Gewirth's argument

Class notes for 17 November

Main points

I wanted to do two things today.

  1. Describe the kind of argument that Gewirth is offering: a foundational argument
  2. Go over the detail of his argument.

We raised several objections and, next time, we will raise some more.

In particular, I want to begin with the alleged conflict between points 4 and 9. It seems to me that I could consistently assert both points. I gave an example that caused some eyebrows to be raised last time; on Tuesday, I’ll start with that and try to defend my position.

What is a foundational argument?

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.

Gewirth maintains that there are some beliefs concerning action and what he calls its normative structure that are self-evident, meaning they are obvious and that he is certain about them. These can be used to justify our beliefs in human rights (pp. 12-14). Our beliefs in human rights, by contrast, are not self-evident (pp. 3, 11-12).

Therefore, his argument, if successful, will give us a kind of confidence in our beliefs about human rights that we would not otherwise have. It will also show that those who deny that there are human rights are mistaken: they deny something that logically follows from self-evident premises.

If it works, it would show that we need not be concerned about the cultural roots of our ideas about human rights. Everyone who has every acted is equally committed to accepting human rights, whether he was aware of it or not.

What is an epistemology of human rights?

An epistemological question about an area of apparent human knowledge, such as morality, mathematics, sense perception, or natural science, concerns how we can know the things that we think we know. What does knowledge consist in and how do we have it in the area in question?

Epistemological questions are sometimes contrasted with ontological questions. Ontological questions concern what sorts of things exist: rights, numbers, walls, colors, atoms, and so on.

Gewirth proposes to answer both questions with one theory. He will give an argument that justifies some beliefs about human rights, specifically, rights to freedom and well being. That argument will show how we know about these rights: we know about them through the argument. Since rights are justified moral claims, the argument will do the additional duty of showing that rights exist, thereby answering an ontological question about them as well: giving a justification of rights is the same thing as demonstrating that there are justified claims which is the same thing as showing that there are rights.