Category Archives: Human Rights

Human rights rest only on human advocacy

Are human rights anything more than legal conventions? asks John Tasioulas, Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London.

Isn’t the answer “obviously not”? Human rights are collective agreements, statements about what sort of society we want to live in, and of how we want people to be treated. As such, their justification and standing derives from the advocacy of people. Anything more than that is mere rhetoric, “nonsense on stilts”, as Jeremy Bentham explained long ago.

But, as with morals, people get unhappy about the idea that their feelings on the matter are all there is. People would really like human rights to be laws of nature, objective obligations that we ought to follow regardless. Wouldn’t that put them on a sounder footing?

Professor John Tasioulas

Well maybe it would, but that’s no reason to suppose that they do have such objective footing. As Tasioulas explains: “Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths”. That’s because it cannot be done, because they are not objective truths.

So why does Tasioulas think that there must be some route, some argument that we don’t yet have, for them to be objective? It’s because he wants them to be, because he thinks we need them to be:

I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place.

Such arguments remind me of the Argument from Hitler for the existence of God. It runs like this: If God does not exist then Hitler is not currently being punished for his deeds. I want Hitler to be punished. Therefore God exists. I’ve seen this argument proposed seriously (though, admittedly, only by the — shall we say? — less thoughtful Christians).

The fact that human rights (or moral codes more generally) might be on firmer foundations if they were objective properties of nature is not any sort of argument that they actually are. Nature is under no obligation to conform to our wishes, nor to comply with what is convenient or good for us.

Tasioulas hopes for a justification along the lines of an “appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species” and also “the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship”. But something can only have “value” in the eyes of someone doing the valuing. Value is necessarily subjective.

Yes, Tasioulas’s reasoning explains why humans declare human rights. We value other people, and friendship, and we want to ascribe to each other “equal moral status”.

Is there anything wrong with that, anything inadequate?

In the Middle Ages people supposed that legitimate government and political authority could only derive from God, through the conduit, by Divine Right, of a King. But we’ve long rejected that idea. Everyone now accepts that legitimate government derives from “we the people”, a bottom-up conception of political power resting on the democratic consent of the governed, and residing in everyone’s feelings about what sort of society they want to live in.

This process is of course imperfect and fraught with contention (I am aware of who Americans have currently elected as President), but we don’t, these days, hanker after a God with a big stick to come and tell us that we’re doing it wrong and to dictate commandments for the running of society. Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.

Human rights have the same foundation: the advocacy of our fellow humans. It’s no good hankering after any status more objective than that; wishing it so won’t make it so.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions scores 8 out of 20 on Religious Freedom

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memo directing government bodies on how to interpret religious freedom. Unfortunately Sessions misinterprets religious liberty as granting religious people greater rights than the non-religious have. This is a violation of the deeper principle of treating all citizens equally, regardless of their religious views.

Viewed from the stance of equality we can properly understand religious freedom as a form of free speech. That is, you may espouse your religious views, and if you have a general right to do something you may do that same thing with added religious content. Further, the state may not treat you any less favourably owing to that religious content, but nor may it treat you more favourably.

From that perspective, let’s score Sessions’s memo, in which he declares 20 “principles of religious liberty”.

1. The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance

Agreed. Score +1. Sessions rightly points to constitutional protections deriving from the Founding Fathers. In his Virginia Statute, Jefferson wrote perhaps the best one-line statement of religious liberty, that: “… all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.

Note all three of “diminish, enlarge or affect”.

2. The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or to abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs

Wrong. Score 0. Religious freedom is a form of free speech and does not grant extra privileges when it comes to actions. If the law requires a non-religious person to “act or abstain from action” then it must demand the same of a religious person. Anything else would violate Jefferson’s maxim that “opinion in matters of religion … shall in no wise … enlarge … their civil capacities”.

If you think that requiring an act or abstention from a religious person would be too burdensome to their conscience then nor should you require it from a non-religious person. That is the deep principle of equality under the law that distinguishes a properly secular state from a theocracy in which the religious grant themselves additional privileges.

3. Freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations

Yes, ok. Score +1. People do not lose their rights simply because they group together and exercise them with like-minded citizens. The problem with the Hobby Lobby ruling was not that it allowed a corporation to have a religious identity, but that it granted extra privileges as a result, just as Sessions wants in the above (2). Continue reading

Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer and the free exercise of religion

I have a confession to make. Reading the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer, I am more persuaded by the majority decision written by Chief Justice Roberts than by Justice Sotomayor’s dissent. In this I differ from many secular campaign groups who deplore the ruling and are worried about what it might lead to.

In brief, Missouri runs a program using old tyres to improve children’s playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church asked to benefit from this. Their bid was rejected because it came from a church, in line with Missouri’s rule that no taxpayers’ money can go to a church. The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that rejecting the bid simply because it came from a church violated the constitutional ban on laws “… prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Sotomayor’s dissent, in contrast, focused on the other half of that clause, banning laws “respecting an establishment of religion”.

The two phrases together are commonly interpreted as erecting Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between churches and the government, preventing taxpayers money from going to churches and preventing the government from taxing churches. Continue reading

Tim Farron’s resignation does not reveal secular intolerance

British Christians have been writing to the newspapers complaining that the resignation of Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats shows that liberal secularism has revealed itself to be intolerant. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society”, said Farron himself. The resignation “should make us wary of those who pretend to be tolerant and liberal” (Telegraph), “… is evidence of wider intolerance in British society” (Christian Institute) and “… symbolises the decay of liberalism” (New Statesman), opine others.

When Christians are unhappy it is usually because they are waking up to the fact that society is increasingly unwilling to grant them the special privileges to which they are accustomed, and to which they think they are entitled. The special privilege being asked for here is not that they be allowed to advance their beliefs in the public arena. That is accepted and not under threat by any secularist or Western atheist, however much Christians try to pretend otherwise. Rather, the special privilege being asked for is to advance such views and to have them exempted from critical scrutiny. Continue reading

Can we please distinguish between speech and actions?

The distinction between speech and action matters. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre endangers people’s safety and so is not just speech but also an “action” that can rightfully be outlawed. In contrast, showing contempt by burning the US flag or a copy of the Quran is “speech” and so should not be outlawed. The act of burning an item of your own property is lawful, and the added contemptuous attitude amounts to speech. This is highlighted by the fact that the method of disposal of old flags recommended by the US military is … burning them, though respectfully. Likewise some Islamic authorities recommend burning as the method of disposal of old copies of the Quran that are no longer fit for reading.

Those in favour of free speech generally hold that any speech that stops short of incitement to violence, or otherwise putting people in direct physical danger, should be lawful and accepted. Those against free speech think otherwise. But they don’t want to admit to being against free speech; few people do. So they label those in favour of free speech as “free speech absolutists”, and begin their arguments with: “I am fully in favour of free speech, but …”. From there they muddy the water by trying to negate the distinction between speech and action. Continue reading

Lamenting the reburial of ancient bones

In 2015 ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra and proceeded to destroy ancient ruins that they regarded as pagan or polytheistic. The World Heritage Site monuments were typically 2000 years old. Did ISIS have a right to destroy them? Most of us would say no, and would lament the loss of a heritage that cannot be replaced.

In saying that we are being culture-ist. That is, we are placing the values of our culture above those of ISIS, who, after all, would regard their acts as virtuous and as mandated by the highest authority, namely their religion. I readily plead guilty to be unapologetically culturist.

This comparison might be considered inappropriate, but in Nature this week I read about a 12,600-yr-old skeleton, the “Anzick Child”, that had been passed to Native American groups for reburial. The article lists 12 other skeletons, all older than 8000 yrs, that have either been reburied or might be. Reburial here effectively means their permanent loss, since they would decay relatively quickly under normal burial conditions.

As a scientist I am saddened by the loss of irreplaceable material that could tell us much about the past history of humans. I would regard such remains as part of the common heritage of us all and am unhappy about one group destroying them in the same way that I am unhappy about a group taking it upon itself to destroy Palmyra or the Bamiyan Buddha statues. This is obviously very culturist of me, but then I’ve already pleaded guilty. Continue reading

What the Muslim Council of Britain unfortunately did not say about Louis Smith

Statement (unfortunately not) by the Muslim Council of Britain regarding the Louis Smith video and the resulting ban by British Gymnastics. (Link to BBC account)

As Muslims we greatly appreciate the freedom to practice and voice our religion in a country that has not traditionally been Islamic. Such freedoms can only exist in a country where people can dissent from, and indeed criticise, other people’s beliefs, political views and religions. We recognise that, from Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Britain has a long tradition of satire and mockery that examines and holds to account both political and religious beliefs.

We maintain that truth has nothing to fear from examination, and that only falsehood and error seek the protection of censorship. Holding our religion to be the highest truth, we declare that it is far beyond being damaged by satire or mockery. We declare our truths to the world, openly inviting people to examine them for error. Critics please speak up, since we are confident that we can more than meet any challenge. If you want to mock us, go ahead! Continue reading