Is God Necessary for Rights?

Is God necessary for rights? This is a question that was raised in the comments section of my earlier post Richard Dawkins Becomes Emotional Over Gorillas…but not Cabbages.

Following is a conversation that I recently had with a friend (whose name I have changed to Debby to preserve anonymity) on that very subject, in response to a comment I made in my book The Way of a Man with a Maid: A Response to the Courtship and Betrothal Movements. I am sharing the conversation here because of its relevance to the larger question of rights and where we derive them from.


Debby's 1st comment:
Has it occurred to you that a daughter, especially a daughter who is old enough to contemplate marriage, is not yours to 'turn over' to another man?

Robin's 1st reply:
Good question. Yes, that has occurred to me.

Now a question of my own: what standard are you using to establish that a daughter is not the father's to "turn over"?

Debby's 2nd comment:
The standard that no human being should be the possession of any other human being.

Robin's 2nd reply:
You would have to define what you mean by "possession." Clearly there
are cases where one person is responsible for another person – as with parents and young children – and we often use the language of ownership in such situations. For example, someone will ask, "Is that YOUR child?" or
"I like YOUR new baby!" On the other hand, if by "possession" we mean a
relationship which denies somebody else's separateness or individuality or treats the other person selfishly like an object, then that would be wrong according to the ethical theory in which I am working.

Finally, when you say that the principle that no human being should be the possession of any other human being forms the standard are you using to establish that a daughter is not the father's to "turn over", this
only raises the following question: what standard are you using to establish the broader
principle that no human being should be the possession of any other? Perhaps you think it is just self-evident, but there is a certain danger in that approach, given that throughout history the vast majority of societies have functioned as if possessing people (in both of the above senses) is

Debby's 3rd comment:
Of course the case of parent and child is different. My point was simply that if a woman is old enough to be considering marriage, she is responsible for herself. She is not her father's to 'turn over' or hand over to someone else. I found the term you used deeply troubling in its implications.

As for the 'what standard are you using' question, I suspected that was what you meant, but didn't want to get into a conversation about meta-ethics. I don't think there is any absolute standard for ethics. Ethics are something to be argued over and puzzled out, as people have done for millennia.

Ethical inquiry comes from the fact that we are human, that all of us are vulnerable to suffering, and so forth. I'm sure you will find such an answer unsatisfactory, but to me your absolute ethical standard is a false one and is therefore even more unsatisfactory.

Robin 3rd reply:
Debby, I have had a look at the paragraph you objected to and I can see that some of my language ("hand over", "vetting") could
give the impression that I am treating my daughters impersonally like objects or even like cattle. I shall be changing that section, so thank you Debby for your constructive criticism, which I have always found valuable.

I'd like to point out that this shift is only possible because my ethical system is rooted in the doctrine that mankind is made in the image of God, which excludes anything which would subtract from the dignity of the individual. To treat my daughters in an oppressive way would be inconsistent with my own Biblically-based ethics. However, since your worldview denies any absolute standard for ethics (as you write, "I don't think there is
any absolute standard for ethics"), it is hard to see how you can objectively justify your assertions in the same way. Without an absolute standard, why should anyone accept the functional values you have been appealing as ethically normative?

Further, if meta-ethics are a puzzle with no conclusive answer, then how can you justify your claim that my "absolute ethical standard is a false
one"? Absolute truth-claims about meta-ethics (including your assertion that certain absolute ethical standards, such as mine, are false) seems inconsistent with your sceptical approach. That would be comparable to saying, "We can't know anything for certain about science, but the heliocentric theory is false." If meta-ethics are a mystery to you, then
all you know my ethical system might be right.

Debby's 4th comment:
Thanks a lot for this kind reply; I really appreciate it…. It is nice to know that you took my comments about gender and the language you used into account. I probably should stay away from the topic of gender when it comes to friends because I become overly passionate about it!

It's true that your ethical system may be the right one. However it is only one possible system among so many and it is, like any other one, formed by the contingencies of time, place and history – it is not timeless and universal. So even if you do embrace that particular system, it doesn't make the answers about how to live your life obvious (some Christians are anti-abortion and anti-gay, for example, but many others are not). For me, choosing to embrace any one particular religion poses as least as many
ethical problems – as many uncertainties – as it resolves. I find it more honest to do without one.

Robin's 5th reply:
As always your comments very helpful, Debby. I am now finding that whenever I unthinkingly make any claim about gender, I catch myself thinking, "I wonder what Debby would say to that?"  and that
forces me to go back and either re-evaluate my position or else to support it with reasoned argumentation. So thank you for your positive contribution to my thinking processes. Not living among academics, I can sometimes get mentally lazy and need someone like you to come along and prod me.

I completely agree that my ethical system is formed by the contingencies of time, place and history. The Bible – and the ethical system derived from it – didn't just drop down from heaven as if God had written it directly, as Christian Fundamentalists are often accused of believing, but evolved gradually over thousands of years of God working his providences with messy situations and messy people in the space-time universe. But this doesn't mean that the principles of the Bible aren't also universal and timeless in the sense of being absolutely true, any more than the fact that syllogisms were discovered by a specific individual (i.e., Aristotle) who was limited to the contingencies of time and space would entail that the truth of syllogisms are not universal and timeless. Since the truth or falsehood of a
proposition is logically independent to the genesis of human knowledge or understanding of that thing, I am having a hard time understanding how you can move from (A) the fact that my ethical system "is, like any other one, formed by the contingencies of time, place and history" to the fact that
(B) "it is not timeless and universal." This would seem to be a case of
what logicians call the "genetic fallacy." Am I missing something here?

I am not sure what you mean when you suggest that you "find it more honest to do without [religion]." Are you implying that most people who choose to embrace a religion are being fundamentally dishonest, or were you only speaking in reference to yourself? Either way, since honesty is an ethical
category, and since your belief system denies any absolute standard for ethics (as you wrote in your 3rd comment, "I don't think there is any absolute standard
for ethics"), it is hard to see how you can objectively justify the value of honesty in the same way as a Christian can. Without an absolute standard, why should anyone accept honesty as being ethically normative, if even in a functional sense?

I certainly agree that Christianity doesn't make the answers about how to live your life obvious. While it is true that the Biblical system of ethics answers many questions, it is also true, as you point out, that it gives rise to problems and uncertainties, as you say. The problem of suffering in the world would be the biggest example. That is why Christian philosophers and theologians will always have problems to debate until Christ's kingdom is consummated. But that is what we should expect: after all, since theistic religions provide epistemic justification for the fact that some things are ethically normative, it is natural that theistic philosophers would have debates about the application of those normatives in terms of real life.

What is strange is when those without a coherent meta-ethic join in these debates. A case in point would be how, in your 3rd comment, you denied any absolute standard for ethics while still appealing to certain functional values as being ethically normative (i.e., the first paragraph of your 3rd
comment made two very strong ethical truth-claims which at least imply that you think certain values should be treated as normative). But if, as you also said, meta-ethics are a puzzle with no conclusive answer, then we have no context in which to evaluate your claim that grown women should be
responsible for themselves.

At the end of the day, it seems to me rather like wanting to have your cake and it eat: on the one hand, you want to be able to function with a strong sense of justice when it comes to such things as human dignity and gender equality, yet on the other hand, you shy away from any absolute ethical
system which could give those values the kind of objective underpinning they need if they are to be elevated to any status beyond mere matters of preference.

2 thoughts on “Is God Necessary for Rights?

  1. If I may use this post to continue the discussion that we were having, I’d just like to quickly say, without getting into it, that you aren’t…. I mean, let’s take the dialogue here – your whole criticism of Debbie’s position hinges on the idea that she can’t justify (?) her ethical positions.
    Whoever said ethical positions need justifying? Your argument is based on the assumption that ethical claims are actually entities independent of the contingencies of context. When I talk about ethical guarantees and ethical guarantors here, I’m not talking about some figurative SuperCops associated with a belief system who go around forcing believers to behave according to a standard, I’m referring to this bizarre theme that seemingly keeps popping up where you seem to think it makes any difference whatsoever whether ethical claims are true or coherent or justified or not.
    There is no difference. You and I are talking about two different things here. You’re talking parochially, out of your own hegemonising ideology, trying to make a point for its necessity. I’m not talking about your hegemonising ideology. The father doesn’t have the “right” to give his daughter away because the daughter can pick up sticks and leave if she wants and society at large will support her in her decision. If you take your ethics from the Bible, your daughter could be stoned for that, and if you lived in a small dry-land mountain tribe thousands of years ago, society would have supported the stoning and the “right” of the daughter to have a say in the matter would not exist.
    You use the word objectively constantly as though we’re even talking about that, but it is your use of that construal, that hegemonising ideology, that insistence upon objectivity (whatever that is supposed to mean) that is the problem. There is no objective ethics, ethical propositions cannot be objectively justified. Even if there was some super rarefied “Ultimate True Truthâ„¢” to the matter, it still wouldn’t matter because ethics is blind to truth and falsehood (leaving aside, for the moment, the problematic nature of those two states).
    You’re acting like all we have to do is discover the One True Really Real Truth Of The Matter. Not only is there not such a thing, but it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if there was because ethics is only about what we agree upon. Ethics is the conversation, it is the discourse, as I’ve been saying since the start, and it’s grossly inappropriate to treat a discourse as some sort of super duper Truth Huntin’ Expedition. Discourses are about learning and growing and modifying relationships, not about making a one-way journey into the True Reality and out of the wilderness of fuzzy-headed relativism.
    You’re so close to getting what I’m saying, in fact you blithely spell it out several times, but each time you pass it by as though you were simply setting aside as sorted some questions of context. Well my whole point is about context: your context, my context, everybody’s context. The context is ethics, not some place where ethics takes place if only you can find out exactly where to look.

  2. “…some Christians are anti-abortion and anti-gay and others aren’t.” This casual observation was recently offered as a serious intellectual justification for what must be described as a kind of agnosticism. It jumped right off the page at me when I read it. It explained, in a most succinct manner, why I had to give up Protestantism if I wanted to retain both my Christianity and my epistemological integrity. I would like to challenge Christian readers of this blog to explain why the above-mentioned quotation might motivate a serious Christian to move toward the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox communions. I can offer no financial reward for the correct answer; one would hope that the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” might be sufficient, if they originated from the right source. For non-Christian readers of this blog: please forgive us Christians for justifying your confusion.

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