Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Human rights and the Euthyphro dilemma

There's an article -- The Sacred and the Humane by Anat Biletzki -- at the NYT's philosophy blog about human rights and the different views religious and non-religious people have on the subject: one example of this is the way the Vatican rationalizes away it's refusal to sign the UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity. The article is long, and I don't agree with all it states nor am I sure I completely understood it, but here's a bit of it .....

"[W]where do human rights come from, and what grounds them?" There are two essentially different approaches to answering that question — the religious way and the secular, or philosophical, way ..... The question boils down to who or what is the source of moral authority, God or the human being, religion or ethics? I want to say that that makes a great difference. And I want to ask: If we — the religious person and the secular person — end up engaging in the same activity and also, more so, do it by thinking of ourselves as available to another’s neediness, why does it make a difference?

The problem arises not when we act together, but rather when we don’t. Or put differently, when we act together, the problem stays in the realm of theory, providing fodder for the philosophical game of human rights. It is when we disagree — about abortion, about capital punishment, about settling occupied lands — that the religious authority must vacate the arena of human rights. This is not to say that all religious people hold the same views on these issues or that secular persons are always in agreement (although opinion polls, for whatever they are worth, point to far more unity of thought on the religious side). It is rather that an internal, secular debate on issues that pertain to human rights is structurally and essentially different from the debate between the two camps. In the latter, the authority that is conscripted to “command” us on the religious side is God, while on the secular side it is the human, with her claim to reason, her proclivity to emotion, and her capacity for compassion. In a sense, that is no commandment at all. It is a turn to the human, and a (perhaps axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic) posit of human dignity, that turns the engine of human rights, leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning without ever deserting that first posit. The parallel turn to God puts our actions under his command; if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it. There is no meaning to human rights under divine commandment. A deep acceptance of divine authority — and that is what true religion demands — entails a renunciation of human rights if God so wills. Had God’s angel failed to call out — “Abraham! Abraham!” — Abraham would have slain Isaac ......

I wonder if this touches on the Euthyphro dilemma - is the good loved by God because it's good, or is it good because God loves it? I'd say God loves what's good because it's good, and not that what's good is good because God loves it. Thomas Aquinas has something to say about this but I didn't really understand it, and perhaps I'm just getting all mixed up about this, but I fear the Vatican won't sign off on human rights for gays/lesbians because the Vatican doesn't actually care about the good, human rights, but instead they care about their interpretation of what God wants, and they name that good. I find this idea discouraging :(


Anonymous Paul Martin said...

Like you, I’ve both believed and not believed in God and found my values and morals the same either way.

I remember doing a paper once in school on levels of moral development – somebody named Kohlberg I think. Wish I could remember his thinking better, but I remember finding his delineation of levels of moral development compelling. I don’t recall it correlating in any way with belief.

What I seem to recall is that as people went further along, their values became more deeply internalized and independent of external forces.

8:32 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

I'll look him up. Are you back to blogging? I wrote you but got no answer.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Paul Martin said...

Hi Crystal, my comments are closed on my blog, no plans to resume.

If you emailed me, it's still the same address so it should go through...

6:49 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

I wrote back when you quit blogging. Just wondering what was up, if you were ok.

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Paul Martin said...

Sometimes people forget the third "2" in my email address, that might be what happened.

Thanks for asking, just the usual thing - gradual disease progression, less and less time to be at the computer, the need to prioritize.

8:29 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Sorry to hear that :(

6:24 PM  

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