Video #4

Natural Rights vs. Alternatives

Video Notes

1. Worldview question #2: Are humans real and knowable?

On the traditional view, human nature is objective, knowable, and fixed. The rights that flow from that nature are also objective, knowable, and fixed. These “fixed” rights are natural rights, meaning you have them simply because you are human. Natural rights are pre-political: The government does not grant them; it recognizes and protects them. For example, I do not have a right to vote in the next UK election because I am not a citizen of that great nation. However, I do have a right not to be gunned down in the streets of London when I visit. That right does not turn on citizenship or nationality. Rather, it’s a natural right grounded in my humanity. It’s a right shared equally by citizens and non-citizens. Conversely, legal (or positive) rights are those rights you can only acquire through citizenship, accomplishment, or maturity. These rights originate from the government and include the right to vote at your eighteenth birthday and a right to drive on your sixteenth. But your natural right to live was there all along. It comes to be when you come to be. As Hadley Arkes points out, when pro-lifers claim that the unborn have a right to life, we are not claiming they have a right to vote, drive a car, or assume a chair of logic — rights you only gain through age or accomplishment. Rather, pro-lifers make a more modest claim: The human fetus has a right not to be unjustly killed, and this right is a natural right that flows from his or her humanity. 

On the postmodern view, human nature is not fixed, but determined subjectively. For example, in the Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter defended the alleged right to abortion as follows: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” However, the Court’s reasoning is deeply problematic. If we remove from law any fixed notion of “human being,” raw political power determines who is and is not a subject of rights. Why can’t a future Court arbitrarily define a given class of human beings out of existence based on its concept of existence, meaning, and human life?

Here’s the problem: The Supreme Court has affirmed the right of a person to define his own concept of existence, the meaning of the universe, and the meaning of human life. But, writes Hadley Arkes, “was there any reality or truth attaching to him? And what was there about him that commanded the rest of us to respect these decisions he reached about himself and the universe?” Why can’t we just make him up to be someone who has no rights if that fits our own concept of meaning and human life? In short, the Court’s infamous “mystery passage” assumes the very thing it denies. 

By demanding that we respect a person’s judgment about human life and the meaning of the universe, the Court assumes that the human being in question actually exists, whether my own concept of the universe admits him or not. In sum, one cannot speak seriously of things that are truly rightful or of human rights in general without assuming objective moral rules and objective human nature. Otherwise, what a majority confers, it can take away. 

Arkes concludes that the very people who profess that there is no human nature that holds from one place to the next (and thus no moral truths that spring from that nature that holds from one place to the next) nevertheless cast moral judgments across cultures. Radical feminists condemn wrongs done to women in foreign countries and simply take for granted that there really must be “women” out there, that is, beings with an objective ontological nature. 

“When we sum up these things, we arrive, as I say, at the most curious result: In the world of the Left on the campuses, there are ‘human rights’ to be vindicated all over the globe, but strictly speaking, there are no ‘humans,’ for there is no such thing as human nature. And because there are no moral truths, there are no ‘rights’ that are truly meaningful.”

2. Worldview question #3 — What makes humans valuable in the first place? 

Three popular options for grounding human value:

  • Option #1: I ground it in my cognitive function (body-self dualism).
  • Option #2: I ground it in my human nature which bears the image of God (theism)
  • Option #3: I ground it in self-construction (morphological freedom) 

Option 1: My cognitive functions bestow value (body-self dualism)

Anyone who insists the unborn are human, but not persons, assumes body-self dualism (BSD). According to BSD, the real you has nothing to do with your body, which is mere matter in motion. The real you is your thoughts, aims, desires, your capacity for relationships, and other traits associated with higher cognitive function. Before you gain (or, after you lose) these traits, your physical body exists, but you do not. While you have them, however, the body exists as a mere machine that serves to satisfy the “true self.” Based on this reasoning, you can do to and with your body whatever you desire because it’s not essentially part of you. It’s there only to serve the real you.

Personhood theory applies BSD to law and ethics. Personhood theory says being human isn’t enough to ground your right to life. Only “persons” have that right — that is, those who achieve a certain level of cognitive functioning. Lose that function and you forfeit your right to life. In short, we are left with two classes of human beings: human nonpersons we can legally kill and human persons we can’t. If you don’t make the grade, actual persons can override your interests, including your right to life. “Personhood theory says being human isn’t enough to ground your right to life. For example:

Bioethicist Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Institute insists that once a patient loses “the capacity to reason, to have emotions, and to enter into relationships,” he cannot be called a “person” any longer. “It is a mere body only” and the sanctity of life no longer applies.

John Harris from the University of Manchester applies personhood theory to the beginning of life. “Nine months of development leaves the human embryo far short of the emergence of anything that can be called a person.” A “person,” for Harris, is “a creature capable of valuing its own existence.” Only the lives of persons are important. It is not wrong to kill nonpersons or fail to save their lives “because death does not deprive them of anything they value.”

Peter Singer, in his defense of infanticide, is more precise. A “person” is a being “who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.” Fetuses and newborns need not apply, not to mention whole other classes of humans who miss his mark.

We will critique body-self dualism in a later session when we examine the performance views of Mary Anne Warren, Joseph Fletcher, and Paul D. Simmons, but make no mistake about its central claim: The real you has nothing to do with your body. The real “you” is only your thoughts, aims, and desires, etc.

Option 2: My human nature grounds my identity and my value.

Pro-life advocates, following Lincoln and The Declaration of Independence, hold to an endowment view of human value. That is, humans are valuable by virtue of the kind of thing they are, not some function they perform. Although they differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature that bears the image of their Maker. Their right to life comes to be when they come to be (at fertilization).

Conversely, abortion-choice advocates espouse a performance view of human value. Being human is nothing special. What matters is your ability to immediately exercise an acquired property like self-awareness, desires, or sentience. Notice that both positions — the endowment view and the performance view — use philosophical reflection to answer the same foundational question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Pick a side. There is no neutral ground here. That’s why abortion debates can heat up in a heartbeat.

Only the endowment view can account for human equality. If my rights are grounded in traits that may come and go and which none of us share equally, those with more of those traits have more fundamental rights than those with less. You can toss equality on the ash heap! If, however, my identity and value is rooted objectively in our common human nature, the rights which spring from that nature are also objective and thus secure. 

In short, humans are equal by nature not function. 

Option #3: I achieve it through self-construction (morphological freedom) 

I do not discuss morphological freedom in the video lectures, but you need to be aware of it nevertheless. 

Morphological freedom is a desire-driven, self-construction narrative which says I have the freedom to reconstruct myself any way I want. We are makers of ourselves. It’s major premises are:

  • I can morph into anything I want to be.
  • There must be no limits on self-improvement.
  • You can use technology to change yourself however you desire.
  • We construct ourselves and others must affirm our self-construction.

Consider Disney’s Zootopia, when Officer Hops tells (what she thought was) a young fox with some big aspirations, “And you, little guy, you want to be an elephant when you grow up? You be an elephant. Because this is Zootopia. Anyone can be anything.” 

As John Stonestreet points out, on morphological freedom, not only can we remake ourselves according to our feelings, but the highest purpose of our lives is to look within, determine an identity, and then express it to the world while demanding that everyone else comply.

A formal argument (syllogism) for morphological freedom looks like this:

P1: Everyone has a fundamental right to seek happiness.
P2: Happiness can only be secured through self-construction and self-determination.
Conclusion: The right to modify one’s body is a fundamental right.

Roberta Ahmansen calls this “The New Dignity.” Instead of grounding human value in a “fixed” human nature shared by all humans, the “New Dignity” grounds it in my (alleged) unrestricted right to reinvent myself anyway I want and demand that you affirm that reinvention — even if it means overriding biology. 

The premises of morphological freedom play out in the culture in ways often undetected by us:

  • in social media: By broadcasting only certain parts of our lives, or only certain parts of our bodies, we feed the fantasy that we are makers of ourselves. We can invent ourselves to be anything we want with the angle of a lens, the click of a mouse, or the application of a filter.
  • in same-sex and transgender relationships: My body says nothing about my identity or my sexual obligations. Rather, my feelings determine my identity, thus, I am free to reconstruct myself (deny basic biology) as needed to affirm those feelings.
  • in assisted reproductive technologies: While the pain of infertility is real, the treatments offered often reduce children to commodities we construct for parental desire rather than gifts we receive to love and nurture. When physicians screen embryos for alleged defects, we are no longer treating disease. We are treating a parent’s desire for a perfect child they construct in their own image.
  • in doctor-assisted suicide: So-called death with dignity insists that I have a right to self-extermination when I can no longer structure my life as I please. My desire to die equals a right to die, and medical staff must assist me in carrying out that final act of self-construction (which ironically is deconstruction).
  • in abortion: Katha Pollitt says we should stop apologizing for abortion. Vacuuming out your uterus is morally no different than vacuuming out your house. It’s enough that a woman wants an abortion, that becoming a mother at this time is not right for her.
  • in biotechnology/genetic enhancements: Morphological freedom says I am free to enhance my capacities with no thought given to what “better” means or what “human” means. After all, if individuals can determine what is real according to subjective values, then limitations imposed by reality and human nature do not apply. The sky’s the limit.

While morphological freedom says we construct our identity, the Christian worldview says we rest in it. According to the Christian view, humans have intrinsic value in virtue of the kind of thing they are, creatures who bear the image of their Maker, not some self-construction they pull off. Ultimately, the goal for the Christian is not enhancement, but Christ-likeness. Christians are not settling for second best. In the end, we get something better than enhanced bodies. We get resurrected and perfected ones. True happiness is found in God, not self-creation.

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