The Trouble with Self-Evident Human Rights: An Example
The Declaration of Independence begins with a bit of bad philosophy: to wit, positing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” These supposedly self-evident human rights do not really exist for reasons I touched on the other day. They are neither self-evident (known non-inferentially or as analytically true) nor accessible through intuition. There’s no way to demonstrate their existence–or that they are endowed by God, who also eludes demonstration. In practice, these “rights” are grounded in nothing more than the say-so of whoever has the power to have them recognized in culture and in law. They fail at the start at their raison d’être–establishing a firm basis for an objective morality.
Take, for example, the culture war debate over the ethics of abortion. On the one hand, you have the asserted right to life on the part of the fetus; on the other hand, you have the posited right to choose abortion on the part of the woman. Both sides in this debate operate 1) under the notion that the Constitution, in truth, recognizes their alleged right, but also, and more importantly, 2) under the principle that the law ought to recognize and secure their own posited right (and not the other). Within the framework of self-evident human rights, however, there’s no basis for choosing one right over the other. Both the pro-life side and the pro-choice side will appeal to more than “self-evident rights,” of course–e.g., the sanctity of human life and the autonomy of the individual, respectively–but of course they have to go beyond this rights language to have any kind of objective grounding. To stay within this field of rights is to play an endless game of power.