November 4, 2009

The Basis Of Human Rights

This guy takes his Christianity seriously* and he is quite clear about what it means -- if you are going to take Christianity seriously, you must accept that you have no God-given rights of any kind.  (H/T here)  God hasn't given you any rights.  God is all-powerful and you should be grateful that He merely suffers your existence, and overjoyed that He offers you redemption and a shot at paradise.  Rights are a civil construct; it is meaningless to talk about them in the context of man's relationship with the divine.

Which only makes sense, if you believe in God at all.  For my part, I believe that I have rights.  And God has nothing to do with them.

The idea that human rights are gifts from God, inherent in the definition of what it is to be human, seems to be to be a primitive conceptualization of what rights are, an appeal to an arbitrary moral system.  (It may happen that this arbitrary moral system is, in rough cuts, a good one.)  Note, though, that when someone is defined out of the universe of humanity, the protection of the revealed wisdom vanishes and this person is left without rights.  Similarly, a view of rights as things that are granted by the state (as opposed to a diety) similarly can leave someone out in the nasty, poor, and brutish state of nature.  At the end of the day, this concept of rights is ultimately an appeal to despotism -- although the despot is (mostly) benevolent, things are the way they are because an authority decreed them to be that way, not as a consequence of anything that the subject of those decrees has done or said.

The concept of a 'social contract' is an intermediate level of understanding of rights -- intermediate because it also relies on a fiction that people have voluntarily agreed and contracted with one another, something which actually very few of us have.  The fiction is useful because it demonstrates that we all, to one degree or another, accept the blessings and benefits of a governed, civilized society.  By accepting them, therefore, we buy into the idea that we must respect one anothers' rights.  Each of us assumes a certain set of obligations in exchange for a certain set of benefits, and mutual advantage is thereby acheived.  This is a useful concept and an appealing one -- but when there are disputes about what those obligations and benefits are, the tissue of the fiction is torn.  Do gay people have a right to get married?  There is obviously still some dispute about whether that is within the set of obligations and benefits to which we all 'agreed'.

I flatter myself that my own understanding of rights is both sophisticated and secular -- human rights are a direct and inevitable consequence of human beings living together in a civil society.  Without recognition of and practical honoring of individual rights, civilized society is impossible.  Rights against violence, rights to own and control property, rights to profit from the fruits of one's labors, rights to control one's own body, and so on.  These rights are most important as between the individual and the government, and when confronting what the government does, rights are best recognized as the ability of the individual to prevent the government from exercising its power over her.

The reason these are consequences of civilization is that rights are meaningless to a person who does not interact with other people.  If I am all alone on a desert island, what does it matter whether I respect your property -- you have no property there.  The idea of "property" is meaningless if there is no one other than me to claim dominion over something; if you must think of "property," then the whole island and everything on it is my property.  I have no obligation to not commit murder or rape or betray or fornicate, because there is no one there for me to murder, rape, betray, or fornicate with.  The only person to whom I can lie is myself.

But the moment someone else comes on the island, now we have to form a civilization.  Will I kill this other person in her sleep?  Will she kill me?  Whether we say these things out loud or not, by not killing one another, we conduct ourselves in such a manner that there is no murder.  No rape.  No deception.  Yes, it's all a social construct and so technically it's malleable as we choose for it to be.  But there's also certain decisions we can collectively make that are better than others.  If we decide that it's okay to kill for some reason, soon enough one of us will be dead and the civilization goes away.  If we decide to cooperate to get food, though, we can probably get more food working together than we could on our own.  And so we form a civilization even if we do not make a contract with one another.

From time to time, we shrink from recognizing some kinds of rights because we believe that we cannot afford to honor them and keep our society intact.  In so doing, we express a preference for despotism to civilization.  The more individual rights we collectively recognize, the more civilized we are.  The grand sweep of history -- both within this country, and for the world as a whole -- is that we are becoming more and more civilized, which is a function of how much we respect each individual human being's autonomy.  The process is slow, painfully so, and it is not a smooth or uninterrupted progression forward.  But the trend is for humanity to become more civilized over time.


* I also like that he takes a non-literalist understanding of the Bible while still taking it very seriously: "We shouldn't abandon common sense when looking for what Martin Luther called "the plain sense" of a passage of Scripture. ... There are books of the Bible that present historical accounts, which can be read more as you would a history textbook or the daily paper [but] Other books present prophecy, poetry, hymns, or apocalyptic imagery, each of which will be read differently, just as we read different genres of other literature differently." I've been encountering a lot more of more sophisticated kinds of Christian thinking these past few weeks, which is an interesting experience, much more intellectually engaging than addressing, for instance, young-earth creationism.

1 comment:

His Lordship The Gun-Toting Atheist said...

I was just thinking about the expression 'God-given right' today. Rights aren't given by gods. They are a social construct. They are not innate. Rights are not natural. Rights are granted by authorities. Without an authority to grant a right to a grantee, the right does not exist, unless the grantee takes that right, by force, becoming himself the granting authority.