February 25, 2009

I would be happy to be offered an adequate secular account of human rights

Nicholas Wolterstorff: February 23rd, 2009 at 2:26 pm
I don’t really have anything more to say about the role of justice in the New Testament than I said in the book. And David Johnston doesn’t challenge my argument that ancient eudaimonism did not have the conceptual resources necessary for developing an account of rights. Let me content myself with addressing the charge that I was dismissive of Rawls (”brushes aside”), and that I “misread” him.

My point about Rawls was two-fold. In his theory, Rawls assumes the existence of natural rights; I give textual evidence for that. Rawls does not, however, develop an account of natural rights; his interest was elsewhere. But my project was to give an account of natural rights. Hence there’s not much in Rawls for me to engage in carrying out my project. I don’t see why not engaging him for this reason constitutes brushing him aside.

I am open to being shown that, in spite of the evidence I cite, Rawls does not assume the existence of natural rights. If he does not, then it is even more clear that he is not, for me on this issue, a dialogue partner. Perhaps I should add that I have engaged Rawls extensively on other matters.

Nicholas Wolterstorff: February 23rd, 2009 at 4:47 pm
After expressing warm appreciation for earlier work of mine, Jonathon Kahn expresses dismay over the conclusions I come to in Chapter 15 of Justice: Rights and Wrongs, and even more dismay over my speculations in the Epilogue.

In Chapter 15 I conclude that there is, at present, no adequate secular grounding for human rights, and that it is unlikely there ever will be. I do not contest that there is adequate secular grounding for the rights of those human beings who have the capacity for rational agency, and for infants who will have the capacity; it is for the rights of those who do not and will not have the capacity that I see no adequate secular grounding. I did not expect to arrive at this conclusion, and I did not arrive at it happily; I would be pleased if an adequate secular grounding were forthcoming. But as of now, I don’t see any—unless one holds that merely possessing human nature, no matter how impaired that nature may be, is an adequate grounding.

Kahn asks, does it matter? Well, one can certainly struggle for human rights without being able to offer a grounding for those rights; that is the situation of almost everyone who does struggle for human rights. And one can hold that every human being, no matter how impaired, has a worth sufficient for grounding human rights even though one finds oneself at a loss to explain what gives them that worth. Nothing inconsistent in that. My worries are about the long haul.

  • What if the secularists among us cannot give an account of what gives even severely impaired human beings an inviolable worth?
  • What if only theists can give such an account?
  • And what if our society as a whole becomes more secular?
  • Will anything change in how we treat the severely impaired and in how we think they ought to be treated?

I said I feared that our attitudes would eventually change. I did not mean to sound “apocalyptic” about this. I don’t view “secular readings of human rights” as “toxic,” nor do I view secular citizens as “not trustworthy.” And it was a mistake on my part to talk of “sliding back into our tribalisms.” That’s not where I see the danger; a Kantian account of rights can be used to combat tribalism. It’s the severely impaired that are of concern to me.

So let’s have the discussion. I would be happy to be offered an adequate secular account of human rights. And I would be happy to be persuaded that, even without such an account, my worries about what might happen over the long haul to the severely impaired are misplaced.

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