“God-given” rights—2

This popular term in the United States is as incumbent on politician-talk as mouthing the obligatory “God bless America” at the end of each speech. I’ll skip past the self-serving implication of a speaker’s allying herself or himself with God and, therefore, with theists who, to guide their political decisions, frequently assess candidates’ piety. In this post, however, I am not concerned with motivations extraneous to the concept itself (like to gain approval or get elected). I want to look only at the term itself and the damage it inflicts on our consideration of human rights. My bottom line on the matter is that human beings have no rights except those granted by other human beings. Your rights and mine are not gifts from god, but from each other.

The focus of this post is not to argue against the existence of any god; that’s a topic for elsewhere. My argument is that even if such a god exists, to ascribe the source of human rights to it is not only difficult but unwise. We pretend God has spoken when we’ve merely cloaked our own choices in robes of divinity, enabling us to pretend our choices are those of the universe, as I discussed in “God-given rights?” on Dec. 9, 2013.

In other words, human rights are not determined by the nature of the universe, derived from a religious framework codified by a deity, calculated from scientific analysis, established by philosophers’ arguments, nor demonstrated by logic. Rights are freedoms or enrichments granted to some people by other people, “funded,” as it were, by reduction of freedom or enrichment for others.

The increase and decrease of rights I’m referring to need not be monetary, nor are they monolithic in application. That is, I am not conceiving of one group of people as givers and another as takers. (Person A might on some issue give up a right while Person B gains a right, though on another issue the roles are reversed.) I may gain the freedom to live in safety, while you lose the freedom to hit me. I may gain freedom to purchase a bakery product, while the baker loses the freedom to refuse me service. These swaps are extensive, complicated, and in constant flux in each civilization. “Civilization” might be world-wide, entailing global economics and war; it may be only city-wide, involving homeless shelters; or it might be a single family where increasing and decreasing rights of each person occur daily.

All rights involve a calculus of exchange and do not derive their legitimacy from some universal master plan beyond human choice. Even the golden rule—considered by many to be the master ethic—expresses a desired transaction of benefits gained and benefits diminished. I choose to give up freedom to treat you in whatever way I wish when angry, while you gain the right to have a measure of safety or pleasure. You choose to give up driving as fast as you wish so that I might have greater freedom from recklessness. There is, then, no fundamental arrangement of these swap-offs handed to us by the universe. We are thus not enabled to proclaim there to be an ultimate moral entitlement that immigrants have the right to vote, poor people have the right to public assistance, churches have the right to be free from taxation, convicted murderers have the right to a final meal of choice, or that old people have a right to be fed and housed. We can and do create such rights, but the key words there are “can” and “create.” Nature neither bestows nor endorses them.

The calculus to carry out that creation of rights is not easily defined or attained. With the possible exception of the golden rule, arriving at an anthropogenic, consensual, coherent framework of rights is a gargantuan, perhaps impossible task. That said, it is promising that the effort has been underway for millennia with some limited measure of success. There are international agreements (of sorts) that address issues of hunger, imprisonment, gender, cruelty, slavery, and other matters wherein rights have been more-or-less established by public attitudes, leaders, and law. Failure to attain total agreement in no way negates the significance of widespread interest and argument on whether, how much, and for whom rights should be granted or forfeited. These disputes are demonstrations that inquiry about rights commands a great deal of attention, in no small part due to consideration of the negative side of the equation: Who is to pay by having their own rights decreased?

Obviously, the apportionment of rights (both gaining and losing) is a never-ending human engagement. Not only must old balances be reconsidered, but types of challenges never before encountered present new balances to recognize and resolve (changes in technology and in global climate come to mind), thereby requiring constant attention. And that attention brings difficult adjustments in who has more rights and who has fewer, an uncomfortable volatility that itself renders the entire enterprise well-nigh impossible, certainly unmanageable, and its tensions irresolvable. And yet as I’ve implied, such a principled undertaking is even now underway, though admittedly piecemeal and subject to contamination by persons with more power, anger, or access.

One might describe the creation and maintenance of a fair and compassionate framework of rights to be one of meta-ethics (I’m using that term for the ethics of whole societies or for all of humanity; it is not the same meaning as used in academic philosophy.) The personal ethics within meta-ethics are the ones with which we normally concern ourselves and, in fact, are the subject of several of my previous posts (“Morality is too important to be left to religion,” Jan. 2, 2014; “The sin of sin,” Jan. 2, 2015; “Morality in secular humanism,” Mar. 16, 2015; and “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016). This broader role of meta-ethics, however, focuses attention on the system of ethics within which one adopts and follows personal ethics. The latter is hard enough, to be sure, but meta-ethics are crucial in the way that a broad policy in an organization embraces innumerable smaller choices, making it as crucial as it is difficult.

Recognition of the difficulty, rather than driving us forward, may even induce a reluctance to engage the issue, especially since for many people there is a convenient escape: just accept what one or another ancient religion tells us about what the gods want. I have had devotees of Christianity, for example, argue that the sheer difficulty is itself proof that godly guidance is available and should be chosen— blatantly begging the question. (The form this usually takes is with regard to individual morality. The argument is that atheism can’t be justified, for it leaves atheists with no authoritatively prescribed set of sins, that is, we’d not be able to tell what’s good and what’s bad.) Theists have their own problem, of course, in that devotees of one version of theism are loathe to accept the proscriptions believed by other ones.

And that—other than purely cultural ethnocentricities—is the major impediment to humanity’s advance in the realm of ethics, including those dealing with apportionment of rights. Of course, even then the “purely” cultural is rarely free of the effects of religion. Religion, while claiming vociferously that it is the source of morality, is actually the greatest impediment to seriously reasoned advance of morality, both at the individual and societal levels. The reasoned part is the sticking point; we don’t reason all that well when ancient, unchallenged texts rule our lives.

(Let me explain what might be the unexpected inclusion of morality in a discussion of rights. In order to give rights to one class of persons, as I’ve established, rights must be denied or reduced for others. One common way to accomplish the denial side of that equation is to declare what is denied or reduced not as the swap-off cost of the rights expanded, but as something wrong or, in religious language, sinful. So it is that the peculiar morality of sin found in religion becomes entangled in the issue of rights.)

Religious persons, despite their sincere intent, normally find it difficult to suspend sectarian differences that contaminate the secular nature of this great and humane task. Sectarian positions tend even more than secular ones to be uncompromising, for it is harder to question one’s own positions if they are thought to be from a god. Religionists’ majority intent is to please a supposed deity rather than to better inform our living together on this planet.

Yet there are many religious persons able to suspend their sectarian differences long enough to have thoughtful secular discussion of rights. Their contributions are great, as is the breadth of secularism brought by some non-religious persons. (One sadness about the latter is that not all non-religious people are motivated to engage in this challenge, after all, while all secular humanists are atheists, not all atheists are secular humanists.)

Largely we understand the importance of well-considered rights, but their pursuit is adulterated by untold amounts of religion-based silliness, including the small-mindedness of genitally-based morality. We are less moved by large issues of human betterment than by our unthinking need to please ancient beliefs, thereby misdirecting our limited attention toward considerations of minor consequence: Muslim men have the right not to be reminded of the sexuality of women, citing their Quran and Hadiths, while Muslim women have no right to dress as they please. Marriage between black and white persons was not a right, while it was the right of others to control unfavored intimacy, citing their Bibles. Youngsters have no right to masturbation, while others, citing their Bibles, have the right to shame and prevent it. Slaves didn’t have the right to come and go as they pleased, but their owners had the right to physically control them, again citing their Bibles. Homosexuals had no right to their preferred sexual partners, though heterosexuals had the right to impose their largely religion-based code. And on and on.

The religion-based list is long and trivial, virtually always backed up by some interpretation of old scriptures. As the years go by, we often find that our choices about rights have been based on a narrow religious hegemony, greed by those in authority, social hostilities, or other less than savory factors. It is not unusual to look back and marvel at the rules we’ve imposed on each other—invariably concerning ill-founded curtailment or awarding of rights. It is just as usual, when looking at ourselves in the present, to be blind to the continuation of similar mistreatments, unaided by insights that will come only later. We rarely test ourselves by placing our minds in the recent past to review how offended we were with behaviors paid little attention today. In my lifetime, I’ve known sex before marriage, public discrimination against blacks, blue laws, criminalized marijuana use, and other such matters treated as grave moral failings. No one was considered to have a moral right to ignore the social rules involved, regardless how inconsequential they seem today. Violation of the expected norms engaged people in continual battles over trivia while big issues went unaddressed. Morality as an important concept was—and is—cheapened by the very people claiming to hold the source of it in their hands.

Thus, “God-given rights” continues to be mouthed, as if it has anything to do with a reason-based foundation of humaneness. Of course, such a foundation would necessarily be flawed and always in progress. But it promises to actually be in progress, guided by a moral arc rather than drawing its legitimacy from the conflicting, primitive beliefs of disputatious ancients. Besides, to refer to rights as god-given, not only calls upon us to decide which god and how we know what that god wants (yes, I understand all religious groups think this is a settle matter—even as they disagree with each other). And we’d have to explain how the same god(s) and the same sources have led us regularly to abandon those previous certainties. We’d have to explain the atrocities carried out then and now by those who believe that authorship of human rights come from gods, rather than from their own malevolence. Consider ISIS for months. Consider Saudi Islam for years. Consider the Catholic Church for centuries. Consider Puritan American colonists. Consider Protestant riots against Catholics in Pennsylvania in1844. Consider anti-abortion terrorists of today. As said so well by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

So here we are, the only intelligent beings in the universe that we actually know exist. Although we have learned a great deal in the past few hundred thousand years, there is certainly even more we have not learned.

We don’t know if there is even a transcendent being or disembodied intelligence, despite our determination to create one. If there is, we don’t know if it cares in any ongoing way with us, the inhabitants of this pale blue dot. If it does, we don’t know if it chooses to lay down rules for us. Everything associated with gods cultivated in the childhood of our species is based on something we don’t know, including the topics of rights and moral restrictions.

But what we do know is there are over seven billion of us, breathing human beings whom we can see and touch, beings with the intelligence and commitment to do great things and horrid things. We do know we have the ability to cause sentient beings to more likely to survive and flourish. We do know that one of the tools we have to do that is the concept of rights, as compassionately and rationally constructed as our evolved self-interest will allow. We do know that advance of rights and proper behavior among us has, over centuries, sprung not so much from faith in gods—in fact, often in direct opposition to it—but from enlightened thought.

Deliberate, thoughtful, further development in our concepts of rights and their associated behaviors is impaired by entangling that honorable pursuit with primitive phantasms. Rights are not “God-given,” but human-given, an undertaking of such magnitude as to inspire our most judicious thought, not a frightened escape to a figment of our ancestors’ imagination. Intelligent, benevolent, carefully reasoned, science-informed consideration of rights can only be tarnished by relinquishing credit to a ghost, like a ventriloquist looking to his dummy for wisdom.

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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7 Responses to “God-given” rights—2

    In 24 hours I’ll be away and blog-free for two weeks. Thus, as enjoyable (and potentially unending!) as is our (a)theism discussion, I’ll post this final reply then close down (though an essay nearly done may be posted). So, my closing points:

    My position is not “God does not exist,” but that there is no evidence for a supernatural, universal authority by whatever name or description. I don’t count second-hand reports or religious feelings as evidence, nor do I find either scientific evidence or compelling philosophical arguments for gods. I use “Atheist” in its original meaning, “no faith there is a theistic god,” rather than dogmatically “there is no god.” Perhaps there were no ancient atheists (I’ve no idea), but ancients’ “religion” likely included amulets curing cancer as much gods anything close to those of modern religions. If that counts for religion birthing the golden rule (in that it seems to argue that religion created everything), I concede the point. I note that the past couple of millennia (more history is available) are replete with religious explanations of phenomena falling one after the other, replaced with secular ones either using science or simply not using supernaturalism. However, my central purpose is only to rebut Christian and Islamic claims that humans can’t create moral codes, since that requires God. So are we getting better? Murder rates, of course, are insufficient data. But there are other human behaviors (e.g., slavery, treatment of gays, child labor, animal treatment, cruel punishments) in which improvement in the West met opposition from Christianity because secularists could see moral issues that most persons claiming a divine origin of morality could not.

    Be well. Thanks for the extended interchange.

    • Ivan Benson says:

      Always a pleasure to discuss these things with you. I have to agree with you that humans can, indeed, create moral codes. My view is that they can’t create universal ones, codes that all humans can agree with; further, they can’t create codes that they won’t break, but . . . that’s another discussion.

      As to the statements, “. . . there is no evidence for a supernatural, universal authority by whatever name or description . . . ,” and “I don’t count second-hand reports or religious feelings as evidence, nor do I find scientific evidence or compelling philosophical arguments for gods” – I am curious as to what would constitute evidence for you.

      I don’t mean to suggest that any fool should readily recognize there is a God, since I know there are numerous reasons for disbelief. I have read very persuasive arguments (scientific and philosophical) on both sides. Surely, at least the writings of C.S. Lewis, Mortimer Adler and others of their ilk give you some pause, just as the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Hawking and others do me. As to second-hand reports, I would not discount them without a looksee. Some of my strongest beliefs, especially the ones for which science has no investigative tools, come from what I have learned from the experiences of others.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is not a very erudite statement, but I’m not so sure that humans would not have developed the Golden Rule without religion. I do think that the “better part” of humanity’s thinking every now and again does some deep, creative, and moral thinking. Ron Nickle

    • Ivan Benson says:

      You might be right, Ron, but I would wager that is a moot point, since the Golden Rule was indeed developed in the context of religion. As to the erudition of your statement . . . I would argue to the contrary, since I’ve never known you to speak or write without erudition, my friend.

  3. Ivan Benson says:

    Thanks for your erudite discussion of this issue. Of course, I would agree with this fact: the sullied face of religion threatens to contaminate any message or wisdom that men or women of religion mighty offer in this discussion. However, as unfortunate as that is, I’m not sure you can successfully support the notion that the Golden Rule would exist if it weren’t for religion. The so-called “master ethic” itself was birthed in an imperfect religious context. And much of what others have done since then has been based upon that ethic.

    Left to themselves, I have little faith that people on this planet will ever govern themselves equitably; I don’t believe that we are evolving into “better and better” (whatever that epithet might even mean in a world with fluid, changing standards or morality) persons as time goes by; the passage of time has little to do with it.

    Granted, as you point out, religious persons far too often shy away from, or even protest the arduous work of melding together the variety of values found in a world of multifarious points of view; doing socially responsible work at integrating those values. But I would caution against the proverbial “throwing out” of “the baby with the bathwater.” For when you denigrate the ancient writings in such a wholesale manner, you undercut the basis for much of modern culture’s values (even those espoused by atheists). We cannot know what values human beings would have come up with on their own apart from the influence of these writings, for they, in fact, are the foundation upon which we stand as we argue against them.

    Sometimes I think we humans are like the privileged young man, dressed in clothes provided by his wealthy father, espousing thoughts taught to him by tutors provided by his father, and living comfortably in a house provided by and furnished by his father, criticizing his father for not taking a vow of poverty and giving away all he owns to the poor.

    Left to ourselves . . . we would sever from the mountain face the very cliff upon which we stand.

    • I’m afraid I’ve confused the matter by bringing in the relationship between rights and morality, both said by many to come from God. The purpose of my post was the folly of attributing human rights to gods, though it’s true that in past posts I’ve made a similar case for morality (e.g., “Sunday at church on gay pride day,” Aug. 16, 2016; Morality is too important to be left to religion,” Jan. 2, 2014; “Morality in secular humanism,” Mar. 16, 2015; “Lust still OK, damaging sentient beings is not,” June 25, 2015; “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016.”) In my post morality came up not as the intended subject, but to recognize there are instances wherein rights and morality overlap. (I thought I could insert that consideration without confounding the topics, but your comments and Ron Nickle’s demonstrate otherwise!) In what may be an inadequate reply, then, I’ll make couple of observations, after which you may then wish to retract your lovely compliment about my erudition.

      Religious context: When we speak of something ancient having arisen or evolved in a religious context, we should note that virtually everything in the ancient world was in a religious context. (I note your phrase was “an imperfect religious context,” by which I assume you mean it was religiosity but not “true” religion.) I doubt our forbearers had as clean a distinction then as is normal now between religion on one hand and business, family, proper foods, and war on the other. Given that everything was awash in what we came to call religion, we could say that baking, wheels, and crop rotation started with religion. I argue that human beings developed whatever they developed and that one must postulate, without evidence, a very specific type of supernatural influence to make a case that any one developments (or, for that matter, any eclipse or plague) came from the gods. I do understand that if a person has already decided that such gods exist, then it’d be perfectly natural to ascribe an unending number of phenomena to them.

      Are we improving: As to your having “little faith that people on this planet will ever govern themselves equitably,” I sadly agree. But as to whether we are at least getting better, there actually is some encouraging evidence, though too much for this note (though it’d make a good post topic). Certainly, over the centuries, especially in and after the Age of Enlightenment, concern for rights has grown greatly. I recommend philosophers of that age, but also more modern treatment like Peter Singer’s 1981 book, “The Expanding Circle,” and Michael Shermer’s 2015 book, “The Moral Arc,” which focused on “reason-based moral thinking” and what was called “the expanding moral sphere,” extending our moral obligation to all sentient beings, not just humans. I find that including Fido and Trigger to show an increasing moral sensitivity. These sources also mix consideration of rights and morals as I did in the post, but I am here focusing only on the rights implications. Along those lines, Martin Luther King reminded us of Theodore Parker’s point that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Just one example of that long arc cited by Shermer: In prehistoric times, as in “modern no state societies,” the murder rate was almost 1,000 per 100,000 persons. By the 17th/18th centuries or so, that rate had dropped to 100 and now in Europe is less than 1 (the US, a more violent country, trails at 5).

      Debt to ancients: I am happy to apologize to the ancients, by the way, for I had no intent to denigrate their writings. They were stumbling along as do we, doing the best they could with shorter lifespans in which to learn, dangerous environments, and with fewer conceptual and mechanical tools than we have. As I addressed in a couple of posts (“There’s nothing wrong with the Bible,” Oct. 7, 2014; and “The Bible gets its due . . . but no more,” May 9, 2015), I salute what later ancients prepared for us, including their religious ideas. My argument is with those of our present day who, in order to imbue the ancients with superior wisdom, are willing to discount what we’ve learned through many more centuries of experience, logic, and especially science. As far as I’m concerned, the ancients would have reason to be ashamed of us, not the other way around.

      This reply has been as long as a post itself, for which my ill-advised mixture of rights and morality to start with is to blame. Thanks for your taking time to question my reasoning; it took me an inordinate amount of time to decide what part of the entanglement I would reply to.

    • Ivan Benson says:

      Thanks for your informative response, and clarification. As to everything in the ancient world being “awash” in religion, I of course, agree. But I would add that we ARE, in fact, indebted to religion not only for the Golden Rule, but also for the other examples to which you referred, i.e. business, family, foods, etc. All these found their origins in a culture awash with religion. And is it not equally true that a person who has decided that Deity does NOT exist could attribute an unending number of phenomena to sources other than Deity; in fact, one would be forced to do so.

      The Ancients accept your apology, by the way. Ha! I love the comment: “the ancients would have reason to be ashamed of us . . . .” It is sad when we moderns discount what we have learned through experience, logic, and science. I agree! Sometimes, however, the rub comes when we assume certain things are scientific facts when they are just theories spawned from a well accepted modern approach. For just as the ancient world had no atheists, and everything was understood through the lens of belief, it seems that now we tend to understand everything through the lens of unbelief; we reject anything that smacks of the Divine.

      Are we “improving . . . getting better?” Perhaps. I don’t know. But I doubt it. Certainly in our part of the world we tend to act more “civilized” (although some would even dispute THAT). But if the measure of betterment is how many are murdered per capita, I suspect that is an inadequate measure of moral excellence.

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