Friday, November 21, 2008

Just what are rights?

Jason asks:

On what basis do you justify ascribing any rights to anyone at all?

Note that I anticipate an answer which points to religious beliefs and texts. And remember that I find it impossible to take such beliefs seriously.

From my view, we have two choices here: one, approach the issue of rights pragmatically; two, approach them dogmatically. The former is rational, the latter is not. I support the rational approach. What about you?
That's a fine question, and it leads me actually to sthg I've been thinking about with the help of a friend with respect to this question.
As a disciple of the biblical faith, I started wondering just what biblical justification there is for this idea of "human rights", right before my friend emailed me to express just that concern for the way I've been arguing about baby murder recently around here.
It occurs to me that "rights" never occurs in the Bible, and neither does the idea of some intrinsic rights for humans. Rather, the ruling paradigm and therefore the question to be asked and answered on this issue is: In what way does God command us to treat other humans?
For example, God commands that we not murder other humans. He commands that we not steal, or commit adultery. He commands that we love our neighbor as ourself. Etc.

Why shall we follow His commands? There are many reasons, of course. Here are a few:

-So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the LORD your God is giving you for all time. (Deut 4:40)

-Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12)

-For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. (1 Peter 2:15)

-And (Jesus) said to him, "'YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' This is the great and foremost commandment." (Matt 22:37-38)

-Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6:16-18)

There are all sorts of reasons why not to sin, either against God or against another human. These are commands, strictly speaking, not 'human rights'.

I was sort of operating under the thinking that that which God commands I not to do to another (such as murder) can be loosely seen as a right. No one is supposed to murder anyone else. Thus, everyone has a right not to be murdered. Yet more loosely stated, everyone has a right to life, but one would want to be careful about that statement, for a couple of reasons:
1) Not everyone has a right to life. Those who have committed a capital crime should, most of the time, only live long enough for a fair trial and then be executed by the state, which has authority to do so. There are conceivable cases when mercy is called for, but not most of the time.
2) No one has a right that is higher than God's authority, but if we start talking too loosely about "human rights", then we could easily fall into that trap. I see it all the time in the media - this or that commentator or this or that man on the street complaining about "I can't believe God would allow this!" Believe it - He did.
Or, "I can't believe in a God that would allow this." At which point they run afoul of putting God in the dock, and there are all sorts of reasons why this sort of statement, while one can certainly have sympathy for the pain and grief out of which that comment might have emerged, is wrongheaded and rebellious. And of course, many times that person is not undergoing pain or grief at all; then it's just rebellion against God.
I've written recently on this very topic, and come to a conclusion that is probably hard for some to swallow. I'm not 100% sure of it, but I haven't seen a refutation yet.

Now, Jason says he will find this impossible take seriously. He admits his bias up front, which is more than can be said for many people, but it is still bias and therefore unworthy of much respect.
To further draw this out, we simply ask the atheist to provide a basis for human rights on his worldview.
On his worldview, everything is a product of chance and material and energetic interactions. There is no nobility, no beauty, no value, certainly no moral value. Evolution will continue and everything dies. Murder is simply making a weaker organism die a little before something else will have snuffed out its pointless existence, but both the interval and the life itself are infinitesimally small blips on the geological scale of time and size, to say nothing of the cosmic scale.

Since there is no value, it makes no difference whether I cuddle a baby gently and feed her, or whether I plunge her into boiling water for dinner. Neither is good, neither is bad.
It makes no difference whether I am an atheist or a Phred Felps gay-basher. Neither is good, neither is bad. If I deceive myself about the truth and become a Christian, it makes no difference.

Given that it makes zero difference how I treat others, whence do I think human rights might come? Besides, do paramecia have rights? Broccoli? What makes me better or morally preferable to those types of organism?

Since atheism is at its most consistent when it espouses materialism, one wonders of what human rights are composed. Of what elements? Do they grow somewhere? What is their natural environment? If they are simply products of human neural synapses firing, I suppose human rights are totally different depending on the human? So, Hitler and Pol Pot were just acting in accord with a totally valid expression of human rights, since they acted on their synapses firing just like everyone else, right? And those who think that there are no human rights are also expressing that which their own synapses are firing, so they are somehow correct as well, I suppose.

Summary - Jason's own worldview can't support human rights at all. So, it's vaguely amusing to hear him challenge Christianity to produce an account of them that he'll accept.
And he hates TGOTB, so he'll just reject anything that TGOTB might say in favor of something else. It doesn't matter what, just SOMETHING.


Jason Streitfeld said...


You haven't a clue what you're talking about here.

Here's my response:


Jason Streitfeld said...

Here's the link in a clickable format:

My Totally Wicked Response To Rhology's Latest Manifestation of Ignorance And Confusion

NAL said...

He admits his bias up front, which is more than can be said for many people, but it is still bias and therefore unworthy of much respect.

Is your bias also unworthy of much respect?

NAL said...

On his worldview, everything is a product of chance and material and energetic interactions. There is no nobility, no beauty, no value, certainly no moral value.

Thoughts are the result of energetic interactions in the material brain. The lack of energetic interactions in the brain is termed "brain dead". These thoughts determine what each of us considers noble, beautiful, valuable, and moral. Often individuals will agree on what they consider beautiful.

Rhology said...


I didn't realise that you believe that people's beliefs determine reality. That's really something.

Strangely, you don't extend that to Christianity...

Jason Streitfeld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Streitfeld said...


NAL's comments make perfect sense. The terms "beautiful," "true," and "valuable" refer to judgments produced by human beings. We make such judgments because of the way our brains work.

This does not mean thoughts determine all of reality. "Reality" is that which is. Thoughts are that which is thought. So, thoughts are a subset of reality. Thoughts determine how thinking organisms respond to reality. Values, such as "truth" and "beauty," are categories which we use to understand reality.

You probably want us to believe that the word "truth" refers to something wholly independent of cognition. You want us to believe that reality itself is "the truth."

All that does is confuse the terms. The word "truth" does not mean the same as the word "reality." They are two different words, with different meanings.

For example, the sentence "John Travolta is the United States President" is real, but it is not true. In reality, it is a statement. So, it is part of reality. But it is not the truth.

See? Truth and reality, not the same thing.