On Moral Fictions

“How then shall we live?”

In every culture, human beings must face and find answers to this question. However, there is no single, universally shared language and or set of categories for thinking about the question. Instead, each culture develops its own—more or less adequate—way of thinking and speaking about how we ought to act toward each other.

Recent discussions of the language of sexual identity have gotten me thinking about a more general question: how should thinking Christians engage with moral questions generally in a culture, like our own, that has confused and poorly constructed moral categories? (I apologize in advance for a very philosophical post.)

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued against the various conceptual frameworks for understanding morality that emerged from the enlightenment, arguing that they had to fail. The key problem he identifies with post-enlightenment approaches to morality is the rejection of teleology.

One highly popular form of post-enlightenment moral argument concerns claims about “rights.” Regarding these claims, MacIntyre rather famously declared:

[T]here 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 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 in 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 that there are no unicorns: every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed. 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 sign that something has gone badly wrong with an argument. In the United Nations declaration on human rights of 1949 what has since become the normal UN practice of not giving good reason 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. (p. 69-70)

I find MacIntyre’s arguments for the claim that “rights” are a fiction reasonably persuasive. It is the easiest thing in the world to point, as MacIntyre does, to all of the confusion—both practical and conceptual—wrought in contemporary moral discourse by the idea of a “right.” (Indeed, when JetBlue issues a Customer Bill of Rights [pdf] that says that passengers whose departure is delayed more than three hours have a right to a free in-flight movie, you know that you are no longer dealing with a particularly rigorous philosophical concept.)

However, if I come across a group of Christians doing their best to defend an unborn child’s “right to life,” I don’t necessarily think that the first thing I need to do is to offer a lengthy disquisition from After Virtue—or suggest Nietzsche as an unlikely but powerful ally in our war against the bankrupt modern concept of “human rights.”

Rights language is problematic, and in various ways it distorts our understanding of what it means to obey the natural and Divine law. But that group of Christians, trying to convince the surrounding culture that the unborn child has a “right to life,” are probably using the language that will best communicate a real moral truth to the morally confused culture that they live in.

Deconstruction is dangerous. Postmodern “masters of suspicion” like Nietzsche and Foucault have done good work exposing the logical inconsistencies of modern moral philosophies. But despite their skill at deconstructing flawed moral concepts, the cure they offer is worse than the disease they claim to treat.

Deconstruction of problematic concepts can be helpful if it leads our audience to see the truth more clearly. MacIntyre makes use of Nietzsche (in After Virtue) and Foucault (in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry), but these critiques are only one stage of MacIntyre’s argument, occurring as one component of a much larger argument for the virtue and natural law traditions.

Still, there is a reason that deconstructionists are not generally known as champions of the Divine and natural law. If I deconstruct the idea of a “right to life,” I may be deconstructing the best concept available, in a particular social setting, for convincing my audience of a real moral truth.

We may wish for a culture that is fluent in the language of teleology and virtue and the natural law. We may do what we can to promote these ways of thinking and speaking about the moral life. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, if there are important questions to be discussed, you discuss them with the language you have—not the language you might want or wish to have at a later time.

And as much as we may lament the confusions involved in rights language, we also might wonder why this language has been so appealing to so many people. As much as I love the natural law tradition, I know its history well enough to know that natural law arguments have been invoked in favor of slavery (some men, thought Aristotle and many of his successors, are “natural” slaves) and against interracial marriage (based on the idea that the races are naturally separate). This is not to say that the natural law tradition lacked resources for responding to these false beliefs—Martin Luther King, Jr. rooted his arguments for racial equality firmly in the natural law tradition.

However, King also used the language of civil rights. And although I think the conceptual framework behind the language of rights is problematic, and leads to various confusions in application, I also celebrate the real progress that appeals to civil rights have made in overcoming injustice.

Should we work to ground our moral claims on the best conceptual frameworks available? Of course. But we live in a culture which has constructed its moral deliberations around the language of “rights.” We may regret this fact. But we cannot ignore it, if we want to participate in moral deliberation outside the bubble of well-formed Christian intellectuals.

In the next few days, I will write a follow-up post focusing more directly on sexual identity language. But I think it is a mistake to tackle that—highly charged—question without thinking about the kind of background problems I’ve tried to sketch out in this post.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

P.S. I expect that many readers will struggle to see why rights language is problematic—which is part of my point: I only really began to see the conceptual problems here after a lot of study of the natural law and virtue traditions. For readers familiar with MacIntyre’s critique, this blog post will serve as a useful short-hand to reference an argument that MacIntyre lays out over several books. For those readers not familiar with MacIntyre’s argument, no blog post could do it justice. Which is why I think it’s necessary, if I want to engage most readers on moral questions, to at least sometimes use the common language of moral deliberation.

9 thoughts on “On Moral Fictions

    • The key difference is that Thomas’s account of natural law presumes a form of teleology, while most rights theorists deny this. MacIntyre spends several books explaining the significance of this difference, so it’s not a point that’s easily summarized here.

      There was a stage where philosophers spoke of “natural rights,” and this way of speaking had some problems but at least had some continuity with the natural law tradition. Most contemporary rights theorists, however, deny that there are natural rights (Notre Dame’s John Finnis is an exception to this generalization) and instead think that rights are socially constructed.

  1. A very informative post which paves the way for an important discourse among believers and nonbelievers alike. Though, I wonder from a theological standpoint, doesn’t a covenant between God and his people imply rights (i.e. if you repent sins and worship God you have a right to eternal life in heaven)?

    • If we defined a “right” as something that you had been promised by God, then rights language would not be problematic in the way it is in contemporary culture. But the concept of a covenant goes back to antiquity, and the idea that you are obligated to keep your promises is found in almost every culture. Modern discussions of “rights,” however, are problematic precisely because they do not rest on this sort of objective foundation.

  2. I think you’re digging too deep, most contemporary definitions of human rights, however clumsy, can be traced back to a positive rephrasing of Judeo-Christian principles. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ or right to life, what’s the difference? Whether human rights can survive the collapse of their religious underpinning is however another question.

  3. “Deconstruction is dangerous. Postmodern “masters of suspicion” like Nietzsche and Foucault have done good work exposing the logical inconsistencies of modern moral philosophies. But despite their skill at deconstructing flawed moral concepts, the cure they offer is worse than the disease they claim to treat.”

    I don’t really think that Foucault (or Derrida) really offer a cure, so much as shed light on the disease so that we can at least understand the boundaries and context of our thought and use of language – even if there is no “cure” (and Foucault hints in several places that the quest for social liberation is fruitless and that acknowledging the inescapable matrix of power dynamics is the best we can aim for, without any special need or value to pursuing fruitless quests for an illusory absolute freedom).

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