Monday, July 18, 2011

Discerning a basis for human rights and dignity

In her Opinion column, “The Sacred and the Humane,” Anat Bletzki argues that human rights are properly the domain of philosophical rather than theological ethics (New York Times, July 17, 2011). Tellingly, she defines religion as “a system of myth and ritual; it is a communal system of propositional attitudes — beliefs, hopes, fears, desires — that are related to superhuman agents.” That definition precludes much modern theology that has abandoned the idea of superhuman agents as untenable.

Bletzki’s argument rejecting religious ethics as a basis for human rights hinges upon her belief that religious ethics is a system of command ethics: people do what God commands. In addition to excluding major religions such as Theravadan Buddhism, her argument has three major flaws.

First, God is internally consistent, an assessment apparent by observing that God's handiwork appears internally consistent, for example in both morality and natural processes. God who authored life and imbued it with value does not contradict that by directing Abraham to kill his son. Child abuse, in all of its forms and instances, is inconsistent with respect the value of life. If God had told Abraham to kill Isaac, the morally correct action for Abraham would have been to kill his son. Biblical stories that portray God as inconsistent reflect human rather than divine authorship.

Second, Bletzki, opting for biblical literalism, minimizes the difficulty in discerning God's will. Searching for inconsistencies within a religious tradition is a great way to discover human bias. Searching across religions for consistent themes, such as the worth of all humans, is a much better way to discern ethical guidance from the one ultimate reality.

Third, Bletzki ignores the possibility that the variety of philosophical justifications of human rights reflect truth incorporated into the very design of creation by God. Thus, one would expect philosophy and religion to converge on human rights, often finding common ground. Religious ethics that insist on the particularities of their tradition being God's dictates are as biased as philosophers who insist on the particularities of their philosophy being right against all others. The dichotomy that David Hume proposed between the natural and ethical may in fact be false given the growing accumulation of biological data about the physical basis for reciprocal altruism. (For more, cf.

What is the basis of your ethic?


Chuck Till said...

Once one moves beyond easy-to-quote formalisms like the Golden Rule, one desires a comprehensive foundation for human rights and dignity -- which inevitably involve tradeoffs. Would humanity be better off if everyone were able to read and comprehend the Critique of Pure Reason? Possibly so, but that's not where humankind is -- or is likely to be, anytime soon. Religion's use of myth, metaphor, and induction can effectively communicate a basis for human rights and dignity that is accessible to the masses.

George Clifford said...

Chuck, you're right. To borrow a trite phrase, "the devil is in the details." My objection to Bletzki's essay is that she wants to put religious/theological ethics out of the conversation altogether. Philosophical ethics, like their religious counterparts, offer widely varying prescriptions of human behavior, finding common ground only with respect to the big picture. A primary influence on Kant, incidentally, was the Christian pietism of his parents. A careful reading of his work suggests that he was attempting to develop a Christian ethic without recourse to God.

class action lawyer said...

The basis for human rights should be laid upon using common sense on which will be good for all regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, etc. Though religion can be a good basis, some are just conflicting to some basics of common sense.

George Clifford said...

I'm sorry, but I do not understand your comment. Perhaps an example or two would clarify your meaning.