I've been meaning to post on Michael Perry's Morality and Normativity for quite some time, but I can't keep up with the various discussions in the blogosphere. Rather than slip even further behind, let me post the abstract now:
I have explained why I am skeptical that there is a plausible secular ground for the morality of human rights. See Perry, TOWARD A THEORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS 1-29 (Cambridge, 2007). The blogosphere has recently yielded commentary- - mainly, I think, at BALKINIZATION and MIRROR OF JUSTICE - on my argument. However, some of the commentary - in particular, by Brian Tamanaha and Andrew Koppelman - reflects serious misunderstandings of my argument.
1. My argument is not theistic. In the course of making my argument, I articulate a theistic position, which I attribute to someone named "Sarah", but Sarah's position is not my argument. My argument is in part *about* Sarah's position - and also about some secular positions. 2. It is not as a theist that I make my argument. Indeed, some non-theists, such as Art Leff and Raimond Gaita, have made similar arguments. 3. Yes, some religious believers have been among the principal violators of human rights, and, yes, some theologies deny the claim that is at the heart of the morality of human rights, namely, that all human beings have inherent dignity. But my argument nowhere presupposes, claims, or hints to the contrary.
I hope that this paper, MORALITY AND NORMATIVITY, helps to clarify my argument. The paper - which I first presented at Fordham Law School as the Natural Law Colloquium Lecture (February 2007) - is my contribution to a symposium on the moral and legal philosophy of John Finnis. The symposium, which includes a response by Finnis, will be published in LEGAL THEORY.
As we all know, there is not just one morality in the world; there are many. By a morality, I mean a claim or set of claims to the effect that human beings, either some or all, should live a certain sort of life - should in the sense of have conclusive reason to. The morality Adolph Hitler espoused is radically different from the morality Mother Teresa espoused; nonetheless, each is a morality. Hitler's 'morality' is not a morality, you reply, because it is, to put it mildly, false. There is only one true morality, and Hitler's - least of all Hitler's - is not it! To say that there are many moralities, however, is to say nothing about whether a particular morality - or indeed any morality - is true. There are many moralities - and the morality Hitler espoused is one of them. Of course, just as one can acknowledge that there are many moralities and reject every one of them as false, one can acknowledge that there are many moralities and affirm a particular morality as true - affirm as true, that is, the claim that one should live, that one has conclusive reason to live, the sort of life the morality claims one should live.
A morality may purport to be true for all human beings, by claiming that all human beings have conclusive reason to live the sort of life it claims all human beings should live. Or a morality may purport to be true only for some human beings. Either way, a morality may be false in one sense but partly true in another: Some, but only some, of the human beings for whom the morality purports to be true may have conclusive reason to live the sort of life the morality claims they should live. Conceivably, two (or more) moralities may both be true, or both be partly true, in this sense: One morality may be true for those, or for some of those, for whom it purports to be true, and another morality may be true for those, or for some of those, for whom it purports to be true.
Notice that it would beg the question to say to someone that the conclusive reason she has for living the sort of life a morality claims she should live is just that that sort of life is (for her) moral: The question is precisely whether the sort of life the morality claims she should live is (for her) truly moral; she wants to know whether in fact she has conclusive reason to live the sort of life the morality claims she should live.
The ground of normativity question - as I call it - can be asked about any morality; to ask it about a particular morality is simply to ask whether (and for whom) the morality is true and, if so, why - in virtue of what - it is true. Again, to say that a particular morality is true (for one) is to say that one should live - that one has conclusive reason to live - the sort of life the morality claims one should live; put another way, it is to say that one has conclusive reason to be(come) the sort of person who lives the sort of life the morality claims one should live. So to ask whether a particular morality is true is to ask what conclusive reason one has, if any, to live the sort of life the morality in question claims one should live. To ask the ground-of-normativity question about a particular morality is to ask what grounds the should in the morality's claim that one should live a certain sort of life; it is to ask why - in virtue of what - one should live that sort of life.
In this paper, I elaborate a particular, and particularly important, morality, which I call the morality of human rights (because, as I explain, it is the principal articulated morality that underlies the law of human rights). Next, I ask the gound-of-normativity question about the morality of human rights and proceed to elaborate a religious response. (It bears emphasis, first, that the religious response I elaborate - Sarah's response - specifically *rejects* the "divine command" conception of morality, and, second, that in the paper I do *not* argue that Sarah's response is [or is not] true or even plausible.) Then, after explaining why one might be skeptical that there is a plausible secular response to the question (i.e., to the question asked about the morality of human rights), I comment critically on some secular responses. Finally, I ask what difference it makes if there is no plausible secular response and if we reject any religious response.
There is no doubt plenty in this paper with which one can reasonably disagree, but the blogospheric commentary to which I referred above has not (yet) engaged - because it has misconceived - my argument.
For some of the blogospheric commentary, you might want to check out some of the following posts:
- Some Comments from Brian Tamanaha (Michael Perry)
- Religion and human rights: distinguishing the claims (Andrew Koppelman)
- Coments on The Judeo-Christian Origins of Human Rights (Stephen Bainbridge)
- Chris Eberle Responds to Andy Koppelman (Michael Perry)
And you can follow the links for more.
Perry's argument in his original paper is (for me) rather difficult to follow. A large chunk of the argument makes the claim that grounds for human rights cannot be found in a worldview "according to which the universe is, finally and radically meaningless. (p. 34) Perry makes this argument by asking the question what the justification would be (p. 36) and noting that particular figures such as Richard Posner (p. 36) have stated (in conclusory fashion) that belief in God may be required for the belief that persons other than ourselves have value for us. (pp. 36-37) Perry also has an extended discussion of John Finnis's secular argument for human rights (p. 39 et seq.)
So far as I can tell, the crucial move is this:
In the absence of a larger metaphysical context within which it coheres--indeed, in which it makes sense as an integral part of the whole--the alleged invariable connection between "being persons who love one another (in the radical sense of 'one another') " and "fulfilling (perfecting completing) our nature seems contrived; it seems too good to be true.
And another passage:
. . . lo and behold, it just happens that the nature of human beings--the nature evolution has bequeathed them--is such that being a person who "loves one another as I have loved you" is the most deeply satisfying way of life of which human beings are capable.
Some observations about Perry's argument:
First, there is an illicit move here--one that is quite obvious. Much of the rhetorical force of Perry's argument--to the extent it has such force--derives from the juxtaposition of evolution with a particularly Christian conception of morality reflected in the idea of humans loving one another as God has loved them. For all I know, there may be someone who would articulate this internally inconsistent position--which both affirms and denies the existence of God, but that position is obviously a red herring. The question is whether evolution could produce humans who would have natural dispositions (when living in well-functioning human communities) to acquire respect for the dignity and inviobility of other humans. Perhaps it seems to Perry that this is "too good to be true," but it seeming this way to Perry is not an argument that it is this way. This is especially so, because Perry admits to have a theistic world view in which beliefs about God are connected to beliefs about human rights. That Perry finds alternative accounts to be "too good to be true," may reflect the partiality of his perspective. What is needed is a demonstration that the connection necessarily has this quality for those who affirm any of the plausible secular worldviews that claim to affirm strong respect for human rights.
Second, there is something very odd about the selectivity of the views that Perry discusses. His essay is not full text searchable, but so far as I can tell there is no extended discussion of the moral philosophers who have worked on the foundations of normativity and the on the question whether human rights can be affirmed from a plurality of moral and religious perspectives. For example, there is no discussion Christine Korsgaard, Tim Scanlon, John Rawls, Barbara Herman, or Stephen Darwall. Even more surprising, there is no discussion of the work of Philippa Foot and Michael Thompason on naturalist foundations for morality. When advancing a thesis as ambitious as the one Perry has enunciated, it would seem natural to take on those opposing theories that provide the best examples of the contrary view. Such examples can be found in contemporary work on political liberalism (Rawls), contratarian ethics (Scanlon, Darwall), neoKantianism (Korsgaard, Herman), or naturalist metaethics (Foot, Thompson). Of course, I would add contemporary work in the aretaic tradition (Hursthouse, Swanton). I simply cannot understand why Perry would fail to take this work into account.
Third, the form of Perry's argument has a quality that many will find disturbing and which suggests (to me) a lack of care on Perry's part in the use of language that may be viewed as disrespectful by those who sincerely believe that there are secular grounds for affirming human rights. If I might speak personally, it is my belief that even in scholarly discourse civility is a moral and political virtue. Thus, I attempt (not always sucessfully) to apply the "principle of charity in interpretation" to the views of those with whom I disagree. For example, I think it would be disrespectful to equate all religious views with the views of fanatics who reject the role of reason in discourse. (For more context, my views have been influenced by Rawls on the virtue of civility in political liberalism.) Similarly, some who hold secular worldviews might reasonably believe that Perry has failed to interpret their positions charitably and hence that Perry has failed to meet the obligations of civility that extend even to the sphere of scholarly discourse. This impression might be reinforced by Perry's use of language that seems to me, on the surface at least, to use sarcasm in expressing incredulity about secularist moral conceptions. After hearing from Perry, I should make it clear that I have no reason to believe that Perry was intentionally aiming at disrespect or that what I interpret as a lack of charity was intentional distortion on his part. These are sensitive matters, and I should be held to the same standard to which I hold others.
There is, of course, much more to say, but if I might be permitted to express my own view, it seems to me that Perry's skepticism about the possibility of a secularist normative grounding for human rights is not well supported by the arguments that he offers.