Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is cannibalism just a matter of taste?

Peter Wehner has been re-reading Isaiah Berlin and considering where human rights come from. He argues that Isaiah Berlin, although he believed in them, couldn't offer a convincing justification for their existence:
.... In what is morality grounded? For Berlin, it was grounded in general principles of behavior and human activity, in norms, in a consensus of what constitutes decency and right and wrong. That can work for a time, as people act on an existing moral accordance and intuition. But in the end that is never enough. Norms need to be grounded in permanent rather than provisional truths. Otherwise, we have only our own cultural consensus on what constitutes human rights, which makes it next to impossible to define a universal set of such rights. It also means we have no good justification for telling other societies, or for that matter even our own children, why they should hold to our particular consensus.

As Michael Gerson and I argue in City of Man, philosophers have tried for centuries to formulate a firm, secular theory of human rights. None has gained broad, much less universal assent, and none seems equal to the challenge of Nietzsche: if God is really dead, what is to stop the radical, destructive human will?

Berlin’s theory – liberalism without natural rights – is hung on a peg in midair. To care for and to sacrifice for the rights of other human beings, merely because they are human beings, requires an immutable moral and even metaphysical basis.

So why do human beings possess inherent value? People of the Jewish and Christian faith have an answer: Men and women are created equal in worth, in the image of God. They believe in a human nature, which demands human rights.

Without some transcendent basis, human rights as a doctrine cannot defend itself from attack. Strauss understood the fallacy of historicism – the belief that all standards are determined by cultural circumstances and each society should be judged in its own terms rather than measured against a universal standard – was both self-contradictory and relativistic. For historicists there is no ground on which one could prefer a liberal regime over a totalitarian one. Everything, including justice, is arbitrary. “If all values are relative,” Strauss famously said, “then cannibalism is a matter of taste.” For Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany, this debate was not simply an abstract one. .... [more]
Rights Must Be Grounded In Eternal Truths « Commentary Magazine