Monday, December 29, 2014

Alasdair MacIntyre on the Fiction of Human Rights

[81] I take it that both the utilitarianism of the middle and late nineteenth century and the analytical moral philosophy of the middle and late twentieth century are alike unsuccessful attempts to rescue the autonomous moral agent from the predicament in which the failure of the Enlightenment project of providing him with a secular, [82] rational justification for his moral allegiances had left him. I have already characterized that predicament as one in which the price paid for liberation from what appeared to be the external authority of traditional morality was the loss of any authoritative content from the would-be moral utterances of the newly autonomous agent. Each moral agent now spoke unconstrained by the externalities of divine law, natural teleology or hierarchical authority; but why should anyone else now listen to him? It was and is to this question that both utilitarianism and analytical moral philosophy must be understood as attempting to give cogent answers; and if my argument is correct, it is precisely this question which both fail to answer cogently. Nonetheless almost everyone, philosopher and non-philosopher alike, continues to speak and write as if one of these projects had succeeded. And hence derives one of the features of contemporary moral discourse which I noticed at the outset, the gap between the meaning of moral expressions and the ways in which they are put to use. For the meaning is and remains such as would have been warranted only if at least one of the philosophical projects had been successful; but the use, the emotivist use, is precisely what one would expect if the philosophical projects had all failed.

Contemporary moral experience as a consequence has a paradoxical character. For each of us is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by modes of practice, aesthetic or bureaucratic, which involve us in manipulative relationships with others. Seeking to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, we aspire ourselves not to be manipulated by others; seeking to incarnate our own principles and stand-point in the world of practice, we find no way open to us to do so except by directing towards others those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case. The incoherence of our attitudes and our experience arises from the incoherent conceptual scheme which we have inherited.

Once we have understood this it is possible to understand also the key place that three other concepts have in the distinctively modern moral scheme, that of rights, that of protest, and that of unmasking. By 'rights' I do not mean those rights conferred by positive law or custom on specified classes of persons; I mean those rights which are alleged to belong to human beings as such and which are cited as a person for holding that people ought not to be interfered with in their pursuit [83] of life, liberty and happiness. They are the rights which were spoken of in the eighteenth century as natural rights or as the rights of man. Characteristically in that century they were defined negatively, precisely as rights not to be interfered with. But sometimes in that century and much more often in our own positive rights—rights to due process, to education or to employment are examples—are added to the list. The expression 'human rights' is now commoner than either of the eighteenth-century expressions. But whether negative or positive and however named they are supposed to attach equally to all individuals, whatever their sex, race, religion, talents or deserts, and to provide a ground for a variety of particular moral stances.

It would of course be a little odd that there should be such rights attaching to human beings simply qua human beings in light of the fact, which I alluded to in my discussion of Gewirth's argument, that there is no expression in any ancient or medieval language correctly translated by our expression 'a right' until near the close of the middle ages: the concept lacks any means of expression in Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arabic, classical or medieval, before about 1400, let alone in Old English, or in Japanese even as late as the mid-nineteenth century. From this it does not of course follow that there are no natural or human rights; it only follows that no one could have known that there were. And this at least raises certain questions. But we do not need to be distracted into answering them, for the truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns.

The best reason for asserting so bluntly that there are no such rights is indeed of precisely the same type as the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no witches and the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no unicorns: every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed. [There is also a connection here to that form of relative being within the realm of ens rationis, crucial to the possibility of confusing reality with fiction and vice versa, but MacIntyre doesn't bring this up.] The eighteenth-century philosophical defenders of natural rights sometimes suggest that the assertions which state that men possess them are self-evident truths; but we know that there are no self-evident truths. Twentieth-century moral philosophers have sometimes appealed to their and our intuitions; but one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of moral philosophy is that the introduction of the word 'intuition' by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument. In the United Nations declaration on human rights of 1949 what has since become [84] the normal UN practice of not giving good reasons for any assertions whatsoever is followed with great rigor. And the latest defender of such rights, Ronald Dworkin (Taking Rights Seriously, 1976) concedes that the existence of such rights cannot be demonstrated, but remarks on this point simply that it does not follow from the fact that a statement cannot be demonstrated that it is not true (p. 81). Which is true, but could equally be used to defend claims about unicorns and witches.

Natural or human rights then are fictions—just as is utility—but fictions with highly specific properties.


Source: Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2007), 81–84.

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