Secular accounts: A response to Chambers

posted by Nicholas Wolterstorff

<p></p>In my response to Jonathon Kahn I dealt with some of the points that Simone Chambers makes in her recent post. But let me re-emphasize one thing, and then respond to some new points.

I want to re-emphasize the structure of my discussion about secular accounts of human rights.  The project of trying to ground human rights is the project of trying to find what it is about human beings that gives each and every one a dignity sufficient for their possessing human rights.  I hold that Kantian-style accounts are entirely adequate for grounding the rights of those human beings who have the capacity to engage in rational action, the capacity to form, follow, and revise life-plans, or whatever.  There has been some discussion in the philosophical literature recently pointing out that persons have this capacity to different degrees, and that, consequently, this capacity does not secure equality of worth.  I do not see that this is a problem for the grounding of human rights; so long as everybody has a certain minimum of worth, that should be enough.

I observed in the book that all the “secular” accounts with which I am familiar are capacity accounts; and that any capacity account is confronted with the problem that there will always be some human beings who do not have the capacity.  (I observed that all extant imago dei accounts have the same problem,)  In Chapter 16 I myself then proposed a secular account that is not a capacity account.  Suppose one is willing to accept that there is human nature, whatever one’s ontology of the matter.  Then even the most severely impaired human being will have human nature.  Is perhaps the mere possession of human nature sufficient for grounding the necessary worth?

My guess is that people will divide in how they answer this question.  Think of human nature as rather like the design-plan for an automobile.  What would one say about an automobile whose design-plan was truly excellent but which, through various misfortunes, is now incurably inoperative?  Would one treasure this inoperative exemplar on account of its superb design-plan?  I would not.  But I would not be surprised to learn that others would.  By analogy, they would say that even the most impaired human being is of great worth just on account of possessing human nature.  And that would then be a secular account that, as they see it, is adequate.  This is in fact the account that Jonathan Kahn offers in passing in his response to my response to him; “possessing human nature” is enough, he says.

Apart from the capacities accounts and this human nature account, I don’t see any other secular accounts on the horizon. But who knows, another type altogether might turn up.  Chambers says that the Kantians must surely have an answer to the questions I raised concerning capacity accounts, since they have always regarded Kant’s capacity account as adequate for human beings in general.  (Allen Wood raises the issues without giving a definitive answer.)  I would like to learn how a successful Kantian account would go (it might prove to be a variant on the human nature account that I mentioned above).

Contrary to Chambers’ suspicions, I very much want there to be available not only an adequate theistic account but also an adequate secular account.  The melancholy character of my ruminations in the final chapter could then be dismissed as irrelevant.

Am I (perhaps) a good philosopher but a bad citizen, as Chambers’ title and subsequent discussion suggests?  I will leave it to others to answer both questions.  What I will say is that I join with all those who struggle for justice to the wronged, whatever their reasons or motivations.

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One Response to “Secular accounts: A response to Chambers”

  1. avatar George Hunsinger says:

    Since I have not yet read the book, I am not in a good position to make a comment. But there is perhaps a neglected possibility that might be worthy of consideration.

    I don’t know whether it would establish “intrinsic rights,” but it might be enough to give non-religious people who are working to prevent abuses like torture and atrocities some significant warrants for what they are doing. As a person who has been working in this area myself, I want to give these people, who are often very dedicated and self-sacrificing in their efforts for human rights, and more so (regrettably) than are many religious people, all the backing they can get.

    What I have in mind is the discussion of “common morality” as grounded in the Golden Rule. (I think Gene Outka is very good on these matters.) I want to suggest that the Golden Rule might be subjected to a Brandom-like interpretation. People do not need to be convinced to adopt a set of moral standards, because each of us is using moral criteria every day to make judgments about our own case, in other words, about how we are being treated by others. These standards can be made explicit and then subjected to communal discussion and refinement.

    If I am obligated to treat others as I would like to be treated, then I think at least some rudimentary standards of fairness, respect, and benevolence can be made explicit on the basis of my own implicit standards as I apply them in my own case. On pain of inconsistency or moral incoherence, I would need to universalize my standards so that they apply not only to myself or my favored group. I would need to engage in a mental process of role-reversal. I would need to see that I am logically committed to impartiality in a range of important cases. And so on.

    How to develop moral empathy would not be answered by this approach. Nor would it always be immediately clear how I could be persuaded that some persons or groups were not “subhuman” if I were inclined to view them that way. But perhaps these problems would also not be easy for Wolterstorff or Rawls either.

    Gensler’s book on “Formal Ethics” (Routledge 1996) might be a fruitful place to begin.

    Again, let me stress the tentative nature of these suggestions.