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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).

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