Who gave you the right?


KJGarbutt / Foter / CC BY

You’ve probably heard this question asked before: “Who gave you the right?” In everyday situations, the accused might just take the question as rhetorical, or a mere expression of puzzlement or frustration. After all, he might be certain that his right is absolute or a brute fact. Then who are other people to question it? Yet, rights claims conflict and are doubted all the time. Is there a right to life or a right to choose? Is there a right to bear arms or the right to enjoy a gun-free zone? Supreme Court decisions aren’t even immune to controversy. To get a proper grasp on stubborn rights conflicts, we need to not just heed professional jurists, but reason along with ethicists and philosophers also.

Modern rights theorists owe much to Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. He pioneered a way of using “pure reason” to deduce what ethical duties a rational person has. In his Practical Critique of Reason, he asks, quaestio iuris, “by what right” should we make ethical deductions?

A successor to Kant, twentieth century philosopher Alan Gewirth, paid particular attention to what it takes to have a right. In his essay “Are There Any Absolute Rights?”, he invokes a general formula:

A has a right to X against B by virtue of Y.

This conception helps us see what substance lies behind a rights claim. Notice that regardless who is said to have the right (A), who must respect it (B, also known as the respondent), or what the right itself is (X), that the reason for it all is described by Y. This is the “justificatory basis” or the explanation of what ground the right.

I’d suggest another way to justify a right, this one coming from the premodern scholastic Thomas Aquinas. In his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, Aquinas wrote, “What gives reason for action is always some intelligible benefit.” He goes on to elaborate three basic common goods: religious fellowship, friendship, and marriage. While Aquinas did not explicitly address modern rights as common goods, it seems reasonable to me to do so. It is not a stretch to say that a right is a kind of reason for action existing for “some intelligible benefit.” The question becomes, what is the intelligible benefit of any given right? This is asking for a natural law basis of rights.

In summary, I’ve given three approaches to rights. Kant focuses us on asking what duties impress themselves upon the rational person. Gewirth comes in a line of thinkers who break rights down into constituent parts. Finally, I’ve encouraged us to view rights as goods that serve a purpose. I’ve highlighted these aspects of rights in order to get people thinking about what rights claims really are. Another question we should address going forward is what makes rights binding? Back to Gewirth’s general formula, why does respondent B have a duty or obligation to respect person A’s enjoyment of right X?

This exercise isn’t just academic; I have a practical concern. If there is always a respondent B, it seems to me that rights always have a cost, which is always to in some way bar or constrain others in action. When that cost and limit is felt by another, don’t be surprised when she asks, “Who gave you the right?”

Sources consulted:

1. Finnis, John, “Is Natural Law Theory Compatible With Limited Government?” in Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality. Ed. Robert P. George (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996)

2. Gewirth, Alan, “Are There any Absolute Rights?” in Theories of Rights. Ed. Jeremy Waldron (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984)

3. Wenar, Leif, “Rights”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  (Fall 2011 Edition). Ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/rights/

I would like to congratulate you . . .


dbking / Foter / CC BY

I would like to sincerely congratulate my friends and family who see a moral victory in the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage.

But I am prevented by two considerations. First, this ruling has come at the cost of discarding the possibility that government recognizes marriages for the well-being of children. This essential purpose has been understood for millennia. I understand it is practically ineffective while we have no-fault divorce, and a culture that doesn’t value commited relationships. I would have these changed. Government recognition of marriage really should be about the couple’s responsibility to the broader community, particularly in raising their own biological children. It’s a reasonable norm with reasonable exceptions, that don’t entail the logic of the Court’s ruling. As nice as it is for two (or more?) people to express their desire to commit to each other, that is a matter for private communities, not the government. If we construe government to be in the business of affirming the validity of personal relationships, then that is effectively instituting a deeply held religious belief called progressivism.

Second, I am sad that people seem to think that human dignity and moral worth are secured by political activism and legislation. This is not the case. All human persons have intrinsic moral worth due to their being created in the image of God. This is not a particular evangelical belief, or a conservative belief. It is a reasonable, public, and humane belief. It is a justified, true belief. I know it to be true, and I bet you do, too. It was true before Friday’s ruling, it is true after the ruling, and it will be true no matter what other political developments happen in the future.

For good reason my conscience prevents me for celebrating this decision. It is my firm but not-at-all-certain hope that there remains tolerance and goodwill in this country toward dissenters.

Should a Christian baker bake two cakes instead?

“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

Matthew 5:41 (ESV)

The above passage has recently been used to suggest that Christian bakers, if asked to bake a gay wedding cake, should bake two instead. Does this prescription necessarily follow from Jesus’ very own words? Consider this application:

“And if anyone forces you to go to the back of the bus, go twice as far back.”

Anyone who knows the history of the American civil rights movement also knows this is dead wrong. It is a mistaken application of moral reasoning. This is because we know that sometimes, it is right to stand firm in the face of injustice. One thing we know of Jesus is that he always stood for moral truth; he was faithful to and never abandoned it. Even when people misjudged his intentions, to the point of crucifying him. Can we all at least concede the possibility that business operators are trying to make a similar stand?

It has been advised that a Christian should bake a cake to avoid hurting another’s feelings. But following Jesus seems to be more about being faithful to truth than aoviding hurting other’s feelings. Jesus did not swerve from truth when rebuking Pharisees, moneychangers, or even when interacting with the rich, young ruler. Even beyond what scripture says, it is common sense knowledge that we can’t control how others react to us. Avoiding hurting other’s feelings should not trump faithfulness to truth.

The current moment presents a dilemma for bakers, florists, and others who hold to conscience. Today, litigiious activists would force them to appear as if they are affirming and celebrating same-sex marriage as identical to natural marriage. To say nothing of scripture, there is a very real, natural, biological difference beween same-sex and man-woman relationships. The practical difference has been virtually obliterated for the sake of a coarse political agenda, built on mistaken premises. Activists seem to want to compel speech to the effect that, “I approve of you as a human being.” But I believe most of these business owners, like Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzamn, already approve of, and indeed truly love, their LGBTQ customers as human beings. It has been a long held truth that equal dignity comes from all of our being made in the image of God, imago Dei. Lawsuits and vitriolic compulsion do nothing to add or subtract from anyone’s dignity. Rather, they call into question the judgment of activists and progressive supporters who think such moves are justified.

It is a remarkable irony that as the voices of compulsion grow louder, people of conscience have all the more reason to take a stand for truth. And for Christians particularly, being misunderstood is not something to avoid, but to patiently endure until the truth prevails. As the U.S. civil rights movement itself illustrates, sometimes, it is the right thing to refuse what others demand of you.

Neuroscientist: awareness is cartoonish caricature of reality

Photo credit: Yuri Yu. Samoilov / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: Yuri Yu. Samoilov / Foter / CC BY

Neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano recommends to readers of the Sunday New York Times his attention schema theory of consciousness. Is it a good advancement over other theories? Pay attention and become aware of what transpires in his opinion piece:

In neuroscience, attention is a process of enhancing some signals at the expense of others. It’s a way of focusing resources. Attention: a real, mechanistic phenomenon that can be programmed into a computer chip. Awareness: a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.

In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it.

I would like to offer a syllogism to clarify the issue:

1. If one knows for a fact that conscious experience is a cartoonish caricature of physical reality, then there must be an alternative account of what it is like to experience the world more accurately.

2. There is no alternative account of what it is like to experience the world more accurately.

3. Therefore, no one knows for a fact that conscious experience is a cartoonish caricature of physical reality.

The force of my argument lies in taking the claim of cartoonishness and caricature seriously. If the claim can’t be justified by a plausible alternative account,  then we should dismiss it as incoherent. To say that an amoeba or a computer experiences the world more accurately than we do is absurd, because they do not experience the world at all. The materialist is better off simply sticking with the claim that experiences don’t exist, rather than denigrating their accuracy. This is the law of excluded middle at work.

Notice that I am not refuting the attention schema theory of consciousness outright; I am just striking this one popular characterization of it from the realm of intelligibility.

For some good work on consciousness,  mental events, neuronal firings, and the ontology required for all of them, check out J.P. Moreland’s latest book, The Soul.

Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe


mRio / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

This recent blog post by a science writer at NPR insists that “We Don’t Need To Be Created To Be Relevant.” Here is how author Marcelo Gleiser frames relevance:

“For many people, the thought of being the result of mere accident is a nonstarter. They think that to be relevant we must have been created in some fashion. After all, the word accident usually denotes something bad. Chance is a better (but not perfect) word: We are the product of chance.”

Who or what are we supposed to be relevant to? Gleiser simply does not say. What he does do is subsequently expound on the mystery of biological life, reasoning that if intelligence is not necessary for life to dominate the Earth, then we are special.

Along the way, he punches the God of the gaps strawman, characterizing it as “a dangerous way to believe, given that science does advance and gaps do get squeezed away.” Its inclusion strikes me as odd; intelligence is a property of minds, things that science can’t induct into its material account of the world.

Consider the thoughts your mind produces: first-person, unified, subjective experiences which you can identify as being about things. A scientist cannot access these real phenomena directly; only you enjoy the privileged position that allows you to directly know and report what your mind thinks about. Science is principally incapable of describing the content of thoughts. Methaphysics, philosophy, and human language are needed. This is not God of the gaps, but simply what is beyond science’s purview.

Likewise, relevance, if it refers at all to the classical questions of ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, is illicit to science. The fact-value split initiated by eighteenth century thinker David Hume–and continued by the twentieth century developments of verificationism, noncognitive emotivism, and eliminative materialism–establishes that in a closed, material cosmos, there is no real value to anything, not even life itself. There is no “formal relation” between facts as they are, and values pointing to how the facts ought to be. You can’t get an ought from an is. No intrinsic worth, or ultimate significance. The rareness or infinitesimally unlikelihood of intelligent life is a quantitative measure that will not translate to the quality of being special or relevant.

In this world, roses are not red, and the sweetness of a salty summer sea breeze is an illusion of consciousness. Carl Sagan’s beloved pale blue dot holds no worth. Why pretend that it does? Bertrand Russell provides logically consistent advice for us when divinity does not partake in our cosmos: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

But perhaps, this drab, desolate conception of reality is mistaken. Think about it.

Are rights invented or discovered?

Writing for The National Constitution Center, Lyle Denniston pinpoints the crux of the nation’s protracted same-sex marriage legal battle:

[it] will come down to a debate about granting a new right to a group of people, or confirming a right that is historically contained in the Constitution.

Denniston doesn’t consistently name the views, so for sake of reference let the former view be “invented rights” and the latter “discovered rights.” The Ninth Amendment seems to provide a justification for discovered rights:

“The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

That very promise, at least in one interpretation, set America and its institutions on a more or less continuous journey of discovering what those unspecified rights might be.

Trilobite Fossil at NMNH from Flickr via Wylio

Are rights discovered like fossils? © 2008 Mr.TinDC, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

I’d like to draw out the ontological implication of discovered rights. Or rather, a paleontological implication. It would seem on this view that constitutional rights are always existing, like some fossils that lay hidden, waiting to be dug up at the right moment in history. It would seem to invite a type of metaphysical Platonism. It might be like the Augustinian doctrine of traduccionism, the idea that you, me, and all descendants of Adam were actually present within him at the Fall of Man. What one thinks of traduccionism theologically is one thing. But constitutionally, wouldn’t it be a little absurd to posit that all future rights were somehow actually embedded in the document at the time of the Founders, waiting to be unpacked in a more progressive time? Could I now be writing words that contain new, untold rights of future generations? It seems quite absurd.

I find the alternative view better. Rights when enumerated, are spoken into being as new creations. Metaphysically, they would seem to be constructs. This does not make me a rights nihilist, but it might make me a rights nominalist.

Denniston frames the driving question of the more skeptical view this way:

What gives a new group, seeking constitutional protection, the right to ask that it get a new right all of its own?

But for those who would unpack preexisting rights, the question is, “Why should guarantees of equality of fair treatment be frozen in constitutional time?”

Notice the language: “equality of fair treatment.” The meaning seems under-determined, but to me the phrase looks redundant. Doesn’t fair treatment already imply an equality of consideration?

Take potential U.S. presidents Arnold Schwarzenegger and Madonna. It may be that the Constitution on procedural grounds fairly prohibits foreign-born Arnold from assuming the office of presidency but permits Madonna for the job. In this case, both persons can be equally and fairly considered, while the outcome is unequal but fair.

Denniston presents a final juxtaposition of discovered rights versus invented rights:

Is it a sweeping right to choose one’s life mate without interference by government? Or is it a right that is fundamental only because it has deep roots in the traditional definition of one-man, one-woman marriage?

The first alternative is deeply twisted logic. The failure of government to affirm one’s very personal life choice does not constitute “interference.” This again confuses the positive right to receive something from government with the negative right to be left alone by government.

Denniston’s second alternative of rooting an individual right to marriage in tradition doesn’t sit quite right, either. The third, unpresented alternative is, why think marriage is a right at all? It seems to me that marriage, especially on the child-centered natural law view, is not anything more than a privilege or duty done for the public good. Let legal marriage bet distinct from personal, theological, and cultural conceptions of marriage.

Just as a childless individual pays taxes for and obtains the general benefits of public education, so we all generally benefit from stable child upbringings that obtain when men and women fulfill the obligations and responsibilities entailed in a marriage covenant. On this overlooked view, if there is a right to marriage, it does not belong to individual citizens, couples, or throuples, but to society as a whole.

This is why I find it especially alarming when attorneys general choose not to defend state constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Protecting an arguable public interest should not be left to personal whim!

If marriage is a policy in the public interest, we should consider that individual rights may not be able to expand forever. It should be becoming clear that digging up or inventing new rights is at best an absurd exercise, and at worst, damaging to the nation.

Who is the one imposing religious belief?


At The Huffington Post, a Christian pastor has recently demanded an end to religious exemptions in anti-discrimination laws. She sees them as veiled bigotry by those who would “impose their religion on others by using the courts or legal actions.” Is this really the case?

Observe the language The Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson uses:

Now, we realize religious exemption from the law is a dangerous by-product of religious bigotry, not religious liberty. Now, we see the harm. Systematically, anti-LGBTQ forces repeated and repeated again that their religious freedom would be harmed by LGBTQ equality; our marriages, our jobs, our families somehow harmed them. If they couldn’t exclude us, fire us, or destroy our families, their relationship with Jesus would be diminished — their families would be less valuable.

Wilson depersonalizes supporters of religious exemptions by calling them “anti-LGBTQ forces.” This label reduces religious freedom proponents to grotesque caricatures who don’t advocate for exemptions out of legitimate interest, but oppose LGBTQ-identified persons in their very being. This claim should not be made lightly or rashly; it tars others with the broadest and darkest brush. It kills rational discourse.

The Reverend Doctor exhorts later on:

It is time to blow the whistle on religious demagogues who say they are victims if they are not allowed to take away the rights of others.

Notice the framing of the issue: “taking away the rights of others.” For Hobby Lobby, this is the right to force one’s employer to pay for a health service that violates that employer’s conscience. For ENDA, this is the right to force a church to hire someone who openly, and without compunction, practices a lifestyle that is proscribed by its tenets. These are not innocuous claims to the right to to be left alone–known as negative liberty– but rights to positively impose one’s own favored moral precept on another person who holds to a disfavored moral precept. This is an Orwellian abuse of language.

Wilson warns that:

There will always be religious leaders — both well-intentioned and nefarious — who try to impose their religion on others by using the courts or legal actions.

Who is imposing on whom? Wilson’s rhetoric is incredible. Progressives invent new rights to transform society after their own particular fashion. Then, when a conservative wants to be left alone to continue in her own traditional, free association, the progressive uses courts and legal actions to allege that the conservative is the one imposing beliefs! This perverse hijacking of language must be resisted by people of good will.

Certainly, many who identify as LGBTQ have suffered ostracism at the hands of those who claim to be religious. It may even be true that new legislative protections are needed in the workplace. Indeed, LGBTQ-identified persons, like all human persons, bear the image of God and have their rights in virtue of this fact.

But simply saying the magic words “equality” and “rights” cannot legitimate Rev. Dr. Wilson’s imposition of her particular religious beliefs onto others wishing to stay true to their own. If religion means anything, it pertains to a community of people who are striving to conform to shared standards. The right to freely associate with others, especially based on their freely chosen actions, should be obvious for such a community. Contrary to popular belief, sexual activity (not orientation) really is among the many kinds of freely chosen actions. This is not to judge others for who they are.

Free association is precisely what opponents of religious exemptions want to take away. That’s illiberal and retrogressive. Let’s not go there.

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