What are rights? Where do they come from?
Claiming rights is very popular. We all claim rights. But on what basis can we do this? A popular view is the idea that "Only God can provide an adequate rational foundation for morality and unalienable human rights." Is this the case? Well, as an atheist, I'm deeply skeptical of these kinds of claims. So let me explore this idea and go over some of the problems I think arise when one tries to ground morality and rights in a deity.
What are rights?
First off, what is a right? Years ago when I studied philosophy I took an introductory course on ethics. I still have my textbook from the class, Human Conduct: Problems of Ethics, by John Hospers. While flipping through it I came across the chapter on human rights. Since human rights are so often talked about with such passion and argument, it's important to know what we mean when we claim a right.
A right, Hospers describes, can be said to be a justified claim to something, in the form of an entitlement. It is to "claim a certain amount of moral space in which others may not trespass." (192) If one has a right, others have an obligation or duty or respect that right. If one has a right to life, and others do not have a duty to refrain from killing you, that right mean little to nothing, and may even be self-contradictory. Rights are not merely privileges. Privileges can be revoked at any time. If I let you borrow my car to run errands, that is a privilege which I can revoke when I want. You don't have a right to use my car when I don't want you to. (This is related to notions of property rights.)
Where do they come from?
This all seems fine and dandy, but it still gives us no notion of where rights come from. Enter the theists who claims that rights are endowed to us by our creator. But what exactly does that explain? Did god implant a "right" within us? If so, what is the ontology of that right? Some theists claim that god gave humans an immortal soul and that it is this that gives us our rights. But how does a soul (whatever that is) give us our rights? If cockroaches have souls would that mean it would be immoral for us to kill them? Would a soul-less person (should one exist) be any less worthy of rights than one with a soul, all other things being equal? The theist might say that it's our soul that gives us sentience—the capacity to suffer, and rationality—the ability to think, deliberate, weigh evidence and alternatives, and decide what actions to take, and that it's these combined traits, unique to human beings, that provides us the rights we have.
If it's this nature that gives us our foundation for rights, then if it could exist without any notion of a soul, we could just jettison the soul as superfluous and justify rights on the traits themselves. Modern science has pretty much refuted the existence of the soul, especially the traditional one thought of under dualism. Science has shown us that the mind is the brain, and the brain follows the laws of physics. No room for a soul to have causal impact on the body without violating some fundamental scientific principles. There are other notions of the soul besides the dualistic kind, but I have yet to hear a good evidence-based case for any of them. I think the very notion of a soul is ill-defined, and I don't see how the notion of a soul in anyway gives us an adequate rational foundation of rights.
As such, I think it's the nature we have as human beings, that some theists unjustifiably claim is the result of us having a soul, that probably provides the best justification of where rights come from. In the movie Ted 2, Ted is a stuffed teddy bear that somehow comes to life (I didn't see part 1). He is deemed by the State to be property and not a person and goes to trial to fight for his rights. Initially he loses, but in the end of the movie, Ted's lawyer, played by the godly Morgan Freeman argues that Ted's personhood is due to his sentience and his ability to understand complex emotions. In his argument to the jury that eventually persuaded them and grants Ted his status as a person, he says:
What defines a person? What defines property? What's the difference? The anthropologist and ethicist Dawn Prince-Hughes argues that the standards for personhood include self-awareness, an ability to understand complex emotions, and a capacity for empathy. We're all in agreement that Ted is self-aware...As for complex emotions and a capacity for empathy we all saw the distressing images of Ted agonizing over his fallen friend, John Bennett. In those images, Ted exhibits all of the remaining qualities of personhood.
Our nature as self aware, rational beings is what endows us our notions of human rights. This seems to me, as well as many legal scholars and philosophers to be a more adequate rational foundation for inalienable rights. It also provides a foundation that is intrinsic and not extrinsic, which the idea of god giving us rights would entail. As such, the existence of human rights emerges in the same way it does for morality once you have an evolved being capable of sentience, rationality, and empathy.
Now I do not intend to thoroughly explain every problem with rights here, just to help establish a general framework which makes more rational sense than the idea that god has anything to do with our notion of rights. Indeed, many of our common notions of human rights conflict with the morality contained within religious texts. Equal rights for homosexuals, women, religious minorities, the right to free speech—including the right to blaspheme, are not found in most, if any, of the major world religions. And all the Abrahamic religions condone slavery. So when a theist claims that our rights come from and are founded in god, my first thought is, are you crazy?
What is morality?
Meta-ethics has been a particular interest of mine. It's concerned with the nature of ethical properties, such as "What is goodness?" The theist generally has two categories in meta-ethics to ground their theologically based ethics: divine command theory and moral realism. Divine command theory is a cognitivist position under ethical subjectivism. It holds that the rightness or wrongness of morality depends on the nature and commands of god. Whatever god commands us to do is good, whatever god forbids is bad. The other major contender is natural law theory, which is not necessarily a meta-ethical view on its own, but could fall under moral realism. Moral realism is a cognitivist position that states that moral propositions are mind-independent facts and describe objective features about the world.
Divine Command Theory
If the theist is trying to claim that god and god's commands are the "adequate rational foundation for morality," he is going to have to refute the euthyphro dilemma and the epistemic problem. I've written about the euthyphro dilemma many times. Is something moral because god commands it, or does god command it because it is good? Few, if any theists want to admit that morality is arbitrarily decided by god, but neither do they want to admit that morality exists independently of god. So what's the theist to do? Many try and claim a third option. They claim that god is good because of his intrinsic loving, just, and kind nature. But that just raises another dilemma. Is god good because he has these traits, or are these traits good because god has them? If the theist claims that god is good because he has these traits, then these traits are good independently of god, and we're right back to the original dilemma. So the theist has to say that these traits are good because god has them. But now the theist must make an unintelligible, circular argument to ground their morality.
To say that loving is only good because god is loving explains nothing about why loving is good. A theist could claim that jealousy is good because god is jealous. Another theist could claim that racism is good because god is racist. None of them would be able to offer an intelligible explanation as to why these things are good or bad. All they can say is that the subjective god that they believe in is a certain way, and whatever that way is, is good. It also forces the divine command theorist to explain god's goodness when god's stripped of all of his traits. God's goodness must come logically prior to any traits he has, because if god is good because he has certain traits, it implies those traits were already good. And so the theist has no rational foundation for claiming that morality is grounded in god. The only rational foundation of morality seems to be in what moral instances do or are motivated by. And thus god commands what is morally good because it is good.
The epistemic problem, also known as the pluralism objection, highlights the fact that no theist can objectively prove or demonstrate that their god is the real one, and there is a plurality of gods and religions to choose from. The liberal theist and the conservative theist each disagree with the other on what god commands and maybe even what god's nature is. In practice, this results in moral relativism, which is exactly what the divine command theorist is typically trying to avoid. And so from my point of view, there is no way for me to rationally distinguish them in a way that doesn't involve evaluating what their proposed morality does or is motivated by—which is the very same criterion that I use to evaluate morality without god.
Natural Law Theory
So that takes us to natural law theory, which says that "certain rights or values are inherent by virtue of human nature, and universally cognizable through human reason." Natural law theory's most famous proponent is St. Thomas Aquinas, and is most popular among Catholics. It tries to resolve the is/ought dilemma by proposing that humans exist for a purpose due to the nature of Aristotelian final causes. The problem with it as an adequate rational foundation for morality are plenty. With the help of some criticism of natural law theory from philosopher Kai Nielsen, and summarized by Taylor Carr, here are some problems with the ethical theory:
1. Natural law theory suffers from many of the same problems of justification that other theories do. For example, humans are naturally non-monogamous, but no natural law theorist would claim that non-monogamy is therefore moral. I think this means that they have to include other notions of ethics to weigh what is, from what ought to be, such as, among other things, consequentialism. In the words of Kai Nielsen, "we poor mortals can have no rational certitude that the precepts claimed to be natural laws are really natural laws." (2005) This seems to make the claim that natural law is "universally cognizable through human reason" false.
2. Much like the unjustified belief in the soul to claim a requisite for human rights, the natural law theorist must likewise claim that there are teleological final causes and that we exist for a divine purpose—a view science strongly challenges.
3. Disagreement among natural law theorists claim that it is due to "sin" or to "dark habits." (Nielsen, 2005) Things from natural law theory that conflict with Catholic doctrine are arbitrarily labeled "unnatural." It seems that our own assessments of human nature—a criteria allegedly rejected by natural law theorists, becomes the primary focus of moral assessment.
Natural law theory also seems to be preoccupied with sex, as is the Catholic Church. It also appears to be ambiguous on other moral issues, like what healthcare policy is best, and how to resolve the trolley problem. Overall, it's an ethical theory overly focused on sex and comes in little use to resolve other moral issues. On top of that, when it comes to human sexuality, our actual nature is deemed "unnatural" by natural law theory.
So what follows?
I think for many theists the desire for a cosmic judge and police officer outweighs their ability to justify an adequate rational foundation for morality and unalienable human rights. It seems to largely stem from an emotional need for security and justice. I too have felt that need for cosmic justice. But I cannot justify it on rational grounds. It is easy to claim that X is right because god said so, or that we have rights because god gave them to us, or gave us a soul, or made us for a purpose, but it is harder to rationally justify. This doesn't mean I have all the answers to these questions regarding morality and rights. I think every concept of rights and of ethics has problems and tough questions to answer. But one doesn't need to have the answers to every question in order to know that certain proposed answers are wrong.
As with morality, we may be able to construct a euthyphro dilemma for the theist regarding rights. Is something a right because god commands it, or does god command it because it is a right? Or, to put it another way, Is something a right because god endows it, or does god endow it because it is a right? If the former, then rights can be arbitrarily decided by god. If the latter, rights exist independently of god's commands. I imagine that no theist would want to be in this dilemma, and so I imagine most will reject it as a false dilemma outright. But what will be their alternative? With morality, their alternative forces them to ground moral values in an unintelligible manner, and I suspect the same thing will happen with rights.