February 16, 2014


Beyond Naturalism: On Ronald Dworkin : How did an essential figure in the modern revival of liberal political philosophy end up pondering issues of theology? (Michael Rosen, February 11, 2014, The Nation)

Grant the idea that human beings are surrounded by this invisible shell of inherent rights and everything fits together. But there are still two obvious (and connected) objections: What reason is there to think that these strange things called "rights" exist, and what lets us recognize them in enough detail to determine how far they extend? If we turn back to the eighteenth century, the authors of the Declaration of Independence make it clear where they think rights come from: God. Men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," a view that the American founders took more or less directly from the seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke. At about the same time, in Germany, Immanuel Kant was equally emphatic: "the Rights of Man," he wrote, are "God's most sacred institution." So is the idea of rights as prior to law no more than a hangover of religion? Bentham certainly thought so: "Right, the substantive right, is the child of law: from real laws come real rights; but from imaginary laws, from laws of nature, fancied and invented by poets, rhetoricians, and dealers in moral and intellectual poisons"--Bentham means, no doubt, Christianity and its priests--"come imaginary rights, a bastard brood of monsters, 'gorgons and chimaeras dire.'"

One reply--Richard Rorty was among its best-known advocates--is to say that, although rights don't have a foundation in religion, they don't need them: morality is just about the ways that people judge and respond to various situations, and rights theory is the name for one kind of response. To say that you believe in "rights" is no more than a substantivized way of expressing that you are convinced there are things that ought not be done to people, even in pursuit of a good end. There's no need to think that rights are some spooky kind of entity hovering behind the ways that people think and behave. To borrow a phrase from Rorty, ascribing rights to people is "the way we do things around here."

Yet there is a very important difficulty with this "subjectivist" position. When ruthless utilitarian aggregators defend their view, they can justify it by pointing to the way it leads to the advancement of something that is evidently good (happiness) or the avoidance of something bad (suffering). It means that there is an immediate, intuitively plausible response when utilitarians are asked what kinds of values underpin their moral theory. Yet what justification can be given by someone who rejects that view? What is it about the individual whose life would otherwise be sacrificed for the collective good that makes the sacrifice wrong? To say that she or he has a right not to be put to death in order to save others is just to put a name to the problem. We also need, it seems, a satisfying reason why--something about the victim that explains why he or she has a value that overrides instrumental calculations about the greatest good. It is at this point that religious-sounding vocabulary tends to slip back into the discussion. Rawls, for example, talks about each person having an "inviolability founded on justice," although he does not explain just what "inviolability" might amount to.

I think Dworkin took something like Rorty's position when he published Taking Rights Seriously in 1977. But thirty-six years later, by the time of Religion Without God, he held a different and far stronger view: human beings do indeed have a special value that can't be overridden (religious thinkers commonly call it "human dignity"), though not because it comes from God. To the contrary, values exist independently of God.

If morality were just a matter of God's will, then presumably whatever God willed would be good for that reason and no more. But if God is indeed just, it must be possible for human beings to recognize independently why his commands are good. Of course, goodness is essential to God, so he could not conceivably will anything that was not good--but, still, it is not his willing something that makes it good. As Seneca once wrote, "I do not obey God; I agree with him." So, Dworkin argues, any reasonable religion must acknowledge the priority of value over the will of the Deity. But in that case, the supernatural narrative of creation, revelation and prophecy that surrounds the moral teachings of religion is dispensable.

Dworkin still wants to call his attitude "religious" because, although he does not believe in the existence of God, he "accepts the full, independent reality of value" and hence rejects the naturalistic view that nothing is real except what is revealed by the natural sciences or psychology.

Yet if values exist as "fully independent," how can we have access to them? As Dworkin admits, there are no experiments we can conduct to confirm their existence. Dignity--the "God particle" that sustains the existence of human rights--will not be detected by any scientist. On the contrary, the realm of value is "self-certifying," so the only evidence for the existence of values is the truth of the things that we say about them. And the evidence for that truth is what, exactly--that we agree about values? But disagreement about values is where we came in. Even if we accept that we carry within ourselves an inner kernel of transcendental value, would it give us a way of telling where the claims of the collective end and the prerogatives of the individual begin?

One can either believe in materialism/subjectivism or in objectivism/morality.  Thankfully, most advocates of the former are too decent in the end to take their own position seriously.  Instead, as Rorty said, they freeload off of Christianity while pretending to atheism.

Posted by at February 16, 2014 8:15 AM

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