Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Against Wolterstorff's Theistic Attempt to Ground Human Rights

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Against Wolterstorff's Theistic Attempt to Ground Human Rights

Article excerpt

NICHOLAS WOLTERSTORFF is concerned to find an appropriate grounding of human rights understood as inherent natural rights. Unfortunately, he thinks no adequate secular account of the grounding of such rights is available. Fortunately, however, he thinks that an adequate theistic account of the grounds of human rights is available. According to his proposed account, human rights are grounded in our standing in the relation of being loved by God. (1) After saying a word about how Wolterstorff understands rights in general and human rights in particular, I explain his proposed theistic account of the grounding of human rights and argue that it fails.

1. WOLTERSTORFF ON THE PROJECT OF GROUNDING HUMAN RIGHTS

For Wolterstorff, rights are a particular kind of normative social relationship. In particular, they are legitimate claims against another to the good of being treated in a way befitting of the right-holder's worth. (2) In order to possess a right, one must have a certain status. For example, to have the right to an NBA championship ring, one must have the status of having been a member of a team that won the NBA finals. A human right is a right such that the status sufficient for possessing the right is the status of being a human being. (3) That is, Wolterstorff assumes what Tasioulas calls the "orthodox view": human rights are moral rights that one has simply in virtue of being a human being. (4) Many other contemporary writers agree with this characterization of human rights as natural rights. Griffin, for example, claims that human rights just are natural rights by a different name. He writes, "The French marked the secularization of the concept by changing its name from 'natural rights' to 'human rights'... The secularized notion that we were left with at the end of the Enlightenment is still our notion today. Its intension has not changed since then: a right that we have simply in virtue of being human." (5)

Wolterstorff recognizes that one can attempt to come to understand the nature of human rights either by starting from a standard list (like the UDHR) or by starting with the common explanation of human rights. The above makes it clear that, at least for present purposes, Wolterstorff has opted for the latter option. Those who favor the alternative starting place might worry that Wolterstorff does not correctly understand the nature of human rights. (6) And even those who are happy to begin with the common explanation of human rights might still suggest that the orthodox view must be qualified in some way or another. (7) For present purposes, such debates can be set aside. What is significant is that Wolterstorff takes as his starting point a widely accepted definition of human rights and claims that a secular grounding of human rights, so understood, is not available.

Though his exploration of human rights does not begin with the UDHR, he does agree with the UDHR in thinking that human rights are grounded in some dignity or worth that humans possess. (8) But as Wolterstorff points out, dignity "does not just settle on things willy-nilly." (9) There must be some feature about us on which the dignity supervenes. Identifying such a feature is the project of grounding human rights. The relevant feature must meet the following conditions: first, it is a feature that all human beings must have--a feature that no human can lack while remaining human. The reason for this is as follows: the status of being a human being is sufficient for possessing human rights. So, if human rights are grounded in dignity, then both the dignity that grounds human rights and the feature on which it supervenes must be inseparable from the status of being a human being. Second, because the entire package of human rights is unique to humans, the feature on which the dignity that grounds human rights supervenes must likewise be a uniquely human feature. And third, Wolterstorff and many others come to the table with the intuition that all humans have some dignity or worth in virtue of which they are due respect such that certain ways of treating them are unacceptable. …

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