There Will Be Short Shorts

I recently read an article about a controversy at a Brazilian high school regarding a “no short shorts” policy. A 16-year old girl was being applauded for mobilizing her classmates to sign a petition to do away with a sexist policy requiring girls to dress in “non-provocative” clothing by prohibiting items such as short shorts, after all boys were not required to hide their legs. At face value, the demand seems fair enough. Why should girls be required to hide their legs only because boys might find them distracting. The rule is arbitrary at best and sexist at worst. Shouldn’t we strive for a society where men and women are treated equally? After all, in Europe women regularly bathe topless at public beaches and the behavior is seen as natural and healthy. European men seem to have achieved a maturity that other men lack in the face of nudity. Moreover, if we as a society yield to pressures by conservative forces to cover women up, we will soon witness a generalized maltreatment of all women similar to that seen in Muslim cultures. Shouldn’t we expect more from men? Shouldn’t men learn to control their sexual urges? Why should women pay the price for their immaturity? Where will it end? This line of reasoning fails to acknowledge certain fundamental truths about human nature, particularly human sexuality.

9524d35176304c8d6ade36192aec02adA reasonable compromise might be to require the same dress code of boys. If girls aren’t allowed to show their legs, neither should boys. This compromise seems to recognize the inherent sexual differences between men and women while achieving a common denominator of fairness. However, this line of reasoning also fails in that it is counterproductive to the very idea it intends to uphold: equality. The idea of a gender-less society is dangerous and will ultimately lead to the oppression of both sexes. We don’t need to imagine a world where gender is suppressed. We already live in one. Boys today are taught that it is wrong to acknowledge physical differences in strength between themselves and girls. Boys are bombarded with the idea that there is nothing girls can’t do better. I will submit that most boys today passively absorb this notion and incorporate it with a sense of inferiority. This is undoubtedly the pendulum of cruelty finally swinging back at men; however, it is celebrated as justice rather than recognized as petty vengeance. The result is the alienation of boys who ultimately will not disobey their own biology. The effects are already seen as teenage boys attempt to escape this repression by manifesting their masculinity by consuming pornography. Pornography today leaves nothing to the imagination. Pornography today cleverly caters to the most visceral and raw human appetites by bringing out the worst of both men and women. Through pornography, women (and men) are demeaned, objectified, and stripped of all human dignity. Today, it is impossible to pretend that pornography is art – an argument that many might have been appealed to at the height of Playboy magazine era. The dangers of pornography are already understood but still ignored by many. Rape today is an epidemic. Boys are indoctrinated with the idea that boys and girls are “equal” but the nuances of this parity are never properly communicated. As a result, boys unrealistically expect girls to share the same sexual cravings they do – a notion that is reinforced by pornography. Tragically, girls are also brainwashed with the same idea and end up objectifying themselves. This dynamic probably incurs long lasting emotional effects and self-image problems on both men and women.

I find it ironic that we pretend to “embrace” diversity but we silence voices that celebrate the natural differences between men and women. I have recently read more than one article on experiments with “gender-less” bathrooms or locker rooms around the country and the problems they create. We’ve come to believe that we’ve finally tamed nature and it’s time to ignore gender. No amount of technology will undo millions of years of evolution. For this reason, a topless woman at the beach will always be very different from a topless man at the beach. Why is it then that some cultures don’t seem to have a problem with nakedness? Are we really seeing the entire picture? I can tell you that pornography is no less of a problem in Europe than it is in any other part of the world. The fact that some men have been dulled to the sight of a naked woman speaks only to the societal norms that have developed and not necessarily to the actual health of men, women, and their relationships. Coincidentally or not, European divorce rates are not only higher than US divorce rates, their marriage rates are lower. Maybe the dangerously low European fertility rates could benefit from a little prudishness.

Should 14-year old girls be allowed to wear tiny skin tight shorts to school? I suppose. It’s a free world. Is it wise? Doubtful. I fail to see the virtue in exploiting the super-sexualization of girls (or women of any age). Female sexuality is now understood and promoted in strictly male terms. The entertainment industry feeds girls a contradictory version of “female empowerment” where women express power through a false image of sexual dominance (one that many men are all to eager to accept and delight in). It would be hard to find a man who would not prefer to see women wear less clothing. The exploration of the role that men and women play in this vicious cycle is often met with accusations of ‘victim blaming‘. This tactic has stalled the conversation and has further victimized women by portraying them as helpless. Assigning blame is a fruitless enterprise and expecting (or requiring) sartorial modesty from girls is not blaming the victim. Consider the social injustices that drive people to a life of crime. While we ought to hold people accountable for their actions, it would be a greater crime to ignore the circumstances of their lives and upbringing that may have contributed to their decisions. Men and women are different and thrive under different expectations and given different opportunities. Furthermore, I would argue that patronizing girls by reaffirming that they can ‘also’ do what men do does more harm by casting doubt where there may not be any to begin with. Is it not important to teach young girls that their greatest gift is their mind? Do we not make that task more difficult by promoting a more sexually permissive culture with the wrong role models?

We have arguably left an era of female repression and are entering a new era of male repression. It can only be called “repression” because roles of perceived dominance by one sex over the other are confusing and misunderstood. I envision an era of mutual cooperation. An era when men and women are honest with each other about their weaknesses and strengths and chose to compliment each other in a healthy way.

Bill Nye the Science Guy?

Bill Nye the Science Guy took a clear position today on the abortion debate and was cheered by the pro-choice movement. In a four minute video, he made his case for a woman’s right to abortion that was quickly celebrated with headlines such as Newsweek’s “Bill Nye Brings Down Hammer of Science on Abortion Opponents” or Huffington Post’s “Bill Nye Debunks Anti-Abortion Logic With Science”. The headlines imply that the pro-life logic is scientifically unsound and that the issue of abortion is resolved. The video starts out describing the scientific nature of life’s beginnings but quickly takes a decidedly unscientific and condescending tone toward those who oppose abortion. Below is the transcript of his video and a commentary.

“Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized, and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.”

Bill Nye begins with a loaded statement about what a human is and is not. He stealthily equates “becoming human” with something more than just an embryo. He quickly lends credibility to his statement by iterating some of the necessary biological steps for a successful pregnancy that the average person might not be familiar with, because he is a “science guy”. These opening sentences are the only bit of “science” in Bill Nye’s entire video and enough to feed an entire debate on the issue of life and when it begins. Bill Nye falls short of stating when exactly he believes “a human” begins. Indeed there is much science to be discussed about when life begins arriving at a “scientific consensus” is not as easy as it may seem. Both sides make legitimate arguments about what we should consider to be a human life but Bill Nye does not make any pronounce himself on any of it. He continues with a socratic assumption with the intention of debunking it.

“But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized it’s therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue? Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy who’s sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human? Have all these people failed you?”

These questions are part of Bill Nye’s reductio ad absurdum argument which falsely assumes that opponents of abortion want – necessarily – to punish with lawsuits and imprisonment someone – anyone – when an abortion is committed. This unfairly paints a picture of abortion opponents as hateful people who are in the abortion debate simply to judge others and would find fault or guilt in a woman who had a miscarriage. Many pro-lifers (myself included) are genuinely seeking truth and have a very compassionate view of justice. I could not imagine condemning a woman to prison even if she knowingly and willfully aborted a child, much less someone who never had any idea that an egg was ever fertilized. But back to Bill Nye’s case. There are just as many or more questions to be asked of abortion advocates. If you’re going to hold that a fertilized egg has no rights, when did each of us acquire our rights? Was it when we became attached to the uterine wall inside of the womb? What about the hundreds of other steps required for a successful pregnancy? Are they not as necessary? What about a pregnant woman who smokes or takes drugs? Is she not failing her child? The bottom line is that we all – Bill Nye included – make judgment calls based on what we believe to be truth and if Bill Nye wants to shed light on the scientific truth about when life begins, he should do just that. Unfortunately Bill Nye forgoes any pursuit of truth and uses the rest of the video to insult and try and humiliate anyone who believes that purposely destroying an embryo is even morally troubling.

“It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding and you literally or apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about. And so when it comes to women’s rights with respect to their reproduction, I think you should leave it to women. This is really — you cannot help but notice. I’m not the first guy to observe this: You have a lot of men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance. Sorry you guys. I know it was written or your interpretation of a book written 5,000 years ago, 50 centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby. That’s wrong and so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.”

It’s hard not to get offended at Bill Nye’s generalization that abortion opponents believe all sexual encounters lead to a pregnancy. Nye has abandoned all civility and let his deepest prejudices surface. So many abortion opponents are women, so many abortion opponents have no religious convictions, so many abortion opponents have principles with no roots in male European laws (whatever that means). This is a reflection of a deep lack of understanding of who he thinks his enemy is. Men also play a role in reproduction. Ignoring this scientific fact deprives fathers of their rights as well. Why don’t we leave decisions about reproduction to informed adults? Nye continues with the condescending tone of a teacher dealing with schoolchildren:

“I mean it’s hard not to get frustrated with this everybody. And I know nobody likes abortion, okay. But you can’t tell somebody what to do. I mean she has rights over this, especially if she doesn’t like the guy that got her pregnant. She doesn’t want anything to do with your genes; get over it, especially if she were raped and all this. So it’s very frustrating on the outside, on the other side.”

The fact is we all tell people what to do all the time, and with good reason. We have laws that protect the innocent and Bill Nye fails to really explain why we should not extend those rights to the unborn. He simply takes it as a settled premise that women have the right to destroy another life so long it is within her metabolic control. In this respect Bill Nye expresses a common attitude within the scientific community, one that separates life from its inherent dignity and treats an embryo as a parasite and sex as simple evolutionary activity similar in every respect to the division of an amoeba or the insemination of cattle. This cold attitude has become confused with a kind of scientific authority that has charmed abortion proponents. I would like to as Bill Nye why is it that “nobody likes abortion”? From a purely “scientific” perspective it should not even matter whether abortion is pleasant or not. Bill Nye left science almost completely out of the equation in this video and then further attempts to distract and dismiss with the conclusion of his video.

“We have so many more important things to be dealing with. We have so many more problems to squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding.
It’s very frustrating. You wouldn’t know how big a human egg was if it weren’t for microscopes, if it weren’t for scientists, medical researchers looking diligently. You wouldn’t know the process. You wouldn’t have that shot, the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against the egg. You wouldn’t have that without science. So then to claim that you know the next step when you obviously don’t is trouble. Let me do that again. Let me just pull back. At some point we have to respect the facts.

Abortion is not important to Bill Nye but it is to a lot of people. You simply cannot dismiss other people’s opinions as unimportant because they contradict your beliefs or you believe they are uninformed. You may be very wrong about how informed others are. Nye’s attempt to assign to abortion proponents dominion over all scientific discoveries related to embryology is almost childish. To claim people do not have a right to an opinion about this matter because they didn’t make the scientific discoveries is absurd. Moreover, there are plenty of pro-life scientists that are good scientists. The video clearly shows an retake of his statements and was left in the final edit of the video. Clearly even Bill Nye realized he went overboard. His correction is to say that we have to “respect the facts”. What facts is Bill Nye referring to? That there is scientific consensus as to when life begins? There isn’t even any consensus as to whether there is any consensus at all! Let us not forget that it is this same appeal to a “lack of scientific consensus” that gives climate change deniers freedom to pollute the environment. If anything, we should err on the side of life.

“Recommending or insisting on abstinence has been completely ineffective. Just being objective here. Closing abortion clinics. Closing, not giving women access to birth control has not been an effective way to lead to healthier societies. I mean I think we all know that. And I understand that you have deeply held beliefs and it really is ultimately out of respect for people, in this case your perception of unborn people. I understand that. But I really encourage you to look at the facts. And I know people are now critical of the expression fact-based but what’s wrong with that? So I just really encourage you to not tell women what to do and not pursue these laws that really are in nobody’s best interest. Just really be objective about this. We have other problems to solve everybody. Come on. Come on. Let’s work together.”

What exactly has “insisting on abstinence” been ineffective against? Unintended pregnancies? Why should that even matter if you are in favor of on-demand abortions? Besides, women have had access to birth control and abortion for several decades and I think it’s a mistake to think that we live in a healthy society. We live in a society that commits 1 million abortions a year, and as Bill Nye himself declared, “nobody likes abortion”. Nye’s final words are just plain ridiculous attempting to take a conciliatory tone of a tolerant referee that has just ruled the game in favor of science and against ignorance. This video was clearly made off-the-cuff and shows little forethought so I don’t want to hold Bill Nye to everything he said. Instead, I would like to see an in-depth Bill Nye The Science Guy episode on human reproduction and early development and see how many people will be convinced that human life isn’t truly magnificent. Even Bill Nye can’t ruin that one.

The Arrogance of Justice

A 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden became famous after hostages empathized with the robbers and turned on the police. The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was soon coined to describe the psychological phenomenon where hostages bond with their captors. Few will argue that hostages under this type of duress genuinely sympathize with their captors and would defend them if given the freedom to choose and the time to clearly consider the facts. During the robbery the hostages were manipulated victims, ignorant, and in need of intervention. You could say the Swedish police had an “obligation” to rescue them. Consider now the 18th century Jesuit missions in South America that purposely set out to prosthelytize native tribes who where surely living in plenary freedom and in harmony with nature. The Jesuits would claim that the natives were ignorant and in need of salvation – a similar argument to the case for rescuing the Swedish hostages. I suspect most of the time people will side against whomever they dislike the most – the Swedish police or the Jesuits – but less extreme and contrasting scenarios are quite common and siding with reason is harder than we might imagine. Was the Jesuit intervention in South America justified or was it an arrogant expression of presumed cultural superiority? More generally, is cross-cultural intervention more or less objectionable than cross-cultural abstention? I contend that cross-cultural intervention is not only justified but indeed morally necessary.
What grounds could possibly support a claim as bold as one that suggests that keeping to oneself is more objectionable than obtruding in cases where aid is not only unsought but rejected? At the heart of this question is the distinction between liberty-rights and claim-rights. A liberty-right can be thought of as permission to act without the interference of someone else while a claim-right suggests an outside duty toward the right-holder. Liberty-rights might be easier to define, exemplify, and defend – few might argue against your right to live as a hermit – but the same rights can often be affirmed as claim-rights – hermits may also need assurance that a safe place to “hermitize” exists. In the case of the Stockholm hostages, they were rescued by the exercise of their claim-right to freedom, personal security, or some other life related right that the Swedish government guaranteed. The Jesuits would probably argue that the natives were catechized through an exercise of their claim-right to enter the Kingdom of God. As absurd as that claim may sound to many of us, we contribute in a similar manner today through public schooling for the rearing of our children, a claim-right to education. To cite a more extreme example, how absurd would it be for a new mother to only respect a newborn’s liberty-right to her milk and not their claim-right? “If he wants my milk I won’t stop him from climbing on my lap and helping himself; if he doesn’t, well he can just lie there in his crib and starve.” The common denominator in all these scenarios is the ignorance or defenseless nature of the right-holders but we have established that there is an arguable claim-right to knowledge, truth, enlightenment, or nurture and consequently a duty to guarantee it by those who can.
The question now becomes “how do we know who is defenseless, enslaved, or ignorant and who is independent, free, and enlightened?” To take another real-life example, there are probably as many overweight people who claim they are “free to eat whatever they want and are happy accepting themselves and their bodies as they are” as there are formerly overweight people who assert that they “never knew they could feel so good and that they used to be slaves to their cravings.” Who should we believe? Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant presents an approach to freedom that might help us answer this question. According to Kant, “to act freely is not to choose the best means to a given end; it is to choose the end itself, for its own sake” (Sandel, 109). A drug addict for example, is not exercising freedom when he or she takes drugs – the drug addict is a slave to the vice. This view of freedom is important since it will help us determine the ultimate good in any situation and dictate the most appropriate moral choices. Suppose the Swedish police officers decided to help the hostages only because they knew they would get a pay bonus if the rescue mission were successful. According to Kant, they would not be acting freely. Again suppose the Jesuits chose to spread their mission through South America strictly because they sought power and political influence. They would not be acting freely either. Only when we are free can we make the proper moral choices, insubordinate to any passion or inclination. Kant then intelligently applies our free and untethered understanding of what is good in itself to determine a general moral maxim that applies to everyone. That rule known as the “categorical imperative” is to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant, 31). In other – poorer – words behave the way you would like everyone else to behave. The real life consequences of accepting this imperative may be difficult – unless you want others to lie, don’t lie, ever, under any circumstance. Supposing the Swedish police officers would want someone to rescue them under similar situations, they must attempt to rescue others if they are to act morally. In turn, if a Jesuit truly believes there actually is some type of Heaven or Kingdom of God and would want someone else to help him enter it, then he is morally obligated to do the same for others. This applies to Muslims, Buddhists, communists, and Satanists alike. Intervention then seems morally necessary for those in a position to intervene.
A common objection to the position that claim-rights exist and that others are morally obligated to uphold them is that across cultural lines and between different groups moral principles vary. This position is known as moral relativism and exists in several flavors. I will explore some of those views in no particular order of absurdity or plausibility. One type of moral relativism claims that each group, culture, or society dictates rules and that any particular action is right or wrong only within that group. For example, bullfighting has been practiced in Spain for centuries as an artistic expression of their culture and tradition. A moral relativist might claim that for a Spaniard, within Spain, it is acceptable to practice bullfighting but it might be unethical for a Spaniard to try to practice bullfighting outside Spain. A fundamental problem with this type of moral relativism “surround[s] the identification of a society” (Williams, 21). Spaniards have colonized much of the Americas and defining Spanish cultural borders has become difficult; furthermore, within Spain today there is a generational gap that expresses repudiation toward bullfighting. Societal lines are blurry and therefore too unreliable to define moral barriers. Another type of moral relativism – meta-ethical relativism – suggests that two people might both reason logically toward completely different conclusions and that although these two conclusions may be entirely at odds with each other they may both be correct. A comforting thought indeed if one is to advocate a class of unexamined diplomacy where very little is at stake but difficult to prove or even exemplify. A debate between two religions about what is the ultimate good might fall into that category. The more general point however is that beyond the value of a mere anthropological observation, moral relativism seems to presume a neutral ground so as not to make any judgment in favor of or against cultural values of any kind. Let us apply moral relativism in the following scenario:

  1.   Society A holds that it is morally appropriate to judge other societies.
  2.   Society B holds that it is NOT morally appropriate to judge other societies.
  3.   Moral relativist C holds that is NOT appropriate to judge other societies.
  4.   C effectively sides with B and therefore is not neutral.

There is an obvious contradiction within the tenets of moral relativism, namely lack of universality that renders it unenforceable. The Swedish police may have indeed been acting according to societal norms rather than a carefully reasoned ethical precept but that does not disqualify the validity of their actions. The same applies to the Jesuits. Ethical decisions may rarely be reduced to one defining decision. They are more often a morass of steps – or missteps – that invite cross-cultural conflict.
The implications that cross-cultural intervention is not only justified but indeed morally necessary are dangerous. The applied intervention itself however is answerable to the same logic and moral demands as those that prescribed the decision to intervene. In other words, it would probably be morally questionable for the Swedish police to turn around and kidnap relatives of the robbers and hold them hostages in order to negotiate the hostage’s release. It would also be morally questionable for the Jesuits to employ terror tactics in order to teach the natives about the Kingdom of God. The proposition that one should intervene is not a license to blindly enforce a point of view at any cost. Rather it is first and foremost a summons to reason. The moral conviction that leads to intervention must not be one made in haste or it risks failing the test of Kant’s categorical imperative or any other normative philosophical concept. In fact, moral relativism itself may serve as a useful tool in the examination of any moral conviction. After all it seems even moral relativist seek justice in their attempt to respect multiple points of view. Only after a thorough and repeated audit of the moral convictions that lead to some type of “cross-cultural aid”, should the type of intervention be considered. “Intervention” in its modern use is a loaded word and often invokes military imagery. Let us put that imagery aside and consider a novel approach to intervention. Intervention fails the practical test of advancing justice if it does not observe a cause of “increasing [our] ability to see the similarities between ourselves and people very unlike us” (Rorty, 129). There are generally sensible people on all sides of any debate and no matter the degree of conviction that one side may have; it is impossible, in practical terms, to effectively advance that conviction if a prudent effort to truly convince and not merely impose oneself on the other side is not made. Intervention then is reduced to peaceful sharing of ideas.

Sandel, Michael J. “What Matters Is the Motive / Immanuel Kant.” Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 103-39. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. “Section II: Transition from Popular Moral Philosophy to Metaphysics of Morals.” Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1998. 18-43. Print.

Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen. “Interlude: Relativism.” Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. 20-24. Print.

Epistemology of Human Rights: Gewirth’s Argument

It is probably safe to say that in one way or another; most of us agree that each of us is entitled to some basic rights. Even worst of enemies acknowledge each other’s right to disagree! This awareness however begs the questions “why do we believe we possess rights” or better, “how do we know we possess rights?” The epistemology of human rights deals with the latter question and perhaps one of the best efforts to answer it can be attributed to American scholar Alan Gewirth (1912-2004). Gewirth claims that we can derive a conclusive defense of rights through logical deductions based on the nature of action. Action in this case refers quite simply to any purposeful human action: walking, speaking, dating, voting. He maintains that “implicit in action…are certain evaluative and deontic judgements…about goods and rights made by agents” (Gewirth, 12). In his paper “The Epistemology of Human Rights”, Gewirth skillfully outlines the logic behind what he coined the “Principle of Generic Consistency”, a principle not dissimilar to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and which asserts that each of us should “[a]ct in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as yourself” (Gewirth, 17). Ultimately, Gewirth’s logic requires not just a proof by contradiction – which in itself may be troubling – but also the use of polysemous terminology. I humbly submit that Gewirth’s logic is incomplete if not flawed.

Let us examine Gewirth’s logic as he presents it. Gewirth numbers his postulates for convenience and begins with (1) “I do X for end or purpose E” (Gewirth, 14) and follows with (2) “E is good” (Gewirth, 15). These two statements simply assert that actions that are purposeful are intended to achieve a good. Good in this context refers to a restricted understanding of good in that it speaks only of the agent’s desired outcome. It follows that (3) “My freedom and well-being are a necessary good” (Gewirth, 15) if I am to achieve my purpose E. These deductions are valid and require little explanation. If I am to execute any action, I need to have the freedom to do it, otherwise I can’t do it! Therefore, (4) “I must have freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 15). So far the logic makes sense: I cannot act if I do not have the freedom and well-being to do so. I must have it. The big jump that Gewirth takes is from postulate four to five, “I have rights to freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 15). The first thought that may come to anyone’s mind is that of an adolescent demanding his right to go out on Saturday night simply because he must go out. Gewirth addresses the potential mistrust of his statement by analyzing the result of its denial. He claims that if you reject postulate four you should observe the following path (6) “[a]ll other persons ought at least to refrain from removing or interfering with my freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 15). Gewirth anticipates the denial of postulate six and follows with requisite (7) “[i]t is not the case that all other persons ought to at least refrain from removing or interfering with my freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 15). This statement will confuse a reader who is not in a philosophical mindset. The word to observe is “ought”, a uniquely English word that qualifies an agent’s moral action. Postulate seven may be reworded as “not everyone needs to refrain from…” or “there are situations when others might have the right to interfere with…”. The next postulate is a subtle step from the previous one, “[o]ther persons may…remove or interfere with my freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 16).  Next, Gewirth proposes a contradictory postulate (9) “I may not…have freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 16). Because nine contradicts four, we must reject nine and it follows that (10) “I have rights to freedom and well-being because I am a prospective purposive agent” (Gewirth, 16).

A way of reading Gewirth’s claims is that we have rights to freedom and well-being because we need them in order to act and denying that we have these rights is contradictory. To clarify the reasoning, let us examine an imaginary dialogue between two fictitious characters. For fun, let us call one of them Gewirth and the other Glaucon.

GEWIRTH.      We act in order to achieve an objective. Do you agree?
GLAUCON.      Sure, that makes sense.
GEWIRTH.      We can deem these objectives to be “good”.
GLAUCON.      Well, that may be a stretch. What do you mean by “good”?
GEWIRTH.      I don’t mean a “moral good” and I don’t mean that it is good for everyone. What I mean is that assuming the action was not accidental we can presume that some value judgment was made before committing that action and it is what he or she “wanted” and it is good in that sense.
GLAUCON.      Fine.
GEWIRTH.       Good. Now, in order for anyone to achieve that good, or at the very least, to attempt to execute any action, that person must have the freedom and well-being to do so.
GLAUCON.       Yes. In order to achieve the objective, they must have freedom and well being. Sounds pretty straightforward but can you give me an example?
GEWIRTH.       Sure. Think of an African man living in early nineteenth century Brazil. If one fine day he decides pack up his things and move to Canada, he will need more than a ticket. He will need the freedom and the well being to leave and board the next boat out of Brazil. He has that right.
GLAUCON.       Not so fast. Chances are he is a slave and someone paid good money for him. I think his master would not like that very much.
GEWIRTH.       Well, his master may not like it at all but he should at the very least not interfere with the man’s freedom and well-being.
GLAUCON.       There’s no chance of that. He belongs to his master.
GEWIRTH.       So you are saying that his master may interfere with his right to leave?
GLAUCON.       Yes. The slave is his property and therefore the slave may not leave.
GEWRITH.      But you said earlier, and I quote, “Yes. In order to achieve the objective they must have the freedom and well being.” You have contradicted yourself.

The dialogue may seem silly to the modern reader but it is an attempt to place Gewirth’s logical deductions in an understandable context.  Gewirth continues his logic to demonstrate five more steps before reaching his “Principle of Generic Consistency” but let us cut to the chase and explore the problems of proof by contradiction and polysemous terminology.

Gewirth is careful to employ contradictory opposition rather than contrary opposition in his argument but it may be the case that unknown scenarios render his argument incorrect. Contradictory opposition is an “absolute opposition between an affirmation and a negation, an opposition which has no intermediate or middle” (Spangler, 40). An example of a contradictory opposition is the relationship between the statements “my rights are limitless” and “my rights are not limitless”. A contrary opposition is one between two extremes. An example of a contrary opposition is the relation between the statements “my rights are limitless” and “my rights are limited”. Through contradictory opposition, Gewirth constructs a logically valid defense but by pursuing his proof via negativa it is not fully convincing. In the case of the statement “my rights are not limitless”, there is room for scenarios such as “my rights are limited” or even “my rights do not exist”. Take the example of slavery in the imaginary dialog. Might there be situations where slavery is admissible? It may be a travesty to suggest that in today’s day and age but consider the controversy surrounding the question of torture. What if the entire future of mankind depended on defusing a time bomb whose location one stubborn terrorist refuses to reveal? By transferring the onus to a negation, we are left wondering whether there may be exemptions or alternative scenarios.

Another objection to Gewirth’s argument is one that centers on the meaning of the word “must”. Gewirth states that he “must have freedom” (Gewirth, 15) because freedoms are “necessary goods” (Gewirth, 15). Harvard Professor Mathias Risse observes that there is an ambiguity in the use of the word “must” which disqualifies the argument. According to Risse, the word “must” may convey one of two meanings: “I cannot help but value” (Risse) or “I can make demands” (Risse). Gewirth may have used the double meaning of the term to forward his case. To see how the use of this term creates a semantic difficulty, let us examine translations of Gewirth into other languages. A paraphrase of Gewirth’s fourth postulate was translated into French as “l’agent doit envisager ses conditions génériques comme des biens necessaries” (Beyleveld). “Must” was translated as doit – the third person present tense of the verb devoir. Interestingly, the English word “duty” is derived from French and possesses the same etymological roots as devoir. Gewirth clearly takes advantage of the relation between “duty” and “right” to suggest the moral requirement of freedom and well-being. The word “must”, however is a convenient segue between “ought to” or “should” and the more necessitative “are required to”.

As a defense of human rights, Gewirth’s “Principle of Generic Consistency” is a strong moral device and valid for anyone willing to make a small leap of faith. As a definitive proof of the existence of human rights however, the argument contains two hairline cracks that render it unusable. Anyone following Gewirth and the Kantian spirit might pursue adding a few steps between postulates four and five and introducing more precise language. The proof by contradiction however, is the cornerstone of this approach and – in my opinion – not as compelling as direct proofs.

Gewirth, Alan. “The Epistemology of Human Rights.” 1985. Human Rights. Ed. Ellen Frankel. Paul, Jeffrey Pall, and Fred D. Miller Jr. Oxford Engl: Basil Blackwell for the Social Philosophy and Policy Center Bowling Green State University, 1984. 1-24. Pdf.

Spangler, Mary Michael., and Pierre Conway. Logic: An Aristotelian Approach. Lanham, MD: University of America, 1986. Print.

Risse, Mathias. “Objecting Kant & Gewirth’s Atttempted Derivation of Rights.” Human Rights: A Philosophical Introduction, Lecture 12. Massachusetts, Cambridge. 5 Mar. 2012. Lecture.

Beyleveld, Deryck, and Roger Bronsword. “Les Implications De La Théorie Du Droit Naturel En Sociologie Du Droit.” Les Implications De La Théorie Du Droit Naturel En Sociologie Du Droit. Trans. Francois Michaut. Réseau Européen Droit & Société, 1989. Web. 25 Mar. 2012. <>.

Perry’s Argument

In order to discuss human rights in any meaningful way it is vital that the very premise that humans are entitled to such rights be defensible in a rational and universal manner.  One defense of this universality of human rights is the claim that human life is “sacred”, that we are all members of the human family in a way that transcends religion or any personal and subjective creed.  This “sacredness” bestows humans with an “inherent dignity” and guarantees them basic rights.  Indeed this very language is used in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself.  The use of this language did not go unnoticed to American scholar Michael J. Perry.  Perry claims that the idea that every human being is ‘sacred’ and therefore entitled to basic rights is – to use his own words – ineliminably religious and cannot be successfully defended through strictly secular arguments.  Perry’s argument is not so much that human rights are God-given but that the defense of human rights by means of the argument that they are sacred – in a nonreligious way – is flawed.  Perry, in his book “Legal Rights – Historical and Philosophical Perspectives,” goes about demonstrating his claim mainly through an ontological approach to the definition of terms such sacred, inherent dignity, religious, and non-religious.

Michael J. Perry

A conversation about human rights, religion, and reason will often end up in a debate about the “meaning of life.”  It is an inescapable existential confrontation that many of us encounter regardless of our declared stance on religion.  Questions surrounding the meaning of life may be as basic as “where do we come from”, or “why are we here”, or “is this life all that there is?”  The inevitable crossroads of this search are two simple possible answers: a religious path and a non-religious one.  The religious path encapsulates a “trust that the world is finally meaningful, meaningful in a way hospitable to our deepest yearnings” (Sarat, 212).  Regardless of which religion, it is a belief in meaning.  This is not a redefinition of the term nor a distortion of its meaning.  The very word “religion” derives from the Latin verb religare, which means to bind together again that which was once bound but has since been torn or broken” (Sarat, 212).  Whether this reconnection is with “God” or with an impersonal cosmological origin, the result is the possibility of making sense of life.  Suddenly, consolation to suffering is possible.  Reconciliation becomes possible.  A sense of happiness, itself, is possible.  Lastly, morality becomes possible, “[i]ndeed, in one or another version the [moral] conviction is embedded in more than one religious cosmology” (Sarat, 215).  Now that we have described and examined “religion” and the religious approach, let us examine the non-religious approach.

If religion is a connection with meaning, would it not follow that non-religion is the absence of such a connection? The fundamentals of the non-religious approach may be best summarized by its – perhaps accidental – proponents: Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Clarence Darrow, and Jürgen Habermas.  Perry, addressing the existence of morality in a Godless universe, quotes German philosopher and nihilist Nietzsche in saying “Naivete: as if morality could survive when the God who sanctions it is missing” (Sarat, 230).  In another passage, Perry quotes Glenn Tinder:
Nietzsche shows that we cannot … give up the Christian God – and the transcendence given other names in other faiths – and go on as before.  We must give up Christian morality too.  (Sarat, 229)
Nietzsche is not alone in this vision.  American attorney and scholar Clarence Darrow, who famously debated Christian author and thinker G.K Chesterton on the topic of religion argued, as an atheist, the nothingness of life.  Again, Perry quotes another author who describes Darrow’s meaning – or lack of meaning – in life as a “ship on the sea, tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed for no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot; simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves” (Sarat, 231).  Indeed, if this is how atheists themselves describe life, then there seems to be a consensus about what the secular vision professes: a world with no meaning, no purpose, and no objective morality.
Now that religious and non-religious have been properly defined, it is time to address the question of “sacredness” and “inherent dignity.”  If we say that humans have inherent dignity, we are saying that they are born with it, that they did not acquire it by their own merit, and that they cannot be stripped of it.  We say that human beings possess this “intrinsically”.  Perry further argues then that a human being’s intrinsic value assumes that humans are the object of value and therefore some “one” or some “entity” values them in non-ambivalent way.  In Perry’s own words, “[t]o say that something has intrinsic value is to say, not that something has value even if it has no value for anyone … but that something has value for someone (or something) not merely as a means to an end but as an end in itself” (Sarat, 235).  The final part of his quote is important because it distinguishes between “intrinsic” and “instrumental” value and this distinction is central to Perry’s position.  The argument that the intrinsic value of man is sufficient to consider him “sacred” or possessing “inherent dignity” is flawed in Perry’s view.  Consider a world with only a single person.  Could this person possess intrinsic value and therefore be considered sacred and bearer of “inherent dignity” if he were alone in the world?  To whom would he be valuable?  To himself?  This would be a “subjective” evaluation and not an “objective” evaluation.  Semantically it is impossible.  In Perry’s view, the missing link is “God” and religion.  Only through religion would it be possible to reconcile this definition.  Furthermore, only as “beloved child[ren] of God” (Sarat, 235) can we make any sense of the call to “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” and the claim that we are “all members of the human family” that we read in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In a sense, however, this entire question about “objectivity” in the terms used seems to have taken a somewhat circular turn. After all, these definitions might resonate with anyone who remembers Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. This eleventh century philosopher claimed – in a nutshell – that because we can conceive the concept of God, He must exist. In choosing to define “intrinsic value” as something that must be necessarily the “target” of someone else’s or something else’s value, Perry creates his own need for a “God” and therefore religion.  Many of us would simply define “intrinsic value” as something that is ascribed even if no one attributes it.  If we do not all agree on this definition, then we arrive at a stalemate in the debate.  Moreover, could we not say that even Nietzsche’s attempt to explain the world is a search for meaning and therefore a religion in itself? Arguably, by Perry’s definition, it could since in this case “no meaning” is the ultimate meaning. Finally, the question posed earlier – “would it not follow that non-religion is the absence of such a connection” – contains a logical fallacy: the absence of something does not necessarily prove the existence of something else.
Now, none of this “God talk”, as Perry calls it, precludes an attempt at an intelligent and credible non-religious definition of sacred.  One such attempt by American scholar Ronald Dworkin is exemplified in Perry’s text.  Dworkin claims that “every human being is sacred is not, for me, a religious tenet; [that] it is a secular but deep philosophical belief” (Sarat, 232).  How does Dworkin define “sacred”? Perry quotes Dworkin directly in saying that a singly human life “commands respect and protection” not because the “process that produces[s] new lives from old ones” is awe-inspiring and evokes “our wonder” (Sarat, 237).   Now certainly most of us probably agree with the statement that life is indeed awe-inspiring, but this statement is inescapably subjective and insufficient to be considered a universal tenet.  After all, slavery – in it’s countless historical examples – is an ultimate example of how this tenet fails.  In the end, what is awe-inspiring to one person may not be awe-inspiring to another.

Sarat, Austin, and Thomas R.  Kearns.  “Is the Idea of Human Rights Ineliminably Religious.” 1996.  Legal Rights: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1997.  204-52.  Print.

Timeline of Human Rights Personalities