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May 22, 2012

Comments

Amy,

I appreciate your interest in my comments.

As you point out this blog post does not contain an argument for the existence of God or for universal rights to all human organisms (including those which are single-celled, underdeveloped, brain-dead, dead, etc.). And I already explained in the comments section of that other blog post why I think your argument there doesn't hold up. So I hope you don't mind that I don't really have a lot to say in response to this one. Although I disagree with much of what you've written here, I don't think any of those disagreements are important enough to belabor.

However I do want to offer one point of clarification. You claim that my qualifications in the quoted comments are interchangeable with other qualifications, but I should emphasize that I do not share that position. For instance, recall that I stated we are under no evident obligation to grant sufficiently underdeveloped humans organisms a right to life. But I think we do have a moral obligation to grant that right to law-abiding human persons, independent of whoever happens to be in power.

Regards,
Ben

Ben,

We are under no evident obligation to grant sufficiently underdeveloped humans organisms a right to life.

Are we using your definition of “sufficiently underdeveloped”? Where did you get the definition and how do you apply that to your referenced “obligation”?

We do have a moral obligation to grant that right to law-abiding human persons, independent of whoever happens to be in power.

My head is spinning. Where in the world are these “obligations” coming from and why are you applying them in this manner? What laws have unborn babies broken that justifies their killing? You believe that “sufficiently under-developed” humans can be killed, so what developmental criteria are you using?

You’re all over the place, Ben. Would a 12 year old child with microcephaly or downs syndrome be developed enough for you to apply your elusive “moral obligation” to keep them alive? Of course, assuming this 12 year old child is “law-abiding”?

KWM,

You wrote:

You’re all over the place, Ben.

I think you're projecting a bit, here. You have asked a bunch of disjointed questions, most of them not particularly relevant to the topic here, and so that might be why your "head is spinning."

Are we using your definition of “sufficiently underdeveloped”? Where did you get the definition and how do you apply that to your referenced “obligation”? ... You believe that “sufficiently under-developed” humans can be killed, so what developmental criteria are you using?

By using the term "sufficiently" I'm putting off having to draw a line in the sand of development where moral obligation suddenly kicks in. On one hand, it seems clear that in virtually all cases we have a moral obligation to grant an infant which has just been born the right to life. But on the other hand, it seems clear that we don't have any moral obligation to grant any rights to a single-cell zygote. At some point in between, we're going to inherit an obligation to grant this developing organism the right to life. I don't claim to know where that point is, if it is the same point in every case, if other nondevelopmental factors are involved, or if it really is even a fixed point and not a gradual change.

Where in the world are these “obligations” coming from and why are you applying them in this manner?

The origin of moral obligation is a very broad topic, and not one which I think is appropriate to the present discussion. As long as you agree we really do have moral obligations, that is enough for now.

What laws have unborn babies broken that justifies their killing? ... Would a 12 year old child with microcephaly or downs syndrome be developed enough for you to apply your elusive “moral obligation” to keep them alive? Of course, assuming this 12 year old child is “law-abiding”?

These are not serious questions. I would appreciate it if you dropped the sarcasm.

Regards,
Ben

I asked

Intrinsic value? Is that value without a valuer?

Why should I believe in that?

I purposely did not limit the question to human value as might be inferred from the reference to my comment above.

RonH

You claim that my qualifications in the quoted comments are interchangeable with other qualifications, but I should emphasize that I do not share that position...But I think we do have a moral obligation to grant that right to law-abiding human persons, independent of whoever happens to be in power.

Ben, my point is that there is nothing in this understanding of rights that limits qualifications to anything in particular, regardless of your individual beliefs. No one ever thinks his or her personal preferences for defining which human beings are and are not "persons" are interchangeable with other qualifications. However, the fact remains that those who are in power get to maintain the qualifications and define human beings out of the family if that's what they prefer.

Ben,

You wrote:

But on the other hand, it seems clear that we don't have any moral obligation to grant any rights to a single-cell zygote.

It seems clear? How so? The reason you think it “seems clear” is because you’ve employed your criteria that I specifically asked you about: “You believe that “sufficiently underdeveloped” humans can be killed, so what developmental criteria are you using?”

At some point in between, we're going to inherit an obligation to grant this developing organism the right to life. I don't claim to know where that point is

Precisely. This is the problem you have. You use an undefined criterion to take away the inherent value of the unborn and apply the exact same criterion to value a newborn. What if I have criterion that takes away a newborn's right to not be killed? Say, Like Peter Singer?

Let me ask: What characteristics are present in a newborn that you find valuable that protect it from killing?

If you think these questions are sarcasm, you're mistaken.

KWM,

You wrote:

It seems clear? How so? The reason you think it “seems clear” is because you’ve employed your criteria that I specifically asked you about: “You believe that “sufficiently underdeveloped” humans can be killed, so what developmental criteria are you using?” ... This is the problem you have. You use an undefined criterion to take away the inherent value of the unborn and apply the exact same criterion to value a newborn.

I'm not using any developmental criteria to determine that we have no moral obligation to a single cell; nor do I use developmental criteria to determine that we do have moral obligations to all or almost all newborn infants. Rather, I simply don't take single cells into my moral consideration, and I simply do take infants into my moral consideration. Safeguarding the life of infants is just part of what I mean by "moral obligation."

What characteristics are present in a newborn that you find valuable that protect it from killing?

Well as I said above, I don't have developmental criteria to determine my moral obligation to an infant. Finding a laundry list of characteristics is something we do after the fact, to see if we can succinctly characterize what our moral intuitions tell us. But we make our moral judgments quite apart from whatever list we might construct.

Regards,
Ben

Ben,

Rather, I simply don't take single cells into my moral consideration, and I simply do take infants into my moral consideration.

So that’s that? No reasons to value life or not value life? Just a gut? Not quite. You mention “consideration” as if it doesn’t need explaining? How do you “consider”?

Moreover, you're the one that referred to a “sufficiently underdeveloped” status and now you seem to be backtracking. Why? You’re the one that introduced the term.


KWM,

You wrote:

So that’s that? No reasons to value life or not value life? Just a gut? Not quite. You mention “consideration” as if it doesn’t need explaining? How do you “consider”?

We either have past experience or semantic intuitions to inform us when it is appropriate to apply and interpret natural language terms like "moral obligation." In fact that's the case with all of natural language. We don't appeal to structured criteria to interpret these terms. We just do it naturally, by experience and intuition.

But in the end, no, I don't have reasons for my noninstrumental values. I just value what I value. I don't know what it would mean to say that we have reasons to noninstrumentally value this or that. And my moral values in this case are noninstrumental.

Moreover, you're the one that referred to a “sufficiently underdeveloped” status and now you seem to be backtracking. Why? You’re the one that introduced the term.

As I said in previous comments, we do not have a moral obligation to grant rights to a single-cell zygote, but we do have moral obligation to a newborn infant. So at some point during development, the organism is going to arrive at a point where we are obligated to grant it the right to life. The stage prior to all such points is what I mean by "sufficiently underdeveloped."

Regards,
Ben

Ben,

We either have past experience or semantic intuitions to inform us when it is appropriate to apply and interpret natural language terms like "moral obligation."

How do you "interpret"?

As I said in previous comments, we do not have a moral obligation to grant rights to a single-cell zygote, but we do have moral obligation to a newborn infant.

And how are you making this decision? Through “past experience or semantic intuition”?

Using your criterion, shouldn’t you just be saying “I” instead of “we” as it relates to obligations? Put simply, my past experiences are different than yours.

I’m getting the impression that you don’t want to have a serious discussion.

Ben,

My apologies for the “serious discussion” comment – I just can’t grasp what you’re communicating. I’d appeal to the other reader’s judgment as well. What am I missing? My questions to you still stand.

Let me start with some clarifications.

A right works out to either the positive obligation that other people have to treat the right-bearer in a certain way or the negative obligation that other people have not to treat the right-bearer in a certain way.

The right to life, for example is the obligation that other people have not to kill the right-bearer.

Obligations may be limited and only apply under certain circumstances. By the same token, rights, which are just obligations looked at from the other side, may be limited and only apply under certain circumstances. For example, if a person is trying to kill me, I am under no obligation not to kill that person. I may kill him to defend myself. But it's not that He has given up his right to life in that case. It's just that the right doesn't apply.

Looked at in this way, there are very few rights that are absolute or unconditional. At least very few that beings other than God possess.

"Unalienable" is not the same as "innate". Nor is it the same as "absolute" or "unconditional". "Unalienable" means that it is impossible for the right to be given up, however it was acquired in the first place, and whatever its limits might be.

Hobbes, for example, believed the right to life could not be alienated. Were someone to say "I hereby surrender my right to life...you may kill me whenever you'd like and for whatever reason" we would assume that the person does not really know what he is saying.

Since a right is just a moral obligation looked at from the reverse angle, it's likely that there are a great number of unalienable rights. If you are under an obligation to (not) treat me in a certain way, then I have a right against you to (not) be treated in that way. And in most cases there is not much that I can do to 'let you off' of your obligation. I can't let you off of your obligation not to flay me for no reason other than the fun of watching me squirm. I have an unalienable right against you not to be flayed for that reason.

There's just one other point I want to bring up before getting past the clarifications. If I have no obligation toward you to perform some act A, then in virtue of this, you have an obligation not to demand of me that I perform act A. You can request that I do so, but not demand it.

Now, everything I've said so far strikes me as being of the character of the bold claim that there are three feet in a yard. "Three feet" is what "yard" means.

An issue that might be subject to question is whether any rights are innate. Are there some obligations you have toward me just in virtue of the fact that I have come into existence?

I'm not going to answer that question here, but I will note that our atheist interlocutor above has given us no good argument that there are no innate arguments and has, in fact, posited a whole host of them.

Society is, according to our atheist friend, under no obligation to grant me some right unless I qualify in some way.

What does this imply?

It implies that I do have an obligation not to demand of society a right for which I do not qualify. Society has a right against me that I not demand it.

Now "society" is just a word that refers to a collection of individuals. So all that I've said is that all the other individuals in society have a right against me that I not demand a right for which I do not qualify.

But where did those other individuals get that right? Did they have to earn it or qualify for it? That just pushes the regress back a level. Who did they have to earn it from that granted them the right? God? Society again? Or what? And whoever granted the right, what gave them the right to do so?

In the end, someone in this scheme has to have a right against another person or other people. And they have to have it just because. Otherwise there are no rights or obligations at all.

WisdomLover,

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I actually like your account of rights given in the first half of your comment above, and I thank you for taking the time to explicate it. So that's something on which I think we have some common ground---a scarce commodity in the realm of online debating. ; )

I must make one qualification, though: The term "obligation" is a bit squishy. I think in this context we've been referring mostly to moral obligation, but rights can be determined by legal obligation as well. Perhaps there are still other sorts of obligation which can determine rights.

So this I think begins to explain how we can win rights without qualifying for them previously. Perhaps moral obligations usually remain constant over time, but legal obligations can be created quite suddenly by making changes to the law. And even new moral obligations can spring up along with the development of the social context. So for instance, in 100 BCE, before the existence of Christianity, nobody had the moral right to practice the Christian religion. But now I think people do have that moral right.

I also disagree with you that society has the right that we not make demands on society for nonexisting rights. I don't see how that follows from any of your observations.

As for how it happens that we have moral rights, they simply follow from the existence of moral obligation, as you yourself explained. And moral obligation exists because society has developed in the way that it has, to value morality and the obligations it entails.

Regards,
Ben

Ben

"But on the other hand, it seems clear that we don't have any moral obligation to grant any rights to a single-cell zygote."

If human rights are intrinsic, you have no ABILITY to grant those rights to anyone. You do however, have the power to deny them to the individuals in question. Note that I said you have the power, not the right. Unless of course you prescribe to the notion that might makes right.

Of course all this hinges on the issue of "intrinsic human rights" being something anyone at all possesses to start with. If there is no such a thing, then might does make right as it is the guy with the biggest gun that gets to say what's right.

Ben-

Let's leave legal rights to one side. I don't think there's too much debate that legal conventions create legal rights. But legal rights can be completely immoral. Slave owners in the antebellum South had the legal right to rape their female slaves.

On your first point of disagreement, let's for the sake of argument, imagine some right that is in dispute, Right-R. I'm not generally throwing out the idea that some rights must be earned, what I am objecting to is the idea that all must be earned. If right-R is the the right to live in a beach house, some people do have that right. Namely, those who own the beach house.

Here's a breakdown of my reasoning:

  1. Society has a right against someone that they not demand something precisely when that individual is obligated not to demand that thing.
  2. An individual is obligated not to demand something of society precisely when society is under no obligation to provide it.
  3. So, when society is under no obligation to provide something to an individual, it has a right against that individual that they not demand it.
  4. Now, if society is under no obligation to provide right-R to individuals that have not earned it, then it has the right against those individuals that they not demand right-R.
  5. According to the atheist interlocutor, society is under no obligation to provide right-R to individuals that have not earned it.
  6. So, society has a right against individuals who have not earned right-R that they not demand it.
  7. Society is just a group of individuals
  8. So, some individuals have a right against others that they not demand right-R.
But this right that some individuals have that the others not demand right-R, where did it come from? Did they earn it. And are there others who did not earn it? If so, society has another right against them. And where did that right come from? Etc.

On your final point, it's odd to say that moral obligations come from the fact that society has developed to value morality. Morality just is a system of moral obligations. As such, you're saying moral obligations come from the fact that society has developed in such a way as to value moral obligations.

Cart before horse.

WisdomLover,

Regarding #5, I don't think that people need to "earn" their rights by performing some set of actions. Probably a better word to use here---the word you used initially---is "qualify." So a person qualifies for a certain moral right by simply being the kind of individual to whom we have that moral obligation. But don't you have the same view? According to what you wrote a couple posts up, you think that in order for someone to possess a moral right, we must have a moral obligation towards him. Well that's all I mean by saying that such and such person qualifies for a moral right.

Anyway, I'm not sure that people can ever really win moral rights. It's hard to see how a group of people fighting for this or that kind of treatment can change our moral obligation towards that group. When I spoke before of winning rights, I had in mind legal and other socially-instituted rights.

But in the case of moral rights, they simply exist in consequence of morality, with specialized rights (e.g. the right to practice Christianity) springing up naturally with the development of new avenues for treatment.

As for the final point, I disagree that there is nothing else to morality but moral obligation. But more importantly, what I say that society has developed to value morality, I am speaking of morality in the sense of involving rules of conduct. In other words, we are "obligated" to behave this or that way in the sense that we value certain rules of conduct which we collectively want to see satisfied. It's sort of like the same way a basketball player is obligated to stay in-bounds while dribbling. (Obviously there is a lot more at stake with morality than in a silly sports game, but even so the analogy is useful.) The basketball player only has this obligation in the context of being part of a group which is interested in playing by the rules. Well, society is a group of individuals interested in playing by the rules of morality. As far as I can tell, we have an "obligation" to do X only in the sense that we must do X in order to play by those rules we collectively value. At least, I don't know in what other sense we could ever have moral obligations.

Regards,
Ben

If you replace "earn" with "qualify" and fix-up the grammatical incidentals, I think my argument goes through and leads to the regress just the same.

As for the qualification being the target of a moral obligation. Consider premise #4:

4. Now, if society is under no obligation to provide right-R to individuals that have not earned it, then it has the right against those individuals that they not demand right-R.

To be more precise (and replacing "earn" with "qualify"), the premise should go like this:

4'. For every individual, X, if society is under an obligation to provide right-R to X only if X has qualified for right-R, then society has a right against X that X not demand right-R.

Now, treating the qualification as nothing more that being the target of an obligation, 4' becomes:

4". For every individual, X, if society is under an obligation to provide right-R to X only if society is under an obligation to provide right-R to X, then society has a right against X that X not demand right-R.

The if-clause of 4" is now a tautology. As such the whole statement reduces to this:

4'''. For every individual, X, society has a right against X that X not demand right-R.

But we haven't made any assumption at all about right-R, so 4''' is really saying this:

4"". Society has a right against every individual that they not demand any right.

But this is surely false.

I was not assuming that you viewed qualification for a right as merely being the target of moral obligation. I was assuming that is was something like having-a-history-of-consciousness-and-still-being-capable-of-it.

BTW - I don't think you've escaped the circle on morality/moral obligations. To say that I'm under a moral obligation is just to say that a moral rule or moral law applies to me and I must follow it. To say society 'values' moral rules is simply to say that they expect me to follow the moral rules that apply to me. But the issue of how the rule came to be, and how it came to apply to me is left unanswered.

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