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.