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.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ontology, Epistemology, and the Foundation of Human Rights

Ole Miss law professor Chris Green’s lively exchange in the comments to a post on Steve Bainbridge’s blog prompted me to write him to clarify my own thinking about how we present the theistic foundation for human rights in light of the Brian Tamanaha’s critique of Michael Perry's argument. (Rob Vischer's post, which started the discussion on MOJ, is here.)  Here is Chris’ response:

“Tamanaha's complaint is an epistemic one, and I think he's understanding the argument in those terms (understandably enough, since he's responding to Perry, who put the point in terms of a rational basis for human rights).  But I don't think we need our interlocutors to know things about God before we can point out problems for a materialistic worldview.  It's a legitimate point to say, hey, your worldview doesn't have any entities that could possibly provide ontological support for human rights and genuine morality, but mine does.  This might, indeed, be a reason to adopt a theistic worldview.

It's also possible that knowledge about God & the imago Dei & such would be a better route to knowledge about human rights and the content of morality.  But I think that even on a Christian view of things, the atheist has plenty of access to that sort of knowledge--the individual human conscience still testifies that certain behaviors are right or wrong, a la Romans 2:14-15, even though people suppress the truth about God, a la Romans 1:20-21.  For that reason, I wouldn't put the point as an epistemic one.  Of course, if I'm right that the ontology of materialism isn't rich enough to provide a basis for moral claims that are true in every possible world, then an atheist who accepts that ontology can't have as full a knowledge of the foundations for human rights as the theist can. But that lack of knowledge for the atheist or materialist is really parasitic on the poverty of his ontology, I think; it's not anything particularly related to knowledge.”


Scaperlanda, Mike | Permalink

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