Where do rights come from?

We’ve spent the last few weeks in justice class working on rights and what they are, where they come from. In particular, we posed the difficult question for secular governments of: if you don’t believe in souls or the divine aspects of man, how do you set up the theoretical precedents for humans as rights-holders? It’s a sticky problem when you start poking at the question of rights without gods: people of faith have it a bit easier by referring to a divinity who holds mankind in special regard, and from that follows that mankind has certain entitlements. Certainly secular rights theorists have their arguments, such as eudaimonism, among others. The nice thing about the secular route is that you have a opening for people like Peter Singer to come along and challenge your assumptions about pleasure- and pain-feeling for the basis for rights, largely as a means of extending those rights to animals and other species that obviously feel pain, fear death, etc.

I got rather stuck in the middle of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book, Justice: Right and Wrongs, and within his chapter on eudaimonism, where he argues that pleasure and pain principles can not, ultimately serve as a basis for rights-holding. I’m getting lost in his reasoning. Here’s Wolterstorff discussing Rawls (my approach–public reason) versus secular morality, and the paradox of the reasoning behind rights.

It strikes me that his argument that you can’t reason with some people also pokes holes in his own approach to rights; if you can’t reason with boneheads, and you can’t reconcile public moralities, you also have trouble making foundational religious claims among people like me who do not believe.

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