Why Believe in Human Rights?

FA5D12B4-1F80-4323-B03D-D6FB71B65C1CNot long ago, I watched pastor, author Tim Keller give a presentation to the employees of Google where he talked about his best-selling book, A Reason for God; Belief in the Age of Skepticism [watch here].

Keller was there at the invitation of the tech giant to participate in their ‘Google Speaks’ series, notable over the years for hosting a diverse swath of some of the world’s most influential thinkers, musicians, journalists, scientists, writers, and the like.

[To give an idea of just how diverse: this same group that gave a platform to Keller (3xs), has also hosted celebrated journalist [the late] Christopher Hitchens (1x) and scientist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins (3xs) — easily two of this generation’s leading voices in what has become known as the “New Atheism.”]

Keller looked at the topic of belief/skepticism from a number of different angles and perspectives. But what I found most interesting is what he had to say about the legitimacy of Human Rights. In making the argument that HR makes more sense if you credit God as their author, he relies heavily on the reasoning of writer, lawyer and atheist Alan Dershowitz.

In his essay ‘Where do Human Rights Come From?’, Dershowitz says belief in the legitimacy of human rights is to ascend to the idea humans are so worthwhile that we each have certain inalienable rights that shouldn’t be trampled upon. He then asks, “why should we believe in that?”

Dershowitz presents the following possibilities:

a. Maybe HR exist because we believe God made man and endowed him with great worth. But as an atheist, Dershowitz rejects that idea and so moves onto the next possibility.

b. Maybe HR can be found in nature? But Dershowitz answers that everything we see in nature contradicts what we feel and instead screams “survival of the fittest”, where the strong eat the weak: the bird eats the worm, the snake eats the bird and the elephant tramples on the snake. Keller adds if we took our cues from nature, mankind would be even more terrifying than it already is and our lives would be like that movie ‘The Purge’, where one day a year people are allowed to do whatever they like without fear of consequences (judging from the trailer, apparently what they like to do most is killing one another). Humans care about the individual a lot, nature not so much. Dershowitz concludes that he sees no moral law in nature; it is unique to us humans.

c. Mankind creates HR through legislation. HR certainly makes sense for the continuance of society, otherwise there would be anarchy. But Dershowitz dismisses this possibility as well. If the majority makes the rules, irrespective of some preexisting moral law, then what happens when the majority turns cruel and capricious? In other words, genocide is only wrong because we say it is. But what if the majority believes genocide works for the best interests of the community? Nazi Germany. The Aztecs. U.S. Army slaughtering Indians. South Africa (and so on and so on). If you believe HR is owed to the will of the populace, there is no other authoritative voice.  So if 51 percent of majority takes away the rights of the remaining 49 percent, who is to say they are wrong?

Dershowitz says he doesn’t believe society creates human rights and he doesn’t beIieve it is found in nature. He doesn’t believe in God, so what does he say?

Human rights are just there BECAUSE.

He actually says a bit more than that. Dershowitz says HR are the result of a species that, through trial and error, has arrived at certain agreed upon “wrongs we want to avoid repeating.”

Yes, that’s crazy simplistic, but I guess the same could be said about anyone who credits God as the author of right and wrong. Of course, just because an answer is simplistic is not, by itself, sufficient reason to dismiss it as credible any more than it is to give greater credence to an answer because of its complexity.

If you believe HR are a product of the evolutionary process then its purpose is solely to propagate our species. How then do you explain benevolent acts that don’t further our race, that don’t advance the macro, but simply help a single individual — often at the peril of the greater good? For example, if we made decisions simply for the continuance of society, we would invariably head down a path where it’s justifiable to eliminate those whose net contribution is a negative one. Strictly from a pragmatic viewpoint, it makes a lot more sense for the community to euthanize the sick, the weak and the infirmed than it is to prop them up.

Keller concludes by saying the existence of human rights doesn’t prove the existence of God; it just makes more sense.

No matter how you slice up this argument, as long as you believe in the “rightness” of human rights, but reject the idea those rights have an author (i.e. God), then you are stuck.

You’re stuck.

Because the only logical defense of HR as a byproduct of evolution is to somehow embrace the sacred and the secular at the same time. To believe that HR exists, unmoored from the will of the populace, and independent from nature’s base inclination, is to somehow ascribe to it a preternatural status that starts to sound suspiciously a lot like God.


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