The Ethics of Human Rights (63): Human Rights and Moral Subjectivism

Human rights seem to be vulnerable to a common argument in morality: how can we objectively determine that some action is morally wrong? I may think it’s wrong, but you may think something else. Which one of us is correct? There seems to be no way of knowing. Morality is therefore subjective: if something is wrong, it’s wrong for me, for my religious group, my culture etc. If you, your church or your culture thinks it’s OK, then go ahead and do it.

This subjectivism and relativism seem inevitable in our age of moral and cultural pluralism. Western societies are no longer characterized by a quasi-general agreement on the precepts of the Bible, and our colonial hangover has made us weary of supposedly objective morality. There’s no more “true or false” about moral norms, just “ours” and “theirs”. This coexistence of different and often incompatible and contradictory norms or moral systems should be accepted in a spirit of tolerance, and should even be celebrated as part of the richness of human life.

It’s not clear what if anything is left of human rights once we’re done with this. Since these rights are also moral norms, it seems as if they too should be demoted to the rank of personal or group preferences, with no moral force over people holding other preferences. If human rights aren’t true and objective norms, but merely our norms, and if these norms lack any backing more sophisticated than our subjective preference for them or the fact that they are in our holy book, then there’s no point in talking about human rights at all. Drop the “human” part and replace it with “ours” or “mine”. The only good that human rights can possibly do is symbolic affirmation of group membership (“Free speech is a right!” – “Ah, yes indeed, you must be a liberal! Welcome!”). They’ll offer no protection at all, since all violators obviously have different subjective norms, and have an equally valid justification for those norms, namely that they are theirs or that they are in their books.

Fortunately, none of this is inevitable. We may never be able to say that it is objectively “true” that people have this or that human right, or that it is “true” that a particular human right is an important moral norm. However, there’s considerable space between such objective truth claims on the one hand and merely personal, subjective, cultural and relative claims on the other. We may produce good arguments and make a reasonably convincing case that rights claims are good claims. Not true claims, but good claims in the sense that they are strong and difficult to argue against. Rights claims will then perhaps be accepted by people who initially held anti-rights preferences, not because they are forced by the objective truth of those claims – as they may be forced to accept the laws of gravity when the truth of those is demonstrated to them – but because they have allowed themselves to be convinced by the force of our arguments.

More posts in this series are here.

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