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. http://www.EthicalMusings.com).
What is the basis of your ethic?