Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chris Eberle Responds to Andy Koppelman

MOJ-friend (and philosopher extraordinaire) Chris Eberle responds below to Andy Koppelman's 8/29/07 post at Balkinization (here).  (Chris, you may remember, is the author of the state-of-the-art book, Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics (Cambridge, 2002).)  Chris speaks:

Andrew Koppelman (Balkinization, August 29) lays out four distinct formulations of the claim (A) that human rights morality lacks an adequate secular grounding -- epistemic, ontological, sociological, and historical.  Only the ontological construal of (A) seems to me to be of serious theoretical interest.  But Koppelman’s understanding of that ontological construal seems not to capture the sort of claim that you [i.e., Michael Perry] have been inclined to make.  (Or should I say, that sort of claim that I think you should make!) 

As I understand your position (and that developed by Nick Wolterstorff), crucial to human rights morality is the claim that each and every human being has ‘inherent dignity’ – sanctity, great worth, excellence.  It’s because each human being has inherent dignity that we ought to treat each human being as inviolable.  (I would say, it’s by virtue of the fact that each and every human being has great worth that each human being has a certain set of natural human rights.)  Now the natural question to ask at this point is – what is it about each and every human being by virtue of which s/he has this inherent dignity?  What property does each and every one of us possess by virtue of which each of us has great worth and yet equal worth?  Your view – Sarah’s view – is that it’s the property of being loved by God – that’s a relational property each human being has and has in equal ‘measure.’  Note that this is an ‘ontological’ claim – the issue is not how we know whether each human being is loved by God, or whether Christians were goaded to connect their belief about God’s love with rights-talk by their secular Enlightenment critics, or whether those who deny that God loves us can fulfill their moral obligations, but whether there is anything about each member of the human species by virtue of which each human being has this very special moral status.

The issue put to secularists is whether they can identify any non-theological property that can take the place of being loved by God.  Of course, secularists can just claim that inherent dignity just attached to humanity full stop.  But that’s a pretty unsatisfying position.  Rather, it’s natural to focus on capacities – for moral agency or rationality or such.   But these views are difficult to defend, so I think. (Long, long argument…..)

Note that one can claim that inherent dignity supervenes on some appropriate relational property each human being bears to God without in any way committing oneself to the Divine Command Theory (which is a theory about moral requirement, not human dignity) much less the more global claim that a materialist world doesn’t contain the sorts of entities that could make moral claims true.   The ontological issue raised by your variation on the rights-requires-religion claim is the comparatively narrow one of whether there really is anything about each human being that grounds our widespread sense that humans as such have some very special moral status. 

Note that you also want to raise a further question – one forced upon you by your commitment to internalism, viz., why we should care about the supposed relational facts at issue.  From my externalist perspective, the fact that human beings have great worth provides me with all the reason I need to treat them in a certain way.  But for you, that fact just raises a deeper question – why should the fact that each human being has inherent dignity have any claim on my actions?  That’s the issue I take you to focus on in your essay “Morality and Normativity.”


Perry, Michael | Permalink

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