Let’s stop talking about “rights”, or at least don’t assert them as unquestionable givens

Now that I’ve established my philosophy cred, I want to talk about “rights”. These are just some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts inspired by the video I’ve posted below.

There are two ways we can interpret the meaning of the word “rights” as applied to humans or animals:

a. Social, political, or legal conventions that help society run the way we’d like it to. The “right” for all people to be treated equally under the law is such a convention.

b. An unquestionable property of a human being that is said to derive from either deontological philosophical principles or from the dictates of God.

Few of us here (though many believers, like the one shown below) believe that rights come from God. But many of us see them as innate virtues and privileges of humans—things not to be questioned. I’d like to take issue with this second view.

I certainly agree with “rights” in the first sense, but not with the second. For, at bottom, “rights” in the second sense simply lead to more questions that require answers. Why are all people, genders, and races to be treated equally? Why does a woman have the “right” to control her own body when pregnant? Why does every citizen have the right to health care and clean water? I do agree with these as “rights” in the first sense: they are necessary for a harmonious society and world. But just asserting these things as “rights” shuts down further analysis: it’s a discussion-stopper.

At bottom, there is a reason why people claim that something is a “right”, and that mandates further contemplation and rationalization, as it does for, say, abortion or gay marriage. In my view, those rights derive from a consequentialist morality: we should allow gays to marry because it is good for society (and of course for gays) that they enjoy the same marital privileges as straight people. When you assert something as a “right” in the second sense, you are trying to forestall a discussion of the reasons why that “right” exists.

I would prefer that we simply stop talking about “rights.” That, of course, won’t happen. But if we continue to do so, we should make it clear that they are social preferences, codified into law and behavior, that exist for reasons. This means that they are open for discussion, for of course “rights” will change as society changes. We now have a “right” to assisted dying (or so I feel), but that is something that reflects a chance in society’s mores. Rather than “rights”, I’d say “right”, as in “it is the right thing to do to allow gays to marry”. Or “it is the right thing to do to allow the terminally ill to end their own lives.”  Such a view allows us to discuss why these things are “right,” and leads to possibility of constructive dialogue and examination of our own beliefs.

These are all thoughts I had when listening to the video below, “The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists”. It’s a 42-minute talk by Ravi Zacharias, author and Christian apologist. (I defy you to make it past ten minutes!) The talk, in turn, is a distillation of his 2008 book, The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists.

Here we see the notion of rights and morals as things given uniquely by God.  Here’s the YouTube description

Ravi Zacharias replies to the New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). This video is part of the ‘Contending with Christianity’s Critics’ 2012 conference.

The thesis in Zacharias’s talk, as it surely is in his book (I haven’t read it), is that atheism is bad because it destroys meaning and purpose of life: our “shared values”. And where do those shared values come from? They are  “divine imperatives implanted in the heart and conscience of every human being”—i.e., they come from God. Once, he claims, we all shared those values, and that grounded society, but New Atheists are chipping away at the foundations, making those values questionable, questioned, and, for some of them, insupportable. We are, he says, created a divisive and harmful cultural revolution away from “shared meanings”.

It’s amusing to see Zacharias’s religious two-step when he has to argue that Islam doesn’t share the same meanings and values (after all, he’s justifying Christianity as the true faith). After all, Muslims also claim that their morals and values come from God. Zacharias has an amusing argument about why they’re wrong; it’s in the first 15 minutes, and I won’t spoil it for you.

When, as Zacharias does, people claim “rights based on God or some immutable moral absolutes” (and these are roughly equivalent), they are doing something that’s bad: trying to prevent us from questioning why we should treat human beings one way versus another. Yes, it’s settled that humans have “rights” not to be slaves or imprisoned without reason, but there are reasons for those “rights”, and it behooves us to remember that.

102 Comments

  1. Posted August 25, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s amazing how many of the “rights” of the Bible are illegal now. And how many “rights” we have now are rejected in the Bible.

    No County Clerk has ever cited religious objections to filing divorce papers. Yet the Bible specifically says that’s a “no go”.

  2. Cindy
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I love it when fundies say that our ‘rights’ are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

    • starskeptic
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      They can see ink only Nicolas Cage can see.

  3. Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Appealing to your philosophy cred, I’d mention that there is a classic sense of “rights”, Aristotelian, I believe, that defines them as things necessary for a human being to flourish, and therefore should not be denied to anyone. Of course, one might argue against the idea that everyone deserves to flourish, but I believe it is wrong to define rights in terms of social preferences, beacuse it leaves the door open to fascism — the idea that the opinion of the masses always trumps the personal dignity of the individual.

    • nightgaunt49
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Rights not given by some deity that has the power to take them away and have shown to be anything but “immutable”. But those we are born with from our parents, not some invisible thingamajig.

      The needs of the many over the needs of the few or one. Can we have both? Seems to me it depends on what it is. Some don’t want to pay taxes, yet never have lived in a place with no civilization to experience it.

      Some things an individual can have with the disapproval of the many. Except in our country.
      Some how the Europeans have reached that at various points. It isn’t easy because some groups convictions are personal and religious and demand all others kowtow to it. A dangerous precedent we still have here.

    • CFM
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      In my opinion, saying that (human) rights are based on social preferences is not about defining these rights in a normative sense, but about describing a social reality.

      Pointing out that morality or (human) rights are, at bottom, socio-cognitive constructs, changing over time and across cultures (even allowing for certain shared moral intuitions) is not the same as endorsing moral relativism.

      It does allow for the opinion that some of these constructs, some social preferences, are based on better reasons and make more sense than others.

    • Posted August 25, 2015 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      But wouldn’t the fact that something is required for a person to “flourish” count as one of the reasons Jerry says should undergird our idea of what constitutes a right?

  4. Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy Bentham made the argument centuries ago that “rights” were actually regressive and illiberal. It was within the framework of his consequentialism that he viewed the idea as actually retarding social progress. He called natural rights “rhetorical nonsense–nonsense on stilts”.

    Asserting this position gets you very strange looks from almost all who aren’t political philosophers.

  5. Andrew B.
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I find it baffling that religious people tend to find issues of morality and ethics VERY IMPORTANT, but also insist that their foundation MUST be in something which is transcendent to humanity and therefore mysterious and opaque to investigation. One would think it should be the opposite.

    • nightgaunt49
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      We have all found that religious people pick-and-choose what parts of the Bible they find necessary and to be enforced with the plenary powers of govt. Others they ignore. If any of their post life scenarios were real many of them would be in that “bad place” they are so afraid of because of their cafeteria Christianity is a failure.

  6. Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t get past ten minutes…

  7. Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy Bentham made the argument centuries ago that “rights” were actually regressive and illiberal. He called the idea of natural rights “rhetorical nonsense–nonsense upon stilts”. Within the context of his consequentialism, he thought that natural rights language actually retarded social progress.

    If you make that argument today, you are likely to get very strange looks from anyone other than a political philosopher.

    • nightgaunt49
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Indeed considering many would find his reasoning to be proto-Communist in character. All about the herd and the herd for the state’s sake only.

      • nightgaunt49
        Posted August 29, 2015 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        I should have said “state/church” instead of “state” only.

  8. Delphin
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the general point and go further: I don’t like “principles.” We always know more about a particular circumstance than we do about the principle someone wants to apply to it.
    I think principles have uses primarily in establishing simple, workable conventions that can operate predictably. A simple example. It’s important that if gay marriage is allowed it is allowed when both partners are of different races without having to re-examine those cases. Principles facilitate that. So I like principles like free speech, equality before the law, the presumption of innocence. But I agree with JAC about their contingent status.

    Which leads to a certain discomfort. If you have to always argue for an idea, sometimes you fail to persuade. Fail badly enough and you get nazis, or communists, or theocrats trampling those principles I just listed. Or University administrators banning speech. I really have no compunction about citing speech rights against censors.

  9. Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    In defense of Zacharias’ book/talk… it is a snappy title. If one is going to formulate a “response” (i.e. a riposte) to the general message of the Gnus, it will necessarily involve an “End of Reason”. This is truth in advertising.

    • Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I also couldn’t stomach more than a few seconds here and there. I am happy to report that the musical equipment in the background seemed to be unused throughout the entire video. So I’d consider this to be another minor point in defense of the presentation. (this time given to the “Theology, Philosophy and Science” Youtube channel)

      Funny how comments were disabled, though. I didn’t expect that.

    • thh1859
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      I bought a book in the ’70s called The End of Reason; and I conjecture that papyri, manuscripts, and printed books titled The End of Reason, or including The End of Reason in the title, have been written regularly over the last 4000 years by those despairing of the thoughts and actions of their contemporaries. The only indisputable end of reason is n.

      • Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Ah yes. And I guess mocking Sam’s book title by playing the opposite-land game has been played a bit… “The Atheist Delusion” has already been taken. “God is too Great, You Poopyhead” lacks proper gravitas, and “Casting the Spell” sounds too much like a Harry Potter sequel. So I guess his title isn’t so groundbreakingly clever as I thought.

  10. Kevin
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    We have no rights. George already taught us this:

    You have no rights – George Carlin

    • nightgaunt49
      Posted August 29, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      To paraphrase Ben Franklin, “you have rights if you can hold on to them.”

  11. Nick
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    The second definition: rights as unquestionable property of humans, are commonly referred to as “natural rights.” Jeremy Bentham had this to say about natural rights: “simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, — nonsense upon stilts.”

    • slandermonkey
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      Show me a right that can’t be taken from me by 10 men with pointy sticks and I’ll admit it is natural.

      There are no natural rights. Rights are an important legal concept that will change as society changes.

      And please, stop confusing rights and entitlements. Rights are actions others can’t stop you from doing, legally. Entitlements are things and services provided to all communally.

      I have a right to free speech. I’m entitled to free medical care.

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    One of the earliest mention that we have “rights” granted to us by “our Creator” is in the Declaration of Independence written by the !*highly heretical*! founding fathers of the United States, many of them deists.

    A major document is Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”. Paine believed in God, but lambasted Christianity as a horrible fraud in “The Age of Reason”.

    Before that the !*Unitarian*! Christian, John Locke (who, to be fair, thought God belief was necessary to morality) wrote in “Second Treatise of Government” that God has given men the rights to life, liberty, and property.

    Before Locke, there is hardly any mention in Christian literature of God bestowing rights. Certainly virtually none in the Bible.

    • Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Are you sure that Paine believed in god? He must have been an atheist for some of his life.

      • Randy Schenck
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        Far as my understanding goes, he was an atheist. More so than any of the other founders.

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        Paine was a deist.

        See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Paine#Religious_views

        • Randy Schenck
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          Possibly, but he appeared to be a church of one.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          Scrolling past quickly, I read that as “Paine was a dentist.” Imagine having your teeth drilled by Dr. Paine!

          • Posted August 26, 2015 at 12:05 am | Permalink

            My brother-in-law, a dentist, once worked as a locum in the surgery of a Dr Payne. I kid you not.

        • nightgaunt49
          Posted August 29, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

          A Deist is the closest you can still be an Atheist and have some deity that has made a hole, jumped in and pulled the hole in after IT. Which is why you generally won’t find Deists in the USA. Too much like Atheism with an abscent deity tacked on.

      • Robert Bray
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        From the introduction to ‘The Age of Reason:’

        ‘I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.’

      • Posted August 26, 2015 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        I’ve got a collected works of his that I’ve enjoyed reading. He’s a deist by the end of his life. He critiques Christianity and the bible by saying that it is a slander on the name of the good god to attribute to it composition or inspiration of the bible.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      The notion of rights coming from God strikes me as a non sequitur. This is the same God who cast us, willy-nilly, as characters in his cosmic puppet show, who has a plan for each and every one of us, and at whose whim we will rejoice or burn forever. Where in all of that is there any room for rights?

  13. mormovies
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Rights are values that humans need to survive and thrive. They should be derived from reason and the facts of reality. Science and progress should and can reveal and clarify ‘rights’ so that they continue to be refined and clarified. Rights are reasoned from our brains and demanded and fought for not handed down by a god or government.

    • Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      They should be derived from reason and the facts of reality. Science and progress should and can reveal and clarify ‘rights’ …

      Not so, rights cannot be derived from reason and facts. Rights derive from our values, and thence from our emotions and feelings. They can be informed by facts and reason, but not derived from them.

      • Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        Rights may depend on propositions that have only emotional support, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be examined or developed using reason and facts. The emotional axioms might be statements like “there is a wrong way to act” or “it’s wrong to harm another person,” but these intuitions are not the entirety of the subject.

      • Posted August 25, 2015 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        This is not true, for instance we do not just use our emotions of anger and rage to enshrine a right to anger, we reason about which emotions make us better off, and then create “rights” because of that reasoning. The idea that you can’t reason about emotions is absurd, if people were not using reason with regard to their emotions, what impetus would there be for anyone to care about the emotions of others, other than their own wellbeing?

        • slandermonkey
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

          I also disagree that most rights are products of our emotions.

          Rights as understood today are a product of clear, rational, philosophy. The rights most people agree on are based on empirical facts about how people are both physically, socially, emotionally, and on a great deal of trail and error as societies strived for rules that optimized human flourishing.

          • Posted August 26, 2015 at 3:48 am | Permalink

            The rights most people agree on are based on empirical facts …

            And human values and feelings. The facts alone do nothing.

            • Posted August 26, 2015 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

              Human values and feelings are facts. If i have emotional experience X, it is true or it is not. Feelings is not a strange category to which objectivity and reason aren’t applied.

              • nightgaunt49
                Posted August 27, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

                The problem is that some people do not approve of other people’s actions even though it is none of their concern. S and M, multi-sexual partners, other kinds of sex that do not lead to reproduction they want to control too. Should the majority have that right? I’d say no. It can go too far.

                Murder is bad unless it is self defense.
                Stealing is bad unless you are starving, there is a disaster.

                Mitigating circumstances. What they dismiss as “situational ethics” which I find very important.

        • Posted August 26, 2015 at 3:47 am | Permalink

          we do not just use our emotions of anger and rage to enshrine a right to anger, we reason about …

          Agreed, we don’t *just* use our emotions. As I said, reason and facts can inform “rights”. But you cannot derive rights from reason and facts alone; ultimately, rights derive from human values, human feelings.

          The idea that you can’t reason about emotions is absurd, …

          True, but I didn’t claim that.

          • Posted August 26, 2015 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

            This is a false dichotomy, emotions are not in a category that is outside of facts. Either emotions occur or they do not. They are facts. Jerry Coyne felt sadness at the stupidity of accomadationists yesterday is true or it is not. The idea of rights necessarily entails reason, it was mnot an emotional response, how would that even be possible? If you mean in the most ultimate sense that rights would not exist without emotions of course that is true, because humans would not exist at all if we didnt have desires to act in certain ways. But rights clearly took into account which emotions were valuable, reasoned about them and chose things that would be consonant with the emotions that felt pleasant.

      • reasonshark
        Posted August 26, 2015 at 3:32 am | Permalink

        So where do our emotions and feelings derive them from? Unless you think they plopped down from a supernatural realm with radically different rules, you have to conclude that they are entities in the physical world, and therefore just as much objects of rational inquiry as eyes, sight, optics, and the electromagnetic spectrum. If moral codes aren’t deducible from sentience, human nature, or other such facts about reality, then their ontological status is questionable.

        • Posted August 26, 2015 at 3:50 am | Permalink

          So where do our emotions and feelings derive them from?

          Emotions don’t derive “rights” from anywhere. Rights derive from our emotions, what we want.

          If moral codes aren’t deducible from sentience, human nature, or other such facts about reality, then their ontological status is questionable.

          Indeed so. Moral codes are human agreements, societal agreements, based on our feelings and values.

          Our feelings and values are of course real, and one can indeed make objective statements about those subjective feelings.

          • Posted August 26, 2015 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

            This is not true, emotions would not create rights on their own. Reason was necessary. If you want to be exact, you need both emotions to form the valuations that are positive, and reasoning about them to establish the concept of rights that apply to everyone.

            • Posted August 27, 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink

              You’re right that emotions don’t create rights on their own. Rather, rights are collective agreements. Those agreements comes from our values and thus emotions.

              Yes, reasoning is involved (my first comment said that reasoning informs the process), but the point is that without values you have nothing. My point here was in reply to a comment that didn’t mention our feelings at all, and you can’t get to morals or rights without that.

              • nightgaunt49
                Posted August 27, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                Doesn’t “special creation” violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics itself?

                The biggest problem with the Creationists is that most of the time they are dissing Evolution and physics etc instead of showing us their “science” alone. As if they were simply teaching it to others. No mentions of Evolution or anything else, just their point-of-view only.

                Personally I don’t think they can do it. Because even they must come to the wall they have looming in front of them. This isn’t a science. This is religion, mysticism, occultism masquerading as science.

                I want to see the ecology they are implying where every life form now extinct was alive AT THE SAME TIME all over the world. Show us how such ecologies exists at the same time etc.

                I want it well illustrated too. I like my fiction looking good.

  14. Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    It’s awkward to define rights as “social preferences”, since rights theory is often argued on the basis that no person has (or ought to have) privileged status to dictate social preferences. Negative Rights supporters argue that we are uncertain about what is right, and therefore social preferences should be up to individual persons as much as possible. This conception is pretty close to the “life, liberty, and property” conception argued by Locke and written into the US Bill of Rights. I would argue that this follows from the absence of divine authority (and, consequently, skepticism toward the alleged authority of human institutions).

  15. Randy Schenck
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Mainly just find this guy nauseating. Did I hear him say that Islam is totalitarian? Of course his religion is not.

  16. Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I failed to make it past 5 minutes! I wanted to throw rocks at him by the 4:56 mark.

    He’s perfected his apologist shtick. He’s very good at it. I’ll bet he practiced it in front a mirror for weeks.

    Now he’s cashin’ in.

    Scoundrels, all of ’em.

  17. John Harshman
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I defy you to make it past ten minutes! and it’s in the first 15 minutes, and I won’t spoil it for you. Now that’s just cruel. Come on, spare us the agony: what’s his argument?

    • John Harshman
      Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      Never mind. I slogged through the first 15 minutes. Now I have to take a shower.

  18. Sastra
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    A right is the flip side of a duty — that’s what I’ve read in sources which ground the concept in a combination of reason, human nature, and what makes for an objectively fair and just system. I think one can then derive some of the most important and basic “human rights” from this starting point, if we also agree to focus more on our similarities than our differences ( “all people are born equal in nature.”) All are in the same community, with no tribal outsiders whom we may not consider.

    After that, we argue and discuss the refinements regarding treating others with the same responsibilities we demand of them.

    Grounding human right from the bottom up makes sense to me. Far more sense, at any rate than seeing them as “granted” from a Skyhook hanging from nothing — like “God.” What we’ve got there isn’t rights, but permissions. The owner allows others to do what he allows, for whatever reason he allows it. Thus, rights can go anywhere at all, rising and falling according to whim and favor.

    Besides, how do we establish that the owner has the right over property — or even that there’s an owner or property at all? Theistic “solutions” simply run roughshod over all philosophical foundations, giving the illusion that some problem has been solved or some solution has been offered when all they’ve done is shortcut through the requirement to do the work.

    • Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      … and what makes for an objectively fair and just system.

      I submit that there is no such thing. Notions of fairness and justice can only come from human values and feelings, and thus they are inevitably subjective.

      • Sastra
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Can objective statements be made about subjective states? Obviously.

        Less obvious perhaps is whether there are subjective values and feelings which can be assumed to exist across the entire range of humanity. I think there are. Along with universal desires for such things as personal happiness, meaningful experiences, and the ability to choose what one prefers, we all seem to share a very basic sense of what it means to be fair, and what it means to “cheat.” An inherent sense of right and wrong may exist in many of the group-dwelling species. The devil then is in the details.

        Shades of gray. There’s what’s objectively true regardless of what anybody thinks or feels; there’s what subjectively true to one unique subjectconcerning what they think and feel; and then there’s a wide range in the middle of what is inter subjectively true about the states of many subjects who think and feel pretty much the same thing.

        That third area is I think where we can find enough common ground to make objective statements about subjective values.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 25, 2015 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          The problem comes when trying to extend the notion of universal values beyond “the entire range of humanity” to any conceivable thinking entity: robots, post-human cyborgs, alien hive minds, what have you. What we think of as the solid ground of our shared evolutionary heritage is the first thing to give way in such scenarios — some of which seem likely to become reality perhaps sooner than most objective moral realists expect.

          • Sastra
            Posted August 25, 2015 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

            I don’t see why we have to bring in robots and cyborgs when the same point is easily made using chimps and gorillas — or dogs, cats, and squid for that matter. Our shared evolutionary heritage doesn’t break down when we encounter other species which resemble us in some ways, not so much in others. There’s always some subtle adjustments in those negotiations.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted August 25, 2015 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

              I think it will take more than subtle adjustments to accommodate minds with whom we share no evolutionary history at all. What happens to ethics when you take away even the basic Darwinian imperatives of survival and reproduction? I don’t think chimps or squid will help much with that question.

              That’s why I remain skeptical of claims of “objective” or “universal” moral truths. The universe is not only queerer than ethicists suppose, it’s queerer than they can suppose.

      • Posted August 25, 2015 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        The fact that justice and fairness come from subjective creatures has nothing to do with whether or not they can be objective. Chess comes from subjective creatures, it is a social construction, yet there are objective rules. If you define equality as X, and the situation does not match X then it is objectively not equality. If you define fairness as all people in the same country having the same income, then it is objectively true or false. That something is a social construction does not make it neither true nor false, subjectivity isnt some weird 3rd category.

        • Posted August 26, 2015 at 5:54 am | Permalink

          If you define fairness as all people in the same country having the same income, then it is objectively true or false.

          That is entirely true, but the important point is that “if”. It takes a human to make that declaration of what is “fair”, based on their values. Thus the definition of “fairness” is subjective (= derives from people’s feelings).

          … subjectivity isnt some weird 3rd category.

          True. But nor is “subjectivity” a bogeyman word to be avoided somehow.

          • Posted August 26, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

            The right way to talk about fairness is not to say that it is subjective, but to say that it is a human construct. Because as a human construct it still can be objective. You can also say that science is subjective if you use the term that way, because it is a human construct. I don’t think this is a good way of describing it, because the term subjective IS a type of bogeyman that people use to get away from arguments. Subjectivity has a long history of this. And is the current refuge of post modernist and ultra left wingers, as well as religious nutjobs. As well as confused scientists that refuse to say that some moral outlooks are objectively worse than others.

            • Vaal
              Posted August 26, 2015 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

              Yes indeedy jason, I agree.

              Am I taller than my mother? Yes. That can be measured. Anyone of the opinion I’m shorter than my mother will be objectively wrong.

              That “measurement” was something decided upon by humans, arising from a particular goal, does not reduce it to being merely subjective.

              If the answer to a question ONLY relies on
              a subjective response – e.g. do you like chocolate ice cream – then the answer can be said to be objective. But once subjectivity – e.g. a value – becomes only part of the process, part of a chain comprising other elements in reaching a conclusion, then the conclusion is not necessarily “subjective” anymore, as those examples show.

              I like to use the example of evolution. When creationists say “evolution is a random process” what mistake are they making? We correct them by pointing out that, yes, ONE of the elements in the process of evolution is random, but it is combined with other parts (e.g. natural selection) in which the outcome is distinctly NOT random. They are making a mistake in thinking that because they can point to one point of randomness in the chain, that the end result is randomness.

              I think people often do the same when it comes to secular theories of objective morality. Most appeal to subjectivity as part of the theory – e.g. goals, desires, values etc – but *conjoin* those to objective facts, so the outcome is not subjective. In other words, once you’ve decided what to measure, there can be objective facts that follow from this.

              That we must decide what to measure, by looking at certain desires or values, does not therefore entail the outcome isn’t objective.

              • Posted August 27, 2015 at 2:21 am | Permalink

                It’s objective once you’ve decided the system, yes. But the decision of which moral principles to adopt is still subjective.

                Your comment suggests that there is something wrong with morality being subjective, and thus that we need to find some way of applying the label “objective”.

              • Vaal
                Posted August 27, 2015 at 10:21 am | Permalink

                Coel,

                “But the decision of which moral principles to adopt is still subjective.”

                1. Which, as has been shown and apparently accepted by you, doesn’t entail that “morality” is subjective.

                If morality is understood as a relationship – e.g. between things we value, desire, goals, and what objective facts are necessary to fulfill those goals –
                then morality – e.g. “what we ought to do” – can be in principle objective. Which is the view of the majority of most philosophers FWIW.

                2. The question of which values would underpin morality is not even necessarily fully subjective. Yes our values are subjective, but *deciding which values most reasonably support morality* isn’t necessarily subjective. Reason generally offers objectivity, and if there are better reasons suggesting certain values underpin morality, then in an objective sense someone denying this is not being reasonable, i.e. they are “wrong.”

                All sorts of moral realist theories run along these lines, but most here are familiar with Sam Harris’ version. While I don’t think Sam’s is as fully formed as other theories, he is arguing along the lines
                given above by showing that: 1. It’s the case that people DO rely on some sort of concern for the well being of conscious creatures when they think morally and 2. To deny this is unreasonable, as no moral theory makes sense, or will make sense fully absent such a concern.

                As for “something wrong” with morality being subjective, that depends. There’s nothing wrong with morality having a subjective component. But if it turns out that no moral theory can establish objectivity for “ought” then in one way that is not necessarily fully destructive to morality.
                You can still gather people together who share the same “that’s bad” feeling to disapprove of those who transgress.

                But it does present a problem of justification. If you feel that someone is doing something wrong, e.g. torturing a child, how do you tell him/her they are “wrong” aside from just voicing your own disapproval? Further, how do you *justify* saying that person “should” be stopped, and taking action against that person? You will be stuck with special pleading, it seems, since his “feeling” about the situation justifies his action just as much as yours does, so you’ve reduced your disapproval, and reasons-for-action to mere arbitrariness.

              • Posted August 27, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

                Hi Vaal,

                If any part of the process leading to morals is subjective then morals are subjective. (Since, by the definition of the words, something needs to be entirely objective in order to be objective.)

                As for justification, saying that something is objectively justified, given an agreed moral framework doesn’t help you justify something against anyone who rejects the framework.

                At root, our feelings are all there is. You might want there to be an objective reason to tell someone to stop torturing a child, but that doesn’t mean that there is one.

                But this does not reduce morals to being arbitrary: human nature is not arbitrary. De facto, the vast majority of humans will tell the rogue one to stop torturing a child. The fact that there aren’t gods (or objective standards) to back up the message is just the way it is.

              • Posted August 27, 2015 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

                Coel you say “If any part of the process leading to morals is subjective then morals are subjective. ”

                You do realize that this entails that science is therefore subjective? Science necessarily requires acceptance of things like, reason, coherence, valuation of accuracy and other “subjective” characteristics. If you think science is subjective, then I think you ought to re-think the way you use subjective, because its not how anyone else uses it.

              • Vaal
                Posted August 27, 2015 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

                Coel,

                “If any part of the process leading to morals is subjective then morals are subjective.”

                But that is precisely the logic used by creationists who say: “If ANY part of the process of evolution is random, then evolution is random.”

                I presume you would join Dawkins, the rest of biologists, and most atheists in pointing out the fallacy – that pointing to one part of the process as random fails to take into the account the whole process which results in non-random.

                Why then do you feel like employing this same (apparently) fallacious rule to morality, by saying if any part of the process is subjective the end result is subjective?

                (Since, by the definition of the words, something needs to be entirely objective in order to be objective.)

                “entirely objective’ seems ill-defined there. But if you are going to mean that for a statement to be “objective” that it has to be unmoored from any value or method of agreement, then that undoes the objectivity of most purportedly objective statements. E.g: “the moon is smaller than the earth” and “the statue of liberty is taller than Obama” and “Madascar is below the equator” would no longer be “objectively true” statements. And even most scientific descriptions, or logical statements start with some sort of value such as valuing truth, or coherency or logic.

                A practicable understanding of “objective” that preserves the objective status of most objective statements is something like: An objective statement is a fact claim about which one can be right or wrong. That is, the truth does not merely reflect the opinion of the claimant and is true or false independent of his/her opinion. If “taller” is understood to be something like “measuring more centimetres from bottom to top” then to claim “X is taller than Y” will be an objective claim and having a dissenting opinion makes you “wrong.”

                In the case of morality, IF moral action is taken to be something like “acts which support well-being (e.g. of sentient beings like ourselves)” then one can claim that throwing someone into a fire thwarts their well-being. Given appropriate analysis of the facts, as one would do in any science, we could say it’s “objectively true” that it’s immoral. This is no less objective a statement than any other statement of fact.

                “As for justification, saying that something is objectively justified, given an agreed moral framework doesn’t help you justify something against anyone who rejects the framework.”,

                I disagree. The very nature of reasoning and justification makes it possible in principle (and often in practice)
                to be “more justified” than someone who rejects a certain framework. We engage in these forms of justification all the time. One moral framework will be more justified than another in terms of it’s explanatory scope, logical coherence, and utility. As I’ve mentioned before, people who try to “justify” purely selfish forms of ethics quickly run into inconsistencies and special pleading; ethical systems that coherently account for the desires and well-fare of other entities like yourself fair better in such respects. As soon as reasoning begins, the possibility of justifying any A over B becomes in principle possible.

              • Posted August 27, 2015 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

                +1 Great post.

              • Posted August 28, 2015 at 4:25 am | Permalink

                Hi jasonsilverman20,

                You do realize that this entails that science is therefore subjective?

                The truth claims of science are not subjective (the truth or otherwise of the claim does not depend in any way on opinion about it). Whether one values and adopts science is, of course, subjective.

              • Posted August 28, 2015 at 4:44 am | Permalink

                Hi Vaal,

                On randomness: the combination of “throw a dice” and “pick out all the sixes” does not give a random result.

                Subjectivity is different. Subjective (from the OED) means “… influenced by personal feelings …”, whereas objective means “… not influenced by personal feelings …”. Thus any degree of influence from personal feelings makes something subjective. If whether we regard something as “morally good” versus “morally bad” depends in any way on human feelings, then (by definition) that makes morality subjective.

                There is nothing wrong with morality being subjective! All it means is that morality is then about what we want, our values, our nature (and not something alien to humans imposed from outside).

                “the moon is smaller than the earth” … would no longer be “objectively true” statements.

                I don’t follow your argument. Given the definition of the words, the truth of that sentence is independent of human opinion and is thus objective.

                I don’t see any way of making the issue of whether something is “morally bad” versus “morally good” independent of human feelings and values.

                IF moral action is taken to be something like “acts which support well-being …

                First, that doesn’t get you all the way to objectivity, since you can’t define “well being” except by regard to human preferences — the valuing of being alive and well over diseased or dead is still a human preference.

                But, further, that requires the axiom of aligning morality with human well-being, and that can only be done as a human preference, and thus the axiom is a subjective declaration.

                … we could say it’s “objectively true” that it’s immoral. …

                To an extent, yes, but your system is then a tautology. You’ve defined “immoral” as what negates well-being. If you then say that negating well-being is immoral, all you’re saying is that negating well-being negates well-being.

                That tautology does not give you a meaningful and objective moral scheme.

                One moral framework will be more justified than another in terms of it’s explanatory scope, logical coherence, and utility.

                I don’t see any way of justifying a moral framework that doesn’t ultimately come down to a human preference (such as the preference for being alive and well over diseased or dead).

              • Posted August 28, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

                Again Coel, Science is based on human subjectivity, so if you are going to be consistent then you must also say that science is subjective. Science is also possible and only coherent because of what are called the “epistemic emotions” of confusion, insight, doubt, insight, curioisity and so on. These are human feelings, and the choice that science has to be coherent is guided by those “values”, if you are a post modernist you just deny that science exists. If you were being consistent youd apply these same standards to science, but you want science to be objective while morality to be subjective.

                “There is nothing wrong with morality being subjective! All it means is that morality is then about what we want, our values, our nature (and not something alien to humans imposed from outside). ”

                This is wrong. We don’t get to control what we want, we are designed to care about wellbeing, disguist and all of our emotions, we don’t get to choose these things, they are impositions from evolution.

                “First, that doesn’t get you all the way to objectivity, since you can’t define “well being” except by regard to human preferences — the valuing of being alive and well over diseased or dead is still a human preference. ”

                This is wrong as well, with a complete neuroscience we would be able to deduce wellbeing from something like a brain scan. And it would NOT be dependent on human consciousness, it would presumably be present in other animals, as well as any computer that instantiated a wiring that enabled wellbeing. The fact that the original measure had to come from humans is as relevant to this as the fazct that human subjectivity was the thing that first enabled us to measure things like length, weight and color. Once we are off the ground, we can get objective measures out of things that we first understood subjectively.

                “But, further, that requires the axiom of aligning morality with human well-being, and that can only be done as a human preference, and thus the axiom is a subjective declaration.

                … we could say it’s “objectively true” that it’s immoral. …

                To an extent, yes, but your system is then a tautology. You’ve defined “immoral” as what negates well-being. If you then say that negating well-being is immoral, all you’re saying is that negating well-being negates well-being. ”

                This is not a tautology, many people think that morality is about “virtue” or honor or something like that, by focusing on what all humans actually do want, and can actually make them better off and ignoring the crap that most people have proposed as morality, we are honing on the real causal variable that is important for morality. Saying chemistry is the science of atoms, and morality is the science of wellbeing are both useful as they indicate what the field is.

                You seem to think that anyone can choose what they want morality to be. They cant. Thats not how we are designed. The problem of morality is not as big as people seem to thinmk it is be ause they have a poor understanding of human variability and choice. We are bound to things like suffering and wellbeing being prime motivators for our behavior, and when we rely on the cultural diversity of peoples wants and desires to think about morality we are not getting a clear idea of what morality is really about. Almost nowhere is morality not about wellbeing and suffering, it is just often that people are very confused about what the causes are.

              • Posted August 29, 2015 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

                To an extent, yes, but your system is then a tautology. You’ve defined “immoral” as what negates well-being. If you then say that negating well-being is immoral, all you’re saying is that negating well-being negates well-being.

                On the other hand if Vaal said that killing Mr. X would be immoral, that wouldn’t be a tautology. It would reflect the empirical truth that killing Mr. X negates well-being. And so on, for many other moral issues. I’m not sure why your ability to find one tautology is so important.

                An analogy may help. Consider two lawyers discussing a case. Lawyer A suggests a strategy. B says, “That would violate Public Act 146, therefore it’s unlawful, so we shouldn’t do that.” B knows what she’s talking about, and A knows she does, so A discards the idea.

                Some things to note: Lawyer A takes the conclusion that the strategy would be unlawful, to have normative/prescriptive force. Yet at the same time, there does seem to be such a thing as objective truths about what is lawful or unlawful. Additionally, it’s crystal clear that laws are set up to protect things that lawmakers care about, and furthermore the very existence of a legal system at all, also reflects the things people care about. It has deep roots in subjective emotions.

              • Posted August 29, 2015 at 2:47 am | Permalink

                Hi Jason,

                First on science. Whether the moon is bigger or smaller than Earth is not subjective because it is independent of what people think of it. If I think “the moon is bigger than earth” it does not change the fact of the matter at all.

                But, if the issue is whether something is “morally bad” or “morally good” then the only meaning of those terms relates to human feelings and values. Therefore how people feel about things *does* change things. Thus morality is subjective.

                This is wrong. We don’t get to control what we want, we are designed to care about wellbeing, disguist and all of our emotions, we don’t get to choose these things, they are impositions from evolution.

                Nothing in that sentence conflicts with anything I said.

                This is wrong as well, with a complete neuroscience we would be able to deduce wellbeing from something like a brain scan.

                The fact that one might be able to deduce human preferences from a brain scan doesn’t change the fact that morality is rooted in human preferences and values, and thus is subjective.

                This is not a tautology, many people think that morality is about “virtue” or honor or something like that, by focusing on what all humans actually do want, …

                Exactly!! Morality is about what humans actually do want! Definition of “subjective”: “Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions”.

                You seem to think that anyone can choose what they want morality to be.

                No, I don’t. I think morality is about our feelings, which is rooted in our very deep biological nature.

                Almost nowhere is morality not about wellbeing and suffering, …

                Exactly. And thus morality is “… based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes and opinions”.

              • Posted August 30, 2015 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

                First on science. Whether the moon is bigger or smaller than Earth is not subjective because it is independent of what people think of it. If I think “the moon is bigger than earth” it does not change the fact of the matter at all.
                But, if the issue is whether something is “morally bad” or “morally good” then the only meaning of those terms relates to human feelings and values. Therefore how people feel about things *does* change things. Thus morality is subjective.

                This is a switch… You originally said that since morality came from subjectivity, it was therefore subjective. I said that this reasoning would make science subjective as well, since it originates in subjectivity as well. That some fact originated in subjectivity does not render facts subjective. And, if for instance it is found that wellbeing occurs across species, and also occurs in computers or computer programs, it seems absurd to say that “whether something is “morally bad” or “morally good” then the only meaning of those terms relates to human feelings and values”. It may just be that there is some sort of algorythm that creates pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and this is an objective fact about the universe, whereever the program is instantiated, pleasantness results. If someone says or “feels” that wellbeing is not the source of what humans constitute as good, that does not render it subjective. It shows that they are wrong, just as a person can be wrong about the sun being smaller than the earth.

                It seems like you agree with me for the most part, but then you seem to be implying that peoples opinions that differ can change the matter. So for instance if a person thinks red is black, or even hallucinates and thinks red is black, that we are supposed to care about this persons opinion. I don’t think that this follows, people are mistaken about subjective experiences as well as objective experiences. The fact that consciousness is the source of our feelings does not mean that there cant be objective fact about subjectivity.

    • Posted August 26, 2015 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Sastra’s comment #18. The way I’d put it is: Jerry’s correct about type (a) rights, based on social agreement. But when we discuss potential social/legal conventions of rights, we’re also relying on some “rules of the game” of the discussion itself. We recognize rational arguments, discourage threats, allow each person to speak their mind, etc. The whole enterprise of trying to reason together about how to treat each other, implicates certain rights of the discussants. It’s a third category (c), beyond Jerry’s (a) and (b).

  19. Robert Bray
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    It has taken me a very long time to get there, but I’ve finally realized that ‘rights’ are social conventions. Not from Jefferson’s (Deist) Creator; nor from Nature; but from ourselves to ourselves. We humans lucky enough to live under the U. S. Constitution, with its Bill of Rights (too bad about number 2 though) have the best chance of achieving well-being for all citizens.

    It is precisely this that Big Money and the Republican Party want to remove from our polity.

    • Posted August 25, 2015 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Not from Jefferson’s (Deist) Creator …

      Just a note that “… endowed by their Creator …” likely wasn’t by Jefferson, but seems to have been an alternation to Jefferson’s draft by others on the committee.

      Jefferson’s original said: “… that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, …”

      • leonkrier
        Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        What if Jefferson or whoever is responsible for “…endowed by thier Creator…” had written the Declaration of Independence after Darwin instead of before the Origin of Species? Maybe we need a Post-Darwin revision of the D of I!

  20. JohnE
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    If you dismiss the validity of individual revelations, then everything we know about the Judeo-Christian god and his “moral philosophy” is contained in the Bible. As far as I know, he hasn’t written any sequels and or made any verifiable public appearances in which he has clarified or expanded upon that philosophy. That said, it’s bewildering that people like Zacharias, who presumably has read the Bible, could claim with a straight face that the Judeo-Christian philosophy as set forth in the Bible is the source of our rights. In point of fact, the Bible is absolutely barren of any suggestion that we have any of the “rights” that most people have in mind whenever the subject of rights is being discussed. The Bible never once advocates democracy, elections, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, freedom from self-incrimination, the right to a trial by jury, the equal protection of all people under our laws, the prohibition of involuntary servitude, or the abolishment of cruel and unusual punishments. Indeed, the Bible is at best indifferent, and in some cases actually opposed, to most of those principles. The Bible is most assuredly NOT in favor of freedom of religion, which religious Americans often claim to be their most cherished right. The Bible is likewise fine with the idea that people should be ruled by kings and dictators (like David or Caesar or even God himself), it has no problem with slavery (the OT expressly authorizes it, St. Paul admonished slaves to be obedient to their masters, and Jesus thought it made perfect sense that a disobedient slave should be beaten), it insists that women should be subservient to men, and it advocates that minor transgressions (such as being disrespectful to your parents) should be punished by death.

    Last but not least, consider the immorality of the very foundation of Christianity: the idea that Jesus died for our sins – that he took our punishment for us. How absurd and reprehensible is the idea that if someone commits a crime, it is perfectly acceptable – in fact admirable – for some other “volunteer” to be punished in the criminal’s place? Who in their right mind could possibly call that justice?

  21. mordacious1
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Whenever a goddite questions my lack of belief, I tell them that I’m exercising “My god-given right to be an atheist”. That usually confuses them.

  22. Merilee
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  23. Posted August 25, 2015 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    My position on the idea of rights is that by default as intelligent agents we have unlimited rights. In other words on a desert island we can grant ourselves any rights we desire. Once there are more than one of us our rights are limited when they conflict with others rights, or when they are restricted by governments because they conflict with others rights.

  24. Posted August 25, 2015 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Early in his talk, Zacharias touts the religious conception of human worth as something that’s simply intrinsic to humans, in contrast with a secular conception that’d have to rely on some extrinsic authority to grant it.

    But what is god if not an extrinsic authority that grants humans their worth? If anything, the religious conception of human worth is more susceptible to the whims of an extrinsic authority (whether that be a church government, a single cult leader, etc).

    Further, I’m not sure why intrinsic worth is necessarily better than extrinsic worth.

  25. jacoxnet
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    You are wading into a huge existing philosophical debate — although in your case, you probably know that and have decided to do it anyway! Lots of philosophers have tried to derive the concept of “rights” in a non-consequentialist (utilitarian) manner (Kant, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin). Others, like Jeremy Bentham, think any non-utilitarian basis for rights is nonsense. But neither side relies on a deity.

  26. chris moffatt
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Discussion is pointless. There are no rights, only privileges which may be granted or withheld.

  27. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    So “Pragmatism as a Humanism”? (with apologies to J.P. Sartre)

  28. Thud
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Whew! Decades ago, with no philosophy creds and accused of arrogagance, I had to sort this out for myself. To wit: the default is reciprocity, e.g., “do unto others …”, “an eye for an eye”, even in game theory “tit for tat”, etc. Above this (what does “above” mean here?), generosity in many forms, e.g., civility and politeness, “benefit of the doubt”, e.g., non-hostile interpretation, obeying laws and paying taxes willingly even without threat of punishment, like club dues or the like, etc. Above these (in similar sense), altruism, higher civic-mindedness, NGO participation, etc, e.g. Medicin sans Frontier, and such.
    Twiddle the dials and make your commitments consistent with your values. “By their fruits you shall know them.” Action is everything.
    Trust, it seems, always involves some risk. One has to make the first move, albeit small, willing to lose just for the sake of finding a trustworthy correspondent. I’ve been betrayed at several levels, so I know a little about how this game works. Good luck!

  29. Posted August 25, 2015 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Joshua Greene argued that you should use the term “rights” only in very important and settled issues, like human rights and that type of thing. There may be consequentialists grounds for using “rights” for instance if it is an argument that is true, and people are more receptive to simplifications, such as that rights exists, then it may be better for everyone to just agree to them. Making violations more obvious, and protecting people from the harms that would be done when such “rights” are” violated” in that way society is better. I agree that the idea of rights is absurd, the only way to have an objective moral criteria that is not based on social construction is to base it on things at the neurological level that apply to everyone, such as wellbeing.

  30. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m a bit of a simpleton with the concept of rights. If you put yourself in the place of that person or other animal, how would you feel without certain “rights”? If bad then give “rights”.

    Of course, this assumes you have the necessary brain anatomy and chemistry to figure this out AND it is dangerously close to doing what “feels good” and we all know I’d like to “eye for an eye” someone who hurt me or anyone I like and we all know that doesn’t work out for society so the state has to step in and stop me while exactly more just corrections. So, this is where the rest of society comes in – if they all think about these things, a just society will reach just conclusions….and we should all be working toward a just society (I might have gone in a circle – it’s been a long day).

    • winewithcats
      Posted August 30, 2015 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      Essentially Kant’s categorical imperative, is it not?

  31. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but it seems to me that the reason people care about socially-defined rights is not so much because they think society is more harmonious when we have them (although it very well might be). We don’t grant people rights to keep them from rioting.

    Rather, we grant them rights out of empathy: it must suck to be the guy screwed by the system; I wouldn’t want to be that guy. So we extend to everyone the right not to get arbitrarily screwed as a sort of Rawlsian move to protect ourselves from being that guy in some other context. We are individually safest from being screwed when everyone is safe from being screwed.

    But maybe that’s what you mean by a harmonious society.

    • Vaal
      Posted August 26, 2015 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      I agree that would be part of it. Further, it’s an extension of reason itself. Reason, by it’s very nature, is universalizing and if you special plead you are violating reason. In other words, if you think “X gives me a reason for Y” then that principle is available to anyone. Similarly, if you think it is good for yourself to have certain rights, and if you are being reasonable, the same principle would apply for anyone else. Whatever rights you grant yourself should extend to other people.

      If you say “X human right is applicable to me” and then deny that principle in the case of another person, then you are special pleading and not being reasonable. If you want to deny the principle for another person you have to come up with further reasons for making the exception…and those reasons will also have to make sense in terms of universalisation. E.g. you could point to relevant differences in a scenario where you say “I have the right to my freedom” where “you do not”…because you have committed a crime for which you need to be put in prison. But then that same principle will have to extend to yourself. So all caveats to any rule you make will depend on universalizing as well.

      One of the common charges against atheism is that if there is no God then one can easily justify some selfish ethos. But that’s wrong. If you really press people when they try to do this, you’ll find special pleading all over the place, hence they can’t really “justify by reason” this totally selfish ethos, and reason tends to justify the type of wider community-wide principles that have led to our laws and civilized societies.

  32. Dave R
    Posted August 25, 2015 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Ravi has claimed that evolutionary theory is a bunch of b.s. because it violates the second law of thermodynamics… Which reminds me of Ken Miller’s debate with Henry Morris…

    Ken Miller: “Okay. Now another good part. Dr. Morris has made the statement that the second law of thermodynamics makes evolution impossible. I mean, gee, how could everybody be so stupid, I mean all you’d need to do to straighten out these evolution idiots would be to sit them down with a physical chemist, have a nice talk to them, a physical chemist could tell us about the second law, this is all impossible, now go out and do something else. What’s the reason for that? What is the deal with the second law?

    Friends, Dr. Morris is fibbing and I believe that Dr. Morris knows it….

    …Now, in my book, Dr. Morris has borne false witness against the second law of thermodynamics, so I thought I’d bring the second law in to speak for itself….

    …The fact is that all one needs to support an increase in complexity, which evolution demands, is energy.

    Next slide. And the method of trapping the sun’s energy is, in fact, the basis of every single living thing on this planet…

    …the fact is that there are no thermodynamic barriers to increases in complexity. The smokescreen about the second law is a farce. Now Dr. Morris can gesture, he can talk about universal laws and so forth, but the fact is that evolution is not forbidden by the second law, it’s consistent with it.”
    http://ncse.com/creationism/general/miller-morris-debate-1981

    • Posted August 26, 2015 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      IMO, this one is such an old “classic” tactic that anyone who sites it favourably these days does not care about fair debate, but merely about bamboozlement.

  33. Posted August 26, 2015 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    The concept of “rights” doesn’t make people behave better in society. People who are inclined to get along with their neighbors don’t need the concept of “rights”. They’ll live their daily lives in a fair, reasonable, and just manner – with or without all the arguments about “rights”. People who are inclined to be anti-social creeps will live their daily lives just as stupidly – with or without all the arguments about “rights”. We can teach our children the value of acting decently and intelligently without that dusty old religious concept.

  34. Posted August 26, 2015 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I found it interesting that the post talks about “gay marriage”, as if it’s any more or less of a right (whatever that might mean, and I agree that the overall discussion is useful) than “regular” marriage. I’m sure that wasn’t the intention, but it shows how hard it can be to rid ourselves of the idea that some things aren’t socially constructed.

    • winewithcats
      Posted August 30, 2015 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps a bit of context is in order. Whether or not gay marriage should be more or less of a right, in the first sense, than ungay marriage, was only recently decided by the SCOTUS, and their decision remains contentious to certain groups of people, to the point of open defiance. There have been numerous articles written here discussing the topic. So I think the intention was specifically to provide an example that is both relevant and current.

  35. peepuk
    Posted August 27, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    There should be a minimal standard as an absolute unquestionable right like the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

    I really see no point in discussing these things:

    Freedom from torture.
    Freedom from slavery.
    Right to a fair trial.
    Freedom of speech.
    Freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

    • nightgaunt49
      Posted August 27, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      I agree with all of those Peepuk. Though I am an Atheist and know in most religions it has many deleterious parts that violate all of them. There are some substitute secular versions like communism that all say they support, but in practice they are no better and even ape the hierarchy structure of religions they made illegal. Like heroine being substituted with other drugs. Same problem, just transfered, similar out come.

  36. nightgaunt49
    Posted August 29, 2015 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Psychopaths tend to be objective because they do not attach any emotions to things and peoples as the rest of us do. Objectivity is without emotion, Subjective is emotional attachment.


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