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The Contingency Problem: Why Human Rights Cannot be Naturalized

by Angus Menuge

PRECIS: “The Contingency Problem: Why Human Rights Cannot be Naturalized,” chapter 3 of Angus J. L. Menuge, ed., Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives (Ashgate, 2013).

A human right is a just entitlement one has simply in virtue of being human: human rights are universal, inherent and inalienable.  Rooted in our nature as human beings, they can neither be granted nor revoked by the state or any other temporal authority.  Many of today’s ardent defenders of human rights are secularists whose underlying worldview is naturalism.  But can naturalism provide an adequate foundation for human rights?

For naturalism, a human being is one occurrence among many, distinguished only by its natural history.  That history consists of contingent events which have shaped every human faculty, including the moral sense.   As Charles Darwin emphasized in The Descent of Man, this has radical implications for our understanding of morality.  It implies that if our natural history had been relevantly different, our moral sense would not be the same.  Thus:

If…men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 102).

In Darwin’s nightmare scenario, human beings might have thought that fratricide and infanticide were moral duties.  But the important question for human rights is:  

Would fratricide and infanticide then have been moral duties? 

Evolutionary Ethics (EE) offers two answers to this question: Weak EE and Strong EE. Weak EE is a thesis of moral psychology: it gives an account of the origin of moral sentiments and beliefs.  It has no ontological implications for morality (it is compatible with both the existence and the non-existence of objective moral values), and it does not imply that our moral perceptions are reliable.  Strong EEclaims that our psychological states reliably track moral reality and that they do so because what counts as a moral value itself depends on biological history, so it does have ontological implications. 

Yet, whether strong or weak, EE is in trouble. First, suppose Strong EE is affirmed.  Then there cannot be inalienable human rights, because changes in biological history can abridge or even withdraw those rights.  For example, if all human beings have a fundamental right to life, this must include brothers and female infants.  Yet, as Darwin points out, there are possible biological histories in which these humans have no such right, because fratricide and female infanticide are moral duties.  Indeed, by social engineering, a tyrant might make it the case that fratricide and female infanticide are right by compelling people to raise their children like hive bees!  So the whole idea that one has a right to life as a matter of normative necessity is undermined.Now suppose Weak EE is affirmed.  Then although being raised like a hive bee would not make fratricide a duty, our moral sense would tell us that it was.  If so, our moral beliefs do not provide reliable access to moral reality.  Even if our actual moral beliefs about fratricide happen to be true, this is a coincidence.  It no more constitutes knowledge than does the belief of someone lucky enough to learn the right time from a broken clock.  So Weak EE fails to account for moral knowledge.

So, the basic dilemma for EE is this.  If EE is correct then either: (1) human rights do not exist or (2) they are unknowable.   In fact, I argue that either moral skepticism or moral anti-realism is the most plausible conclusion to draw from a Darwinian account of human nature.  Quite obviously though, those supporting human rights protections believe that human rights are both real and knowable, and so they are best advised to look elsewhere for a noncontingent foundation for human rights, with biblical theism a leading candidate (as Paul Copan shows in his chapter).

For further exploration

  • One response to the metaphysical inadequacies of standard versions of naturalism as a foundation for objective moral values is naturalized Platonism.  On this view “nature” includes both ordinary contingent physical objects and abstract objects, which might include moral universals.  This allows for the existence of objective moral values and hence is consistent with the existence of human rights.  But how plausible is this view?  Can it really claim in good faith to be a version of naturalism?  How and why do objective values exist?  Why, given all the other contents of the cosmos, are humans especially valuable?  What, if any, is the connection between the Platonic realm of values and the physical cosmos?  Is there any credible account of how we could come to know these moral values?
  • In his recent book, Mind and Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), Thomas Nagel offers a third way between naturalism and theism, a panpsychist version of neutral monism according to which the cosmos includes both standard physical laws and teleological principles.  Unlike his anti-realist colleague Sharon Street, Nagel is a moral realist.  Could his neutral monist scheme provide an alternative non-theistic foundation for human rights?  If human flourishing is among the goals of the teleological principles built into nature, does that explain why there are human rights?  Or is the existence of such teleological principles just as puzzling as the human rights it is invoked to explain?
  • Can a naturalist hope to show that even if humans do not have certain rights as a matter of normative necessity, still it is an important contingent fact that all and only recent humans do have special rights?  In particular, given the apparent physical differences between human beings (with many physical properties being degreed and/or not uniformly distributed), can naturalists locate some feature of all and only recent human beings in virtue of which it can plausibly be claimed that they all have special value?  Is there any way for the naturalist believer in human rights to overcome Peter Singer’s allegation that such talk is “speciesist”?
  • The Christian theist should agree with the naturalist that human beings do have important limitations: we are finite creatures, infected by sin.  Given our flawed cognitive capacities, how credible is it, even on theism, that we can know human rights?  Given the disagreements among theists about human rights, what are the best criteria for adjudicating disputes?
  • If a naturalist philosopher follows Peter Singer in concluding that human rights do not exist, what is the best approach to convincing her that they do?  Is it reasonable to think such a person can be persuaded to accept human rights while remaining a non-theist?   Or is it better to provide other arguments for theism and then show the theistic support for human rights?
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