Three Meanings of the Word "Rights" ; Atheists are Confused
User @pillsy: wrote
Many Americans reject the notion of God-given rights on the basis that they reject the notion of God. I don't think American atheists are living in the wrong country, and I find ample support for that belief in the Constitution, which bars religious tests for office, as well as state establishment of religion.
This leads me to the central reason that I think that modern atheists have an incoherent world view. (And, before anyone raises objections, this isn't to say that I think that atheists are bad people, bad citizens, behave less morally than theists, or anything else: it's merely a statement that the ethical construct is incoherent and lacking in rigor.)
The reason for arguing that modern western atheism is incoherent is not that it is irrational to disbelieve in God; I think that one can be entirely sane and rational and disbelieve in God (although I actually think that agnostics have beliefs that are much more consistent with pure rationality than either theists or atheists, but that's a side note).
No, the reason that modern atheists have incoherent views is that they simultaneously
- assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)
- they believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way.
Let me explain what I mean by point number 2.
The English language muddies many discussions of "rights" because it uses one term to cover three very distinct meanings.
The three meanings are:
- the "rights" that society acknowledges a person has
- the "rights" that government acknowledges a person has
- the "rights" that a person actually has according to non-material abstract principles
I assert that almost everyone in the modern West, including "Brights" / "new atheists" / Ayn Rand followers / etc. acknowledges these three distinct things and acknowledges them as distinct. And it's that final one, the acknowledgement of non-material abstract principles, that puts the contradiction in modern atheism.
Before I go further, though, let's expand a bit on what these three things are and bring up some examples of how all of us treat them as distinct.
Let's start with an easy example:
- location / observer: Jim Crow south
- right: right of blacks to attend school as equals
- social acknowledgement: false
- gov acknowledgement: false
- modern view on abstract right: true
By this I mean that in the pre-Brown v Board of Ed era in Kansas, blacks did not have the right to attend school as equals according to either the social milieu in Kansas or according to the government in Kansas.
…and yet almost every modern atheist would choose to describe this not merely in flat factual terms, but in terms of "injustice".
What is an injustice? It is a violation of justice, which is itself a term with two meanings: the actual black-letter law, and also abstract principles of ethical behavior. Clearly anyone who calls legal racial discrimination in 1950 an injustice can not mean the former, because they have already acknowledged that it was legal – so they mean the latter, that there is some ethical principle that is being violated.
What is the cause of the complication, whereby an abstract right is not acknowledged in law? Perhaps it has something to do with popularity.
Let's look at another example:
- location / observer: modern California
- right: right to run a marijuana clinic
- social acknowledgement:false
- gov acknowledgement:true
- modern view on abstract right: true
Here we have a case where the populace is in tune with "correct" modern prejudices, and yet the law still disagrees.
Let's look at another case from the point of view of a typical modern left atheist:
- location / observer: Washington DC
- right: right to own a pistol
- social acknowledgement: true
- gov acknowledgement: false
- modern view on abstract right: false
Yet another complication.
And so on.
Now, the point I am arguing is that "Brights" clearly have abstract principals that they believe in. In practice, they never see what seems to them as an injustice and shrug it off with either "well, the law's the law", or "well, society seems to want things that way".
Female genital mutilation in the Middle East, the right of Palestinians to be free from intrusive border checks, the right of prisoners in the US not to be raped – the list goes on.
…and not for one of these things do modern atheists shrug off the injustice. (And good for them! I agree with them on many of these points and am glad that they continue to speak out).
And why do they not shrug off these injustices?
Because modern atheists – like all human beings – deeply subscribe to the idea of justice in the sense of abstract principles, the violation of which
cries out to Heaven uh is evil wait I mean is ethically wrong err "is inefficient".
This, then, is the crux of the problem: they self describe as materialists, and yet believe in invisible untestable things.
Ethics. Justice. Rights.
Some of the smarter atheists make attempts to derive these principles as emergent from the physical and logical universe we live in.
The modern right-wing brights – Ayn Rand, for example – argue against lying because it is unpragmatic. In her hurricane lamp, resurrected Rand raises one Spock-like eyebrow and asserts that it would illogical, Captain, to make oneself a script and conform to it when it's easier to just tell the truth all the time.
This is an assertion that (a) is unproven, (b) is deeply suspect (given how much people lie, it is a safe assumption that not only are modern people making logical home economicus choices, but that the human animal has evolved a facility for deception because it is evolutionarily advantageous), (c) even if true does not prove the point that she's trying to prove.
By that last I mean that the most Rand could possibly hope to prove is not an ethical principal, but merely the tactical utility of one tool in a tool box. If murder is "wrong" only in the sense that it's usually inefficient, then it's still perfectly moral and legitimate to murder when the incentives align properly…which is far less than Rand claims.
The modern left-wing brights – Dennet, Dawkins and Harris – commit similar but distinct logical errors in their quest to use logic and statistics to support ethereal principles, and in the process violate the is-ought distinction and building castles of air on a foundation of sand.
One example: because humans evolved to not generally kill children, and because children in a tribe may very well take care of us when we are old, therefore killing children is wrong. (The reliance here on evolution, by the way, is a telling mark of the modern bright – it is the one super-weapon helped the 19th century Puritans finally defeat their ancient enemy – all other sects of Christianity and pseudo Christianity – and now like the superstitious primitives that they are, they worship the device of mass destruction which delivered the world to them. And before the attacks start, yes, I am firmly convinced by the evidence in favor off evolution – although I treat Darwin's Sort of Interesting Idea not as scripture but as I treat any other theory: good only in so far as it is falsifiable, and always subject to revision in light of further data.)
Again we have the is-ought confusion, again we have the the confusion of tactics with ethics, again we have the fact that the assertion is unproven (perhaps killing children is pragmatic – many people have thought so over time).
Why do atheists, both right and left, make the mistake of believing that the vast majority of Christian morality (yes, they quibble around the edges, homosexuality here, charity there) is actually objectively true because of arguments that do not actually work?
Perhaps, as Blaise Pascal and modern theists say, there is a God-shaped hole in the human heart, and this leads us to an appreciation of the objective morality of the universe.
Or perhaps there is no God, and it is merely the deep deep DEEP programming of our western culture, based on 2,000 years of fused Hellenism and Christianity that has structured our malleable human minds to believe in an "objective" morality that is in fact subjective and historically contingent.
I need not decide between the two, and I need not try to convince anyone here.
My point is simply this: unless you are an extreme outlier, you do
- believe in all three types of human rights
- whether you prefer the term "Natural Law", "God given rights", or something else, you think that there are ethical norms that are not merely pragmatic but objective and true
- therefore government is not merely "something we all do together", but potentially a destructive force that can commit evil
- and finally, it is not only meaningful, but almost mandatory – if one is to say anything of interest – to take great care to distinguish between "is" and "ought" when speaking of rights.