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

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