Kraynak says he wants to explain the "strangeness of our day":
What is so strange about our age is that demands for respecting human rights and human dignity are increasing even as the foundations for those demands are disappearing. In particular, beliefs in man as a creature made in the image of God, or an animal with a rational soul, are being replaced by a scientific materialism that undermines what is noble and special about man, and by doctrines of relativism that deny the objective morality required to undergird human dignity. How do we account for the widening gap between metaphysics and morals today? How do we explain "justice without foundations"--a virtue that seems to exist like a table without legs, suspended in mid-air? What is holding up the central moral beliefs of our times? (103-104)Kraynak surveys some of the writings of Richard Rorty, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker as illustrating this modern strangeness of "justice without foundations." He then indicates that to explain this modern predicament we need to adopt the "insights" of Frederich Nietzsche.
The modern Western world is no longer openly Christian and religious, but nor is it free of all Christian and religious influences. Rather, modernity is a secularized form of Christianity in which the religious faith of the Middle Ages has been transformed by the Enlightenment into a worldly form of humanitarianism: the original spiritual notions of Christian charity and equality before God were transformed into a political movement of equal rights and dignity before man, which led to the French Revolution and the democratic ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Nietzsche states this point succinctly when he discusses modern politics in Beyond Good and Evil, arguing that "the democratic movement is the heir of the Christian movement." What he means is that modern democracy arose from the secularization of Christian values, producing a feeling of pity for the suffering of humanity and a morality of equal rights, which seeks to overthrow aristocratic orders by revolutionary movements and to create a more just and compassionate world.
Another formulation that Nietzsche uses to capture the moral psychology of the modern world is that modern man wants the Christian morality without the Christian God. In Twilight of the Idols, he sarcastically criticizes the English people for preserving Christian morality despite their rejection of Christian faith. (114)Kraynak admits that Darwinian naturalists--like me--do provide a "foundation" for moral order in "an objective idea of human nature" that does not depend upon religious belief. But this Darwinian appeal to nature is confused, he insists, because it ignores the "logical implication" of Darwinian naturalism, which is Social Darwinism--"a view of politics in which the strong inevitably and even legitimately dominate and exploit the weak for their own purposes, and democracy, dignity, justice, and compassion are sentimental relics of Christianity, or, more accurately, prejudices of democratic culture" (108-109).
The modern morality of human rights depends on the concept of equal human dignity, Kraynak insists, and the only secure "foundation" for this idea of human dignity is Biblical religion, and especially the Biblical teaching that all human beings are created in the image of God. We need a "reasonable faith," and "such a reasonable faith is what the Bible offers us." "And it is a faith that shows us that the Judeo-Christian conception of man provides the most plausible account of human dignity--and that divine love is the ultimate foundation of human justice" (120).
There are lots of problems with Kraynak's reasoning. First of all, it's not clear that the Bible supports modern liberal humanism as based on universal human dignity and equal human rights. The only Biblical verse that Kraynak cites as supporting the equal dignity of all human beings as created in God's image is in Psalm 8: "For thou has made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor" (119). But Kraynak does not notice that in the immediately following Psalm 9, the psalmist thanks God for destroying his enemies: "the enemy is wiped out--mere ruins forever--you have annihilated their cities, their memory has perished" (9:6). Of course, the Bible is full of such bloody violence as God annihilates Israel's enemies in the most brutal ways. Speaking to Moses, God commands the "curse of destruction" in which every living being in a town must be killed--men, women, and children (Deuteronomy 20:10-20)--although the young women who are still virgins should be kept alive so that they can be raped by the Hebrew men (Numbers 31). Enemies can also be enslaved. And, indeed, the Bible generally supports slavery.
Moreover, the violence commanded by God is directed not just to external enemies but also to Hebrews who displease God. A long list of crimes--including children cursing their parents, homosexuality, and blasphemy--are to be punished with death.
This doesn't sound like a Biblical defense of human rights and liberal democracy.
In fact, Kraynak recognizes this in his book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, where he stresses the point that "a Christian argument for liberal democracy cannot be found in the Bible, in either the Old or the New Testaments" (54). Moreover, "the biblical conception of human dignity, based on the Imago Dei, is not the same as the liberal democratic conception of human dignity based on autonomous self-determination; and it does not necessarily support human rights" (55).
In his book, Kraynak explains: "Herein lies the fundamental difference between the biblical and the contemporary understanding of human dignity. In the biblical view, dignity is hierarchical and comparative; in the modern, it is democratic and absolute" (60). This difference is evident, he believes, in the biblical "acceptance of the patriarchal household and of social inequalities," in which wives are commanded to obey their husbands, and slaves are commanded to obey their masters (60-61).
Although many modern Christians have embraced liberal democracy and human rights, Kraynak explains this as a consequence of Christians giving up the biblical doctrines of authoritarian hierarchy and theocracy under the influence of Enlightenment liberalism. In particular, Kraynak argues, "a specific strand of Enlightenment liberalism--namely, Immanuel Kant's philosophy of freedom and his notion of the human person as a possessor of inalienable rights--has been the decisive factor in changing Christian politics" (109). So, for example, Kraynak shows how the Kantian Enlightenment idea of a "democracy of the person" was transmitted through Catholic philosophers like Jacques Maritain, so that finally, in the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, the Catholic Church for the first time in its history endorsed religious liberty and liberal democracy as rooted in the inherent dignity of the human person (146-147).
So while the argument of Kraynak's article is that modern liberal humanism is the "secularization" of Christian values, the argument of his book is that modern Christian humanism is the "sacralization" of an Enlightenment humanism that has overturned the biblical teaching.
There also are problems with Kraynak's use of Nietzsche. He appeals to Nietzsche's "insights" without explaining why we should take Nietzsche as authoritative. Moreover, he does not point out to his reader that what Nietzsche says about these issues in his later writings contradicts what he says in his middle writings--Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first four books of The Gay Science. In those middle writings, Nietzsche accepts Darwinian science as supporting an Enlightenment conception of liberal democracy rooted in an evolved human nature that does not require transcendental or religious conceptions. In these middle works, when Nietzsche was most favorable to Darwinian science, he offers a moderate and sensible endorsement of liberal democracy and humanitarian morality. But in the later works--those favored by Kraynak--Nietzsche shows an extremism that manifests his religious longings for ecstatic transcendence through "will to power" and the "Overman," and its this version of Nietzsche that was adopted by the Nazis. By contrast, Nietzsche's middle writings show how a sensible conception of the moral and intellectual excellence of human beings can be rooted in evolved human nature without any need for a transcendent moral cosmology.
We can see this evolutionary ethics in the history of the modern human rights movement. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 never refers to God and never uses the word "sacred." The drafters of the Universal Declaration debated whether they should include language about human beings as created in God's image, and they rejected this language because they saw it as appealing to religious beliefs that were not universal and not compatible with modern human rights. They believed that the "inherent dignity" of humanity could stand on its own without any reliance on the "sacred." Moreover, in speaking about how "barbarous acts . . . have outraged the conscience of mankind," the Universal Declaration invoked the sort of moral sentiments of sympathy that provide the foundation for the Darwinian moral tradition that embraces the thought of David Hume and Adam Smith.
The "Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights" (ratified by the UN in 1998) declares that "the human genome underlies the fundamental unity of all members of the human family, as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity," and it identifies this human genome as a product of natural evolution. So here it is clearly indicated that the inherent dignity of humanity arises not from divine creation but from natural evolution.
One product of human evolution is sympathy and the moral emotions of approval and disapproval. We can try to ground our morality in metaphysical principles--God, Nature, or Reason; and we can argue, as Kraynak does, that without such metaphysical foundations, morality is unjustified. But such purely metaphysical principles cannot sustain morality--including the morality of human rights--without the motivational power of moral emotions.
The behavior of human rights activists confirms this. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch don't invoke the metaphysical order of the cosmos. They elicit support for their human rights campaigns through a rhetoric of emotional persuasion. They tell stories or show us pictures of human cruelty. The more disturbing and vivid the stories and the pictures of cruelty, the more likely we are to feel some identification and thus sympathy with the victims. We then feel outrage against the perpetrators of such cruelty, and we want them to be stopped and perhaps punished.
William Schulz is the former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. In his book In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All, he dismisses appeals to God or Nature or Reason as insufficient to sustain the morality of human rights. Instead, he agrees with David Hume's and Charles Darwin's argument that morality depends on sympathy and the moral emotions that incline us to care for our fellow human beings.
Drawing from his own experience as a human rights campaigner, Schulz tells some stories of the cruelty against which he has fought. From this, he concludes:
Robert Frost once observed that poems begin with a lump in the throat, and I think human rights do too. . . . for better than by appeals to God or Nature, is to point to the capacity to identify with others, the capacity for human empathy or solidarity. This is a capacity of such richness and complexity that something like it, at least concerning mothers and children, is required for the propagation of the species. Children in our culture as young as one have been known to evidence it, and some ethologists even believe it can be identified in animals. It is a phenomenon so widespread, it not universal, that we can hardly imagine a society without it. (24)There is a foundation for human dignity, but it's not a transcendent or transhuman foundation--God, Nature, or Reason--but the empirical foundation of evolved human nature as the source of sympathy and the moral sense. We see this in the practical arguments over human rights when the proponents of human rights employ not metaphysical reasoning about cosmic principles but rhetorical persuasion to evoke moral emotions. The history of the expansion of human rights is therefore to be understood as what Hume and Darwin called "a progress of sentiments" as human beings have been persuaded to extend their sympathetic concern to ever wider circles of humanity.
Darwin identifies the Golden Rule as "the foundation of morality" (Descent of Man, Penguin Classics, p. 151). He sees this as a moral conception that human beings had to learn over a long history of moral experience by which they learned to extend their humanitarian sympathy to ever wider communities. "As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being reached, there is only an artifical barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races" (p. 147).
This quotation from Darwin is the epigram for Robert Wrights book Nonzero. Wright argues that the moral and political history of human civilization is a history of cultural evolution in which human beings discover ways of expanding the range of tit-for-tat reciprocity (the basis of the Golden Rule) to resolve "prisoner's dilemma" problems. Learning how to cooperate with those who are trustworthy while punishing those who are not trustworthy will be favored by both natural selection and cultural evolution.
Steven Pinker uses this same quotation from Darwin as the epigram for the final chapter of his book Better Angels of Our Nature (p. 671), because it captures the evolutionary moral psychology underlying the historical trend towards declining violence, as people have discovered ever better ways to foster peaceful cooperation and avoid violent conflict. The modern humanism of human rights and liberal democracy is the consummation of this progressive history.
And contrary to Kraynak's argument, this does not depend on religious belief. In fact, just the opposite is true: the historical progress towards declining violence has required a taming of the religious fanaticism responsible for so much violence in the past. So successful has this been, that now even the Catholic Popes have recently begun to ask forgiveness for the legacy of violence promoted by biblical religion.
And yet it should be said that the moral persuasion favoring humanitarian morality does not always work. It does not work with those abnormal human beings--like psychopaths--who lack the moral emotions of sympathy, guilt, and shame. Nor does it work when people are so caught up in their fanatical moral and religious commitments that they cannot recognize those outside their moral community as full human beings who evoke moral concern. Such situations create tragic moral conflicts that are settled not by persuasion but by force.
The American Civil War is a dramatic illustration of such tragic moral conflict. The dispute over slavery could not be settled by metaphysical appeals to God, Nature, or Reason. The Bible did not resolve the debate, because it was invoked by both sides in the debate. As Abraham Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address, both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, and each invoked His aid against the other.
In such tragic conflicts, universal love does not work. Instead, we settle the disagreement by force of arms. That's why human rights ultimately rest upon the right to revolution. If human rights are not protected, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, then human beings have recourse, as a last resort, to "rebellion against tyranny and oppression."
Elaboration of all of these points can be found in some previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.