Saturday, November 22, 2014

A negative argument in favor of human rights

Thomas Jefferson: Smart dude. 
I had a discussion with a colleague this week that touched on the question of human rights. My colleague said that in in his view, the concept necessarily has a religious underpinning: You can't have human rights without presupposing a God who grants them. It's right there in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness ...
Far be it from me to cast aspersions on Thomas Jefferson, indisputably one of the greatest intellects of his age, or any age. But we have learned a few things since 1776. We know that the human species wasn't created; it evolved. And while many people believe that at some point, God turned up and inserted souls in us ... I can't see it. We're primates, natural and mortal, down here all by ourselves. Sad but true. Deal with it.

How then can I justify my belief in universal human rights? I do so negatively, by noting how bad the arguments against them are. Here's how it goes:

When I look inside myself, I find I have certain desires and goals, as well as certain aversions. I'd like to keep living, I'd like to have some scope of action to achieve my desires and goals, and I'd like to, you know, actually achieve them. I'd prefer not to suffer pain, despair and death. Let's call this a general preference for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Looking at other people, I can rationally conclude they have similar desires, goals and aversions, broadly speaking. I know this because (a) they act that way; (b) biology and psychology tell me they're built basically the same way I am.

Now, it turns out, human life being what it is, that those other people and I will have a better chance of achieving our goals if we cooperate. No man is an island, and all that. We have to form teams. OK, what kind of team should I be willing to join?

Consider the simplest case of a team: a dyad. Two people, A and B, can relate in one of three ways: A outranks B, A and B are equal, or B outranks A.

If I'm A, it's pretty clear which of these arrangements I prefer. Suppose I propose to B the setup "A outranks B." I get to order him around, and dispose of the goodies our team obtains as I see fit. B objects, naturally enough.

What answer can I offer? I basically have two choices. I can either say (a) "This arrangement will work out better for you than the alternatives," or else (b) "My wellbeing counts for more than yours."

The success of (a) depends, ultimately, on whether it's true. Maybe it is! B may survey his desires and goals and decide it's in his interest to use his powers of free action to follow my lead. I believe we call this "the just consent of the governed."

(Communism and fascism, by the way, were failed (and coercive) arguments of type (a). "Follow us and we'll make your life better." Didn't work.)

How about my argument (b)? To put it plainly, it sucks. B has no reason whatsoever to prefer me achieving my goals and desires to him achieving his; quite the opposite. He's he and I'm me. I sure wouldn't accept that argument if he made it! And we're basically the same kind of entity, so if I wouldn't buy it, I can't argue that he should.

But what if he's not the same kind of entity? That, historically, has been the justification for granting human rights to some people but not others. "We're fully human, you aren't." To me, one of the great achievements of naturalism is to show how terrible those arguments are. To a first approximation, everybody's human, so everybody deserves human rights. It's not metaphysics, it's straight-up empiricism.

Pushing that thought a little further, I don't think it's coincidence that the "my wellbeing counts for more than yours" argument tends to come wrapped in a thick layer of self-interested theology. "My God says we are his Chosen People." "This is my Promised Land." "I rule by Divine Right." And so on. I think it's a great step in grounding human rights to realize what terrible justifications those are. "I made up an imaginary friend, and he tells me my narcissism is A-OK." R-i-i-i-g-h-t.

So there's my argument: Human rights exist because I want to have them, and from my naturalistic standpoint, I don't have any coherent justification for awarding them to myself without awarding them to everyone else, too. QED.

One final point. I do think it's the case that the concept of human rights arose out of the Christian tradition. But how could it not? All social thinking in early modern Europe was saturated with Christianity. It was used to justify everything, from the Brotherhood of Man down to slavery, torture and murder. And for a good reason: There wasn't anything else to work with.

Now there is, and we should use it. Contingent history doesn't imply conceptual necessity. We don't have to ground our social systems in medieval theology any more than we have to build planes with canvas wings, just because that's how the Wright brothers got into the air.