Do we need foundations?

Class notes for 22 November

Main points

We started by going over some objections to Gewirth’s argument. Then I turned to some large questions about the point of the whole project.

9 and 4

After taking up Danto’s objection, we returned to where we left off last time: the alleged compatibility of points 9 and 4.

I think that Katie gave the kind of response that Gewirth would make to my example: “I need this painting in order to complete my collection of Picassos.” The answer is that the argument concerns goods that are necessary for action: all agents are committed to thinking that they must have those, he said. But the example of the liver transplant seems to me to handle that.

Then I charged Gewirth with equivocation: “must” in 4 is part of a prediction about what will or won’t happen, “may not” in 9 is about what is permitted. Those are different things and so it isn’t contradictory to assert both, I said. Gewirth’s answer would be that 4 is not merely a prediction from the agent’s perspective.

1 and 2

Ken raised an interesting question about whether 1 entails 2. Doesn’t the devil do things because they are bad, at least according to Milton? Maybe not. But I do stuff that I think is pointless. And some people hurt themselves (or others) because they think that their victims deserve to be punished, not because they think it is good that this happen. Finally, sometimes people just act out: they do what they know is bad because they’re feeling bad, need help, or just want to hurt others. These examples seem to split 1 and 2.

I thought that Seth had a very interesting suggestion: drop 2. The whole aim is to show that the only consistent course of action is one that respects human rights. Pursuing the good is not obviously necessary. So why bother getting tangled up in these questions about whether people always pursue the good?

Do human rights need foundations?

There is no simple answer to this question. Whether human rights need foundations or not depends on the nature of your doubts about them and what you hope to accomplish with an argument for their existence.

As a reminder, foundationalist theories try to show that some set of beliefs can be justified on the basis of some premises that are outside of the set. Usually, our knowledge of these premises is thought to be more certain than our knowledge of the beliefs in the set. That’s why an argument from these premises can justify our beliefs in the set: it transfers the confidence we have in the premises to the beliefs in the set.

I said that I did not feel the need for a foundational account of human rights. My reasons are based on a general view about knowledge and justified belief. I am conservative about my beliefs: as a general rule, I change them only when I have been given a reason to think that I am wrong. I think that, given the pervasive uncertainty we have about just about everything, this is the only sane way to go through life. If you didn’t, you would hardly believe anything at all.

I believe in human rights for what are, no doubt, complicated and contingent reasons having to do with my upbringing, society, and psychological dispositions. I have a general rule of reasoning, according to which I should abandon beliefs only if I have reasons to doubt them. I think I know enough about rights in general and human rights in particular to think that my beliefs about them are not obviously incoherent or false: that, in sum, is what the lectures for this course amount to. It’s true that I have many unanswered questions, but, it seems to me, these call for further work and, in advance of that, it would be premature to abandon my beliefs in human rights.

The only reason we have considered for my doubting my beliefs about human rights is that there are other cultures whose members do not agree with me about them. But I do not regard that fact as enough to show that I am wrong.

I have some reason to suspect that they are right about some things and that I am wrong about some things (and vice versa of course). That is the way it usually is: no one knows everything and no culture’s members have a monopoly on wisdom. It would be surprising if this general observation proved untrue in this area.

But that is not enough to suggest that I am mistaken across the board and that I have to abandon or suspend belief in human rights until I can offer a proof for them. Rather, I have to take each challenge as it comes.

Gewirth’s reply

I agree with Gewirth that human rights are justified claims and that when I say that someone has a human right, I am saying that she has a justified claim. For the reasons I have given, I think that these claims are justified, despite my questions about them, so I feel free to assert that there are human rights.

But Gewirth has a question for me that I can’t answer. What am I saying when I make these assertions about human rights to someone who doesn’t believe in them, such as a brutal dictator? I’m telling the dictator that I think that these rights are justified and that, in turn, involves their fitting together with other things that I believe.

But isn’t there something else that I’m saying: that human rights are justified for the brutal dictator too, such that he should recognize and respect them? Does that just amount to a report about what I think and how my beliefs hold together? If so, why should the brutal dictator care? If not, if I mean something like “they’re justified for you too, brutal dictator,” how can I back up what I’m saying? I haven’t shown that this is so, after all, and, if the brutal dictator follows my general rules of reasoning, it seems unlikely that he would agree with me since brutal dictators are rarely like me in their upbringing, social environments, and habits of mind.

Gewirth’s theory tackles this sort of problem head on. He’s trying to show that everyone is committed to human rights. Thinking that the theory does not work or that it is headed in the wrong direction does not amount to answering the questions it addresses. It is not at all easy to come up with an answer to the question about the brutal dictator, of course, and part of what makes Gewirth’s theory great is that it has one.

What about you?

Whether human rights need foundations depends on the nature of your questions about them. That is a personal thing so there is little point in trying to give a definitive answer. I have given a rough sketch of how I see things. But you may have different questions about human rights and, accordingly, you may require different answers than I do.

For example, perhaps you do not confront cultural variety with the same degree of confidence in your beliefs about human rights as I have. Perhaps you have independent reasons for doubting the existence of human rights. If so, you may think that it is very important to know whether one can provide a foundation for human rights. If we can’t, then your very strong doubts might remain or grow stronger.

Of course, a lot turns on what one hopes to accomplish by giving a foundation as well. So far, I have imagined that a foundation would be used to relieve doubts: people who are otherwise drawn to accept human rights but have questions about them could have greater confidence in human rights once they are freed of their doubts.

But you might hope to accomplish something else. You might have very grave doubts about human rights. Or you might want an argument that would convince or refute someone who either doesn’t understand why anyone would believe in human rights or who explicitly denies that there are human rights.

One way to discover what you think is to look at Gewirth’s treatment of other accounts of rights (pp. 5-10). Do you need a philosophical theory that meets all of the criteria he lists (look for the italics) in order to answer a question that you have about human rights? If not, why not? If so, what is your question?