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Human Rights Without God: A Dialogue

Noah Millman intervenes sensibly in the great DouthatSanchez debate about morality and religion:

Okay, so humanists don’t have strong reasons for their faith in human rights. Do Christians have strong reasons for believing in Christianity? Strong in the terms Douthat is talking about here? If you already think that Christianity “makes sense” – that is to say, is persuasive on its own terms – then you don’t need to have a conversation about whether believing in it is pragmatically necessary for society; you already believe it. If you don’t already think Christianity makes sense, then why is it pragmatically necessary to believe in Christianity in order to believe in human rights and human dignity? Why can’t you just believe in those things directly? That’s Sanchez’s question, and Douthat’s answer – that humanists don’t have strong reasons for their beliefs – is a non-sequitur. If there are no good humanistic reasons for believing in human rights, then there are no good humanistic reasons for believing in Christianity in order to believe in human rights either. And therefore there are no good humanistic reasons for believing in Christianity. 

Douthat’s non-sequitur reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s:

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “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.” This is the kind of thinking I would like to recommend. We don’t know the nature of Jefferson’s religious beliefs, or doubts, or disbeliefs. He seems to have been as original in this respect as in many others. But we do know he had recourse to the language and assumptions of Judeo-Christianity to articulate a vision of human nature. Each person is divinely created and given rights as a gift from God. And since these rights are given to him by God, he can never be deprived of them without defying divine intent. Jefferson has used Scripture to assert a particular form of human exceptionalism, one that anchors our nature, that is to say our dignity, in a reality outside the world of circumstance. It is no doubt true that he was using language that would have been familiar and authoritative in that time and place. And maybe political calculation led him to an assertion that was greater and richer than he could have made in the absence of calculation. But it seems fair to assume that if he could have articulated the idea as or more effectively in other terms, he would have done it.

What would a secular paraphrase of this sentence look like? In what nonreligious terms is human equality self-evident? As animals, some of us are smarter or stronger than others, as Jefferson was certainly in a position to know. What would be the non-religious equivalent for the assertion that individual rights are sacrosanct in every case? Every civilization, including this one, has always been able to reason its way to ignoring or denying the most minimal claims to justice in any form that deserves the name. The temptation is always present and powerful because the rationalizations are always ready to hand. One group is congenitally inferior, another is alien or shiftless, or they are enemies of the people or of the state. Yet others are carriers of intellectual or spiritual contagion. Jefferson makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization.

My point is that lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said. 

The funny about this argument is that in the process of attempting to establish the conclusion that without the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said, she more or less says them without the terms of religion!

Without Christianity there is no good argument for human rights. Without the language of religion, there is no way to say that all men are equal. That’s the thrust of Douthat and Robinson’s arguments. Well, so what? What’s so great about human rights? What so great about regarding each person as equal to others in moral standing? Is there an answer? If there is, and Douthat and Robinson can say what’s so great about equality and rights in secular terms, then they’ve undermined their original argument. If failing to believe in human rights or human equality would lead to intolerable consequences, then it seems we can just cut out the theology and point directly at the intolerable consequences by way of grounding our support for human rights and human equality.

What Douthat seems to me to be saying is that, as a matter of historical fact, we would not find the intolerable consequences intolerable if not for our Christian inheritance. I think there’s a good chance that this is true. But, again, so what? As a matter of historical fact, plenty of people do believe in human rights and human equality without religion. Indeed, as Western culture secularizes, it seems to do better and better in terms of taking rights and equality seriously. So what’s was the worry? 

Douthat and Robinson both seem to want to say …  Actually, let’s make this a dialogue. It might be clearer that way. We can start anywhere because the whole thing goes round and round….

Christian: There is nothing in the secular worldview that can account for human rights or equality.

Naturalist: Sure there is! A morality of rights and equality prevents intolerable consequences

Christian: Look here, Naturalist. I keep saying this and you won’t listen. You would not find those consequences intolerable if not for our culture’s Christian heritage. The intolerability of those consequences presupposes a certain religious metaphysics.

Naturalist: Ridiculous! Okay. You like stories. I’ll tell you a story. It’s even true. I have a Jewish friend–let’s call her Sarah–who, in her twenties, decided she doesn’t believe in God or revelation or anything like that. Nevertheless, she finds pork completely digusting and won’t eat it. Do you say she’s not entitled to her disgust?That it doesn’t count as a good reason for her not to eat pork, just because it originates causally in her belief in a revealed religious doctrine she no longer takes herself to reason to accept?

Christian: No. Of course not. De gustibus … 

Naturalist: No? But why not? It seems to me your reasoning implies that Sarah has to make a choice. That she can have Judaism and her disgust for pork, or she can give up Judaism and her disgust for pork, but she can’t give up Judaism and keep her disgust.  

Christian: I can see what you’re trying to do, but it won’t work. 

Naturalist: Oh?

Christian: Suppose you’re right. You’re saying that when secular liberalism finds the “intolerable consequences” intolerable, it does so for basically the same reason Sarah finds pork disgusting.

Naturalist: Pretty much. Just as Sarah’s disgust gives her a perfectly acceptable reason not to eat pork, the secular liberal’s horror at the likely consequences of not treating people as rights-bearing moral equals gives them a perfectly acceptable reason to affirm that people are rights-bearing moral equals.

Christian: Don’t you hear yourself? You’ve reduced human equality and rights to a matter of taste. But you’re talking about grounds for accepting a proposition: that people are rights-bearing moral equals. Either they are or they are not. Your argument amounts to holding your nose and saying “Ewww! Gross!” to the proposition that people are not rights-bearing moral equals. But it doesn’t give us any evidence to think they are.  

Naturalist: Oh, you’re slick. But, no. My argument amounts to saying that horror of injustice and suffering is good enough reason to champion bulwarks, like belief in rights and equality, against injustice and suffering.

Christian: Now we’re getting somewhere. First of all, whether or not treating people a certain way amounts to “injustice” depends on what rights we think people have. You can’t say that the reason people have rights is that otherwise they would be treated unjustly. That begs the question.

Naturalist: I’m not so sure, but it’s not that important. I can stick to suffering. Suffering is suffering. And death. 

Christian: Good. So now the question is whether horror is the appropriate response to suffering and death. 

Naturalist: I see you’re smiling. You think you’ve got me cornered, don’t you? But all you’ve really managed to do is call into question whether disgust is for Sarah an appropriate response to the idea of eating pork. But I think you conceded it’s reason enough for her not to eat pork.

Christian: Really? This is where you plant your flag? You’re happy with equality and rights having no firmer foundation than taste?

Naturalist: Don’t be so quick to dismiss taste. All judgment functions like taste. When we say someone has a good “bullshit detector,” we’re praising their epistemic taste. Seeing what’s wrong with an argument isn’t so different from seeing what’s wrong with a drawing. And you like Aristotle, right? Aristotle basically teaches that the practical wisdom is a matter of sensibility. And there are more or less refined sensibilities, better and worse taste. 

Christian: You’re trying to wriggle out of it. Just admit it. You don’t think there’s anything “out there” that makes belief in human equality and human rights rationally mandatory. 

Naturalist: I can’t wriggle out of something I totally agree with. Morality just isn’t like logic, and the conclusions of moral arguments are pretty much never “rationally mandatory.” Again, I’ve got Aristotle on my side. Morality isn’t much like math and it’s an elementary error to expect moral arguments to have the clarity and certainty of math or logic.

Christian:  I still say you’re wriggling. You’re being evasive and you know it. How is the argument that it’s good taste to approve of human rights supposed to stand up the assertion that it isn’t, that it’s in bad taste? 

Naturalist: You think I’m evasive because you’re hung up the idea that moral principles need some kind of super-secure justification that somehow makes moral disagreement evaporate. That’s completely fanciful, and it’s unfair to accuse me of a sort of dishonesty for rejecting your unrealistic standards.

Christian: Sorry. My intent isn’t to question your honesty. But I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to demand that weighty moral principles have a more secure foundation than our whimsically contingent tastes.

Naturalist: Sure. OK, let me answer your previous question: what do I say to say someone who says rights and equality are in bad taste? That this is all “nonsense on stilts”? You do what you do whenever there is a disagreement. You try to help the other person see it your way. You get them to focus on the considerations you think they’re overlooking. You point out why you think their position is faulty. Why it implies things you know they reject. How do you get someone to accept that the Beatles are a better band than Blink 182? You ask them to listen harder! You point to what they’re missing. There’s no mathematical proof, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a right answer, or that we’re helpless to change minds through deliberation.

Christian: I think we’re getting back to our initial disagreement. I say you’re only going to be able to cajole and goad someone into accepting that the consequences of denying equality and rights are unacceptable if they’ve already absorbed certain Christian values.   

Naturalist: You clearly think you’re saying something significant, but I don’t understand what it is.

Christian: You’re bullheaded, is why.

Naturalist: Maybe. I think you’re bullheaded. You want a secure foundation for rights? How is Christianity a secure foundation if I’ve got no reason to believe it? Is Christianity “rationally mandatory”?  I know you don’t think so. You think one has to have faith.

Christian: That’s right. Reason gets you a long way toward Christianity, but it doesn’t get you all the way.

Naturalist: Right. So what gets you all the way? A significant emotional experience that you happen to interpret as an experience of the divine? Tell me that’s not “whimsically contingent”!

Christian: That’s not whimsically contingent.

Naturalist: Cute. But, seriously. If I keep pressing you, sooner or later we’ll get to some kind of raw judgment about religious experience that is far, far, far from rationally mandatory.  

Christian: So you say.

Naturalist: So, I say knock it off. I don’t think we actually do disagree all that much. You’re really no different from me. You find the “intolerable consequences” intolerable for very same reasons I do: it’s what our culture, both religious and secular, teaches us. We’ve been coached to feel this way. Our sentiments of approbation and disapprobation have been cultivated by our family, friends, and teachers. And we’ve both been taught that this particular course of sentimental education is justified because certain traditions based on certain middle-eastern myths recommend it. I’ve rejected the authority of these traditions and you haven’t. That’s it! That’s the whole story our difference.

Christian: I suppose next you’re going to tell me that if I’d been born in India, I’d believe in Indian “myths” instead?

Naturalist: Well you would, wouldn’t you? I guess it’s pretty good luck getting yourself born in the right religion, huh?

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Christian: I can’t say I’m not grateful. 

Naturalist: Well, I’m grateful, too. Yet, you’ve got to admit, the time and place into which we’re born is whimsically contingent, if anything is. That doesn’t mean I’m not damn glad I grew up in a culture that takes equality and rights dead serious. We owe a lot to that fact. And that’s reason enough to go on taking equality and rights seriously. It’s reason enough to take them even more seriously, actually. If Christianity’s partly responsible for our relative happy circumstances, then bully for Christianity. Give Christianity a medal. It’s a ladder we climbed to get where we are. But the ladder isn’t holding us up. Let’s put it in a museum. Let’s gild it, even. Terrific ladder. Let’s be glad to say so.

Christian: I’m not so sure the liberal sensibility can survive without Christianity. I’m not so sure it’s a ladder, and not a pillar.

Naturalist: Well, I’m not going to try to stop you from holding up liberal civilization through ardent churchgoing. But I think churchgoing is doomed in the long run. Just look at the trends! So you’re really not helping by casting aspersions on secular attempts to uphold equality and rights. That’s how our cherished cultural infrastructure is going to be replenished. That’s the pillar of the future. Why not just pitch in? 

Christian: I’ll do my best the best way I know how. I’ll pray for you.

Naturalist: Thanks, man. 

Any clearer?


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