Institutional Evil
Fair Play?

Possible People

What motivated the ideologies behind the twentieth century totalitarian movements? Both were focussed on an imagined future. Nietzsche's attempt to move beyond Christian ethics positioned the future in a central role, but he would not have approved of the Nazi's abuse that his ideas. Marx similarly imagined a perfect future, where the workers would be empowered and equal. Not dissimilarly, historical Christianity's beliefs concerning the immortal soul were used as a reason to act against people in the present. In our time, this focus on the future has a more subtle but equally distorting presence.

Consider first the way "Pro-Life" campaigners advocate on behalf of the person that would come to be in the future if an aborted foetus were allowed to come to term (hence the perspective of abortion as murdering a baby). This is a particular metaphysical position, one that their opponents do not share. "Pro-Life" supporters sometimes attempt to support their case by making a parallel between slavery and abortion, noting the similar arguments used in both cases. The tacit assumption here seems to be: since we discarded slavery as unjust, so we must come to discard abortion as unjust. (It is worth noting that animal activists deploy identical arguments).

Now compare an example from a different part of the culture wars. Humanist groups have recently decreased their use of the claim that "religion is brain-washing" and instead assert that raising a child in a religious tradition is tantamount to child abuse. Children, they say, should have the right to make their own religious choices when they grow up. Dawkins argues that just as feminists were involved in "consciousness-raising" on the issue of their rights, so Humanists are engaged in "consciousness-raising" in suggesting parents should not teach their religious traditions to their children. This argument is treated as self evident by its proponents, just as the case against abortion is treated as self evident by its opponents.

In both cases the same kind of manipulative argumentation is taking place: a previous historical change in our ethics is compared to a person's current beliefs and concluded to be parallel, with the inevitable conclusion that in the future everyone will share these beliefs. The "Pro-life" case makes an appeal to future people who are at least plausible – we are not asked to imagine anything more than that they will be born; the Humanist case goes further by making an appeal concerning possible people. Children raised without religion will exist in an ethically superior world, it is claimed, but this argument rests on the belief that it is immoral for parents to pass on their ethical and metaphysical beliefs to their children when they have a traditional source. Without a prior prejudice against religion this assertion is nonsense, and either way it is wildly at odds with the notion of freedom expressed by our Human Rights accords.

Part 21 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


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It is perhaps instructive to consider how these human rights accords are arrived at. They are documents contructed by groups of humans, and are as relative as anything else.

Peter: human rights accords are more than documents since they afford legal rights that are consequently supported by actions. I can write a document, but I cannot write one that will attain to legal rights!

The reason the human rights agreements acquired credence was by virtue of a key strand in the discussion of morality that was instigated to a great degree by Kant. The reason they acquired force was by their ratification. That ratification, while "only" ceremonial still has significant meaning.

That people in many different nations were able to concur to such a moral conception was a watershed moment in international ethics - although this is not to say that there were not flaws or limits to what was agreed (in part because of a distinctly Christian bias to the content). It amounted to a set of promises that different nations made to one another. How we behave towards those promises says a lot about who we are as people.

The point I am making here is that the modern Humanists *claim* to be in support of human rights - they esteem them as much as the Christians who created them - but they still advance courses of action that violate those tenets. This is profoundly confused attitude.

Ultimately, I don't quite agree with you that human rights agreements are "as relative as anything else". They are as relative as any other mutually avowed legal stricture, but given the force that normativity provides the law this is markedly less relative than (say) how one takes their coffee, or what kind of TV shows one prefers to watch.

The absence of foundations does not mean that all construals are equivalent - I am a scientific anarchist, for instance, but I recognise that some models are more effective for certain purposes than others. Similarly, the recognition that ethics cannot be built upon rock solid foundations does not turn morality into mere vapour.

Just as we manage to communicate despite language being rooted solely in a normativity conditioned by instincts (the game of language has rules but is adapted to our physical capabilities) so we can pursue ethics despite morality being rooted solely in a normativity conditioned by instincts (the game of ethics has rules but is adapted to our natural evaluations).

When one steps out of the games people play, it comes to seem as if everything is merely relative. But in fact, one never manages to step out of *all* of the games. And in this regard, even relativity has its natural limits.

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