Reading Time: 6 minutes Human Rights by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0
Reading Time: 6 minutes

I was recently involved in a discussion/argument that started off with a Christian stating:

We want freedom from stupid govt. lockdowns for a non-pandemic.

[I will edit these quick Facebook comments only for grammar/punctuation.] Which then distilled down to a conversation about abortion. Because that’s what Christians do, right? I remained true to form:

If you think it’s decent not to have abortions, why is it that your God has literally designed into the system and allowed, for hundreds of thousands of years, literally billions of spontaneous, natural abortions? See my article God Loves Abortion.

It’s the classic comeback to which the Christian only ever has one answer, and, in this case, they obliged:

God gives life and has the right to take it away naturally at any time He wants. We are His creatures and are only allowed to take lives when authorized by Him to do so, such as self defense.
You can predict my next move, if you know me well enough:

Next, you will be using that to justify killing your children. I would like you to establish what that right is, what its ontology is and how it works. I’m serious. Literally, what is a right made of? Is it just a magic way to allow God to be a complete bastard?

The reply did not answer the question:

Scripture is His self-revelation about His own nature, our nature and limits and the history of redemption.
The Book Of Job says “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Short answer: God has that right because the Bible says He does.
My reply, in calling out his might-makes-right approach:

Are you serious? How does that answer any of the questions? What is the ontology of a right? Why do you think God not only doesn’t have to follow his own rules, but he literally bakes the opposite into the system – designs and creates, knowingly, a system where up to 75% of fertilised eggs naturally die? Because he can? Because he has a right to be a “baby murderer”?

That’s the world’s worst answer.

He was still not having it:

Killing someone ISN’T murder if you have the right to do so. That’s why killing in self-defense and capital punishment are not murder. Those are circumstances where we have the right to take someone’s life.

Since God always has the right to take someone’s life whenever He pleases, his killing of someone is by definition never murder, since I get my principles and definitions on this from Scripture.

It’s not a matter of “not following His own rules”. Saying He has to “follow the same rules” presupposes He’s on the same level metaphysically as man. Those rules apply to us just as much to Him, right?… but that is precisely the issue in dispute: whether He exists as a transcendent Creator or not.

As far as baking into the system: there are all sorts of ways that Creation works that we may not like. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist.

The person who owned the thread, an atheist philosopher, was adding his own claims about intrinsic vs extrinsic rights, as the Christian was arguing we had intrinsic rights; the atheist said:

No, you clearly do not understand the word “intrinsic.” If God “gives us” our right to life, then we merely have an “extrinsic” right to life. Unless we have an INTRINSIC right to life, then you are simply a nihilist. You don’t actually believe in morality. You believe might makes right.

To say this is “There is no God and I hate Him” only further confirms what I said about you earlier. You’re a sophist pushing polemics from a sense of conviction rather than reason. You aren’t actually doing philosophy. You’re playing at it as a bad faith actor.

I mean, if you want to use that terminology then fine we have extrinsic right to life. But then you’re just playing word games.

It isn’t “might makes right”. The night that God has is Holy Righteous might, not arbitrary might.

I’m simply saying what your objection *amounts* to. I’m not saying you literally believe that.

For those unread on this. An intrinsic right to continued existence implies a CATEGORICAL right to life not merely a CONDITIONAL right to life ie we have a right to life IF AND ONLY IF God wants us to have one. No, a categorical right to life implies a right that is not conditioned upon facts about any subject.

The reason I am laying this out is that it lays the groundwork for a discussion I then had with my fellow atheist that shows atheists adhere to vastly differing views of moral philosophy, and I will set out something of his view tomorrow.

The Christian came back with:

Then we only have a conditional right to life, and it’s conditioned by God.

And my fellow atheist pointed out:

Then that’s nihilism.

That’s might makes right.

That’s arbitrary.

Welcome to moral philosophy.

Reason > authority.

Reason is, by definition, not arbitrary. Authority is, by implication of not being identical with reason, arbitrary [among other reasons].

The Christian opined to my fellow atheist:

I use reason but have an ultimate authority.

So do you. But your ultimate authority is different than mine. Your ultimate authority is your own human autonomy. My authority is God.

Quit characterizing this as Reason Vs Authority because we both have both of those.

The atheist replied:

If what matters morally depends on the arbitrary (ie morally unjustified) will of God or any other subject, then we would have no intrinsic right to life because God could justifiably take our lives at will. Since we do have an intrinsic right to life, this view could not be true.

My “ultimate authority” are considerations that count in favor of believing and acting in certain ways. Your “ultimate authority” is obeying the commands of a commander. This is absolutely a disagreement about reason and authority. You are flailing under the weight of the arbitrariness objection because you are insisting on the authority of God rather than reason-implying morality.

This is the classic problem with Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Dilemma (see my 16 Problems with Divine Command Theory). I suggest reading those arguments!

I chimed in with my usual:

I don’t believe rights “exist” – they are, like all abstract ideas, conceptual constructions with no ontic reality. I am a conceptual nominalist.

This should explain it all: “Human Rights Don’t Exist until We Construct and Codify Them

Perfectly encapsulated by the 2A debate. I don’t have that right, as a Brit. I don’t want that right, either. Indeed, I want the right not to be surrounded by people with guns.

That right is particular to the US because they conceived it, it is codified into the Consitution, and enacted into law.

 Finally, for the purposes of this piece, this is where we are at, with me replying to the Christian:

“If rights don’t exist it’s senseless to act on them.”

They do exist, just not in an ontic sense; they exist conceptually, in our minds, and we argue about them. When we agree on them, we write down our agreement in your case, the Constitution etc., and this then gets codified into law by your government. This, then, is only meaningful if enacted and enforced by the authorities.
This is DEMONSTRABLY what happens over time and geography; it is why you have the “right” to carry a gun and I don’t; it’s why some countries outlawed slavery and others didn’t; it’s why you have certain rules and rights in one state and can then cross an arbitrary line and they don’t maintain.
That’s what we do: argue, agree by consensus, pass laws by majority, enforce the laws; rinse and repeat and hopefully refine. But sometimes we go backwards.
Your position is this: rights exist in the mind of God. We have to guess what they are and then enact them. But even Christians disagree on this, so we have the problem of a lack of clarity and divine hiddenness.
If you are arguing they exist not-God-subjectively (outside of his mind), then we have the Euthyphro Dilemma.
This is what Benjamin [the atheist] is partly getting at. It is might makes right, unless God can defer to moral reasoning. If he can, then we don’t need God for the rights and reasoning – we have the moral reasoning objective and separate to God.

So, to return to the beginning, what are rights made of, ontologically, and how do they work?

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A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...