Jul 30, 2011

Human Rights: A Response from Anat Biletzki

At the On the Human blog, Anat Biletzki has graciously responded to the criticisms of her Stone column on human rights that I laid out in my previous post, criticisms that I've also discussed at Language Goes on Holiday.

She suggests that some of my objections target positions that she did not defend in the article, and perhaps this is due to my reading her incorrectly or uncharitably. Briefly, I noted that she seemed to think any religious conception of human rights must be voluntaristic-- she wrote that "if [God] commands a violation of human rights, then so be it"-- and also divorce the motivations to respect human rights from proper concern for humanity -- "it is not the concept of [human] rights that propels the religious person," as she puts it. I pointed out that the literature on religious ethics is by no means completely voluntaristic, and that having some religious foundation to human rights need not entail any particular claims about how one ought to be motivated to respect rights. Since she claims not to have addressed these issues, or at least not to have taken a position on them, I won't press these points any further.

What she does address, and here she helpfully goes beyond what she wrote in her column, is my worry that the "dogmatic" or "axiomatic" appeal to humanity, which she sees as the only possible foundation for human rights, entails an impoverishment of our human rights discourse. She responds:
"Most significant for me, however, and contrary to Matt’s perception, is my insistence on the richness of the secular conversation on human rights. That it is a questioning, positing, or even critique of foundations for human rights does not impoverish or empty it of deep meaning. The use of “dogmatic” is, indeed, foundational, to the tune of Wittgenstein’s “my spade is turned.” And, again contrary to Matt’s perception of “mere humanity,” it is precisely the humanistic bedrock that inspires the kind of awe usually reserved for the divine. ... [O]ne might then confess to the awe inspired by humanity’s normative potential."
I agree wholeheartedly that there should be a "richness" to the secular-- or, for that matter, religious-- human rights debate, I suppose I'm still uncertain as to how a thin view of human rights can support the depth and richness that we think that debate should have. There is perhaps not much left to say at this general level; we must rather look at views that fit Biletzki's model and see if they deliver on the promise of a rich, fruitful discussion of human rights.

Her column merits reading in its entirety, and I've enjoyed the chance to discuss it with her and others. There's also been a good discussion of Paul Boghossian's Stone column on moral relativism at NewAPPS

Jul 22, 2011

Human Rights: Secular or Religious?

Anat Biletzki's recent Stone column purports to argue for a secular rather than religious foundation for human rights. While she raises some interesting issues, I don't think she succeeds in undermining theistic foundations for human rights.

For Biletzki, if human rights, i.e. "the rights humans are due simply by virtue of being human," have a theistic foundation, then:
(1) "it is not the concept of [human] rights that propels the religious person" in respecting the rights of others, since human rights stem from human beings' being created in the image of God;
(2) Human rights are completely subject to divine will or command ("if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it.")

(1) is simply a non sequitur. It conflates a claim about what grounds rights with what should motivate us to respect rights. Just as utilitarians can say that agents need not always aim at maximizing utility, so the religious human rights theorist can say that agents need not have any religious content to their thoughts and motivations pertaining to respecting human rights.

(2) shows a complete disregard of the landscape of theistic ethics, assuming that any such ethics must be completely voluntaristic. It's also plainly inconsistent with (1). If, for the religious rights theorist, we have rights in virtue of being created in God's image, it would seem to follow that our rights are not revisable by divine will. It's not as if the property of being created in God's image can simply be revoked by God! 

A more general worry is that Biletzki portrays religious human rights as alienated from our humanity, since they are in some sense dependent on God, whereas she thinks secular human rights are more intimately connected with our humanity. But that's actually very unclear. If human rights are rights we are owed "simply by virtue of being human," then it's unclear how the features of humanity that Biletzki emphasizes (our "reason," "emotion," and "compassion") are any closer to human nature as such than being created in God's image. Those properties, after all, aren't distinctively human, whereas the religious theorist might argue that being created in God's image is a distinctively human property. If we want rights to be closely connected to our nature, we may thus be better off on a religious conception of rights-- or, at least, not necessarily worse off.

Finally, while Biletzki frames her essay as an exploration of what grounds or explains human rights, she ends up saying that there isn't really a foundation at all-- rather, an "axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic" reflection on "humanity and its fragility and its resilience" gets human rights off the ground. Not only does this sound tautologous-- we have human rights, which by definition we have by being human, in virtue of being human!-- the case now looks even worse for the secular human rights theorist. Whereas the religious theorist has a rich theory to offer about the grounding of human rights, it looks like the secular theorist on Biletzki's view must resort to dogmatism. And if our human rights theory is so impoverished, it's a deep mystery how we are to go on with our "discussion, disagreement, and questioning" about human rights. If all we can point to when explaining human rights is our mere humanity, then what sets the ground rules for the discussion? What will determine whether this or that is a human right, or no right at all? Without answers to these questions, we don't have a theory of human rights at all.

Update: For another take on Biletzki's column, check out Duncan's post at Language Goes on Holiday.
There is also a discussion over at On the Human.

Anat Biletzki has now responded to me and other commenters at On the Human, and I have some follow up remarks in a new post.

Jul 19, 2011

Journal Economics and the Value of Academic Liberties

I’ve heard people say both that academic journals are too expensive and that journals may be too quick to sacrifice the freedoms of authors in the face of threatened or actual lawsuits. It should be obvious that these positions tend to undermine each other. In the long run, it’s generally cheaper for journal publishers (like other kinds of businesses, as well as non-profits for that matter) to settle out of court rather than face a lengthy and expensive lawsuit. In other words, journals are cheaper when publishers settle rather than fight each potential lawsuit tooth and nail. If you value the academic liberties of authors, you should be willing to pay a price for it. 

Now, how much risk should publishers be taking on, and is that risk being priced fairly, or do some publishers have sufficient market power to overcharge for the assumption of that risk? These seem like the important questions to me, whereas railing against the cost of journals while advocating for a policy that keeps the cost high seems unproductive.

Update: I've started discussing this issue at the terrific NewAPPS blog.

Jul 18, 2011

The feminist case against tenure

It may be difficult to improve, in a reasonable span of time, the representation of women (and other underrepresented groups) in the philosophy professoriate unless there is either (i) a careful reconsideration of tenure or (ii) a strong affirmative action policy for hiring or (iii) both. (Other smaller steps may be helpful in the long run, such as the Gendered Conference Campaign and various efforts at combating implicit biases affecting hiring decisions-- but it seems unlikely that these efforts, even if massively successful, will be sufficient in the absence of the larger steps I mentioned.)

Many people see affirmative action as a way of promoting professorial diversity, but affirmative action is controversial and has some fairly serious downsides. Revising tenure, on the other hand, may be possible without any real sacrifice of academic liberties and may be one of the most effective ways of promoting diversity-- and yet very few (if any) commentators concerned with diversity make this point. 

Here's why tenure is important. The current tenure system is very conservative in the sense that it limits turnover, which tends to make it harder for underrepresented groups to increase their representation in the short and medium-term. On the other hand, tenure is beneficial to those who have it, so once representation of a group increases, tenure has the effect of making those gains more permanent in the long-term. From the perspective of enhancing diversity in the academy, tenure therefore has both advantages and disadvantages. Anyone who wants greater professorial diversity but has no interest in considering even minor revisions to tenure is holding an unstable position-- tenure, carefully crafted, is a boon to a diverse academy, but it would be a tremendous miracle if the current tenure system is delivering the greatest benefits at the lowest cost relative to other options. 

An honest consideration of tenure is thus a feminist issue, as well as an issue for anyone who wants to promote a more diverse professoriate with respect to all underrepresented groups.