Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do Human Rights Require Religious Beliefs?

What difference would it make if we accepted what Bernard Williams has called "Nietzsche's thought"--"there is, not only no God, but no metaphysical order of any kind"?

One consequence, Nietzsche suggested, is that we could no longer believe that human beings were created by God in His Image and thus endowed with equal dignity. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote: "The masses blink and say: 'We are all equal.--Man is but man, before God--we are all equal.' Before God! But now this God has died." The modern morality of human equality is secularized Christian morality that cannot be continued after the death of God.

Does this mean, then, that we could no longer hold it to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights? In the second half of the 20th century, the morality of human rights emerged as the first global morality. But if that morality depends on the religious idea of the sacredness of human life, how can we hold onto that morality if we reject its religious foundation?

Some atheists will respond that even without religious foundations, we can appeal to principles of nature or reason as the ground for the true and the good. But if Nietzsche is right, the death of God means not just the death of the Biblical God but the death of all metaphysical order, and thus the death of the whole Platonic tradition of philosophy as the highest human good. If there is no metaphysical order, then there would seem to be no metaphysical foundation for either the moral life or the philosophic life.

These are the questions raised by Michael J. Perry in his book Toward a Theory of Human Rights (2007), which restates the arguments of an earlier book The Idea of Human Rights (1998). Perry argues that the idea of human rights makes sense if we believe that all human beings have equal dignity because of the sacredness of human life as created by God. But if we deny this religious belief and accept the modern secular idea that the universe has no ultimate meaning--that human life was not created to fulfill any cosmic purpose--then we have no good reason to believe in human rights, and the only standards of conduct and thought are those created arbitrarily by human will. So Perry asks: "For one who believes that the universe is utterly bereft of transcendent meaning, why--in virtue of what--is it the case that every human being has inherent dignity?"(17). If we have no answer to that question, Perry insists, then we have no answer to those human beings who assert that they have the right to exploit and abuse other human beings because what we call right is really just the rule of the stronger.

The various responses to Perry's argument--attempts to provide a purely secular justification for human rights--are surveyed in Ari Kohen's In Defense of Human Rights: A Non-religious Grounding in a Pluralistic World (2007). Kohen's book is of special interest to me because he tries to show that a Darwinian evolutionary view of human nature can support the idea of human rights. Of course, this goes against the common view--taken by Perry--that evolutionary science subverts any belief in human rights, or any stable morality, by denying that there is any objective moral order in the universe.

To show how the idea of equal human rights based on equal human dignity arises from Christianity, Perry imagines a religious believer named Sarah who follows the commandment of Jesus to "love one another . . . just as I have loved you" (John 13:34). She sees this teaching elaborating in many more scriptural passages, for example: "We are well aware that we have passed over from death to life because we love our brothers. Whosoever does not love, remains in death" (1 John 3:14). She sees the fundamental teaching of Jesus as universal love, which includes loving your enemies (Matthew 5:44). Consequently, "Sarah loves even those who have violated her, who have failed to respect her inherent dignity" (10).

Sarah interprets this teaching of universal love as supporting an egalitarian humanitarianism expressed as universal human rights. We serve God by serving our fellow human beings as children of God. We give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and care to the sick. In loving one another equally, we love God (153). If we do this, we will be rewarded with eternal life at the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).

Perry concedes that religious belief is not necessary for being good, because obviously many people with no religious belief are good, and many religious believers are not good. Perry insists, however, that religious belief is necessary if we are to show morality to be "rationally justifiable" as founded on some cosmic ground, on some conception of the universe as meaningful. For the universe to be meaningful, it must satisfy our "deepest yearnings for "ultimate relationships, ultimate belonging" (16). In other words, not only must the universe be orderly, but also that order must be the work of a divinely omnipotent person who cares for us and thus provides for our dignified existence.

Against Perry's claim that the morality of human rights depends on a religious belief in the sacredness of human life, Ronald Dworkin has asserted that "there is a secular as well as a religious interpretation of the idea that human life is sacred," because although sacredness is associated with the religious idea of holiness, the sacredness of human life can be held as a "secular but deep philosophical belief." But Perry rejects this by arguing that Dworkin's "secular sacredness" assumes a universal human consensus on valuing human life, which doesn't exist, because obviously some human beings don't treat other human beings as having supreme value (21). Moreover, even if most of us value human life, that doesn't give it the sacred value that comes from God. It is not enough that other human beings have "value to me," because this will not give them the sacredness that comes from their having "value to God" (19). We need to see the value of human life as conforming to some cosmic standard. If value is to be something more than mere human preference, we need to believe "that the world has a normative order" (28).

To argue that we highly value human life, Perry insists, is not the same as saying that human life really has intrinsic value as measured by an external, unchanging, cosmic standard of meaning--so that the sacredness of human life is grounded in a cosmic order in which human beings are elevated above all other creatures. Here, again, Perry agrees with Nietzsche, who writes: "Naivete: as if morality could survive when the God who sanctions it is missing! The 'beyond' absolutely necessary if faith in morality is to be maintained" (23).

The failure to provide a cosmic standard of value is also why Perry rejects the positions of Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty, who say that human rights rest upon human sympathy and solidarity. Nussbaum and Rorty believe that the lives of human beings have value in so far as we care for them. The idea of human rights is promoted by extending our moral sentiments to embrace ever wider circles of humanity.

Perry objects to this sentimental morality that although normal human beings--those who are not psychopaths--do care for some other human beings, particularly those of their family or tribe, it is not true that normal human beings care for all other human beings equally and impartially (22).

This same objection applies to evolutionary accounts of morality as rooted in human sociality and moral sentiments. Evolutionary science produces "a cosmic process bereft of ultimate meaning," because "far from being created 'in the image of God,' human beings are merely the unplanned, unintended yield of random mutation and natural selection" (24). An evolved human nature supports "social nature" but not universal love. Perry explains: "Few would deny that the social nature of human beings is such that a person who is part of a network of loving family and friends is better off in consequence thereof than one who is not. But this is a far cry from claiming that the evolved nature of human beings is such that being a person who 'loves one another just as I have loved you' (in the radical sense of 'one another') is the most deeply satisfying way of which human beings are capable" (25).

There are, however, some serious weaknesses in Perry's reasoning. First of all, Perry admits that "the plausibility of religious faith" is "a question well beyond the scope of this book" (161). But how can a religious metaphysics make morality "rationally justifiable" if the "plausibility of religious faith" is itself not "rationally justifiable"?

Even if we set aside that problem, he hasn't made a good case for his claim that religious belief necessarily supports a morality of universal love or egalitarian humanitarianism. He admits that in practice, much of the history of religion is a history of brutality. But he would say that this comes from the failure of believers to live up to the true teaching of their religion.

What is that true religious teaching? Perry looks to the Bible. Although he implies that other religious traditions also teach universal love, he restricts himself to biblical religion. Even here, however, he restricts himself to the New Testament. The Old Testament would be a problem for him, because it teaches that God has a "chosen people," who commit bloody atrocities against their enemies in waging holy wars commanded by God.

The New Testament seems more supportive of the universal love ethic that Perry favors. But even here, Perry has to be careful to pass over in silence the New Testament teachings contrary to universal love. Sarah quotes 1 John 3:14--"we love our brothers." But she does not cite the verse in this same chapter of the biblical text that distinguishes "the children of God" from "the children of the devil." This comes in the context of the warning against the "Antichrist" and those who follow him. These letters of John are followed by the last book of the New Testament--Revelation--which prophesizes a bloody apocalyptic war between the believers and the unbelievers.

Only once does Perry quote the New Testament teaching about the Last Judgment (153). When he does this, he does not comment on the in-group/out-group psychology of this teaching. Jesus says that God will separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be given eternal life, while the goats will go away to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:31-46). Doesn't this look more like Christian tribalism than universal love?

Sarah interprets the "love your enemies" teaching to mean that she should love even those who violate her and thus deny her inherent dignity. Does this mean that the morality of human rights as based on universal love prohibits any punishment or coercion of those who violate human rights? If so, this contradicts Perry's claim that we must "coerce others, and perhaps even, at the limit, kill others, in the name of protecting the inherent dignity of human beings" (28). If universal love means absolute pacifism, then it cannot support the use of coercion or violence to enforce human rights. But, as President Obama reminded us recently in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, such Christian pacifism would not have stopped Hitler's armies.

Another fundamental problem with Perry's argument is that it has no support in any of the major documents of human rights beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unlike the American Declaration of Independence, which invokes "Nature's God" and the divine creation of humanity, and unlike the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which appeals to the "sacred rights of man" and the "auspices of the Supreme Being," the Universal Declaration never refers to God and never uses the word "sacred." In fact, the drafters of the Universal Declaration debated proposals to include language about divine creation, and they rejected such language. So, clearly, 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 seemed to invoke the sort of moral sentiments of sympathy and concern identified by people like Nussbaum and Rorty as the basis for human rights.

As I have indicated in another post, 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 genetic 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 Nietzsche and Perry do, that without such metaphysical foundations, morality is unjustified. But it's hard for me to see how such purely metaphysical principles could 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 elicit support for their human rights campaigns through a rhetoric of emotional persuasion. They tell stories or show us pictures of human cruelty to particular human victims. 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 Richard Rorty in relying on David Hume's insight 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--like the story of the Salvadoran soldiers who practiced "dewombing"--"a pregnant woman was killed, her fetus ripped from her womb and tossed into the air, to be caught by the soldiers on bayonets." He writes:

"Whenever I hear stories like this, I am, as I think most people would be, both heart stricken for the victims and repulsed by the cruelty. Why do I have those reactions?

"I am stricken at heart because I have the imagination to know at least in proximate form what the experience, the pain, must have felt like. I am stricken at heart because at some level I identify with the victims; I know what it is to bleed" (23).

He goes on to say:

"Robert Frost once observed that poems begin with a lump in the throat, and I think human rights do too. . . . far 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 own 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, if not universal, that we can hardly imagine a society without it" (24).

But notice the implications of this. This view of morality as rooted in the moral emotions of evolved human nature does not appeal to any metaphysical "beyond" for cosmic support. Those like Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and Perry would say that without such a metaphysical foundation, morality is impossible. Those analytic philosophers today who look to pure logic to prove the principles of moral obligation as inherent in the logical order of things continue in this Platonic tradition. Against this tradition of metaphysical morality, the appeal to moral emotions assumes a Humean tradition of empirical morality.

In his appendix on "moral sentiment" in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume wrote:

"Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: The latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. The one discovers objects, as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution: The other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation. Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery: Taste, as it give pleasure or pain, and thereby constitutes happiness or misery, becomes a motive to action, and is the first spring or impulse to desire and volition. From circumstances and relations, known or supposed, the former leads us to the discovery of the concealed and unknown: After all circumstances and relations are laid before us, the latter makes us feel from the whole a new sentiment of blame or approbation. The standard of the one, being founded on the nature of things, is eternal and inflexible, even by the will of the Supreme Being: The standard of the other, arising from the internal frame and constitution of animals, is ultimately derived from that Supreme Will, which bestowed on each being its peculiar nature, and arranged the several classes and orders of existence."

In debates over human rights and morality generally, we need reason to gather the information relevant to our moral choices. Often, the most contentious issues concern rational disagreements over the facts of the case--factual issues as to who did what to whom and why. But once reason has judged the facts, we need the internal moral sentiments to decide whether we approve or disapprove of what we see. Reason can look to "the nature of things." But sentiment draws its standard from "the internal frame and constitution of animals." Because we are the kind of animal that we are, we paint our world with the colors of our moral emotions. Darwin adopted this Humean view of the moral sentiments, while explaining how the "internal frame and constitution of animals" could have evolved naturally.

Consider my previous posts on female circumcision in Africa as an illustration of how the morality of human rights works. As far as I know, the women in Senegal who decided to abolish female circumcision for their daughters didn't reach this decision because they were converted to some religous belief in the equal sacredness of human beings as created in God's Image. They reached this decision through some understanding of the consequences of female circumcision, feelings of concern for the welfare of their daughters, and some practical judgment about how they might organize their reform to ensure that their daughters could get married without being circumcized.

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 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 called "a progress of sentiments" as human beings have been persuaded to extend their sympathetic concern to ever wider circles of humanity.

And yet such rhetorical persuasion 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 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.

As I have suggested in other posts, the American Civil War is a dramatic illustration of such a 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 Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural, 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."


Unknown said...

I wonder in what sense Mr. Perry and Mr. Arnhart are thinking about justification. If there isn't a transcendent moral order, or at least a natural telos, upon which to base our moral judgments, then what are the standards by which we should try to rationally justify our judgments? Should we really even bother trying?

I think we should, but not because we hope to find some truth about an independent, context free morality. Instead, what we should hope to gain from moral reasoning is a better understanding of what our aspirations are as we try and act in moral, ethical, and virtuous ways. Although such thought may be ultimately little more than an expression of veiled preferences with no grounding outside of our minds, formulating such thought allows us to revise not only our judgments, but also our actions.

Perry and Nietzsche are on to something when they claim that morality needs such grounding. I think that Mr. Arnhart and Mr. Perry might be talking past each other. One account of moral excellence or moral behavior is called cross-level coherence. When a person has cross-level coherence, their narrative about their life and their role in the world, their behavior, and their personality are all consistent with each other and complementary. Religions serve the purpose of helping people find cross-level coherence in their lives with an efficacy which no other human institution has matched, at least that I know of. Insofar as one is talking about morality from the viewpoint of cross-level coherence, it is really difficult to see how people in actuality can live such lives without a narrative as appealing as those found in traditional religions. What is more, insofar as people do strive for cross-level coherence, religions do provide a route for people who are close to being pathologically anti-social to find an ethical way to live in the world. While there are many who would disagree with me, I think that a quasi-Christian, brutally violent capitalist like Andrew Carnegie is an example of what power such a narrative can bring about.

Vincent said...

I do think Paul has a point when he says "it is really difficult to see how people in actuality can live such lives without a narrative as appealing as those found in traditional religions.".

But the religious traditions, in Christianity at any rate, carry much baggage in the form of less appealing rationalisations and even less appealing attempts to control human behaviour.

The religious impulse starts not from a prophet but an inchoate religious instinct. The prophets and the myths lend the relative concreteness of words to a mystical awareness that can hardly otherwise be spoken, and allow ordinary folk a shelter and a meetinghouse, metaphorically and literally, for the things which reason cannot include in its discourses.

Or as Pascal said, "Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point. On le sent en mille choses. C'est le cœur qui sent Dieu, et non la raison. Voilà ce que c'est que la foi parfaite, Dieu sensible au cœur." (The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing. One feels it in a thousand things. It's the heart which experiences God, not the reason. This, then, is faith: the perfection of faith is God felt by the heart.)

Indeed, reason must make constant effort (often so conditioned that it is unaware of this effort) to block this feeling of the heart, that wants to pray and give thanks, regardless of religion or belief.

Another thing that strikes me about your post, Larry, is the ghostly presence of a "straw man" against whom your argument is directed. In trying to nail it down, I lighted on this in your second paragraph:

"The modern morality of human equality is secularized Christian morality that cannot be continued after the death of God."

What? All over the world? If we are talking about human rights we must consider the whole world. Are you proposing that "secular Christian morality" holds sway across every cultural boundary? this notion seems tainted with the fallacy propagated by Christians that they own the "Goodness" brand. As if conscience doesn't arise spontaneously, even in a savage's heart.

Hindus, for example, don't think this way. Nor do they attempt to defend their worship of many gods, with multiple arms, blue skin (Rama), elephant's head (Ganesha) or monkey's head (Hanuman) with the dignity of rational justification. But the religious observance of a Hindu is as likely to reawaken the inbuilt recognition of supreme value in oneself and other human beings as any other devotional practice.

It is Christianity which is odd (even though its values may be as you suggest dominant in global institutions). It is odd for its attempt at an alliance between faith and philosophy, faith and reason; antinomies forever uneasy and in flux.

I think it would be helpful in a discussion of this kind to try and step outside Christian culture (perhaps especially American Christian culture) and see how the world looks.

Larry Arnhart said...


The comment about the modern morality of human equality as secularized Christianity was meant to be a statement of the Nietzsche/Perry position, not mine.

I agree that we need to step outside our Christian tradition. That's one reason why the emergence of the morality of human rights is so interesting. Although the language of "human rights" reflects modern Western thought, its universal appeal reflects a universal moral psychology.

Vincent said...

Thanks for the clarification, Larry. A subsequent reading of your piece makes me appreciate the distinction, and realize that it's I who am arguing with the ghost, not you; for you were merely stating the position of the authors of the book you were reviewing.

Please accept my apologies and my promise to try and be more careful.

TMS said...

I've critiqued this essay on my blog.

One snippet: "I give Prof. Arnhart a lot of credit: This is probably the best defense of how morality can be justified by Darwinian atheism that we will ever see. The question is: Does it work?

As you would probably expect, I have to answer 'No.'”

Larry Arnhart said...

My point is that although religion can reinforce morality, morality can stand on its own natural ground without religious belief. I reject, therefore, the moral nihilism of those like Nietzsche (at least, the later Nietzsche) who assume that without religious belief, morality collapses into the abyss.

TMS said...

Larry, you wrote: "Morality can stand on its own natural ground without religious belief."

See, that's where we disagree. I'm not convinced that's the case. I don't see any real evidence of an intuitive "moral sense." The evidence from history is that people are a strange mix of benevolence and barbarism, and some of that barbarism is truly shocking. I honestly would have thought any idea of a "moral sense" would have died with the Holocaust, but I guess not.

The secular people who donate to Amnesty International are products of a rare Christian-Enlightenment culture which teaches - from a very early age - the "moral sense" you're describing. Those secular people are products of that culture even if they choose to reject the Christian part in their adulthood. In other words, their "moral feelings" were taught to them. They are not innate.

Once the Christian-Enlightenment culture withers away, I think the morality will wither away too.

Larry Arnhart said...

And that "Christian-Enlightenment culture" doesn't include Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, or other religious cultures?

And you're saying that prior to the Enlightenment, Christianity did not promote morality? Pre-Enlightenment Christianity was morally corrupting?

I've noticed your attack on C. S. Lewis. Would you say that people like Lewis are not part of the "Christian Enlightenment" that brought morality to the world?