Whistling in the Dark?
Posted October 16, 2009on:
Present-day discussions by Western philosophers about morality in general, and human rights in particular, are haunted by the challenge that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) threw down more than a century ago. Once we abandon all reference to God, can we continue to talk about the “dignity” , “equality”, and “rights” of individual human beings – simply because they are human beings?
A right is a claim that somebody has to be treated in a certain way by others and not to be treated in certain other ways by others. To every claim-right there is a correlative duty. If X has a right against Y to Y’s doing or refraining from doing action A, then Y has a duty toward X to do or refrain from doing A.
Many of the rights we enjoy are socially generated, either by legislation or social practices. For example, if my employer promises to pay me a specific amount of money every month for the work that I do, then I have a right (a legitimate claim) against my employer if he were to break his promise. However, underlying that contractual right is also a natural right, one that is not socially conferred: for our right not to have our trust betrayed is a natural right, not a right we have on account of a human decision.
I said in my last posting (2 October) that we have come to recognize, and enshrine in various international declarations, a certain class of natural rights that are human rights. That is, rights that we possess simply by virtue of belonging to the species Homo Sapiens. These rights are inherent to the status of being human.
However, very rarely do we address the question Nietzsche posed. If human beings possess a worth that grounds the language of equality and rights, whence this worth? Worth cannot just float free; always there has to be something that gives the entity such worth as it has, some property, achievement, or relationship on which its worth supervenes.
There is a long line of Western philosophers, from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls, who have assumed- while not explicitly arguing for it- that the capacity for rational agency is what gives worth to human beings. But, as Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his fine book Justice: Rights and Wrongs, those who can exercise this capacity for rational action better than others are then of greater worth than others. Indeed, a good many human beings, such as Alzheimer’s patients and those with severe mental impairment, will never be able to exercise this capacity. Wolterstorff asks: “Must we then expect that those human beings who lack the capacities mentioned, who cannot function as persons, will be endangered? Must we expect that our treatment of them will sooner or later be determined entirely by what best serves the life-goods of the rest of us, not by their right against us to our treating them in certain ways? I think we must.” (p.390)
Nietzsche despised the weak, the poor, and the maimed. He proposed a counter-Christian “moral code for physicians”- the physician, Nietzsche urged, should encourage in himself active contempt for the invalid, regarding him as a parasite on society when he comes to a certain stage of degeneration. But most secular thinkers, while honouring Nietzsche’s brilliance, have not bitten the bullet the way that Nietzsche did.
Wolterstorff argues that being loved by God, despite our flaws and irrespective of who we are, is what ultimately gives a human being great worth. And he quotes (on p.324) the Australian philosopher, Raimond Gaita, himself a secularist, who says with unusual candour:
“The secular philosophical tradition speaks of inalienable rights, inalienable dignity and of persons as ends in themselves. These are, I believe, ways of whistling in the dark, ways of trying to make secure to reason what reason cannot finally underwrite…. We may say that all human beings are inestimably precious, that they are ends in themselves, that they are owed unconditional respect, that they possess inalienable rights, and, of course, that they possess inalienable dignity. In my judgment these are ways of trying to say that we feel a need to say when we are estranged from the conceptual resources we need to say it. Be that as it may: each of them is problematic and contentious. Not one of them has the simple power of the religious ways of speaking.”
Gaita adds: “Where does that power come from? Not, I am quite sure, from esoteric theological or philosophical elaboration of what it means for something to be sacred. It derives from the unashamedly anthropomorphic character of the claim that we are sacred because God loves us, his children.”