Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Good Discussion About the Foundation of Rights

A good and productive discussion about the foundation of rights has broken out in the comments section of my last post. The following is a comment that was left by Chris that sparked the discussion:

"I don't think it's surprising that, at least in primary and secondary schools, the Schoolmen are "forgotten." They have two things going against them: 1.) They were writing within a fairly narrow context (everything was Christian and Paripatetic, and not necessarily in that order since their Christianity was so distinctly Greek), making their work somewhat esoteric to contemporary readers and 2.) While they were undoubtedly influential among the early moderns, the early moderns either altered their ideas or expressed them in a way that is much easier for non-experts today to make sense of; certainly easier than it is for them to make sense of Scotus or Bonaventure directly.

That said, I wonder who you're directing this sort of thing at. Historians of ideas have never doubted or underplayed the influence of the Scholastics on the early moderns. If intellectual historians of the American founding have, then that says all I need to know about that particular field's rigorousness. And if you're merely after the rabid "secularists" (seriously, how many of these are there? and how many as compared to the number of "Christianists"?), then you're plaints are likely to fall on deaf ears, as they are either well aware of the Christian dominance of western thinking even through the early modern period (seriously, you don't even need the Scholastics to point this out), but find it irrelevant to the larger point, or they are simply blinded by prejudice and beyond reasoning with."

I responded with this:

"My goal is to bring this history back into the light. It is the history of the birth of inalienable rights grounded in equality. There are some scary Scientists out there who cannnot coherently tell you what a human is in their worldview. I look at Rwanda, Nazi Germany, The Balkans and see that dehumanization is the foundation of genocide. We untie ourselves from our Christian sense of justice to our own peril."

Chris then responded with this:

"KoI, I couldn't disagree more, on so many grounds. One, inaleniable rights grounded in equality predates Christianity, as I am sure you know, and therefore doesn't logically require it. Two, while Christian does put its own spin on the metaphysical source of equality, this does not mean we can't learn from them (and Seneca, say), and ground it in something else. This is, in fact, what many if not most modern philosophical conceptions of justice have done, producing, some would argue, even better versions of equality and justice. Next, not only do equality-bases inalienable rights predate Christianity, but so does the claim that separating these sorts of things from god/the gods. Read your Aristophanes. If separating them from Zeus and his ilk, or their Roman counterparts and their ilk, isn't metaphysically problematic, why should we believe that separating them from the Christian God would be?"

Tom Van Dyke provided a link to this enlightening article and the following comment that I think shows the slippery slope of rights not grounded in imago dei:

"The fact is that in a state with limited resources, the more that is spent on keeping alive the severely impaired, the less there is left for spending on schools and medical research. Tough choices have to be made. Many children, even in the developed world, have terrible upbringing and poor education. Devoting more funds to this would make a massive difference to those children’s lives. Given that a society cannot do everything, it is not entirely obvious that spending perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on keeping alive a single severely impaired person, rather than transforming the life chances of dozens of children, is the right thing to do."

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