Wednesday, August 12, 2020

On Natural Rights

"The American Misunderstanding of Natural Rights" argues that Jefferson was wrong when he wrote that our rights are "self-evident."
...[The] fact is that moral reasoning, like mathematical reasoning, always begins with premises, or first principles, that reason doesn’t supply. If it were otherwise, we might expect universal agreement on these issues. Cultures around the world and throughout history have, however, had differing and often irreconcilable first principles from which their moral reasoning is done. All of these cultures, however, can be said to be “natural” in their own way. The moral intuitions that underwrite the unalienable rights enumerated in the American Constitution are, furthermore, emphatically not natural facts apprehended by naked reason, but cultural artifacts bequeathed to us by 2,000 years of Christian history. I would not in any way claim that adherence to liberal principles or advocacy for human rights requires adherence to Christian dogma; merely that a sound account of how human nature came to be understood in such a way that human rights are justified must include the advent of Christianity and the moral transformation it wrought upon our civilization.

.... [T]he Western understanding of human rights is predicated on one particular and historically contingent idea of what it is to be human: that of the Christian religion. There is furthermore no evidence that this particular notion of rights will outlive the faith that birthed it. We are already seeing the emergence of a new conception of rights that replaces God with the state and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with the right [to] strike action and free health care. To amend a quotation from C.S. Lewis, we cannot castrate and at the same time “bid the geldings be fruitful.”

The Founders tried to carve out a vision of human rights that circumvented the need for metaphysical or theological commitments, but they were destined to fail. They were heirs to 1,700 years of Christian civilization and every page of their writings testifies to this fact in spite of them. .... The disestablishment of religion in the United States, a glorious victory for the claims of conscience, should not prevent us from acknowledging that the entire ideological edifice of classical liberalism has been constructed exclusively with borrowed capital from the Christian Church.... [T]hat capital is dwindling and is now almost spent. Our inheritance of human rights was built to reflect the fact that we are all living images of a particular crucified criminal from Galilee, who proclaimed that we are each and all more than what Caesar would make of us. If we care to enjoy the rights bequeathed to us by this tradition throughout the coming years, decades, and centuries, then we can no longer avoid publicly discussing the inextricable nature of religious and political ideas. A civilization can only avoid this discussion for so long before it begins to wither on the vine. For the United States, the day is already far spent....
Ramesh Ponnuru responds:
A self-evident truth is one that can’t be deduced from more basic truths and can only be defended by indirect arguments rather than formally proven. (Take, for example, the principle of non-contradiction.) And if we view self-evidence in that light, the Declaration is not susceptible to the debunking arguments that Hilditch makes. The self-evidence of the truth that all people equally have human rights does not imply that it is “an obvious and intuitive deduction from human nature,” and so the fact that many civilizations have not grasped it does nothing to dent its self-evidence. Nor does the self-evidence of this truth imply that our civilization’s grasp of it owes nothing to its Jewish and Christian inheritance; it owes a very great deal to it — as the Declaration’s own wording suggests.

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