How do we argue for human rights?

Ron Lindsay on Pompeo’s “natural law” commission:

“That some persons are free and others slaves by nature … and that for these slavery is both advantageous and just, is evident.” So said Aristotle, one of the first advocates of the “natural law” approach to ethics. (See his Politics, Book I, ch. 5.)

Thus we see one of the problems. Different people have different ideas of what “natural law” is, and the ideas may have more to to with the convenience of the haver than the well-being of everyone else. Trump thinks it’s natural law that everyone should flatter him without cease.

Natural law theory has had a number of different proponents throughout history, and the exact contours of the theory vary from proponent to proponent, but the core of the theory is comprised of these three elements: there are some things that are intrinsically good and intrinsically evil because of their relationship to human nature; the human intellect, through reason correctly applied, can discern these fundamental goods and evils; actions are right or wrong depending on whether they further or oppose these fundamental goods and evils. From this summary, one can see that the cornerstone of this theory is its understanding of human nature.

And if one thinks about it for a few seconds one can see how easy it is to understand human nature in a way that flatters or benefits the self or the self’s tribe.

How do we argue for human rights? Roughly, through an approach something like this: Think of the purposes of morality (fostering trust, facilitating cooperation in achieving shared and complementary goals, providing security, ameliorating harmful conditions, etc.) and ask what rules and rights most everyone in the moral community would accept if such rules and rights applied to everyone. (For more detail, one can consult John Rawls, Tim Scanlon and a host of other philosophers and thinkers.) Does such an approach ensure unanimity, an end to any disagreement? Of course not. Does it imply that humans are the source of morality? Sure, because we are.

Throughout much of our history, many have tried to impose on others their view of right and wrong by claiming their view is backed by God or natural law. It’s time to rid ourselves of this pernicious fantasy. With respect to morality, there is no special authority. We’re all in this together.

Imagine if we could ask tuna and salmon, chickens and lambs, shrimp and lobsters what morality is.

5 Responses to “How do we argue for human rights?”

Leave a Comment

Subscribe without commenting