The following was an exchange I had with an atheist upon the concept of “self-evident” human rights as articulated by the American Declaration of Independence, heh. I was jumping into an already prexisting conversation.
Atheist: …To those not hampered by an unseen intelligence to which they must pledge undying love, this seems…well…self-evident. When you ban murder from a society (as best you can), it becomes quite evident that people feel safer. It’s not that hard to account for. You are making, I’m afraid, a straw-man argument.
Me: “To those not hampered by an unseen intelligence to which they must pledge undying love, this seems…well…self-evident.”
There are many who are unhampered by “an unseen intelligence to which they must pledge undying love” whereby the notion of rights is hardly self-evident. Jeremy Benthem could hardly be accused of religiosity declared, “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.” So as an empirical claim, this is simply false.
What do you think the Founding Fathers meant by the word “Created” in “all men are created equal”? Created by whom? Nature? God? Particle physics? Does human rights arise from quantum physics?
Atheist: I never mentioned natural rights. You’re, again, making a straw-man argument. Dominic, you’re smarter than that. Human rights arise from humans. Just like gods do. Like I said: historically, the Deists did not deny a Creator. They just weren’t so arrogant to think they already knew the answer, like Christians do.
Me: And which part of the human anatomy, cell, or organ do you discern this human right? I don’t see it anywhere on my body, do you?
Atheist: And, again, that’s a dumb way to put it. It’s a concept. The “spirit of ’76” doesn’t mean there is an actual spirit flying around. But everyone knows what it means.
Me: Nope, I don’t know what it means. Explain it to me. Where is this supposed “human rights” located? By which of your five senses is it detected? What sort of a concept is it?
And back then, human and natural rights were virtually synonymous, the Founding Fathers didn’t use the term “human rights” too by the way, it is rights endowed by their Creator, not arising from humans.
Atheist: Evidently, you have a problem with abstractions, Dominic.
Me: I’m just refusing to retreat into metaphysics. Either I can sense it through my five senses or it does not exist, at least, if we are not going to return into voodoo superstitious immaterial realities. It is really as simply as that. And of course as a metaphysical minimalist, I take a rather strong nominalistic stance on “abstract concepts”.
Atheist: Justice. How about that one? Do you have a problem conceptualizing justice?
Me: Yes. I have no idea what justice is. I can simply observe a plurality of different linguistic behaviours and cultural practices, each contradicting one another, etc, but that there is an abstract “justice” over and beyond this, I have no idea what this is. “Justice” is simply a concept internal to some linguistic or social community, etc, a social construct if you will, without which it would simply not exist.
Atheist: Dominic, it might be more efficacious for you to learn a somewhat more nuanced view of rational thinkers, skeptics, agnostics, and atheists. We are not afraid of metaphysical concepts. We just don’t retreat into them when we can’t explain something. Your argument is silly. It basically says we can’t believe, think, or agree on any concept of human behavior if we weren’t given it by a deity. Why do you have such a lack of respect for your own powers of reasoning? Or were those gifts from Jesus’ dad as well?
Me: Human beings have been at war since time immemorial. Your very own nation which are supposedly built upon such exalted harmonious foundations are going round the world bombing other countries with your drones. By what reason or evidence do you believe that human beings are capable of agreeing on any set of human behaviour since the testimony of the whole of history is that this is precisely what has never happened?
The real question is why do you have such respect for your powers of reasoning? By what reason or evidence do you believe that reason can lead to universal peace, etc, when rational people do disagree and do not generate uniform beliefs? And that the best thinkers and most reasonable people have changed their minds in their lifetimes, never time rational people changing their minds or beliefs over time.
Atheist: The best of us humans, whose powers of reason see value in compassion, and who have seen that that ethical behavior makes for a better world are coming along all the time and, thankfully, the worst of us have, up until now, not been as successful. It is a constant struggle, of course. And ethics and practical morality must be taught by responsible parents, teachers and communities. Certainly many people were taught to do the right thing through religion. But there are other ways.
Me: Excuse me, you’re begging the question. If I have no idea as to what the concept of justice is, I cannot possibly have an idea of what “best” means or what “better” means, or what “ethical behaviour” or “practical morality” refers to. I observe empirically that different cultures and different societies and communities use the word “moral”, “just”, “ethical” to refer to a bewildering array of different systems of practices and thought, most of them incompatible with each other. But that there is a universal “justice”, “morality”, or “ethics” transcending the cacophony of observed behaviours, I do not know, and I have yet to await the proof and evidence. And as such, until you have demonstrated to me what you mean by those words, you can’t very well use it in an argument.
And by the way, you might want to note this other atheist take on the “self-evidence” of human rights, morality and ethics,
They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.
We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth–it stands and falls with faith in God.
When the English actually believe that they know “intuitively” what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.
– Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols”
Apparently, a malaise which affects not only the English but the Anglophone world in general…