Can you champion human rights while at the same time denying natural rights?
This is a core question of political philosophy. It was raised anew for me while re-reading Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, a dialogue with one of the 20th century’s leading political theorists and historian of ideas.
Professor Berlin, a man deeply committed to liberty and pluralism, resisted the idea one could apprehend “non-empirical, universal truths.” When asked by Ramin Jahanbegloo, the interviewer, how one can ground norms and values if one doesn’t believe in the rational method of justifying them, Berlin answered, “You don’t justify them. The norms don’t need justification, it is they which justify the rest, because they are basic.”
When pressed, Berlin admitted he doesn’t deny human rights. “I deny a priori lists of natural rights,” he said. “Of course, I don’t deny that there are general principles of behavior and human activity without which there cannot be a minimally decent society. But … I don’t think there is such a thing as direct non-empirical knowledge, intuition, inspection of eternal principles. Only universal human beliefs.”
When asked about Leo Strauss, Berlin said, “He could not get me to believe in eternal, immutable, absolute values, true for all men everywhere at all times, God-given Natural Law and the like. I cannot claim omniscience. Perhaps there is a world of eternal truths, values, which the magic eye of the true thinker can perceive – surely this can only belong to an elite to which I fear I have never been admitted.”
This conversation goes to the heart of an ancient question: In what is morality grounded? For Berlin, it was grounded in general principles of behavior and human activity, in norms, in a consensus of what constitutes decency and right and wrong. That can work for a time, as people act on an existing moral accordance and intuition. But in the end that is never enough. Norms need to be grounded in permanent rather than provisional truths. Otherwise, we have only our own cultural consensus on what constitutes human rights, which makes it next to impossible to define a universal set of such rights. It also means we have no good justification for telling other societies, or for that matter even our own children, why they should hold to our particular consensus.
As Michael Gerson and I argue in City of Man, philosophers have tried for centuries to formulate a firm, secular theory of human rights. None has gained broad, much less universal assent, and none seems equal to the challenge of Nietzsche: if God is really dead, what is to stop the radical, destructive human will?
Berlin’s theory – liberalism without natural rights – is hung on a peg in midair. To care for and to sacrifice for the rights of other human beings, merely because they are human beings, requires an immutable moral and even metaphysical basis.
So why do human beings possess inherent value? People of the Jewish and Christian faith have an answer: Men and women are created equal in worth, in the image of God. They believe in a human nature, which demands human rights.
Without some transcendent basis, human rights as a doctrine cannot defend itself from attack. Strauss understood the fallacy of historicism – the belief that all standards are determined by cultural circumstances and each society should be judged in its own terms rather than measured against a universal standard – was both self-contradictory and relativistic. For historicists there is no ground on which one could prefer a liberal regime over a totalitarian one. Everything, including justice, is arbitrary. “If all values are relative,” Strauss famously said, “then cannibalism is a matter of taste.” For Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany, this debate was not simply an abstract one.
In his interview with Jahanbegloo, Professor Berlin says of Hannah Arendt, “I am not ready to swallow her idea about the banality of the evil. It is false. The Nazis were not ‘banal.’ Eichmann deeply believed in what he did. I was, he admitted, at the center of his being.” Berlin admits to having been “hopelessly secular.” The values of the Enlightenment, what people like Voltaire, Helvetius, Holbach, and Condorcet preached, are “deeply sympathetic to me,” he said. “Maybe they were too narrow, and often wrong about the facts of human experience, but they were great liberators. They liberated people from horrors, obscurantism, fanaticism, monstrous views. They were against cruelty, they were against oppression.”
So was Isaiah Berlin, a man of great intellect and learning. He just couldn’t tell you why.
I, an atheist, agree with Wehner that morality must be grounded in axiomatic truth but I'd argue God doesn't comprise that truth. Rather, I'd argue that moral principles must be expanded universally and if they sustain their applicability so expanded they thereby establish themselves. Joesph Tussman argued for this methodology in his Appendix to Obligation and the Body Politic as a version of the categorical imperative. The golden rule, for example, so establishes itself.
I addressed this short note to Wehner:
...I enjoyed your brief treatment of this theme in your Contentions post. But I'd like to ask you this: you say, "Men and women are created equal in worth, in the image of God. They believe in a human nature, which demands human rights." Does your argument fail if God is taken away as a premise? And if your belief in God is just that, a belief, a leap of faith, a matter of faith, if not a leap, how are you any further ahead than was Berlin? For then, on your resolution, not truth but (mere?)belief and faith ground morality...
Thanks so much for your note and your very good, and profound, set of questions.
I think you’re right that a belief in transcendent truths requires, at some level, a belief in a transcendent source of such truths that has to be accepted on faith. But I don’t think that puts me on the same level as Berlin, who argued that there are no such truths and that social consensus is the only source of moral order. The fact is, what you call "a leap of faith" is the real source of moral order, and the notion that only arguments that can be reasoned all the way to the bottom without reference to God can be reliable arguments is exactly the problem I cite in Berlin.
God created reason, not the other way around. So it's not going to be possible to "remove God as a premise." To your contention that this view means that "not truth but belief grounds morality" I would say that belief in the truth grounds morality, but such belief cannot be fully arrived at by reason alone, because such truth is above our reason--if it were not then it could not be a check on our will. That does mean we can't have civilization without at least some general sense that our reason appeals to something above itself, which is my point.
Berlin did not believe in truth, he just believed in good behavior. But we wouldn't have good behavior if most people did not believe in truth--that is, if most people were not willing to make a leap of faith. He wanted the flower without the stem, but flowers don't last very long that way.
Thank you for your thoughtful responses to my questions to you spurred on by your most interesting post in Contentions.
My note to you was so brief that my very brevity—not at all "the soul of wit”— belied the richly nuanced, complex depths of these issues. I didn’t want to prevail on you by going on for too long. In the same spirit of not wanting to prevail on you, let me offer a few further albeit less brief comments on your reply.
I may have to go to back to my Berlin but it’s not my understanding that he holds that there are no universal moral principles or that social consensus is the source of moral order, at least not as the latter proposition may be properly understood. Rather, he holds that there are ultimate moral principles derivable from a rational apprehension of the world but that they do not reduce themselves to any integrated, moral monism. He is a values pluralist.
He holds that there are similarly reasonable but sometimes irreconcilable ultimate values, always in flux and tension with each other, in his words, “an order of things which clashes and the constant need for conciliation, adjustment, balance, an order that is always in a condition of imperfect equilibrium, which is required to be maintained by conscious effort.” Berlin’s view is that that clash inexorably yields tragic trade offs.
So when Berlin speaks about something like social consensus as "the source" of social morality, he is, I think, speaking about society as the filter and imperfect adjuster of pluralistic principles into a (hopefully) working disequilibrium—for example the tensions between liberty and equality, a contrariety that Ronald Dworkin, a secular values monist, argued against Berlin, (and has just now put out a book enfolding the two into one in his conception of justice.) Berlin does not speak, as I understand him, of morality as a matter simply of popular will.
If there is no God, then God did not create reason. So, in a sense, I have just removed God as a premise. If I remove God as a premise, what am I left with as a source for morality? I am left with my reason and my intuitions, which lead me to understand by a kind of Kantian procedure of something like universalizing the consequences of what I hold to be the moral case whether that case can be made out. (Joseph Tussman has a good outline of this mode of applied categorical imperative reasoning in an appendix to His Obligation and the Body Politic.)
I’m not sure it’s helpful, Pete, to say “belief in the truth grounds morality.” You say that to counter my claim that if faith grounds morality, you are not further ahead than Berlin on your iteration of him (which is not to say, of course, that your and his arguments are parallel.) For you use “the truth” to fortify belief when you have only belief to say what “the truth” is. If there are ultimate moral principles—and I argue there are, as does Berlin, as I have read him—then they comprise truths independent of reason. But, again, our difference is your sourcing them in the object of your faith whereas I argue they can be apprehended by a combination of intuition and a certain mode of “right reasoning.”
So, finally, I think Berlin wants the flower and the stem. Of course, his botany is entirely different than yours.
It's entirely a pleasure briefly discussing this with you.