Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Relativism, slavery, and human rights

I guess the big question for relativism is whether a culture or society's basic moral principles could be wrong or false. According to relativism this is impossible. Societies from the Egypt of the Pyramids to the antebellum South practiced the enslavement of other human beings. Were those societies making a moral mistake? Was there something they didn't realize about people and their rights that they should have?

Or, let's try this statement from our Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
If liberty is impossible where there is enslavement, then if this sentence is true, then the practice of enslaving people is wrong (a point that, notoriously, was not put into practice by Jefferson himself, who was himself a slaveowner). The Declaration says that we have rights regardless of what society says. If relativism is true, the society giveth rights and society taketh rights away. There is nothing you can appeal to over and above society that says that we really have rights that our society is denying us.

If there are no objectively binding moral obligations, then there are no objectively binding human rights, because rights logically entail moral obligations on the part of people who are expected to respect those rights.


Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:

The issue of slavery has little to do with relativism, but rather with perceptions of just who is fully "human". The writers of the US Constitution infamously thought of black slaves as only 3/5ths of a person. Islamic slaveholders think of their slaves as less than human - they were and are "infidels". Even without slavery, very wealthy or privileged people tend to think of those less well off as their "lessers", implying they are not fully human.

J said...

That Jefferson was a hypocrite does not in itself negate his arguments for rights (anyway, while slavery was wrong, many africans were traded by other africans into slavery--and quite a few (not all) probably had a better life in America, or colonies, however miserable...).

Moral and legal obligations follow generally from socially-agreed upon rules. During a riot, or in wartime, or revolution--or Hobbesian state of nature--rights are fairly meaningless.

One might sketch out rights ala Locke (TJ's mentor, really), but I think Hobbes had the better mind, insofar that he argues that cooperation would be in our best interest in many situations (in a sense Rawls develops that POV). That might not suffice for preachers, or moralists, but at least creates something like prudential obligations. You respect your neighbor's rights to property, and to not be disturbed; ergo, he respects yours. The constabulary exists to protect those rights. You make contracts, and it's moral, or at least proper in some sense, to uphold them, at least within the society. To not do so means you will suffer financially or otherwise.

That won't work all the time--but a bit superior to the theocratic or totalitarian alternatives.....at the same time, Malthus.. and Darwin... would remind us that any social or political structures might at any time be disrupted or destroyed, given dire shortages of resources, food, water, fuel, political despots etc.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

One problem with making society the final arbiter of right and wrong, is the question then arises of why we should obey society. Granted society can control people by force, no society could remain in power it all or the vast majority of its subjects rebelled against it. It is only the concept of a moral obligation that we shall (at lest within certain boundaries) obey society, that keeps society intact. Therefore if society owes its authority to a higher moral principle, it can in certain cases (such as slavery) be questioned based on that principle.

Victor Reppert said...

I guess the question would have to be whether there is an objective moral truth in place that makes it obligatory to give equal treatment to persons. I think this is true; societies do not natural treat people as equals.

Staircaseghost said...

How strange that you pick this 18th century British-colonial Christian statement as an example.

Why did no 17th century Greek Orthodox make this declaration? Were they not good christian objectivists?

Why did no 16th century Frenchmen make this declaration? Were they not good christian objectivists?

Why did no 4th century Constantinian court member make this declaration? Were they not good christian objectivists?

Why does this statement appear nowhere in the Bible? Were the gospel authors not good christian objectivists?

Victor Reppert said...

The statement is not entailed by Christianity. However, it is a development of certain Christian ideas. I don't see how you get there from evolutionary naturalism.

Blaise Pascal said...


"The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God's word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith. We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect."

Sublimis Deus, 1537, Pope Paul III