also said, the Bible speaks of God punishing entire nations if the people don't worship him or act godly enough. So letting heretics run loose is a threat to the safety of the entire state, not just to individual's eternal souls. Lastly, a father could kill a man who was threatening the life of his child in the O.T. to defend the life of his child, and the death of a child is purely physical, while heretics threaten the ETERNAL lives of children, so to defend the ETERNAL lives of children, heretics must be banished or snuffed out if they return. That's Biblical logic applied to how Christian NATIONS ought to act. You must read Calvin's and Beza's works on the necessity of magistrates to stop heresy from spreading. Then read Castellio's counters to Calvin's arguments. In the end, there are arguments on both sides that remain. Which is the more "authoritative?" The heresy killers have some strong verses concerning how NATIONS ought to react, don't they? Today we even have Christians who still advocate stoning disobedient children to death, that exist right beside Christians who are against the death penalty for any reason.


VIC: The creator of the universe, a being omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.

ED: Define "good" using all the examples of God's actions in the Bible. Was it "good" to "forbid" a piece of fruit" under penalty of eternal death, along with imposing a stain upon every last descendant of that fruit eating couple in Eden? [I am speaking of the myth of Original Sin in the Bible as interpreted not in a Jewish fashion, but by Augustine and the Christian church after him. Such a myth does not sound reasonable nor fair. And what about flooding the whole earth; demanding the slaughter of women, babes, cities; sending plagues and famines and foreign armies; and "casting people into a lake of fire whose smoke rises for eternity;" is all of that acting "good?" If a devil did all of the things I just mentioned, imagine how such activities would stain that devil's reputation. Even Lewis did not find everything in the Bible "good," and he rejected the most obviously "evil" passages as not even being inspired holy writ. But again, on what "authority" did he do so? Authorities concerning Holy Scripture appear to differ, to say the least.


VIC: How can you get people to agree concerning "God?" You can't. Some people, like you, are bound to get it wrong.

ED: Citing me for "getting it wrong," isn't an argument. I think I have gotten more things "right," than when I used to believe in inspired books and Christian theological doctrines that raised as least as many questions as answers.


VIC: Exactly how oes "God" "grant" or maintain "rights?" By creating people and loving them.

ED: Then why not define and give specific examples of "the love of God" so that we may discuss them further--leaving out of course the tautology that mere existence is an example of the love of God. Mere existence may be many things, including a mystery, but it is not an example of anything in particular. The cosmos is filled with things that exist, but it does not appear to be filled with "love." Show me love, besides of course the love we both know about, mother love, family love, romantic love, love between friends, and charity between strangers (which even atheists contribute to in many countries on earth).


VIC: Exactly what "rights" does "God" grant? Anytime God commands someone not to do something to someone else, God grants the potential victim the right not to have that done to them.

ED: Depends on the theologian you talk to. Open theology, or Arminianism, for example, is not Calvinism.

And the question has always remained whether God's knowing everything is tantamount to everything being "set," and hence no "potentialities."

And what exactly do you mean by saying that "God grants the potential victim the right not to have that done to them." Are you asserting something like God keeping his eye on the sparrow? But the sparrow still falls.


VIC: What rights did "God" "grant" in the Old Testament and in the New Testament? For starters, the right to life, when he commanded "Thou Shalt not Kill."

ED: See above. I already discussed that one.


ED: How do such "rights" agree or disagree with one another from one
Testament to the other?

Are any rights from the Old Testament still valid today, or, are any no longer valid today? On what basis?

Are any "Biblical rights" different from America's "Bill of Rights?"

Please explain which ones and why or why not.

VIC: There can be disagreement on these questions, while at the same time agreement on the basic point that it makes sense to talk about God creating people and telling people that there are some things you can't do to them, hence granting them rights, while I have trouble seeing the evolutionary process granting those same rights.

ED: I have trouble seeing any theological or philosophical viewpoint "granting" anyone anything.

Theological and philosophical viewpoints come and go, get challenged, foment disagreements of and by themselves, until all sides can't even conceive of how the world can dare to go right on "working" without everyone agreeing to one fellow or the other's "theological and philosophical basis."

Reminds me of the story about Bishop Berkeley who was totally convinced that "matter" did not exist, only "spirit" existed. Either way, the Bishop one day fell off his horse and hit head on a rock and died. Did it make any difference whether the rock didn't consist of matter but was simply a thought of God? Berkeley still died.

I tend to leave the mysteries where they are, the inexpressibility of each moment, because most people should be able to learn (if they ask enough questions, instead of settling for authoritarian answers) where the line lay between what they know, and what they only think they know, or believe, or hope.

I think perhaps that you've been hanging out too much with Christian philosophers who can multiply AUTHORITARIAN arguments ad infinitum until you think you've got a huge corral of "proofs" instead of mere variations of the same questionable or ambiguous premises, and authoritarian answers.

There were two radio talk show hosts, one very authoritarian in his ethical views, the other more liberal or libertarian. They were arguing over ethics, and someone called the station to agree with the authoritarian host, saying, "Bob's right, We must never ever do what is wrong, and always do what is right..." At which Bob turned to his co-host, Larry and said, "Now THERE's a guy talking some sense!" But the caller hadn't finished speaking and then added, "...or else Zondar the Monkey King will come down from Jupiter and bop us with his big banana."

Vic, Have you read Smullyan yet? Raymond M. Smullyan (mathematician, logician, philosopher)

Raymond M. Smullyan, Is God A Taoist? A fascinating conversation between a "Mortal" and "God," that raises a host of interesting logical and philosophical questions.
Selections from his books, The Tao Is Silent, and, The Mind's Eye

What about Pickover?

"Dr. Cliff Pickover has published nearly a book a year in which he stretches the limits of computers [mathematics, physics], art, and thought." - Los Angeles Times

Edwardtbabinski said...

Speaking of Rights, which is "righter," the First Commandment or the First Amendment?

"Thou shalt not have any strange gods before me [under penalty of stoning]."
1st Commandment

"Freedom of religion."
1st Amendment

Edwardtbabinski said...

VIC: Do natural inalienable rights exist if atheism is true?

ED: Why should it matter whether or not atheism is true if a single freethinker fought in the Revolutionary War for America's freedom from British rule and taxes, i.e., fought in favor of a broader bill of individual rights and representative government contra a dictatorial God-ordained heredity ruler?

Keith said...

The rights of man towards other men can only arise from the nature of man. A walking combination of water and chemicals has no rights arising from its nature, and it is no use advocating materialism on one platform and demanding respect and freedom on another. . . . It is man’s immortal soul that is his passport not only to existence in the next world, but to freedom in this. His individual destiny is the basis of his rights against theories backed by physical force, whether they are the theories of dialectical materialism, or of Germanic racialism. If the world belongs not to man but to God, the powers of rulers are subject to a law higher than their wills, but if the world is man’s world, as progressives like to describe it, its character will be determined by the wills of the most determined and cunning men.
—Douglas Woodruff, The Tablet quoted in Arnold Lunn, Within That City

The Marquis de Sade, took the argument to its logical conclusion: If human passions are mere physiological itches, man’s proverbial dignity is a fraud, and there is nothing—not even our normal revulsion against rape and torture—to stand in the way of treating other human beings as sex tools. From the materialistic perspective, nothing can be entirely unnatural.
—Thomas Fleming, The Morality of Everyday Life

Here is a pure relativity of morals, which is a polite way of saying there are no standards at all. Dimly aware that he has taken up a very shaky position, Cox justifies himself by a bizarre manner of reasoning: “the relativization of values can have a much more constructive result, the recognition that since everyone’s perspective is limited or conditioned, no on has the right to inflict his values on anyone else” (nor has anyone the right to question them). This thought might help a man who came last in a race at the Olympic Games, for he could console himself with the fancy that the winner was only relatively more successful. It would be less useful in a game of cards. When it comes to ethics, however, if there by any logic in his remark, the Nuremberg Trials were wrong for imposing our ideas of morality on the Nazis who were held for trial. The English missionaries to Fiji ought to have turned their eyes away when they came across cannibalism in 1835; nor should suttee have been suppressed by law in India. If once we accepted Cox’s justification in matters of truth and falsehood, any lie or any untruth would be excusable. Oddly enough in the very sentence which I have quoted Cox lays down an absolute, saying “no one has the right...”
—Fr. Martin C. D’Arcy, Humanism and Christianity

A nonbeliever—a libertarian, for example, who cannot have recourse to any supernatural arguments—will attempt to deduce his theory of “rights” from other unprovable principles he happens to believe in, such as the principle of nonaggression... If there is a convincing proof of the existence or origin of rights, I have never read it in a book or article and never, in discussions with true-believing philosophers, heard anything persuasive, much less convincing. Rights, one has to conclude, are to be taken on faith—but only by those who profess to have no religion.
—Thomas Fleming, The Morality of Everyday Life

Fleming says the unbeliever must taken human rights on faith, but this is actually misuse of the word “faith”. Faith does not involve the irrational—what is inherently self-contradictory; and a simultaneous affirmation of atheism and human rights is inherently self-contradictory. For, if there is no God, then there exists no moral truth—no absolutes or ideals in the realm of morality by which we judge men’s morality to be closer or farther away from the ideal or the truth—so, can it be wrong for men to own their wives and to treat them as baby factories, or positively good for women to be free from oppressive social and or domestic constraints? That’s just our opinion, right? So, when we teach these women about their so-called rights, aren’t we forcing “our truth” on them? If a given society of men has the capability to own and rule its women, and that’s what these men want, can atheists and naturalists say that they shouldn’t do this, or that this is bad or wrong? If there is no right and wrong, then, as Mussolini said, “everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology (which, in this case, is wife ownership) and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.” I suppose under atheistic, naturalistic and/or materialistic metaphysics we could enforce with all the energy with which we are capable, our personal ideology of women’s rights onto these men; but no one, logically speaking, can be right or wrong, here. It’s just one set of preferences against another, and the strongest wins. Might Makes Right. So, if we’re honest and logically consistent with the premises of atheism, naturalism, and/or materialism we’d have to lose that conviction of moral superiority—that we are right, that our way is better. Under these metaphysics, there, logically speaking, can be no real good or evil...which means that:

Each culture consists of its own peculiar system of values, and there is no way of evaluating cultures themselves, no way of judging them, without begging the whole question, for such judgments would have to be made in terms of the “postulates” or assumptions underlying a given culture [therefore, we] must regard this issue as nothing more than a struggle between “ideologies”—the one to which we are devoted not being objectively better than the other, but better-for-us because it is ours by the accident of cultural location.
—Mortimer J. Adler, A Dialectic of Morals

And once we realize this, then what’s the point in bothering with so-called women’s rights? I mean, wouldn’t it be an absolutely meaningless enterprise...that is, unless we are going to be doing something that really is good and effecting change that brings about something that really is better. But that is to presuppose moral absolutism—the reality of some objective, absolute, universal moral standard by which we judge “our moral truth” to be the really true or just one—better and more good than the moral “truth” of that culture where men own their wives.

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? An unjust law is a man-made code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
—Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail