Now that I’ve established my philosophy cred, I want to talk about “rights”. These are just some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts inspired by the video I’ve posted below.
There are two ways we can interpret the meaning of the word “rights” as applied to humans or animals:
a. Social, political, or legal conventions that help society run the way we’d like it to. The “right” for all people to be treated equally under the law is such a convention.
b. An unquestionable property of a human being that is said to derive from either deontological philosophical principles or from the dictates of God.
Few of us here (though many believers, like the one shown below) believe that rights come from God. But many of us see them as innate virtues and privileges of humans—things not to be questioned. I’d like to take issue with this second view.
I certainly agree with “rights” in the first sense, but not with the second. For, at bottom, “rights” in the second sense simply lead to more questions that require answers. Why are all people, genders, and races to be treated equally? Why does a woman have the “right” to control her own body when pregnant? Why does every citizen have the right to health care and clean water? I do agree with these as “rights” in the first sense: they are necessary for a harmonious society and world. But just asserting these things as “rights” shuts down further analysis: it’s a discussion-stopper.
At bottom, there is a reason why people claim that something is a “right”, and that mandates further contemplation and rationalization, as it does for, say, abortion or gay marriage. In my view, those rights derive from a consequentialist morality: we should allow gays to marry because it is good for society (and of course for gays) that they enjoy the same marital privileges as straight people. When you assert something as a “right” in the second sense, you are trying to forestall a discussion of the reasons why that “right” exists.
I would prefer that we simply stop talking about “rights.” That, of course, won’t happen. But if we continue to do so, we should make it clear that they are social preferences, codified into law and behavior, that exist for reasons. This means that they are open for discussion, for of course “rights” will change as society changes. We now have a “right” to assisted dying (or so I feel), but that is something that reflects a chance in society’s mores. Rather than “rights”, I’d say “right”, as in “it is the right thing to do to allow gays to marry”. Or “it is the right thing to do to allow the terminally ill to end their own lives.” Such a view allows us to discuss why these things are “right,” and leads to possibility of constructive dialogue and examination of our own beliefs.
These are all thoughts I had when listening to the video below, “The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists”. It’s a 42-minute talk by Ravi Zacharias, author and Christian apologist. (I defy you to make it past ten minutes!) The talk, in turn, is a distillation of his 2008 book, The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists.
Here we see the notion of rights and morals as things given uniquely by God. Here’s the YouTube description
Ravi Zacharias replies to the New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). This video is part of the ‘Contending with Christianity’s Critics’ 2012 conference.
The thesis in Zacharias’s talk, as it surely is in his book (I haven’t read it), is that atheism is bad because it destroys meaning and purpose of life: our “shared values”. And where do those shared values come from? They are “divine imperatives implanted in the heart and conscience of every human being”—i.e., they come from God. Once, he claims, we all shared those values, and that grounded society, but New Atheists are chipping away at the foundations, making those values questionable, questioned, and, for some of them, insupportable. We are, he says, created a divisive and harmful cultural revolution away from “shared meanings”.
It’s amusing to see Zacharias’s religious two-step when he has to argue that Islam doesn’t share the same meanings and values (after all, he’s justifying Christianity as the true faith). After all, Muslims also claim that their morals and values come from God. Zacharias has an amusing argument about why they’re wrong; it’s in the first 15 minutes, and I won’t spoil it for you.
When, as Zacharias does, people claim “rights based on God or some immutable moral absolutes” (and these are roughly equivalent), they are doing something that’s bad: trying to prevent us from questioning why we should treat human beings one way versus another. Yes, it’s settled that humans have “rights” not to be slaves or imprisoned without reason, but there are reasons for those “rights”, and it behooves us to remember that.