Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Decent People

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First, before I start this, I want to point out that I added a short second post last night, to clarify a point, and that if some of this post seems a bit convoluted, that one may help.

But let’s get on, then, to John’s assertion–that either human rights are based on God because God gave them, or they’re “human inventions.”

Here’s the thing–I don’t believe in God, and I don’t think human rights (or, at least, individual rights) or justice or any of that, is merely a human invention.

Let’s start by untangling the rights thing, first.  People like the sound of “rights,” and they tend to throw the word at anything they think people should have, but the word is not properly defined that way. 

Rights in their original–and only supportable–formulation consisted of those areas of automony each and every individual must be granted by the state if society were to function properly.

What they–I’m thinking of people like Locke here, but also the Milton of Aereopagetica, and others–meant by “function properly” is what you and I would call “establish a stable society capable of making and sustaining progress in the sciences.”

Modern versions of what’s now called Natural Rights Theory are explicit about the benchmark role of the sciences–the first thing you lose when individual rights are not observed by governments is science–but Locke and company knew what they were looking at.

What Locke–and Jefferson–meant when they said that the Creator had given men “certain unalienable rights” was that these rights were based on something innate to human beings–something we were hard wired for. 

It’s not the rights that are innate, of course.  It’s a certain set of predictable human responses to certain environmental conditions. 

In other words, the utopian fantasies of Plato and Marx not only have not worked in the world, they are incapable of ever working in the world, because human beings are not infinitely malleable.  They can’t be made into anything we all.  What is traditionally called “human nature” is ard wired into all of us and cannot be changed short of genetic engineering of the most radical kind.

It is this fixedness of human nature that made the Catholic Church say it was possible to discover the moral law “by reason alone”–even if you knew nothing about God, you could observe human beings and how they behaved, and what things they held in common in their emotions and responses, and work out the moral law from that.

It doesn’t matter if human nature is fixed because it’s hardwired by genes or because God made us this way–and, yes, I do know that those things are not mutually exclusive–it only matters that ir is fixed.  

As long as human nature is fixed and immutable, neither human rights nor morality are “human inventions.”   Instead, their human formulations of an objective truth about being human–think of them as user’s manuals for how to make this machine run at optimum in at least some areas.

The only way rights, or morality, can be merely human inventions is if Plato, and Rousseau, were right–there is no such thing as human nature, and we can make human beings into anything we want them to be if we just change the environment enough.

I think that the untruth of this assertion ought to be self-evident by now, but a lot of people disagree with me.  

The confusion comes, however, with the continual misuse of the word “rights” to mean “stuff we think every human being should have.”

Rights are properly negative–they are a list of things your fellow citizens must not be allowed to do to you, a kind a fence around that first and most important piece of property, yourself.

What the  UN and certain people in Europe and the rest of the West call “human rights,” however, is a mess of positive demands–everybody has a “right” to food, for instance or a “right” to housing.

But a right is an absolute claim.  The only way some people can have a “right” to food or a “right” to housing or a “right” to education is if they are able to compel other people to work for them whether those other people want to or not. 

If you have a “right” to education, then, if nobody chooses to be a teacher, your government must be able to draft the unwilling and force them to be teachers so that you can have your “rights” fulfilled.”  The same is true of all the other laundry list of “human rights” that clutter up the UN Charter.

Human rights, as they have been internationally conceived for the last seventy or so years, pretty much destroy the concept of rights altogether–they are only possible in a world where nobody has any real, individual rights.

But individual rights do exist, and they are not simply something human beings made up.   It matters not at all if we were endowed by a Creator or the blind forces of evolution, our human nature is not infinitely malleable.  It is hard wired to respond in some ways and not in others.  It is the same across races, classes, and cultures.  Rights are those things that, if you violate them, the consequences are always predictable, and vary only in degree, not kind, throughout history.

You’re perfectly capable of building a society based on the suppression of speech and conscience, just like you’re perfectly capable of building a bridge by propping stone slates on unsecured tooth picks. 

If you do it, though, your society will be Afghanistan under the  Taliban, and your bridge will fall down as soon as anybody tries to cross it.

Written by janeh

June 26th, 2009 at 9:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Decent People'

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  1. I would dearly love for this post to be true–which by itself makes me suspicious, and ought to. The most common behavioral trait is the tendency to believe to be true what we wish to be true.

    That the belief in an objective reality, reasoned argument and the rejection of argument based on revelation or tradition is necessary for the advancement of science, I do not doubt, and I don’t think any rational person could doubt. But that only gets us as far as the laboratory. To judge by what we now know of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Iran’s nuclear program–or North Korea’s for that matter–is as “Western” in that sense as our own. The “devotional school of ballistics” (Parkinson) isn’t practiced anywhere these days, but the cause of human rights is not notably advanced thereby.

    Nor, frankly, do I believe the proponents of the Bill of Rights and the author of the Virginia Declaration of Religious Liberties did so in order to speed the arrival of the cotton gin, interghangeable parts and the railroad. They thought liberty of conscience, free speech and security of property had value OF THEMSELVES and not as a stepping-stone to a higher technolgical level. And please keep in mind that if you base your claim to those rights on the tech level of your society, anyone who finds a way to promote scientific research in contemporary China has undercut the justification for freedom of religion. Would you agree to an established church if it would advance maglev trains or “railgun” space launches? I didn’t think so.

    As for the overall status of rights–or morals–derived by reason, I remain deeply suspicious. In the physical world, reasoning by evidence works quite well. We knew that the world was round, and roughly what the circumference was, by Hellenistic times, and educated men who had studied the matter did not disagree. The same is true of the distance and mass of the Moon. Our assessment of surface conditions on Mars has changed rapidly over the past century, but at each stage, as new evidence was available, reason led everyone to the same narrowing range of conclusions. There was never a democratic and a communist reading of the evidence, nor a catholic and a freudian one.

    In the moral and political world, if anything, we have a growing divergence, with ethicists now arguing that cattle have rights, or that babies are a potential soruce of spare parts. Much of the West believes in a right to “free” health care, but not in the right to free speech. I do not say that everyone is wrong but me. I do say that unaided reason cannot be shown to lead to a moral code to to a system of human rights in the way it led to the acceptance of Newton’s work, or Einstein’s.

    Wishing does not make it so. And that includes wishing that reason were enough.


    26 Jun 09 at 6:13 pm

  2. Murphy’d Law in action. Both Jane and RObert have good posts and I’m too tired to make replies.

    Jane mentioned negative and positive rights. That terminology comes from a famous paper by Issiah Berling. Google came up with


    which is the paper. Well worth reading.

    Jane, I can think of several problems with your approach via human society. For example, if I want to go shopping, I need some confidence that I won’t be hit over the head and my money stolen. Any society must control violence. But that only means that the society will try to minimize violence, it doesn’t give a right not to be attacked.

    As a matter of historical fact, the scientific and industrial revolution occured in societies that did not give equal rights to women and discriminated on race and religion. If I remember correctly, US universities in the 1930s had quotas for how many Jews they would admit.

    You can’t derive a right to equal treatment (whatever that means) from what is needed for a science based society.

    I may add more if I can get a decent sleep tonight.


    26 Jun 09 at 6:59 pm

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